For decades, climate misinformation has been a key challenge to meaningful climate action. Fueled by false, distorted or inaccurate claims as well as conspiracy theories, climate misinformation online is increasingly undermining efforts to tackle the global impact of climate change on humans and the environment, further exacerbating and accelerating its progression.

From November 30 to December 12, 2023, world leaders, policymakers and scientists will discuss the future of our planet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP28), which is being held in the United Arab Emirates. So far, there is no mention of climate misinformation, greenwashing or even the role of environmental journalism in driving climate action. The official thematic program schedule of the summit does not mention the words  ‘journalism’, ‘media’, ‘misinformation’ or ‘greenwashing’*. The same patterns apply to past conferences in Scotland (COP26) and Egypt (COP27) with the exception of one lonely session

So why has misinformation been rarely discussed during COPs?

Climate denialism, greenwashing and other forms and strategies of climate mis/disinformation have existed for decades. But it was only last year that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged for the first time the role of misinformation, specifically misinformation fueled by the oil industry, which causes uncertainty, impedes the public’s recognition of risk and leads to further delay in action. Following this report, UN Chief Communicator Melissa Fleming said that “climate action is being undermined by bad actors seeking to deflect, distract, and deny efforts to save the planet. Disinformation, spread via social media, is their weapon of choice.”

A lack of consideration for the detrimental impact of climate misinformation might have finally undermined the mission of the climate summit itself.

COP conferences should call for combating climate misinformation as a condition for communities and governments to back meaningful climate policies. Instead, researchers have found a spike in climate disinformation during last year’s climate conference (COP27) and experts worry such efforts are slowing global climate action. Our latest report on climate misinformation in Egypt has led to similar conclusions on mis/disinformation, including patterns of greenwashing that were not found a year earlier. 

Media reports show that COP28 organizers received several greenwashing accusations related to campaigns aimed at promoting and greenwashing the conference, while also creating a shield against any criticism against the conference and its president - the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). The decision was criticized in an open letter from over 130 US lawmakers and Members of the European Parliament who expressed concerns over how the private sector polluters were exercising "undue influence" over the climate summit’s process. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International also criticized his appointment.

In another widely covered story, media reports showed how an army of fake social media accounts on X (former Twitter) and Medium have been promoting and defending the controversial hosting of a UN climate summit by the United Arab Emirates.

Last September, Reuters reported that “as it prepares to host a global climate summit, officials discussed ways to counter criticism of the Gulf state’s human rights policies.” More than 200 civil society groups have written to the UAE and all participating governments with a series of demands concerning the Gulf nation's human rights record and attempts to greenwash its actions. The UAE rejected the allegations.

Media and Big Tech should take (climate) action seriously

Bots and fake accounts like the ones that attempted to defend COP28 are not the only spreaders of misinformation and greenwashing. Climate misinformation continues to spread on YouTube as well as on X (Twitter) where the volume of climate misinformation has tripled per week since Elon Musk's acquisition of the platform.

In their latest report, Climate Action Against Disinformation looked at Meta, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter for their content moderation policies and efforts to mitigate inaccurate information such as climate denialism. Among other findings, the report revealed that “4 out of 5 platforms did not have a content moderation policy that includes a comprehensive, universal definition of climate misinformation.” Furthermore, most platforms lacked policies to address greenwashing.

Climate advocacy groups have highlighted the importance of more accountability from tech platforms, more user pressure and appropriate regulation around what climate information is disseminated online. Improved data transparency and clearer content moderation policies on climate-specific misinformation are other prerequisites.

Some organizations like Covering Climate Now and Climate Action Against Disinformation are organizing webinars to update journalists on likely “disinformation narratives to watch out for during COP28, how media digests disinformation and how it can impact negotiations.”

Innovating climate journalism: Meedan and Solutions Journalism Network’s AI-powered solution

The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) has received a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation that will enable SJN and Meedan to build a first-of-its-kind tool that leverages new generative large language models (LLMs) to rapidly evaluate and classify news stories using SJN’s criteria for rigorous solutions journalism. 

Although the tool will first be used to identify climate solutions stories, it will be architected so that it can ultimately be deployed for any issue area. Read more about this new partnership here.

Meedan’s climate action in the Larger World

As a response to the ongoing climate crisis, Meedan has been drastically increasing its efforts to engage in and support impactful work that counters the impact of climate change, working with grassroots media, journalists, journalism students and activists.  

In June 2022, Meedan announced a climate misinformation call under its Independent Media Response Fund to support hyperlocal media efforts to tackle climate misinformation and improve news coverage related to climate. Over 450 applications were received from 68 countries across the Larger World and 29 media collectives and journalists were awarded funding to tackle climate misinformation. 

The call supported a wide range of projects and outputs, including an e-course by Pin Africa on the fundamentals of climate and environmental reporting in Africa, and a report by Annie Lab Hong Kong on the narratives behind misleading claims about climate change in China.

Throughout 2023, and as part of our capacity building, media monitoring and data analysis work under the NAWA Newsroom, we trained a new cohort of journalism students on advanced media monitoring, OSINT and fact-checking techniques. The students and alumni have produced over 30 reports, podcasts and episodes that focus on the impact of climate change, including a major media and content analysis study about the state of climate misinformation in Egypt. In their report, they concluded that the top spreader of climate misinformation is also the most-read online news publisher in Egypt.

Journalist receives fellowship to join COP28

Impactful work grows beyond direct involvement. Sarah Khazem, a beneficiary of our Independent Media Response Fund climate misinformation call, was awarded the Earth Journalism Network fellowship to cover COP28 in person in the UAE after submitting an application featuring the stories supported by Meedan’s climate misinformation fund. 

Here’s what Sarah told us about her experience so far, “Earlier this year, I worked on my first climate-focused report. It tackled the problem of desertification in Iraq. This story actually had a political dimension to it, which made me more interested in looking into how politics impacts climate change. 

By then, I became more interested in looking at events in my community from a climate perspective. So, I applied for the Earth Journalism Network’s fellowship program and submitted the story that I produced with the support of Meedan’s Independent Media Response Fund. 

I was shortlisted and after a couple of interviews with EJN, I received the news that I would be reporting from the conference. During COP28, I will be focusing on climate justice, ecocide and how governments are responding to the ongoing crisis. I know that the challenges are numerous but I have hope and confidence in myself and the team supporting me.”

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* Define: Greenwashing

Greenwashing presents a significant obstacle to tackling climate change. By misleading the public to believe that a company or other entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is, greenwashing promotes false solutions to the climate crisis that distract from and delay concrete and credible action. 

This blog was published in Meedan’s Checklist newsletter, November 2023 edition.

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Tags
COP28
Climate Action
Climate Misinformation
Greenwashing
AI for Good
Climate
The Checklist

Footnotes

  1. Online conversations are heavily influenced by news coverage, like the 2022 Supreme Court decision on abortion. The relationship is less clear between big breaking news and specific increases in online misinformation.
  2. The tweets analyzed were a random sample qualitatively coded as “misinformation” or “not misinformation” by two qualitative coders trained in public health and internet studies.
  3. This method used Twitter’s historical search API
  4. The peak was a significant outlier compared to days before it using Grubbs' test for outliers for Chemical Abortion (p<0.2 for the decision; p<0.003 for the leak) and Herbal Abortion (p<0.001 for the decision and leak).
  5. All our searches were case insensitive and could match substrings; so, “revers” matches “reverse”, “reversal”, etc.

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Published on
November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023