Profit Over Planet: How Climate Disinformation Serves the Fossil Fuel Industry 

Markus Spiske, Unsplash

By: Maida Salkanović and Ivana Živković

Conspiracy theorists often proudly flaunt the self-imposed label of “free thinkers,” viewing themselves as rebels against the established scientific consensus. However, in their quest to “challenge the system,” they’re played by the big players. Unwittingly, they promote – completely for free – the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation campaigns.

“We have changed the chemistry of our atmosphere, causing sea level to rise, ice to melt, and climate to change. There is no reason to think otherwise,” is the concluding sentence of the scientific paper “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?”. It was published by the historian of science Naomi Oreskes in 2004, and established the existence of a scientific consensus on climate change. The scientific community definitively asserts – climate change is real and human activity is the cause of climate change.

The scientific community has been warning for decades: we must stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere because the burning of fossil fuels enhances the greenhouse effect, raises the Earth’s average temperatures, and the level of the world’s oceans. And although science almost unanimously warns, the public does not perceive it that way. This is about the “consensus gap” – the gap between the public’s perception of how much scientists agree that human activity causes climate change and the actual scientific consensus. About 50 percent of the general public, compared to 97 percent of scientists, believes that there is a consensus among scientists on who and what causes climate change.

This is the result of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long effort to create doubt about scientific findings and the scientific consensus regarding human impact on the climate.

The results of this mistrust are striking – not only are there widespread and widely believed inaccurate and pseudoscientific claims about climate change, but in some instances, these have morphed into absurd conspiracy theories. For example, some conspiracy theorists assert that the ultimate aim of the “climate change narrative” is depopulation. Viral claims have included assertions that Pope Francis endorsed euthanasia as a solution for climate change, that climate change would necessitate mandatory vaccination, or that CNN encouraged viewers to starve their pets for environmental benefit. These claims aim to undermine institutions and influential public figures, as well as discredit climate efforts by linking them with ludicrous assertions. It’s unclear whether the disinformers are aware of who benefits from their efforts.

A joint analysis by from Montenegro and FakeNews Tragač from Serbia showed that there are consistent absurd narratives, such as that climate is being used as a special weapon through concepts such as chemtrails, High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), or Directed Energy Weapon (DEW). “The narrative about secret weapons influencing climate change, or the climate in general, is dangerous due to its receptiveness. It offers simplistic explanations for various natural phenomena without overwhelming believers with complex scientific interpretations. Additionally, it is cloaked in secrecy and sensation, an alluring combination for the average media consumer. For these reasons, the spread of this harmful narrative is alarmingly rapid and effortless,” the report states.

The European Fact-Checking Standards Network (EFCSN), recognizing the issue, launched the Climate Facts Europe project, linking fact-checkers across Europe dedicated to debunking climate disinformation. Tori Zopf, a project manager at EFCSN, informed SEE Check that since the start of their work on March 21, 2024, they have documented 326 climate-related fact-checks in 25 different countries, making it the second most frequent topic in their Elections24Check database, following the Ukraine war.

“We are also seeing that many narratives cross borders. Some recent examples include that the EU is imposing extreme environmental regulations that will negatively impact citizens’ lives, that climate change is not significantly influenced by human activities, and that electric vehicles are more polluting than gasoline-powered cars,” said Zopf.

Jelena Kalinić, a Bosnian science journalist, told SEE Check that the disseminators of climate disinformation are generally “people coming from the conservative right, who are connected to the fossil fuel industry or simply people who have fallen for disinformation and believe that the narrative about climate change is there to control the population, for example, related to measures to save on heating and cooling of spaces.” 

“So, it’s either people who have a personal interest or those who do not want to give up a part of their comfort,” Kalinić said.

Manufacturing Doubt in Climate Science

“Victory will be achieved when average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science… Unless “climate change” becomes a non-issue… there may be no moment when we can declare victory,” states a portion of an internal memorandum from the American Petroleum Institute (API) dated 1998. Established in 1919, API is the oldest fossil industry association, dedicated to protecting the interests of the oil industry.

In their book “Merchants of Doubt,” published in 2011, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described the tactics that the fossil industry uses to create doubt about climate science, shift responsibility to consumers, and delay taking concrete measures to combat the effects of climate change. They were the first to point out that the fossil industry misleads the global public using the same strategy that the tobacco industry previously used successfully – and still uses today.

The strategy aimed at producing doubt involves challenging established facts and scientific insights by disseminating disinformation in the public domain. Oreskes and Conway pointed out five key steps. Initially, the industry financially supports the creation of “think tanks” that gather “scientists” skeptical of the scientific consensus. These financially influenced scientists then produce “research” that conveniently supports the interests of the industry that funds them. The findings from these scientists are used by the industry as a foundation for lobbying and propaganda efforts aimed at influencing public policies. 

Additionally, the industry organizes campaigns against scientists who attempt to present facts about the harmfulness of their products in public. Finally, lobbyists and propagandists work to convince politicians and the public that their products are harmless, and when they are ultimately compelled to acknowledge the harmful realities, they shift the narrative to claim that the industry should not be specially regulated, arguing that the responsibility for any damage lies not with the industry but with the consumers of their products.

Inspired by the strategy of doubt production used by the tobacco industry to deceive the public, Stanford University historian Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” in 1995. Today, it is a branch of sociology that studies the deliberate creation of ignorance and doubt.

Consequences of Manufacturing Doubt

The fossil industry’s tactics to delay climate action are proving to be highly successful so far. The narrative of delay involves acknowledging the existence of climate change, but justifies inaction or inadequate efforts to combat its consequences. This is confirmed by the study “THE NEW CLIMATE DENIAL: How social media platforms and content producers profit by spreading new forms of climate denial,” published in January this year by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). From 2018 to 2023, the Center for Countering Digital Hate analyzed transcripts of over 12,000 videos published on the YouTube platform on the topic of climate. The study categorizes disinformation narratives into old denial narratives, which are declining, and new denial narratives, which are increasingly widespread.

The data they provided shows a decline in the “old” disinformation narrative claiming that global warming is not happening – it dropped from 48 percent of all denial claims in 2018 to 14 percent in 2023. While other narratives are relatively stable, the largest growth, as well as the largest share among all disinformation narratives, belong to the “new” disinformation narratives claiming that climate solutions won’t work (from nine to 30 percent), and that climate movement/science is unreliable (23 to 35 percent increase).

Using the same categories, Croatian fact-checker found that from 2018 to September 2023, the most prominent disinformation narrative was that climate movement/science is unreliable, making up 44 percent of their observations. This was followed by “Human Greenhouse Gases are not causing global warming” at 18 percent, and “Climate solutions won’t work” at 17 percent. Less common were “Global warming is not happening” at eight percent, and “Climate impacts are not bad” at three percent. An additional seven percent of the sample emphasized “Overemphasis on extreme weather events.”

As in international contexts, the discourse of delay dominates. The main goal of actors promoting climate disinformation in Croatia is to undermine trust in science and the scientific community. 

Ivana Vojinović, the director of Montenegrin Center for Climate Change, told SEE Check that they get a lot of comments on their posts challenging the climate change reality. “Common to all of them is that they are profiles that share similar views and opinions on global politics, but it was particularly noticeable that the reason for spreading climate disinformation for some is inadequately or incorrectly informed views on climate changes and their causes and a lack of education about climate change, while others may have had other motives, such as political ones, and I would categorize the third group as those who simply do not trust science and research on climate,” she said. Vojinović pointed out that a comment containing disinformation typically sparks a large number of new comments on social networks. 

Tori Zopf from EFCSN told SEE Check that climate mis- and disinformation poses many risks, chief among them the potential to undermine trust in scientific conclusions and to reduce public support for climate action. This, she believes, can have far-reaching effects.

“Lack of support may ultimately hinder the EU from enacting the sweeping changes that are necessary to prevent further destruction caused by climate change. On the whole, disinformation also has the potential to undermine democratic societies and processes, especially under such conditions as foreign information manipulation and interference.”

Vojinović agrees. Considering the volume of disinformation and their engagement potential, she believes they can jeopardize the adoption of urgent measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lead to dangerous consequences.

Jelena Kalinić also highlights the issue of content promotion, noting that social networks do not permit the boosting of credible content on climate change. “Our credible content, despite being plentiful, does not reach people,” said Kalinić.

Similarly, Vujinović stresses the importance of reliable information. “In the future, we will increasingly face numerous challenges due to extremes, making it exceedingly difficult for people to understand the events around them without the right information,” she explained.

From Online Harassment to Public Discourse Erosion

The lack of trust often leads to the harassment of scientists on social media, which is also discussed in the Faktograf analysis. This harassment of scientists affects the number of academic publications and the frequency of public statements by scientists, as shown in the study “Global Hating: How online abuse of climate scientists harms climate action,” published by Global Witness in 2023. Thus, the quality of public discourse is further compromised, and disinformation more easily infiltrates the public space.

Young Bosnian meteorologist Nedim Sladić is frequently exposed to hate and insults online. In July of last year, he posted a lengthy Facebook status addressing the insults. Sladić stated that he won’t tolerate the derogatory expressions used to describe him and his colleagues, such as “foreign mercenaries, globalist poodles, Schwab’s minions, and Western puppets.” “Neither my colleagues nor I deserved that. Especially not after so much literature read, forecasts written and interpreted, and sweat spilled,” he wrote.

Activists like globally known Greta Thunberg are also popular targets. Disinformers have spread deepfake videos of Thunberg allegedly advocating for “ecological conflict” and calling for “environmentally friendly bombs.” They also manipulated a photo of her asking Putin to stop killing leopards, insinuating that she is indifferent to the plight of slaughtered Ukrainians. Furthermore, disinformers have falsely claimed she owns property worth 18 million American dollars and misattributed a statement to her defending banks, when she actually meant the opposite.

Another interesting finding from Faktograf’s study is that the same actors spreading Covid-19 misinformation are also involved in disseminating climate disinformation. In some instances, these themes overlap. For example, conspiracy theorists allege that institutions such as the UN and WHO are planning climate lockdowns, similar to those implemented during the pandemic.

Tajana Broz, the study’s author, told SEE check that Covid-19 has significantly contributed to reinforcing the belief that science should not be trusted, that the dangers of what are otherwise normal occurrences are exaggerated, and that governments are inclined to control their citizens through various measures. 

“Unfortunately, in our countries where there is also a low level of trust that governments will act in the best interests of their citizens, it is very easy to encourage them to doubt any measures that governments take, whether it be wearing masks or promoting the use of more sustainable forms of transportation or better urban planning. Disinformers recognize this well and use it to impose their narratives about what is really happening, and thereby, not so much to deny that climate change exists, but rather to prevent any action from being taken,” said Broz.

As their analysis has shown, these are some of the most common narratives related to the climate crisis, and a certain segment of the population in the post-Covid-19 era is prone to simply transfer these beliefs to the climate crisis. 

“It should be noted that disinformers also very clearly draw these parallels, as we have shown in some of the examples in our analysis,” Broz told SEE Check.

Profit Over Planet 

While the fossil industry seeks new ways to delay climate action, the vast majority of climate scientists believe we will not meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Indeed, 77 percent believe that the temperature will rise by at least 2.5°C (1, 2). Nearly half, 42 percent, believe that the average global temperature will increase by at least 3°C. Only six percent of the surveyed scientists think that global warming can be limited to 1.5°C.

As many as 60 percent of surveyed scientists believe that the world is heading towards a climate catastrophe due to a lack of political will and corporate greed. The majority of respondents believe that the technology needed to limit global warming already exists but is not being used, primarily due to lobbying by the fossil fuel industry and other major polluters. On a warming planet, profit continues to be the top priority, with the help of many “freethinkers” online, who unwittingly serve the fossil fuel industry.

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