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An artist's interpretation of ecological fraud, with an illustration of polluting factories masked by a face covered in green leaves.

Contact: Erin Flynn

An artist's interpretation of ecological fraud, with an illustration of polluting factories masked by a face covered in green leaves.KALAMAZOO, Mich.—While sticks and stones are certainly more blatant, there’s no question words also can do a great deal of harm. Misinformation and disinformation can have devastating effects. Words fuel animosity and violence during 2020’s presidential election. They also breed division and spread dangerous medical mistruths during COVID-19 pandemic, which now threatens the future of the planet.

“If you look at what is most interesting to anyone on any topic, it is the fringes, the controversy, the conflict—that’s what people gravitate toward. These are the voices that are amplified on social networks,” says Dr. David BenacProfessor of history at Western Michigan University. “Right now, this pandemic is exposing it to some degree; climate changes are exposing this. Social media is promoting an anti-intellectual trend, which can exacerbate many serious global crises.

While “fake News” is a relatively new term, disinformation has been around for decades. It’s actually been fueling global action against climate change for decades.

“It wasn’t until the 1850s that people discovered that the more fossil fuel we burn, and the more carbon dioxide (CO2) you create. Benac states that the higher the temperature, the more carbon dioxide (CO2) we create and the greater the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. “We have known this for over 150 years. The science was pretty well established in the early 20th century. You can be generous in saying that we have fairly understood the basic mechanics behind climate change for approximately 90 years.

People march together.

Dr. Steven Bertman (center) walks alongside Dr. Daniel Macfarlane in a Global Climate Strike 2019 event. Both are members the Climate Change Working Group.

Western’s interdisciplinarity Climate Change Working GroupIncludes faculty from all departments of the University that are dedicated to improving climate education and community awareness.

Learn more

The Cold War, up to the mid 1980s, was the time when climate science really took off. Federal and private researchers began exploring what happens in the atmosphere if atomic weapons explode. Atmospheric science was also influenced by the space race.

Benac states, “You can’t send a spaceship up without understanding the atmosphere it’s in.” “We learned a lot about climate and atmosphere as a result of that research, which really pushed us forward.”

According to him, the research provided clear evidence that climate change is happening and that humans are the cause. Except for government projects, most of the early climate research was done by fossil fuel companies, who were trying to understand the effects of their products on the atmosphere.

Many climate activists and scientists claim these companies launched disinformation campaigns once they realized the truth. The House Oversight Committee began an investigation into the alleged role of the fossil fuel industry in the climate crisis. A second hearing to request testimony from top oil executives is planned. Feb. 8.

The issue of disinformation is being addressed by academic research. There is a lot of academic research on disinformation. Harvard researchers publish peer-reviewed studiesPublished in 2017, the report examined ExxonMobil’s climate change communications between 1977 and 2014. It found a significant discrepancy in the communications ExxonMobil made about climate change between what it presented to the public and what its scientists and executives discussed privately. It boils down to a strategy to make people question accepted science, according to Benac.

He says, “If you look at all the misinformation they see, they are not saying that scientists who claim climate change is occurring are wrong. They’re saying there’s too many variables, too much we don’t know.” “They are causing you make logical assumptions based upon context. This has been going on for decades.


The first Comprehensive assessment of global climate changeIn 1979, a scientific meeting of minds in Massachusetts led to the discovery that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The gathering of climate scientists predicted that greenhouse gas emissions would increase global temperatures and presented their findings to Congress.

The research became a centerpiece for the National Commission on Air Quality’s meeting the following year—a workshop requested by Congress to discuss the potential impacts of climate change and discuss policies to address them. Benac claims that there was disagreement over the policy language and that the report was not as specific as it should have been regarding the steps needed to reverse the trend.

“Because they were not 100% certain, they didn’t make any (strict) recommendations. There was an opportunity to reduce fossil fuels at that time, but this would have been in conjunction with the energy crisis. This was when there was a lot public support for other energy sources. We could have made a smooth transition with very little sacrifice. But now we are at a point when we must sacrifice. We will have to reduce our spending.

However, scientists continue to be able to confirm the basic premise of climate scientists’ predictions decades later: The carbon dioxide produced by humans contributes to global warming. It is still controversial.

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Students march across campus holding signs about climate change.

Members of the Kalamazoo climate crisis coalition march at Western in 2019

Benac says that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree on this topic does not change public opinion. This is because scientists have been driving the conversation since the beginning. “Even today we don’t discuss what the right political and moral type of action should be taken. We debate whether science is correct.”

He says those doubts are sown in science by two concepts that govern science’s objectivity: consensus (or forcing function of knowledge). Even with social media, loud detractors can easily overshadow consensus, especially when it comes to platforms like social media. Forcing knowledge functions is more about trust and responsibility.

“It’s a belief that if people have enough information, they will make the right decision. Benac states that we know this doesn’t always occur. This theory was disproved by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific research has shown that vaccinations are extremely effective in preventing serious illness or death. “I’m really worried about (climate) change and not terribly hopeful about our ability, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19. COVID-19, a much more simple crisis than climate changes, is something I don’t know how we’re going to tackle.

It will take a lot of legislative action to slow climate change. The current American political system, which is built upon election cycles, makes taking decisive political action difficult.

Benac states that unless there is a political leader willing to upset a lot his or her constituents and do the right thing, even though it may not be politically correct, I don’t see anything changing.” The solutions are political, but not the issues. It doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican, but we want humanity or at the very least society to continue to exist in the way we have grown accustomed to.”

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