Climate FUD Campaigns Change Tactics As More Accept Climate Science
Michael Mann is a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. He first rose to public prominence in 1999 when he and co-authors Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes introduced MBH99, the now famous “hockey stick graph,” which showed how rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere correlated with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — the period in history when humans first learned how to burn fossil fuels to power their mills, factories, and transportation devices. That graph later was featured prominently in IPCC 3, published in 2001.
Mann and his colleagues were viciously attacked in 2009 after hackers released emails between them in which they discussed the uncertainties in their research. Climate deniers cherry picked words and phrases from those emails to “prove” that the scientists were involved in an elaborate hoax, one which netted them lucrative research grants.
A Virginia politician by the name of Ken Cuccinelli seized upon the Climategate controversy to fuel his quest for higher office, an ambition that was rejected by the voters. Cuccinelli has spearheaded drives to outlaw same sex marriage, prohibit undocumented immigrants from attending universities, and legislation to repeal birthright citizenship. He also favors laws that would force employees to speak English in the workplace.
Despite the best efforts of climate deniers, Americans are beginning to accept the connection between human activity and a warming planet. It’s hard to watch the infernos that have swept through the West Coast and Australia without putting two and two together. Farmers who make their living from the soil are more aware of changes in the growing season and the decrease in available water to irrigate their crops. In 2019, a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found nearly 75% of Americans report their opinions about climate change have been influenced by extreme weather in the previous five years.
Mann has published a new book this year entitled The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. In it, he argues,“It just isn’t credible to deny climate change or the impacts it’s having. People see it with their own two eyes. So there’s a shift in tactics. Now it’s softer forms of denial, and efforts to diminish the impacts of climate change.”
The Associated Press says misinformation about climate change has now shifted from denialism to focus on its real world impacts. “We still see claims that global warming doesn’t exist, but we also see misinformation about specific areas — such as the wind turbines in Texas,” Emmanuel Vincent, director of Science Feedback, a global network of scientists based in France tells AP. “A lot of the misinformation is more subtle.”
When unusually cold weather crippled the electrical grid in Texas this winter, the hue and cry over climate policies ratcheted up to a fever pitch. The conservative website The Gateway Pundit made the false claim that President Joe Biden’s energy policies somehow prevented Texas plants from generating the power the state needed and “led to Texans literally freezing to death.” It really would be something if Biden had pulled that off during his first 3 weeks in office.
The conspiracy theory website Infowars published a similar report the next day. Four days later, Colorado representative Lauren Boebert tweeted to her 100,000 followers that Biden’s energy policies were “leaving millions of Texans freezing to death.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Congresswoman from Georgia, speculated the unusual weather might be the work of space lasers (no, we are not making that up!)
All those claims were false, the AP says. “In fact, an emergency request granted by the Biden administration gave the state authority to exceed federal environmental limits in order to provide enough power to Texans.”
Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Florida, who chairs the House climate committee, told the AP in a statement that groups who oppose meaningful responses to climate change — including fossil fuel companies — use misinformation to confuse the public. But she said many people aren’t buying it. “It’s becoming harder for polluters and their allies to keep standing in the way of climate solutions, which is why they resort to false and harmful misinformation,” she said. “Most Americans, and particularly young Americans, are demanding their representatives take this crisis seriously.”
The Role Of Social Media
Misinformation and social media are two sides of the same coin. In an email to the Associated Press, YouTube acknowledged the difficulty of distinguishing between “misinformation, political speech, legitimate debate, and opinion.” Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all removed content spreading misinformation about COVID-19 or the recent US election, but critics say they have been less aggressive when it comes to climate information.
Katherine Hayhoe, a well known climate scientist at the University of Texas, has run afoul of internal regulators at Facebook who have branded her videos about climate science as political. That means the only way they can appear on Facebook is if she publishes personal data about herself — data that would allow trolls to spam her or come to her house to throw rocks through her windows. Meanwhile, climate denial groups are free of such restrictions, a blatant double standard by Facebook.
She tells Scientific American that Facebook is a valuable platform for reaching people outside of partisan boundaries. It’s where she is connected to friends and family, former college roommates, and other people who might be skeptical about climate change. It’s a way to share science with them that doesn’t feel like a political attack. Placing her work on the same level as groups that seek to confuse the public about climate science gives climate denial organizations equal footing that’s unwarranted, she claims.
“What I share on Facebook is explicitly for the purpose of people feeling comfortable sharing it with their family, information on positive hopeful solutions, information on unexpected messengers from faith groups, the military, conservative spokespeople. Facebook is a place where people are connected across tribal lines in a way they aren’t connected from other platforms.”
A spokesman for Facebook said the platform is doing more than ever to connect users with accurate information about climate change. Its Climate Science Information Center, created last year, is now available in 16 countries and nine languages, and has a new section dedicated to dispelling climate change myths. And yet Katherine Hayhoe’s experience suggests a lot of that is just words designed to placate critics on the extreme right.
AP says YouTube was singled out recently as a leading source for climate misinformation by the US House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. In a letter to Google, which owns YouTube, the committee urged the tech giant to do more to combat falsehoods on its platforms.
The Prospect Of Anti-Trust Legislation
Some expect the US Congress to enact tougher anti-trust laws that will force big tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter to compete on a more level playing field. At present, if Mark Zuckerberg and his minions want to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars by selling out to Russian operatives, they are free to do so, no matter how much damage is done to American democracy. It’s all about the almighty dollar and if you can hide behind a smokescreen of words that whines about how hard it is to distinguish between “misinformation, political speech, legitimate debate, and opinion,” why wouldn’t you?
In March, Sumit Sharma, senior researcher in tech competition for Consumer Reports, said, “We’re at a tipping point. Different agencies and legislators are coming at it from different angles, but they’re converging on the idea that these platforms have too much market power and reducing that dominance would result in more innovation and a better online experience for consumers.”
Is America about to see a spate of activity designed to break up these powerful monopolies the way Teddy Roosevelt and this Trust Busters did a century ago? Perhaps. There seems to be an appetite for such action on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Whether that is good policy or not, it would likely rein in some of the creative ways climate deniers have for recasting their message to spread more fear, uncertainty, and doubt. There are few who would not welcome such a change in the social media world.
Featured image credit: Michael E. Mann, et al.