A beginner's guide to hot garbage
Our new term for climate disinformation, featuring Jennie King of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Since 2019, this newsletter has been laser-focused on climate disinformation — that is, the different ways people lie about climate change in order to to delay science-based solutions.
We get into the weeds about it sometimes. We discuss terms like “paltering” and “woke-washing.” We pick apart how social media sites help climate disinformation spread. We fact-check fossil fuel ads on niche political newsletters and podcasts.
But despite our best efforts, climate disinformation remains. In fact, according to Jennie King of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, it’s on the rise—and was rampant online during last month’s international climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
“We are seeing a resurgence in old-fashioned climate denialism,” King told me in an interview about her work with the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition (CAAD), which closely tracked online climate disinformation trends during the COP27 summit.
So for the sake of refreshing old readers’ memories and introducing the topic to new readers (hi, new readers), I thought this might be a good time to go over the basics of climate disinformation, why we cover it and how to fight it. I also thought I’d re-name it “hot garbage,” since King told me one of the ways to fight disinformation is to make it *compelling,* and well, I don’t know. It seemed appropriate.
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Why do we care about hot garbage?
Hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists have made it clear: inaccurate information about climate science and climate solutions is delaying the world’s response to climate change, thereby threatening life on Earth.
Here’s how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the world's top authority on climate science—put it in a recent report on climate impacts in North America (emphasis mine):
Accelerating climate-change hazards pose significant risks to the well-being of North American populations and the natural, managed and human systems on which they depend. Addressing these risks has been made more urgent by delays due to misinformation about climate science that has sowed uncertainty and impeded recognition of risk.
The report adds that much of the misinformation delaying climate action is spread by “vested interests” in a “deliberate” manner, which is literally the definition of disinformation:
Vested interests have generated rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency. Resultant public misperception of climate risks and polarized public support for climate actions is delaying urgent adaptation planning and implementation. …
Rhetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk and urgency, and dissent. … Vocal groups can affect public discourse and weaken public support for climate mitigation and adaptation policies.
The report also adds that traditional media “play a crucial role in shaping public perceptions, understanding and willingness to act.” So if you see HEATED going after the New York Times, cable news networks, or other powerful media companies for spreading climate misinformation, that’s why.
What are the most common and most concerning types of hot garbage?
I asked this question directly to Jennie King at ISD. Here’s what she said (edited lightly for brevity):
I would say there's a difference between the stuff that is the most common and the stuff that I think is new and very worrying. I mean, it’s all worrying. But some of it has been worrying for longer.
I would say we are seeing a resurgence in old fashioned climate denialism. There is now a lot more re-mainstreaming of just “climate hoax,” “climate scam,” “climate conspiracies,” “climate lockdown,” “great reset,” et cetera, which I think is indicative of the total collapse of trust in institutions and the amount of grievance and trauma that has come out of the COVID 19 pandemic. And so denialism continues to be some of the highest traction disinformation.
A new one that I think is pretty concerning, is the completely endemic confusion around natural gas, and the idea that it is a renewable and green technology. I think there's a huge amount of investment going in from industry actors and front groups to reorient the conversation around gas. And I think because people want a good news story, and are desperate for some sense of hope around solving climate change, that things like gas and carbon capture and storage are so prone to disinformation. (Note: Here’s why natural gas is not a renewable or green technology).
And then the final one, which I think is a big problem for the climate sector, is the co-opting of progressive language by those who oppose climate action. We referred to it in our monitoring as the woke-washing of climate opposition. We saw this happening both from state actors like Russia and China, but also from the fossil fuel lobby and from pundits like Michael Shellenberger who were couching their pushback on net zero in language like “pro-human rights,” “neo-colonialism,” “Western imperialism,” et cetera. (Note: Here are some examples of woke-washing).
When and where are people most vulnerable to hot garbage?
Everywhere and all the time—but particularly on social media platforms, and especially during high-profile climate events like COP27.
The reason for the latter is opportunism. “Climate disinformation actors are always looking for points of entry in the news cycle that they can exploit in order to insert pre-existing positions,” King said. “International climate summits are a lightning rod for disinformation actors because they know that, of all the points in the year, this is the one moment where a significant proportion of mainstream media is going to be talking about climate.”
Social media platforms house a lot of climate disinformation simply because so many different types of actors are on them. During her work with CAAD, King’s team tracked thousands of accounts the coalition considered to be bellwethers of so-called “climate contrarian” viewpoints. They included people from the conservative punditry and influencer space; the conspiracy theory and extremist space'; policymakers and lobbyists affiliated with the petrochemical states; as well as extreme anti-climate non-profits like the Heartland Institute and Global Warming Policy Foundation.
”We also have what we call the non-climate influencers—people like Jordan Peterson—where climate is not their sole issue or reason for being, but has become an increasingly relevant part of their online platform and weaponized within their broader worldview,” she said. “And because they have such an enormous organic audience when they're talking about climate, it's really relevant to know what they're saying.”
Are social media sites doing anything about rampant hot garbage?
A bit, but not enough, and so far there’s not much evidence it’s working. King explains:
Meta [Facebook] has just released a new climate misinformation policy, and I think they are actually moving in the right direction. There is still far too much of a fixation on content, and too little focus on actors. But here is some nuance that I think is surprising: For example, they are taking into account things like solutions-based disinformation (ex: disinformation about electric vehicles, offshore wind). That's a major leap from where they were even 12 months ago.
With Twitter, well, who knows with Twitter. Almost all of our intermediaries there have either been laid off or resigned, and the entire sustainability team was disbanded. They had all of these plans afoot, including a Twitter-pushed verified account that was a partnership with institutions like the UNFCCC, and it was going to be the flagship effort to ensure that the conversation around COP27 was anchored in verified science. And it hasn't posted since early November, presumably because the people responsible for that initiative moved on.
I think it's probably a bit premature to say 100 percent that the Twitter situation has gotten worse since Musk's acquisition. But there are things that we can say are observable. For example, during COP27, If you typed “climate” into the organic search bar, depending on what day either the first or the second search result that it returned was #climatescam. And when we actually investigated that, we couldn't work out any reason why that was the case, because climate startup only had less content next to it and less frequency of posting. So like even by its own algorithm, it shouldn't be putting that as one of the top results for climate.
A report from early this year found that climate disinformation was still prevalent on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube despite pledges from all of them to crack down.
These sites are garbage fires in every sense of the term.
What can I do to fight hot garbage fires?
The easiest and most important thing you can do is to inoculate yourself and your peers against climate misinformation. That doesn’t mean learning every scientific fact to specifically debunk every single anti-climate argument (though hey, that couldn’t hurt!). It just means recognizing that vested interests are out there trying to fool people into thinking climate change isn’t so bad and that the solutions are worse, and telling your peers about that when climate comes up in discussion. Scientists have shown this method to be pretty effective: Read more about inoculation theory here.
Debunking misinformation is really important, too. But the fact is, it requires a lot of work. Where it takes almost no effort to make up bullshit about climate science and solutions, it takes quite a bit more effort to explain the complex realities of those things. So we need more people who are willing to do that work—and who are willing to make it interesting. King put it this way:
Who is the Jordan Peterson of the pro-climate movement? It can't just be Greta. I don't think we have those immediate figureheads that boast, you know, 10 million followers across their various digital footprints that are pushing this content on a regular basis. Whereas the other side has all these conspiracy theorists who just get thousands and thousands of likes and shares and interactions for every single increasingly absurd thing that they post.
Big donors also have to face more pressure to fund anti-disinformation projects and influencers, King said. “We're working against a multi-billion dollar advertising and PR machine from the fossil fuel industry, and an incredibly Byzantine network of front groups, lobby groups, and dark money groups,” she said. “And the climate sector is still begging for every individual [dollar] to do really good high production value campaigns and communications.”
King and CAAD are also working to language incorporated into the negotiated outcome of the next international climate summit that would sets the parameters for an international coordinated response to disinformation. “The same way that you have the World Health Organization doing this for COVID-19 disinformation, we need a multilateral institution to stick their head above the parapet and say, ‘This is a definition of the problem, this is what it is and is not within its scope, and this is how we need to deal with it,’” she said. “Until that happens, you are never going to see the kind of systemic, coordinated response that's needed.”
Shameless self-promotion alert: Another quick and easy way to inoculate yourself from hot garbage is to sign up for HEATED! Do it today and ensure you stay updated about the latest ways vested interests are trying to stifle public support for climate action.
Catch of the Day: Since we’re already in “explaining why we do things we do” mode, we post pets at the end of each newsletter to cleanse your palate and remind you of the cute and fuzzy things worth fighting for.
Omni, furry feline companion of reader Kate, is definitely worth fighting for. She lives in Alabama and her extreme fuzziness already makes hot summers tough as is it!
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Nice! I needed a catchy term to describe the kind of deflect-distract-delay tactics used by the fossil fuel and plastic industries - especially in relation to their efforts to fight plastic regulation. "Hot Garbage" it is!!
I need to get inoculated. Thanks for the great, informative article.