Climate change is real. But why do some say it’s a hoax?

Posted on June 09, 2023 in Explainers.

A globe with a sad face representing climate change denialism, with Google search bars representing the internet.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and it affects us all. Yet greedy, unregulated social media and search engine companies have enabled a cascade of misinformation and disinformation about climate change.

What do climate scientists say?

97% of scientists agree that climate change is driven by human activity. Our planet is warming up at an ever-accelerating rate and leading to a catastrophic climate crisis.

We are at a climate tipping point. Delayed action means humanity will be forced to endure continual and worsening surges in heat waves, droughts, typhoons and hurricanes, rising sea levels, and the degradation of our food supply.

Climate change is real. So why does our information ecosystem seem to be awash with people denying the science, obfuscating the truth, or proposing faulty explanations?

Unfortunately, CCDH’s Toxic Ten report shows that some people and organizations continue to spread climate denial and disinformation about climate change because it’s profitable. For example, in the second half of 2021, just ten websites promoting climate disinformation earned $3.6 million in advertising revenue from Google. This makes it difficult for us to take the necessary steps to address this global challenge. 

Calling the climate crisis a “climate hoax” won’t make it go away, and all of us will continue to live with the consequences of climate change.

What is climate change misinformation?

CCDH is a member of the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition.

We define climate disinformation and misinformation as deceptive or misleading content that:

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

Climate misinformation and disinformation are not the same. Whereas the former means spreading false information, regardless of intent to mislead, climate disinformation is false information that is spread intentionally.

Whatever its form, climate misinformation and disinformation can be incredibly harmful because it can delay or even prevent meaningful action to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

Climate denial, misinformation and disinformation

In November 2021, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) identified the Toxic Ten, a group of fringe publishers disproportionately responsible for spreading climate denial content. The research showed how the Toxic Ten fueled 69% of digital climate change denial, and altogether they have around 186 million followers on mainstream social media platforms.

Both Facebook and Google have failed to stop the spread of climate disinformation. CCDH revealed that Facebook failed to label 92% of Toxic Ten posts, and Google generated an estimated $5.3 million in ad revenue from their content.

Later on, in November 2022, CCDH revealed that Google was still making money at the expense of our planet. Our Greenwashing on Google report revealed Google Google’s role in allowing big polluters to target ads at users searching for “eco-friendly companies”.

The report showed that nearly half of the $23.7 million that Big Oil spent on Google Search ads in the last two years was used to target users searching for information about environmental sustainability. It means that fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, Shell, and Aramco were able to distort search results about climate change.

Google had even broken its own promises not to profit from climate denial content by allowing ads that made false claims like “fossil fuels make the planet safer”.

How can we tackle climate change misinformation and disinformation online?

CCDH is working to tackle climate misinformation and disinformation by exposing the role of social media platforms – many of which claim to be green – in spreading climate disinformation and, in some cases, even profiting from it.

If we can make sure that spreading climate disinformation is not profitable, prevent the amplification of disinformation in ads and news feeds, and ensure that disinformation is labeled properly, we can begin to change things.

The stakes are high. Climate change is real, and misinformation is a serious problem that requires urgent action.