“Climate Change is a Hoax”: Exploring counter narratives to climate change
From Unsplash by Milkovi
Wildfires in California. Orange skies in Oregon. Hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. We read about such disasters every day, but what many of us fail to acknowledge is that the frequency and intensity of such hazards is increasing at an alarming rate. Why is this? Climate change and increased human activity.
Climate activists regularly use the Internet to accelerate awareness and action on climate change issues. Social media has further catalyzed movements such as Future Friday, where 13 million young people around the world skipped school to demand climate action. The Internet also gives a platform to climate leaders and organizations, like Greta Thunberg and Greenpeace who are rapidly organizing through online platforms.
Such efforts have not gone unnoticed. And whilst there is widespread agreement on global warming effects such as rising sea levels, there is little understanding on the multitude of consequences that threaten our ecosystem and well-being. Among these is changes in species migration and invasion, reducing our food security, and alterations in water salinity and density leading to plummeting fisheries yields.
This lack of understanding - whether it is about the increase in worldwide natural and man-made disasters or low awareness on climate change issues that are not immediately visible - has led to a growing push back and strong climate change denial.
Just as positive climate activism in the digital space is growing, so are voices and movements opposing climate change. These “climate deniers” often exploit the Internet to spread false information, target, and organize anti-climate campaigns.
In order to tackle climate change before the tipping point, we must understand the strategies used by climate deniers, including both organized movements and individual, public opinion that is misinformed. Who are these “deniers?” What tools and tactics do they use? How do their behaviors differ? How do we strategically address such backlash?
Who Are the Climate Deniers?
There are three types of climate deniers that can be observed in the online space: the Science Skeptics, the Conspiracy Theorists and the Counter Propagandists.
The science skeptics do not believe in scientific evidence proposed by climate scientists. They believe climate change is natural. The prevalence of this denier type is largely linked to semantic errors instead of false belief. Climate is always changing because it is vital for the survival and evolution of species. Natural changes in climate can be attributed to the Milankovitch cycle, the changes in Earth’s movements and orbits.
However, climate change refers to the rapid change in climate elements, particularly temperature, in the last century. There is clear evidence from historical data and climatic models built by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that anthropogenic Greenhouse gases (GHG) are the root cause for increasing temperature since industrialization. Looking at the length of each Milankovitch cycle, it is evident that temperature change over the last hundred years is not attributable to “natural changes” over time.
Quilt.AI analyzed search keywords related to science skeptics beliefs from 2018 to 2020. This includes keywords such as “global warming is fake” and “climate change is not real”. From 2018 to 2019, there was an 87.1% increase in these searches while 2019 to 2020 saw a 43.7% decrease. Out of the three types of climate deniers, science skeptics are the second largest group in terms of information searched and consumed online.
The second type of climate denier is the conspiracy theorist, who thinks climate change is a fluke created for political and economic means. Some examples are claims that global warming is created by other countries to affect economies. This led to famous TV hosts such as Larry Lang saying that climate change is a myth created to suppress other countries’ economic growth.
This type of denier is particularly prevalent in Quilt.AI’s effort to help the Clean Air Fund understand air pollution campaigns in India. Quilt.AI used more than 21,000,000 search data and 7000+ tweets to analyse the awareness and impact of air pollution in the project. Upon further analysis, it became evident that a major counter narrative used by the opposition is through conspiracy theorists in India. They use a popular “blame game”, blaming China and Pakistan for the pollution while insisting that they are not responsible for the pollution
Quilt.AI’s analysis found that searches related to conspiracy theorists’ beliefs about climate change make up the lowest percent of searches from 2018 to 2020. In 2019, while searches related to science skeptics beliefs made up 31.82%, conspiracy theorists were only 8.96%. However, from 2018 to 2019, there was a 115.4% increase in people searching for conspiracy theory-related information such as “global warming conspiracy” and “climate change conspiracy”.
The third type of climate denier is the counter propagandist, who uses twisted “scientific evidence” from experts to attack climate activists. One common argument is from a satellite study by Nasa, saying that Antarctica is gaining ice. The study was intended to point out a pure observational change and made no comment on its correlation to climate change. Yet, climate deniers are ignoring the mounting evidence that supports climate change (such as the melting ice in Greenland and the Arctic) and favor only data that supports their argument.
Unfortunately, these climate deniers are utilizing the digital world to spread their ideas, leading to an increasing number of youth siding with them. For example, Naomi Seibt, a 19 years old German anti-Greta activist rose to fame with her YouTube channel and derogatory response to scientific evidence on climate change. She is supported by many far-right organisations in the US, which use her voice to support their political campaign. One example is the Heartland Institute in Chicago , which is a think tank associated with the White House.
We found that out of all the climate denier segments, more than half of the searches are related to counter propagandists beliefs around climate change. This includes keywords such as “scientists against climate change” and “evidence against climate change”. From 2018 to 2019, there was a staggering 198.6% increase in searches related to counter propagandists belief. Though this decreased by 56.2% from 2019 to 2020, the volume of searches remains the highest. This trend could mean that more people are relying on evidence rather than myths to support their belief that climate change is not real.
To understand more about the nuanced behaviors of climate deniers, Quilt.AI’s Climate Change Analysis Tool segments people’s behaviors on climate action in different cultural contexts.
Bringing together Climate Vulnerability and Denial
It is important to categorize public opinions on climate change and understand the mindset behind every attitude and behavior. It is also crucial to have information on the climate vulnerability, socio-economic context and level of climate denial in a geographic space.
Quilt.AI developed the first ever Climate Change Analysis Tool (CCAT) at a city level to host all these pieces of information in one place. The CCAT is our effort to investigate links between climate vulnerability and climate denial, as well as to develop group-specific strategies building targeted and informed awareness among people to strengthen climate action.
This interactive world map allows users to look into the climate vulnerability of more than 3000 cities, providing a valuable opportunity to gain insight into the current climate crisis.
A snapshot of cities with “Medium” to “High” climate denier scores (>50) is shown by the figure above. While almost all of the cities with a strong doubt on climate change are in China, those that show medium level of climate deniers are spread all over the world. A closer look at their climate vulnerability (color of the dots, blue = low, red = high), shows that most of these cities face relatively low threats from climate change. The cluster analysis also shows that cities such as Mexico City are likely to hold a “Someone else problem” attitude towards climate change.
Could it be possible that a weaker effect of climate change and a lack of urgency contribute to a higher denial of climate change? These would be some interesting factors to investigate on the CCAT.
A communication strategy can be developed to address after analyzing climate deniers’ tools and tactics. For example:
Climate activists should reinforce each other's messages.
Climate organizers must work together to create a strong community, backed by sound scientific facts and real-life examples of how climate change is affecting our society. It is crucial for us to show those less affected by climate change that this is a pressing issue that is affecting millions of people.
The scientific evidence has to be broken down to simple, easily understood information. Also, the data at which the evidence stems from must be highly accessible to the public. This is an essential step to prevent the counter propagandists and science skeptics in spreading their ideology.
Public opinion must be understood so policies and campaigns are tailored to address people’s attitudes and behaviors towards climate change.
The examples above are just a glimpse of problems that arise when tackling climate change. The rapid advancement in digital communication is a double-edged sword that could help the promotion of climate change awareness but also fuel the spread of climate denial and misconceptions. It is crucial that climate activists work together to understand counter-narratives and devise tools to push back. As an organisation that fights climate change in the digital world, Quilt.AI believes that this an opportunity to pave a cleaner and greener future for the next generation.
Explore our Climate Change Analysis Tool for more such insights.