Overline: Climate Change Disinformation
Headline: Time for a new take on climate communication

As the evidence for disruptive climate change has mounted over the last decades, organised attacks on climate science have grown, flanked by conspiracy theories, disinformation, and false claims. How is disinformation produced, to what end, and by whom? A workshop addressing these and related questions took place at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam and was attended by a host of international scholars.

Workshop Prof. Lance Bennett speaking
A new form of communication on climate change is needed, Prof. Lance Bennett said at the IASS workshop in August 2019. IASS/ S. Letz

In his opening lecture, Professor Lance Bennett of the University of Washington, Seattle, described the emergence of the first environmental activists in the 1960s and 1970s and the attempts by North American corporate interests to stifle their work. At first they used “facts” to combat the new “green” movement and then, when this failed, they attacked the activists directly. Established by several US energy companies, the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) launched a series of PR campaigns in the 1980s with the aim of confusing the public with complexity and raising doubts about science: “If the earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?” one of their advertisements asked, for example.

In the 1990s, a new dimension emerged with sophisticated campaigns of denial and scepticism on a global scale. According to Prof Bennett, energy giants like Southern Coal & Electricity, Exxon Oil & Chevron Oil or the Koch Foundation finance think tanks and “experts” who undermine the public’s faith in science. These organisations publish pseudo-scientific studies, operate front groups and support politicians that express scepticism on climate and environmental science. In doing so, they reframe the climate crisis as a partisan, ideological problem – particularly in the USA – and portray evidence-based policymaking as a threat to traditional lifestyles. These activities are carried out with the aim of saving certain industries and ensuring they continue to generate economic growth. In 1998, this strategy was formally adopted by a group of leading North American energy interests as the Global Climate Science Communications Plan.

Time for a new take on climate communication

Bennett’s lecture offered insights into and an overview of the relationships between various players, from the Heartland Institute and individuals such as emeritus Jon D. Easterbrook and Fox newsreader Steven J. Milloy, to blogging climate denialists such as Anthony Watts and to large companies such as Koch Industries. He also highlighted the connections between these networks and Germany, citing the ties between the Heartland Institute and the European Institute of Climate Change (EIKE) and its president, Holger Thuss.

And how should society and communicators deal with this challenge? “Stop frightening people,” said Bennett, who is currently a Senior Fellow at the IASS – “and stop taking pictures of polar bears, they’re not even endangered.” A new form of communication on climate change is needed, focusing more on the underlying economic causes, including global systems, growth and policy shortcomings, but also on the effectiveness of solutions such as taxing carbon or electric cars.

Dieter Plehwe from the Centre for Civil Society Research (WZB) went on to detail the links between climate change deniers in North America, Europe, and Germany. Neoliberal think tanks and former industry figures hostile to the energy transition as a curtailment of economic freedom have played a crucial role in fostering scepticism towards climate science. The situation has worsened recently as neoliberal networks have begun working with organisations from the New Right.

Collective responsibility and a clear picture of the future

What function does scientific evidence fulfil against a background of factual uncertainty, asked IASS Director Professor Ortwin Renn in his lecture: “People learn best through a process of trial and error. But we come unstuck when faced with tipping points from which there is no turning back,” Renn said. “And when it comes to climate change, the tipping points leave no room for trial and error.” The world and science have become vastly more complex, but human nature still leans towards simplification. And so as individuals we tend to imagine ourselves alongside those exceptional few who defy probability. Or we choose to believe that the impacts of climate change will not be so bad for humanity after all.

“In order to support society in anticipating the impacts of climate change, we need to paint a very clear picture of the future,” Renn said. At the same time, science must make it clear that every individual, every country and every society worldwide will be affected by the impacts of climate change. This vision of collective destiny, Renn suggested, implies a collective responsibility that is far more persuasive than scenarios which tie distant climate impacts, in Bangladesh for example, to local actions such as driving a car – these scenarios seem implausible to many people and thus fail to spur action.

New forms of communication needed

A lecture by Professor Frank Fischer of Humboldt University Berlin on policy advice in an age of climate change denial suggested that environmentalists were too focused on data and the irrationality of counterfactual claims. According to Fischer, explanations of the concrete impacts of climate change on our way of life will carry more weight in the public mind. And while it is unclear how this debate should be organised, this is a discussion that politicians and society need to have.

In his closing contribution, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol described the various strands of argument put forward by climate sceptics and sought to draw lessons from these. According to Lewandowsky, we must equip actors and communicators with the tools to counter misleading claims so that the public can learn to recognise false arguments. Political decision-makers, he argued, must not allow themselves to be misled by noisy minorities. The solution, he suggested, was to take a disciplined approach and be accepting of different opinions, while refusing to engage with groups that choose to pitch themselves against the rest of the world.

Three conclusions can be drawn from the day’s discussions: there are still grounds for hope; political institutions will play a vital role, and one should never underestimate the clout of robust scientific findings.