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These researchers are trying to stop misinformation from derailing climate progress

Delegates attend the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland
Oli Scarff
AFP via Getty Images
Delegates attend the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland

Sean Buchan has started every day of the past two weeks at his computer, tracking narratives about the COP26 U.N. climate summit.

He looks for claims like one about the electric cars ferrying dignitaries around Glasgow being powered by diesel generators. That isn't true: the cars were recharged by generators burning lower-emission vegetable oil.

"But that was subtly left out of the information when it was tweeted or posted, and it makes it seem like the whole of COP26 is running on diesel," Buchan said. "It's not false. But it is highly misleading."

Buchan, an analyst at the British climate-advocacy group Stop Funding Heat, is part of a global team of activists and online researchers that has been tracking false and misleading claims about climate change while world leaders have met in Glasgow.

The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has long studied online extremism and terrorism, led the effort.

"Climate is being co-opted into this universe of antigovernment sentiment. It's being weaponized by groups that have extremist or conspiracist affiliations," said Jennie King, a senior policy manager at ISD who coordinated the team.

Her team's chief concern was that climate deniers and conspiracists alike would spread messages on social media that risked undermining the summit negotiations and, more broadly, global action to tackle climate change.

Buchan and King say they've witnessed how online influence campaigns can thwart public policy.

In 2009, climate scientists' emails were hacked ahead of another U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen. Climate deniers used the hack to manufacture a scandal known as "Climategate," fueling doubt in climate change and dealing a blow to the summit. In 2019, right-wing activists used social media to pressure European governments to drop their support for a U.N. global migration agreement by making it seem like opposition was widespread.

In both cases, "we were able to look back and go, 'wow, all of this coordinated activity put some countries into doubt,'" Buchan said. "What we're trying to do is catch things like that before or while they happen, so we can maybe find a solution before it derails an entire agreement."

Over the last year, ISD and its partners built what King calls an "early warning system: a set of dashboards to monitor climate discussions on Facebook, Twitter and other websites. Every day of the summit, analysts have been poring over the dashboards' constantly updating feeds of climate denialism, misleading memes and viral news articles.

King has sent out daily email bulletins to hundreds of subscribers, including climate organizations, media outlets, scientists, and policy makers about the narratives gaining the most traction.

Climate is now 'part of the culture wars,' says analyst

King says before the summit started, she wondered whether she'd mainly see attacks on specific topics under negotiation, like carbon markets or curbing methane emissions.

Instead, "climate has absolutely become part of the culture wars," she said.

Many of the influencers the group has tracked are long-time climate deniers. Some are linked to the fossil fuel industry.

But increasingly, they include figures who post online all kinds of hoaxes and conspiracies. And those who've long claimed that climate change is a pretext for government overreach are pointing to similar false claims about lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 — both framed as authorities' excuses to strip people of their freedom.

"Language around things like climate lockdown is bleeding into spaces that were formed around anti-vax sentiment or around QAnon-affiliated arguments," King said.

"These are not communities that were particularly interested or dedicated to climate to begin with, but they have found a way to connect those other world views or ideologies with fear about the future of climate change response."

She says when misleading or outright false climate claims become embedded in this web of conspiracies, it makes them harder to fight. And that could hamper even more the world's ability to take big, bold action on a global crisis.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.