Climate Advocates Underestimate Power of Fossil Fueled Misinformation Campaigns, Say Top Researchers

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Myron Ebell at a Heartland Institute conference

Climate action advocates have underestimated the strength and sophistication of decades-long fossil fuel-funded misinformation campaigns and need a coordinated set of strategies to fight back, say leading academics.

Among those strategies, say the three researchers from Yale and Brown University, are promoting financial transparency, suing misinformers and their funders, and researching the vast networks of think tanks and front groups.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, Yale University's Professor Justin Farrell and Kathryn McConnell, together with Brown University’s Professor Robert Brulle, say people working on responses to climate change “cannot afford to underestimate the economic influence, institutional complexity, strategic sophistication, financial motivation, and societal impact of the networks” behind climate misinformation campaigns.

Brulle, who is also an academic at Drexel University, told DeSmog that after conversations with leaders of environment groups and foundations, he had concluded “there is virtually no understanding of the nature or extent of misinformation efforts and organized efforts to stop climate action.”

Misinformation Ignored

He said: “So in my opinion, the efforts to promote climate action are failing to take into account opposition efforts in their strategies. I can assure you that this is not the situation for the organized efforts to stop climate action — which I call the climate countermovement.”

Brulle and Farrell have each produced several major studies in leading academic journals on the funding and influence of the “climate countermovement” and its fossil fuel interests. In 2018, Brulle joined several academics in criticizing the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for ignoring in a major report swaths of research and evidence on the impact of organized climate science denial.

In this most recent commentary, they lay out the pervasive nature of misinformation campaigns on climate change in the United States and how those campaigns captured Republicans.

Singled out in the paper are groups including the Heartland Institute, companies including oil giant Exxon, individuals like former Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team members Steve Milloy and Myron Ebell, and the vast network of groups funded by billionaire Robert Mercer and the petrochemical businesses controlled by Charles Koch and brother David Koch.

But the bulk of the paper covers a suite of strategies that could be rolled out to combat the misinformation springing from these groups and individuals.

Any political strategy to combat scientific misinformation must confront the partisan gridlock around climate change that has been institutionalized into the U.S. political process,” the scholars write. 

McConnell said: “The spread of climate misinformation is a political tool that is used to influence both the general public and key decision-makers — and it’s clear that these efforts have had major impacts on public opinion and public policy. To this end, climate action advocates would do well to pay close attention to climate denial.”

Three approaches are suggested and detailed by McConnell, Brulle, and Farrell:

  • Deploy social science research and public vigilance to show how political processes are manipulated.
  • Encourage institutions to divest from fossil fuel corporations.
  • Target areas impacted by climate change where widespread public skepticism exists (such as Florida and Alaska).

Inoculation

In addition, the researchers suggest using an emerging communications technique known as “inoculation” in which the public and policymakers are made aware of key misinformation techniques as myths are being busted.

Denial101x lecture on debunking myths and innoculation theory.

They also pointed to the need for continued research into the “networks and mechanisms of scientific misinformation campaigns” that could help scientists defend themselves against “a rise in ad hominem attacks.”

Brulle told DeSmog: “A first step in providing reliable and meaningful information that can aid the climate movement organizations and the foundation funders is to develop a research program on this organized effort to stop climate action.

Right now, this research effort is based in a number of part-time, unfunded researchers, who all work independently and without an overall guiding research program. 

So the information developed is piecemeal, and sporadic. Developing a coherent and funded research program is a crucial research need.”

Graphic showing fact-myth-fallacy structure to debunking climate change misinformation
Denial101x lectures adhering to Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure. Denial101x, CC BY-ND

Together with fossil fuel-backed public relations campaigns, research from Brulle has shown that environmental sectors are being massively outspent in lobbying efforts.

In research published in 2018, Brulle found that “environmental organizations and the renewable energy sector lobbying expenditures were dwarfed by a ratio of 10:1 by the spending of the sectors engaged in the supply and use of fossil fuels.”

Brulle added: “I think it is pretty much impossible to determine the extent of delay in action that the climate countermovement has been able to cause. We can certainly say it has not been helpful, and has assisted in blocking action on climate change for over 30 years. 

To move forward in addressing climate action, understanding and addressing the climate countermovement is a critical component.”

Main image: Myron Ebell speaking at a Heartland Institute conference in 2017. Credit: YouTube screenshot

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