What is Climate Misinformation and Climate Disinformation? All You Need to Know

You’ll hear us talk about climate misinformation and disinformation a lot when reading about the climate crisis, global warming or renewable energy. But what is climate change misinformation and what is climate disinformation? What’s the difference between climate change misinformation and disinformation? How do we combat climate misinformation?

Let’s break it down for you.

Climate Skeptic and Climate Denier – What’s The Difference?

The term “climate skeptic” (or “climate sceptic” in British English) has been with us since people started doubting climate science. Over time, however, the term has fallen out of favour for “climate denial”. This was not by accident – the climate movement realised the advantage that so-called “skeptics” had by framing their attitudes in a virtuous way. To be skeptical is a good thing, right? So a counter-framing was created, referring to this attitude as “climate denial”. Rightly so – the scientific consensus for human-made climate change is overwhelming, not to mention the proof in the increasingly extreme weather events worldwide – doubting that science at this stage is nothing less than denial of the truth. 

So they are the same thing – but when someone chooses to use one frame over another, this might tell you something about their position on the matter.

Google Trends graphs - climate skeptic against climate denial. Climate denial has overtaken climate skeptic since 2011

Data downloaded from Google Trends

So What is Climate Misinformation, Then?

Actually, it’s also the same! However, when it comes to talking about our research, it is definitely our preferred wording. Here’s why: 

These days – thankfully – outright climate change denial and the human species’ impact on it is less convincing or effective than it used to be. It definitely still exists – you’ve probably seen some classics like “it’s the sun”, “it’s natural cycles” or “if the planet is warming, how come it’s so cold right now?”. But it is much harder to use these arguments now and still come across as credible, 

So, the climate denier movement has found subtler forms of messaging to achieve their ends. Recently this involves things like

  • Casting doubt on the movement – climate scientists, activists, the media or celebrities that may talk about it. E.g. “DiCaprio wants us to cut emissions, but I don’t see him walking to his job every day”
  • Downplaying the potential future cost of climate change e.g. “if we just grow our economies, we will find technological solutions” – or, only focusing on the cost of adaptation without mentioning the even bigger cost of not acting e.g. “everyone is going to need a new boiler – who is going to pay for it?”
  • Framing the situation as hopeless, so we may as well not act E.g. “why should our country reduce emissions if China will never do so?”
  • Framing the whole umbrella of science – not just climate science – as a conspiracy to be wary of e.g. “why trust scientists when they are paid for their work? They are of course going to find results that keep them in their cushy jobs”

This is why we at Stop Funding Heat now use the term “climate misinformation”, as this wider term captures all the falsehoods that we see in the press and on online platforms that contribute to delayed action. 

What is Climate Change Disinformation and What’s The Difference Between Disinformation and Misinformation? 

A final clarification on all this terminology is what separates “misinformation” and “disinformation”. Climate disinformation is a subset of climate misinformation – it is misinformation put out into the world with the intention to deceive. Believe it or not, some people make a professional living out of sharing false content, repetitive lies or misleading reports, especially on social media platforms, because that content helps them make money through clicks and attention, or they may stand to gain a lot personally – as a shareholder of a highly polluting company, for example – from rapid action on climate being delayed as long as possible.

In practice, though, it is nearly impossible to fully prove intent. Some would argue that writing editorial in papers or placing adverts on Facebook or Google that contain climate misinformation is as good as proof of intent to deceive as any. But in theory, people could be doing that genuinely believing what they’ve written. In the end, it’s up to you to make that call – what do you think?

Can You Help Us Spot Climate Misinformation? Quiz

At Stop Funding Heat we use the latest climate communications science to categorise climate misinformation when we see it, as shown in the table below. Next time you see content about climate change, you can use this taxonomy to see if it classifies as climate misinformation.

Table of different types of climate denial

This is a version of the CARDS taxonomy that features in the latest climate communication science by Coan, T. G., Boussalis, C., Cook, J., & Nanko, M. O. (in press). Computer-assisted detection and classification of misinformation about climate change. Nature Scientific Reports.. If you do spot any climate misinformation in the press or online platforms, please do send it to us at hello@stopfundingheat.info or tweet us @stopfundingheat!

If you want an explanation of why it might be climate misinformation, you could check the website skepticalscience.com for some details. This website is a treasure trove of genuine scientific studies and commentary from climate scientists – a great launchpad for independent research. We can then highlight it across our channels and work to reduce climate change misinformation.

Let’s go through three varied examples from our research!

We start with a more obvious one – this was a Facebook advert originally found by InfluenceMap in their November 2020 report. Can you find which type of climate misinformation this is from the taxonomy above?

In truth, it could be several, depending on the “facts” that this advertiser is purporting to be true. But we can for sure say that it fulfils 5.2.4 climate activists are alarmist. The advert seeks to discredit climate science – done by professionals for decades of their working lives – by building a strawman about climate activists needing to understand all of the scientific facts themselves. Cleverly, there is no mention of which facts are wrong – just a general assertion that they are wrong. We see this often – very few arguments actually put forward but asserted with a lot of emotion. Put together this creates a story of conspiracy – so depending on this Page’s other adverts and posts, you could argue it fulfils 5.3.2 science is a conspiracy too.

This report was written by a well-known climate misinformation group in the UK. Believe it or not, this logical fallacy is so widespread that it has its own place in the taxonomy – 3.2.2. polar bears are OK. Why is this climate misinformation? We can check the website skeptical science for answers. In brief, we can see that polar bear numbers, on the whole, are actually decreasing, even if in some (fewer) isolated areas they may be increasing or stable. This is why they are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. What’s more, the impacts of climate change are not all immediate – as we continue to change the climate for the worse, polar bears will become increasingly endangered, even if in some cherry-picked areas they are not yet.

This story from the Daily Mail can look well-meaning, in defence of the poorest in our society; but its assertion that the cost of transition to clean energy and a green economy will definitely be too costly is making a huge leap. Is it climate disinformation? We cannot say it is intentional. Is it climate misinformation? Certainly – the CARDS taxonomy points to 4.1.1 – policy increases costs.

Get Involved with Stop Funding Heat

Can you help us spot and report on climate misinformation in the press or online platforms? Get in touch with anything you find, or we have suggestions of where to start looking. Tweet us @stopfundingheat or get in touch at hello@stopfundingheat.info.

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