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With climate misinformation on the rise, here's how to spot it

The Sol Summit will discuss the effects of climate change on black and brown communities. This car was stranded on Rozzelle's Ferry Road in West Charlotte during a storm in 2020.
David Boraks
This car was stranded on Rozzelle's Ferry Road in West Charlotte during a storm in 2020.

This story first appeared in WFAE climate reporter David Boraks' weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get the news straight to your inbox first.

Nearlythree-quarters of Americans tell pollsters these days they think climate change is real and 61% say that humans are the cause, through our burning of fossil fuels. But there's a countertrend: Renewed energy among climate deniers to spread climate disinformation.

I had a good example in my inbox the other day: A reader forwarded a link to an article about 2022 Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Clauser, with the comment "interesting." Clauser has argued that there is no climate crisis. Like other climate skeptics, including North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, Clauser calls climate science "pseudoscience."

This fits a familiar pattern of climate disinformation, said John Cook, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is a cognitive psychologist whose work focuses on how disinformation spreads and how we can spot it and stop it.

"Over time, the climate change issue has become more polarized. And misinformation has played a big part in that," Cook said.

Clauser fits a recognizable type of climate denier, what Cook calls a "fake expert." These are people who have laudable achievements in their fields, but they're not climate scientists. Clauser may know about photons and quantum physics, but he has never published a peer-reviewed paper on the topic of climate change.

"We're so busy we don't have time to read everything and read scientific papers and get all that information. So we just rely on who we perceive as experts. So if someone who has a Nobel Prize in physics says something, we think, 'Well, that guy must know what he's talking about,' even if his research is completely separate (from) climate change," Cook said.

Cook said climate disinformation began in the early 1990s with conservative think tanks. Blogs were a key disseminator in the 2000s. Now, Cook said, "We're looking more at social media as an even more dominant way of getting this information out."

Social media drives traffic to fake, often conservative websites with stories that reject climate change.

With elections ahead in the U.S. and another United Nations Climate Summit coming up in November and December, we're in for a "denialism comeback," writes Krisoffer Teague of Inside Climate News.
Often, disinformation has powerful financial backing from corporations and institutions that stand to lose if governments pursue climate actions. That appears to be the case in an organized campaign against wind energy. Wind opponents funded a "Save the Whales" campaign, blaming a series of whale deaths off the U.S. East Coast on wind projects. TV commentator Tucker Carlson and others helped spread the disinformation, Politico reported.

That Save the Whales campaign is an example of another disinformation tactic, one that's increasingly prevalent, Cook said: Don't critique the science, go after the solution, Cook said.

"Climate misinformation is transitioning away from science denial. Now it's (about how) climate policy will be harmful. It'll hurt the economy. It'll raise prices. Renewables don't work. It's about delaying the solutions, rather than arguing that it's not a problem in the first place," Cook said.

When I replied to the reader about the climate-denying physicist, I pointed out a couple of red flags to look for. First, the article was published on a website run by the anti-communist Chinese spiritual group Falun Gong, which has a reputation for serving as an outlet for misinformation. Second, while Clauser won a Nobel Prize for his physics research, he is not known as a climate expert. That would be like asking a salamander expert to discuss human heart disease.

Cook offers these pointers:

  • Pay attention to the source of the information, both the website where you read it and the person distributing the information. Is it on a trustworthy, mainstream website, or on a site with indeterminate or suspicious backing?  
  • Is the person an expert in the subject, or someone accomplished in a completely different area who has decided to comment on the subject?  
  • Is the website or person cherry-picking information and making false comparisons?  
  • Keep an eye out for ad hominem attacks that target scientists personally and climate science generally. "That's not about trying to understand our world better. It's purely about eroding trust in science. And that's very dangerous," Cook said. 

Want to have some fun with this? Cook developed a simple game called "Cranky Uncle" that can help you learn how to spot disinformation.

"We all have someone in our family, usually a cranky uncle, who thinks he knows better than all the world's experts. And he uses these telltale techniques in his argument, something you might hear at Thanksgiving or Christmas lunch. And so in the game, Cranky Uncle explains the techniques he uses to cast doubt on science," Cook said.

"It's about inoculating people against the techniques used to scam people," he added.

I had some fun with this one and I think you will, too. Give it a try. You can find the website and app here.

Here are a couple of more good sites for checking climate disinformation:

  • NOAA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, has lots of good information and videos here.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Fund has pages on spotting climate disinformation, undeniable climate facts and more on their website.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.