New Climate Denial: Imran Ahmed on NPR’s ‘Living on Earth’ podcast

Posted on January 31, 2024 in News.

Image promoting Imran Ahmed's interview on NPR's 'Living on Earth' podcast

On January 26th, our CEO Imran Ahmed was interviewed by Steve Curwood on ‘Living on Earth’ podcast, hosted by NPR, to talk about CCDH’s New Climate Denial report. We analyzed thousands of hours of YouTube content and found that climate deniers have changed their narrative. Now, they undermine the climate movement, science, and solutions.

“The three major families in the new denial are: that climate solutions won’t work, that the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless, or that the climate science and the climate movement are unreliable. Because let’s be absolutely frank about this: This has never been a debate about the science. This has been a debate between scientists and those who want to stop action being taken on climate change because that would destroy the oil and gas industry.”

Read the transcript of Ahmed’s interview

STEVE CURWOOD: How long did you work on this study looking at how social media is, in some cases, maybe many cases, promoting disinformation about climate change?

IMRAN AHMED: This has actually been one of the longest and most complex studies we’ve ever done. We worked with university researchers who developed an AI model that allows them to identify what type of climate denial claim is being made in this piece of text. We used that tool to analyze thousands of hours of YouTube videos produced by prominent climate deniers, and study the evolution of the types of claims they’ve been making between 2018 and 2023. And what we saw was startling: a real collapse in the volume of claims being made that anthropogenic man-made climate change is not happening at all or that it’s not man-made; and an explosion in the volume of claims that climate change may be happening, but the solutions don’t work. Climate deniers have transitioned from the old climate denial, which is rejecting anthropogenic climate change, to a new climate denial, which is casting doubt on solutions.

CURWOOD:  Talk to me more about this question of old denial and new denialism. Your report says that climate denial folks have moved beyond trying to say that climate change isn’t happening and humans aren’t related to this. But moving into the area that the solutions won’t work – why is that new? Because from day one, people opposed to climate action said, oh, it costs too much, that won’t work, the technology is too expensive, and you know, we’re gambling way too much on iffy technology. What’s new about what you call New Denial?

AHMED: As solutions have developed to become more sophisticated, as the world has become more convinced of the dangers of climate change, as political actors and companies and as others have taken action, what you have seen is the battleground shifting. In 2018, over two-thirds of all the claims made were rejecting the reality, the scientific consensus, on climate change. Now, that’s less than 3 in 10. So less than a third. What is now two-thirds of all claims made are these other forms of denial. The three major families in the New Denial are: that climate solutions won’t work, that the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless, or that the climate science and the climate movement are unreliable. Because let’s be absolutely frank about this: This has never been a debate about the science. This has been a debate between scientists and those who want to stop action being taken on climate change because that would destroy the oil and gas industry. They are implacably opposed to climate solutions being put in place. They don’t care whether it is by persuading people that climate change isn’t real, or even more cynically, by dashing their hope that climate change can be dealt with.

CURWOOD: How do they sell this notion that nothing can be done about climate through social media? How do they tell that story?

AHMED: One of the things that you learn after studying disinformation and conspiracy theories and this kind of content over years and years, as my team has, not just in climate, but also public health, is that underpinning every conspiracy theory, every bit of misinformation, is fundamentally a lie. The lie is that there’s nothing we can do about it. The lie is that solar power, wind power, tidal power, switching to electric vehicles couldn’t substantially help to mitigate the worst ravages of climate change. What they then claim is that well, sure, you might want to switch to an EV. But did you know that throughout the supply chain of an EV, that EV actually uses more CO2? Now, that’s actually nonsense. It’s been shown by the EPA and by a raft of scientists that actually the lifetime emissions of an electric vehicle is significantly lower. But what they’re doing is, they’re selling a lie, which is don’t buy an EV because it’s worse for the environment.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about how this works in part to appeal to a sense of doomerism among young people, that, yeah, well, climate’s a problem, but hey, we’re over the edge. So we might as well party until the asteroid or whatever hits.

AHMED: I can’t think of anything more cynical than telling young people that, yes, the world’s climate is changing in potentially catastrophic ways, but there’s no hope, and nothing that you can do could help, so may as well live with it. We did some polling to go alongside this study, just to check what the acceptance levels are of different types of climate denial with young people. What we found is that acceptance of the old climate denial is incredibly low. What’s been replacing it is more acceptance of the new climate denial. There is a really important message. Science won that first battle. Scientists, journalists, politicians, communicators have persuaded and explained to the public and young people that climate change is real. But the opponents of action on climate change have opened a new front. It’s vital that this message is heard by the climate advocacy movement, because we’re going to have to refocus our efforts, our counter narratives, our resources on explaining why climate solutions are viable, how we can save our planet and save our ecosystems.

CURWOODWhat do these videos look like; how do they feel? What kind of strategies are these YouTubers using to make their information seem legit?

AHMED: They bring on “experts.” They have the appearance of academic or research neutrality, they have visuals, graphs. Sometimes the presenters even wear a tweed jacket to make it look as though they’re erudite, it’s a trick I have used in the past myself. And cherry-picked data, which is not representative of the whole. So all the tricks that you expect from shysters and snake oil salesmen. It’s a toxic melange of lies and truth that make it very difficult to discern what on earth is going on, often delivered at a fevered pace that, if you’re trying to fact check it, you’re overwhelmed by the next lie before you’ve even managed to consume or work out the truth behind the last lie. It’s a sophisticated industry, and they learn from each other. They learn from other sectors. There is an enormous amount of disinformation around public health, around vaccines. One of the things that we always find with this is that there is an asymmetry when it comes to disinformation. It takes no effort at all. It takes no science, it takes no education, it takes no thinking to actually come up with a lie. The problem is that debunking that lie often requires effort, expertise and resources. And so you get this asymmetric tidal wave of disinformation, in particular on social media, because social media is the environment where bad actors can promulgate, can spread this disinformation, these lies, very easily. But also, ironically, they get amplification, and they get economic reward for it. So they get amplification because people engage with that content, often in anger, saying this is nonsense. But that actually signals to the platform, this is high-engagement material, and they publish it to more and more people and more and more timelines. 

Second, the platforms like YouTube in our study, place ads on this content. Those ads make money for YouTube, millions of dollars a year, in spreading disinformation about climate, but also for the producers as well, who get a take of all of that. So actually, there is this sick industry that is profiting from making people feel there is no hope on climate change.

CURWOOD: What kind of money are we talking about, with the millions of dollars of ads in social media?

AHMED: Just looking at the 100 channels that we studied – and there are thousands more, of course – but of the 100 that we studied, which was 12,000 videos and 4,000 hours of content, that’s worth around $13.4 million, we estimated, a year. That’s using figures which are freely available: how much an ad costs, how often those ads appear, et cetera, et cetera. We don’t know precisely what the split is, but it’s about 55-45, 60-40, for the content creator and the platform. So both of them are profiting lavishly from this kind of content. These numbers are a very, very small estimate of the channels we looked at. We could be talking about a $100 million to $200 million industry in total.

CURWOOD: Did you look at the advertising on Facebook or other social media that’s out there?

AHMED: This initial study was based on YouTube because it’s a platform that we were able to study using this tool very easily. However, we are absolutely certain that this is happening not just on Meta platforms, so on Facebook, on Instagram, on TikTok. But also on X, which is owned by Elon Musk, a man who recently claimed that no human being on Earth has done more for the planet than he has, but at the same time runs a platform that is rife with disinformation about climate, and that is helping to undermine the consensus that we need for action to be taken to mitigate climate change.

CURWOOD: What about the issue of censorship? I mean, everyone does have a right to free speech, not the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, but we have pretty strong free speech rights. Where do you think the limits should be set on this kind of information?

AHMED: Everyone has absolutely the right to hold opinions, no matter how ridiculous or counterfactual they are. People can post it if they want to. But not everyone has a constitutional right to profit from it, nor do they have a right to have a megaphone handed to them so that they can scream it to a billion people. And that’s the issue here. Censorship is about the government saying that you’re not allowed to say something. A private company has every right to say, ‘I’m not gonna give you money for the content that you’ve just produced.’ That’s not censorship. That’s just not paying people for what they say. And so this isn’t a question of censorship. This is a question of rewards. In the past, what YouTube has said – and this is their own rules, not my rules – is that they will not put ads on, nor will they amplify climate denial content that goes against the scientific consensus on climate change. What we found was, first of all, that they’re not sufficiently enforcing that policy. And they responded to our study by saying, whoops, you’re right, we’d better take the ads off these videos that you found. 

Second, we’ve said they should extend their policy, which only applies to the old denial, to the new denial, too. You simply cannot be calling yourself a green company, and then commit the stultifying hypocrisy of both profiting from and amplifying to billions climate denial content.

CURWOOD: To what extent can government play a role here in cleaning up social media? And to what extent is this just something that the free market is going to have to do?

AHMED: Governments can mandate transparency of companies, so they explain how their algorithms and content enforcement rules work. They can explain how their economics work, how the advertising works, so we have more understanding of that as well. Advertisers often don’t know where ads are appearing. Do you know what sorts of organizations were appearing on these climate denial videos? The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee. Three bodies which are dedicated to dealing with climate change were accidentally having their ads appearing on these climate denial videos. And they will be furious. I think that when the market has more transparency, when people identify problems, as our research does, then I think that people will take action.