Climate Change Disinformation vs Greenwashing: Understanding the Difference on Social Media

Posted on June 09, 2023 in Explainers.

Montage of a hand holding a leaf over a picture of a power plant representing big oil's greenwashing

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. However, the spread of disinformation and deceptive marketing tactics can hinder efforts to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

Climate change disinformation and greenwashing are two common practices that can mislead individuals and delay action. In this blog post, we explain the difference between the two and provide examples of each.

What is Climate Change Disinformation?

Climate change disinformation is the deliberate spread of false or misleading information about the climate crisis. Disinformation about climate change can harm public perception and trust in climate science, delaying or preventing action to stop climate change. 

According to the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition, these false or misleading claims about the climate crisis:

  • Undermine the existence or impacts of climate change, the unequivocal human influence on climate change, and the need for urgent action according to the IPCC scientific consensus and in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement;
  • Misrepresent scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions; 
  • Falsely publicize efforts as supportive of climate goals that in fact contribute to climate warming or contravene the scientific consensus on mitigation or adaptation.

Disinformation is different from misinformation. Whilst disinformation is the deliberate spread of false information, misinformation can be spread unintentionally, for example when someone shares false claims without realizing they are not true. In this post, we will focus on climate disinformation.  

One example of climate change disinformation is the false claim that climate change is not caused by human activity, but only by natural factors. This claim has been thoroughly debunked by scientific research, which identifies human activity as the primary driver of global warming, but is still promoted by climate change deniers on social media platforms like Twitter or through Google ads.

The climate crisis: there's no planet B sign. Climate change disinformation and greenwashing

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a marketing or PR tactic companies use to create the impression that their products or services are environmentally friendly when they are not. Companies may use misleading language, images, or symbols to deceive consumers into believing that their products are better for the environment than they actually are. 

An example of greenwashing is a company that claims its product is “eco-friendly” or “climate-friendly” but does not provide any evidence to support this claim. The company may use images of nature or environmentally conscious language to create the impression that their product is good for the environment, but in reality, the product may have little or no positive impact.

Greenwashing is also a strategy to distract consumers from the fact that certain companies’ broader business models and activities are actually damaging the planet.

For example, fossil fuel companies spend millions of dollars on ads to deceive consumers into thinking they are shifting their business model when, in reality, they are the largest contributors to global warming. CCDH’s research on Big Oil found that nearly half of the $23.7 million spent on Google search ads by BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Aramco, and Shell targeted search terms or contained claims related to environmental sustainability.

The Difference Between Climate Change Disinformation and Greenwashing

There are some key differences between climate change disinformation and greenwashing. 

Climate change disinformation is focused on spreading false or misleading information about climate change, while greenwashing is focused on marketing products or services as environmentally friendly when they are not.

Additionally, climate change disinformation can be spread by individuals or organizations/companies with a vested interest in denying the reality of the climate crisis, while greenwashing is often used by companies to improve their public image.

Despite their differences, greenwashing and the spread of climate disinformation can be done by the same company. Our research shows that BP, the oil giant with the sixth biggest carbon footprint in the world, spent over $5.3 million on greenwashing ads on Google to promote its net-zero commitment but, in reality, the company has been accused of excluding the bulk of its emissions from climate targets. 

The same BP has placed ads defending carbon capture “as a technology that can cut CO2 emissions”, when internal documents revealed by the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform show that the company sees carbon capture as a way to “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond.” The effectiveness of carbon capture is not a consensus, and some experts argue that it can prolong the reliance on the fossil fuel industry. By spreading climate disinformation out of self-interest, BP is misleading the public and delaying the implementation of proven solutions against climate change.

How Climate Change Disinformation and Greenwashing Harm the Environment

Both climate change disinformation and greenwashing can harm the environment by misleading individuals and delaying or preventing action to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. 

Climate change disinformation can reduce public trust in climate science, making it more difficult to implement effective policies and strategies to address the climate emergency.

Greenwashing can also harm the environment by encouraging individuals to purchase products that are marketed as environmentally friendly but are not actually better for the environment. This can lead to increased consumption and waste, exacerbating the climate crisis.

To conclude…

Climate change disinformation and greenwashing are two common practices that can mislead individuals and harm the environment. It is important for individuals to be aware of these practices, staying informed and being critical of information presented on social media.

However, the main responsibility to tackle climate disinformation and greenwashing online lies with tech companies, governments and legislators

Social media and search engine companies must stop profiting from climate change disinformation and greenwashing. They must halt the spread of lies about climate change, and ensure transparency about their algorithms and adverts.

Governments and legislators, in their turn, have to act to make sure tech companies follow a set of regulations that forces transparency, accountability and responsibility on them. 

A joint effort is needed to guarantee people have access to accurate information about the climate crisis and can act to stop climate change.

Are you interested in climate change? CCDH conducts research on climate disinformation and greenwashing. Join us to stay up-to-date. 

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