New wave of online climate denial on the rise

New wave of online climate denial on the rise
Renewable energy and fossil fuels are at the centre of the New Denial debate about climate change, says a new report / US Department of Agriculture
By Roberta Harrington in Los Angeles January 21, 2024

A wave of “New Denial” of climate change is rising online, with potentially dire consequences, according to a study.

False and misleading statements from about 12,000 recent videos on almost 100 YouTube and similar channels were analysed by the non-profit Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), based at the University of Exeter in the UK.  

The watchdog found that tactics of climate deniers are changing.

Deniers used to say that climate change does not exist, but in the face of overwhelming evidence they are now saying that the solutions – such as renewable energy – do not work, said CCDH.

In fact, renewable energy is a major target of the New Denial. 

“The climate movement has won the argument that climate change is real, and that it is hurting our planet’s ecosystems,” Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer and founder of CCDH, told CNN.

“Now that the majority of people recognise old climate denial as counterfactual and discredited, climate deniers have cynically concluded that the only way to derail climate action is to tell people the solutions don’t work.”

“This new climate denial is no less insidious,” he said. “And it could hold enormous influence over public opinion on climate action for decades to come.”

The report’s central thesis is backed by the new World Economic Forum assessment of global risks, the Global Risks Report 2024, issued this month. The assessment found that misinformation and disinformation are the biggest short-term risks for humankind, while extreme weather and critical change to Earth systems are the greatest long-term concern.

CCDH found that in 2018 outright denialist claims like “the weather is cold” and “we’re heading into an ice age” were popular among climate deniers – but as temperatures and evidence of global warming have increased, those narratives are no longer as effective.

Analysis of 4,458 hours or nearly 186 days of YouTube content since 2018 shows that “Old Denial” claims that anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening have dropped from 65% of all claims in 2018 to just 30% of claims in 2023.

Instead, there is a “startling and important” rise over the past five years in what CCDH calls “New Denial” – the departure from rejection of anthropogenic climate change to attacks on climate science and scientists, and rhetoric seeking to undermine confidence in solutions to climate change. “New Denial” now constitutes 70% of all climate denial claims made on YouTube, up from 35% six years ago.

The New Denial might be a claim that clean energy won’t work – the most common theme; climate policies are harmful; the climate movement is unreliable; and climate science is unreliable, said the report.

The theme that clean energy does not work echoes ex-President Donald Trump’s frequent claim at rallies that wind energy is a hoax.

The 96 channels studied by the report received 3.4bn views on their content in the year leading up to 18 December 2023. Of course, not all views were of climate denial videos.

But YouTube may have made as much as $13.4mn a year from those views, said the report, though YouTube policies in theory bar monetisation of the Old Denial of the climate crisis.

Overall, videos analysed on YouTube and X and which contained climate denial claims got more than 325mn views in total from 2018 to 2023, said CCDH. The scientists used artificial intelligence to sort and classify the content.

New Denier claims have included: “We’re going to build thousands of new solar panels and wind farms, requiring the government to tear up tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of acres of land [...] destroying the economy and destroying the environment.”

The reality is that renewables need the same or less space than fossil fuel infrastructure, said the researchers citing sources.

Another claim is: “Governments have been doing this for years, they’ve been subsidising energy efficiency and imposing energy efficiency measures and the thing is it doesn’t even affect energy use.”

In reality, energy efficiency reduces the energy needed for a range of services, noted the researchers.

New Deniers also have said: “They’re replacing [fossil fuels] with solar energy and wind energy but then they realise that in the wintertime the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t really blow that much, so their energy costs have gone through the roof.”

Again, in reality, all sources of power are not available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Also claimed is: “If we try to go without fossil fuels in our lifetime, you are going to see the standard of living plummet.”

It is possible to shift to renewables and away from other energy sources, said the researchers.

In an especially hysterical video, Glenn Beck, the founder of BlazeTV, claimed that President Biden’s government is using climate change as a cover to push for a great reset and government control.

He states: “They don’t care about saving the planet, they know climate change is not going to kill millions around the world, this is all about gaining power and control over you [...] they are using this so-called emergency to justify a reset.”

CCDH recommends that Google, which owns YouTube, update its policy on climate denial content. Its current policy, on unreliable and harmful claims, states that content which “contradicts authoritative scientific consensus on climate change” will not be monetised on its platforms.

That should be changed to: “We do not allow content that contradicts the authoritative scientific consensus on the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change.”

Digital platforms must demonetise and de-amplify climate denial content, suggests CCDH.

The centre notes that Meta’s Instagram and Facebook leave it up to third-party fact checkers to identify posts and advertisements that deny the existence of climate change, merely removing advertisements and limiting the reach of content after they have been flagged.

TikTok’s policy is restricted to removing Old Denial content and does nothing to address the New Denial.

And X has no official policy towards content or advertising that pushes Old Denial or New Denial claims.

Climate advocates must also use the report as a call to action to address New Denials, said the centre. CCDH flagged the role of social media, saying that 43% of adults and 56% of teenagers who report high activity on social media expressed agreement with the statement: “Humans are not the main cause of global temperature increases.”