Home Ice bergs Misinformation about climate change misleads too many people – but there are ways to fight it

Misinformation about climate change misleads too many people – but there are ways to fight it


Over the past decades, people in the UK have seen climate change shift from an abstract threat discussed in the news to an increasingly common presence in everyday life. As the frequency and intensity of heat waves, floods and other extreme weather events have increased, public concern about climate change has increased. A 2019 poll found that 80% of people were somewhat or very worried, while a more recent poll ranked climate change as the most important problem.

People are more involved than ever in the climate crisis. But do they understand it well? And what sources of information do they trust the most? We wanted to understand where the public gets a lot of their information on the topic and what are the most effective ways to keep people informed.

We surveyed over 1,700 adults living in the UK and found that almost half of the sample was unable to correctly identify 50% of fake climate change news headlines, and almost half (44%) of all respondents did not know how often they encountered disinformation online. . These figures suggest that people need more advice on how to effectively spot disinformation and find reliable information on climate change.

What we found

Together with YouGov and The Conversation, we asked 1,722 people to read five real and four fake headlines on climate change. Almost half (46%) mistakenly thought that “scientists do not agree on the cause of climate change” and 35% mistakenly thought that “scientists think the Sun has had an impact on the increase. of the temperature of the Earth ”.

However, a majority of respondents also correctly identified false headlines such as “Carbon dioxide levels are tiny. They can’t tell the difference ”(70%) and“ Melting an ice cube in a measuring cup filled with water does not raise the water level, so melting icebergs cannot raise the level of the sea ”(68%).

More than half of those surveyed correctly guessed the real headlines “Over a million species are threatened with extinction due to climate change” (65%), “Earth had its second warmest year in history in 2019 ”(62%), and“ The worst impacts of climate change could be irreversible by 2030 ”(55%).

But only 15% knew that “Switching to jet fuel made from mustard would reduce carbon emissions by almost 70%” was wrong, and only 34% were correct that “Enough ice has melted in a single day to cover. Florida in two inches. some water”.

We also asked people how much they trust certain sources of information on climate change. While online influencers (6%), social media (7%), tabloids (13%), politicians (20%), journalists (30%), broadsheet (37%) and broadcast media (38%) were among the least reliable sources, the vast majority trusted academics (67%) and their own friends and family (59%) to deliver reliable information on climate change.

University researchers were the most reliable source on climate change.
Maridav / Shutterstock

A majority of those we polled thought it important to provide accurate reporting, with 78% saying that disinformation about climate change is very or somewhat detrimental to efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

When asked about media coverage of climate change, 39% said media reporting was overall too abstract, with an excessive focus on the future rather than today’s issues. Likewise, 29% thought the media coverage was confusing, citing too many conflicting opinions (55%) and mistrust of politicians (55%) and the media (54%).

Finally, the majority of respondents (59%) were concerned about climate change, with an even larger majority (80%) stating a general desire to make relevant lifestyle changes to stem the crisis.

What does that mean

Despite widespread awareness of the problems caused by fake news, many people we interviewed did not recognize their own role in this process. While a large majority worried about the effects of disinformation on climate change and said they did not share it themselves, 24% said they almost never verify the information they read.

This could suggest that the public does not know which sources are reliable, making them more vulnerable to the very disinformation they see as damaging the cause of fighting climate change.

Clearly, more can be done to educate people on how to distinguish real news from fake news on climate change. One way to do this is to use a process called inoculation or pre-occupation.

Just as vaccines train cells to detect foreign invaders, research has shown that stories that preventively refute short snippets of disinformation can help readers develop mental antibodies that will allow them to detect misinformation themselves. the future. Recent work has even used games to help people spot the broader strategies used to spread misinformation about climate change.

Although social media companies like Facebook have started debunking climate myths on their platform, politicians and social media seem to have an unreliable reputation. This was not the case for sources with perceived expertise on the subject, such as scientists. We therefore recommend strengthening the trust placed in experts by disseminating their views more frequently on social networks and traditional media.

In our survey, only 21% of people understood that between 90% and 100% of climatologists concluded that humans are the cause of climate change (99% according to a recent article). Decades of campaigns by fossil fuel companies have sought to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Media messages should therefore continue to communicate the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

Through years of research on the subject, we have identified several ingredients for trustworthy scientific communication. These include prejudging myths and lies, reliably informing people (not persuading), offering a balance but not a false balance (highlighting the weight of evidence or scientific consensus ), check the quality of the underlying evidence and explain the sources of uncertainty. If communicators are to gain the trust of people, they must start by exhibiting trustworthy behavior.