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Climate misinformation shifts focus from denial to extreme weather events

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Sept. 27, 2020, a house burns at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif. California
Sept. 27, 2020, a house burns at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif. California   -   Copyright  Ethan Swope/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Despite years of warnings from scientists that a warming planet would result in dangerous weather conditions, researchers say there's been a shift in climate misinformation from denying climate change to focussing on extreme weather events.

An extreme snowstorm hit Texas in February 2021, knocking out power and leaving millions in a deep freeze.

But as the snow continued to fall, some looked for other reasons to explain the storm.

The conservative website The Gateway Pundit made the false claim that President Joe Biden’s energy policies somehow prevented Texas plants from generating the power the state needed and “led to Texans literally freezing to death.”

The next day, the conspiracy theory website Infowars published a similarly untrue story that was shared 70,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. Four days later, US Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, tweeted to her 100,000 followers that Biden’s energy policies were “leaving millions of Texans freezing to death”.

All those claims were false. In fact, an emergency request granted by the Biden administration gave the state authority to exceed federal environmental limits in order to provide enough power to Texans.

To climate scientists and misinformation researchers, claims like these mark an important shift: Instead of focusing on denialism, climate misinformation is getting local, focused on extreme weather events tied to a changing climate — such as the Texas storm or recent wildfires that ravaged California and Australia.

To climate scientists and misinformation researchers, claims like these mark an important shift. Climate misinformation spreaders have shifted their focus from denialism to extreme local weather events that are a result of climate change.

No longer 'credible to deny climate change'

According to The Associated Press-NORC Centre, seven out of 10 Americans say they believe climate change is happening.

“It just isn’t credible to deny climate change or the impacts it’s having. People see it with their own two eyes,” said Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann.

"There’s a shift in tactics. Now it’s softer forms of denial and efforts to diminish the impacts of climate change,” he added.

Zignal, a media intelligence firm, has found that conversations online about climate change peaked during high-profile natural disasters, including the Texas storm and the California wildfires.

“We still see claims that global warming doesn’t exist, but we also see misinformation about specific areas,” said Emmanuel Vincent, director of Science Feedback, a global network of scientists based in France who work to debunk inaccurate claims about climate change.

“A lot of the misinformation is more subtle,” he said.

Those who still dispute a connection to a changing climate are grasping for increasingly far-fetched explanations.

Following the Texas storm, some more radical conspiracy theories claimed the snow was fake or that it was the result of weather-control technology used by Biden.

As wildfires gripped the US state of California in 2020, experts said dry and hot conditions - because of global warming - were to blame. However, US Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene and others, speculated incorrectly that it might be the work of space lasers.

Facebook now has a Climate Science Information Centre that is dedicated to counteracting climate change myths. A spokesperson for the tech giant said the platform is doing more than ever to connect users with accurate information about climate change.

YouTube was called out by the US House Select Committee on the climate crisis, as a leading source for climate change misinformation and urged them to do more.

In an emailed statement, YouTube acknowledged the challenge of “drawing the lines between misinformation, political speech, legitimate debate and opinion.”

Additional sources • AP