Thomas Perrett shares worrying new findings that show the challenges ahead in implementing the changes required to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and increase renewable energy.
According to a new study, almost three out of ten European citizens are vulnerable. This poses a challenge to policies that aim to avoid the climate crisis.
Kantar Public, a research company, examines disinformation in climate change. It has 11 European offices. revealed the findings in its study, ‘Is Disinformation Polluting Climate Action?’
Having interviewed 11,600 adults across countries including Germany, France, Belgium and the UK, it found that 66% of participants were climate-conscious citizens; 27% were climate ambivalent citizens; and 7% were climate sceptic – based on their answer to the question: “Do you think that climate change is caused by natural processes, human activity, or both?”
Climate-conscious citizens claimed that climate change was primarily or exclusively caused by human activity, while climate skeptical participants said it was mainly or entirely driven by natural factors.
While a clear majority – 85% – of participants were concerned about climate change; many reported that it was difficult to find trustworthy information about its causes, with 57% of those interviewed reporting having ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ encountered disinformation about climate change within the past month, a figure which increased to 76% among climate sceptics.
The study found that the most prominent sources of disinformation were social media – 57%; websites – 46%; and conversations – 40%. Influencers on social media – 36%; activists – 33%; foreign government officials – 31%; and acquaintances – 30% were reported as the most likely to share falsehoods about climate change. These views were largely subjective, depending on individuals’ perceptions of the causes of climate change.
The Struggle to Find Trustworthy Information
Laurence Vardaxoglou – doctoral researcher at Kantar Public and a PhD student at the Paris School of Economics – who authored the report, argued that the complexity of the climate crisis has made it difficult for many citizens to form an opinion about it, with 21% of all citizens searching for alternative viewpoints and 23% finding claims about it to be contradictory.
He said Byline Times that “only 12% of those interviewed say that climate change is entirely man-made” and that “in terms of communication of the science, there is so much going on that people feel overwhelmed, and some are still unsure of the basic facts”.
Vardaxoglou also said that “we are most vulnerable for attitudes to be changed in conversations with other people” and that “many people are very disillusioned by the information environment”.
Indeed, a majority of the study’s participants said that they found it difficult to discern which information concerning climate change was accurate, with just 32% reporting that it was easy to form a personal opinion – a figure which decreased to just 16% among climate ambivalent citizens. Only 23% of participants said it was easy to find reliable information. This shows the importance of media, think tanks, and policy institutions in communicating the severity of climate change.
Trust in scientists, however, remained high even among climate sceptic participants – with 81% of overall respondents, including 65% of climate sceptic citizens, saying that they trusted scientific expertise on the issue of climate change. However, the study didn’t specify which scientists climate sceptics or climate ambivalent citizens used for information. This suggests that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global climate change is still open to interpretation.
This is not surprising. ‘Scientists’ are a vague and ill-defined authority and, while citizens overwhelmingly said that they trusted scientists’ views, many were unfamiliar with the conclusions of specific studies and reports confirming the threat posed by climate change. Only 48% of participants knew about the September report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Only 37% of participants knew it existed.
The discrepancy between the high proportion of citizens who said that they trusted scientists’ conclusions, and the comparatively low proportion who were aware of the implications of major scientific studies concerning the impact of climate change, also demonstrates that climate science is still not widely communicated in an accessible or engaging manner.
As long as a substantial section of Europe’s population remain undecided as to the causes of climate change and vulnerable to disinformation, public policy initiatives to divest from fossil fuels and expand renewable energy, or to encourage rewilding and agroforestry, may be harder to implement.
Disinformation: From denial to delay
It is a testament to the success of newer, subtler forms, climate disinformation, that focus on delaying, not denying, the reality of climate changes.
‘Delay’ strategies are far less likely to focus on overtly disputing the realities of climate science and are more likely to contend that renewable energy sources are too costly or ineffective to be implemented at scale.
The successes of covert forms of disinformation can be seen in the responses given to the statement: “95% of clean energy used in charging electric cars comes from coal”. When asked if this statement was true or false, 25% of all participants found it to be “somewhat or very accurate” – a figure which increased to 43% of climate sceptic citizens and comprised nearly a quarter, 23%, of climate conscious citizens.
Laurence Vardaxoglou said Byline Times that the pervasive influence of falsehoods about climate science “shows the level of sophistication of disinformation” and that arguments propagated by climate science deniers tend to “use elements of truth”.
“A common criticism of electric cars is that they are only as clean as the energy used to charge them, but the 95% [figure] is just ridiculous,” he said.
He believes that these subtle forms of disinformation differ substantially from outright climate denial and that “the delay tactic is far more advanced as a communication tool”.
This could explain why industry lobbyists resort to delay tactics to slow climate change action. InfluenceMap published a report earlier this year. AnalysedA series of Facebook ads, paid for by major oil companies, promoted the continued use of fossil fuels. The adverts described natural gas as “clean, affordable and efficient”, focusing on downplaying the efficacy of renewable energy instead of attempting to dispute the science behind climate change.
“With increasing scrutiny from investors, regulators and the public… outright denial has increasingly become an unviable tactic for these major companies,” the report said. “In its place, oil and gas companies have developed an increasingly nuanced and subtle set of messaging techniques, often utilising elements of the science on climate change in misleading ways.”
The findings of Kantar Public’s study show how important it is for media outlets, think tanks and environmental advocacy groups to ensure the accurate and succinct communication of scientific evidence. If scientific consensus continues to remain as ‘disputed’ in people’s minds – in the widespread way the study suggests – this will be a real challenge to achieving transformative environmental policies as urgently as they are required to avert the climate disaster which awaits us.
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