How to combat climate change misinformation

How to combat climate change misinformation
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The big lies about election fraud will be repeated over and over in the coming months as Congress considers the new For the People Act, the Supreme Court hears voter rights cases and state legislatures debate hundreds of bills on election reform across the country. Despite the court rulings, government investigations and a multitude of information to the contrary, these falsehoods are perpetuated widely. Similar widespread misinformation campaigns of this magnitude are uncomfortably familiar to those of us working on climate change and environmental issues.

Some of the politicians who spout baseless claims of election fraud are also long-time climate change deniers. The skills with which they dismiss court rulings and spew misleading sound bites have been honed through years of experience in ignoring evidence and downplaying the risks of global warming. It’s time for a reckoning. Does the new clamor for facts and science extend beyond the efforts to fight the pandemic and protect our democracy? Of course it should. It’s time to have a serious debate on how to address climate change without complicating the issue with further deceit or delay. 

The seeds of climate change misinformation were planted almost 40 years ago by the fossil fuel industry which likely understood the negative impacts that a changing climate could have on their business profits. The Union of Concerned Scientists and others have documented efforts by the oil and coal industries in the 1980s to sow doubt about climate science and develop messaging that we’d now call “alternative facts.” Special interest groups were formed and funded by fossil fuel interests to cultivate and spread misinformation that would shut down efforts to address climate change through legislative or regulatory means.

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Political candidates and lawmakers at all levels of government continue the spread of doubt and dispel any urgency to address the climate crisis, propelled by political donations and their claims at times promoted by conservative media outlets. It’s been a brilliantly executed strategy and the web of deception has secured years of inaction. It’s also led to immeasurable environmental and human damage — some of which may now be irreversible. 

Fossil fuel companies seem like the obvious villains of this story, but sometimes the cause of misinformation is not quite so nefarious. In my work in the renewable energy industry, many of the misconceptions I hear are simply due to the difficulty in keeping up with the pace of change. The cost of the clean energy is a good example. The good news is that wind and solar costs have fallen 70 percent and 90 percent respectively over the last decade, making them the most affordable new electricity sources in most of the U.S. 

The bad news is that there is a wealth of reports, datasets and news stories — some just a couple years old — that are outdated and misrepresent the reality of the technology today. Many people still don’t realize that reliable and cost-effective technologies to address climate change are already widely deployed with great success around the world.

While climate change skeptics will always use whatever information best suits their purpose, some of the problems of misinformation can be addressed by launching a widespread education campaign to get accurate and up to date information into the hands of the public, government officials, and business leaders who play a role in directing the U.S. response to climate change. 

Unfortunately, petty partisan politics is driving a new round of deception as a pushback against President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE’s climate agenda. It may seem laughable to blame California wildfires on space lasers or the Texas power outage on wind energy but when a Republican congresswoman and Republican governor do just that, they are blatantly misleading those to whom they have sworn to serve. At this point, it’s hard to imagine who Republican climate change naysayers think they are representing. 

And the oft-cited claim that addressing climate is bad for business or will hurt the economy? The business community has already left the politicians behind. It’s not just California tech companies buying renewable energy and social media giants speaking out against climate change misinformation. It’s Midwest auto manufacturers committing to electric vehicles, financial firms incorporating climate risk into their investment decisions, and big box stores in rural communities installing solar panels on their rooftops. With mounting evidence and global consensus, the Republican stance against climate action is growing increasingly untenable. Eventually, the lies they’ve told will catch up to them.

Politicians, media outlets and others that mislead, distract and lie about the reality of climate change need to be held accountable. It’s notable that the business community have sued conservative media networks for spreading false claims about the election or acted to withhold political donations from lawmakers who voted against the certification of the presidential election. Why not extend those actions to include those who mislead the public about climate change? 

Americans of all political parties must use their votes and their voices to insist on dealing with the truth and coming together to address problems. Rest assured, there are still plenty of opportunities to fight about the policy mechanisms, prioritization and the spending needed to address climate change. But there are also a lot of ideas related to climate action that could unite the left and right — creating jobs, expanding infrastructure, leading the world in technical innovation, for instance.

If we ignore the facts, we lose the ability to develop solutions or negotiate good policy. It’s time to shut down the climate deniers and the misinformation campaigns and adhere to the evidence and analysis from the scientific community. It’s time to embrace the truth. 

Karen Conover is a vice president and senior technical advisor at DNV, former board member of the American Wind Energy Association and an ambassador for the Clean Energy, Education and Empowerment Program. She is also a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.