I’ve been thinking a lot about Climate disinformation and delayism. Conveniently, around the time I was reading Deny, Deceive, Delay, my father told me about a conversation he had been having with someone who was sceptical of the value of addressing the Climate emergency. Here’s the body of the email:
Have you also considered this view?
I find it quite compelling but wonder if I am alone in this?
So what is this graph, and why do they find it compelling and why does this even matter?
The paper in question was authored by Bjørn Lomborg and is a cost-benefit analysis of the value of addressing various different aspects of the UN SDGs for use in deciding how money should be invested in the SDGs.
Lomborg is a Danish author and has an MA and PhD in political sciences. His academic work was initially in statistics and areas like voting systems, but in around 1998 his focus changed to climate science where he would continue to use statistics to downplay the severity of the climate crisis. It’s worth noting that he has no academic background in any natural sciences.
Since then, he has grown to be one of the world’s most respected climate sceptics and has been listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people and was among the 50 people who could save the planet. He shares the 2004 TIME 100 most influential people list with favourites such as Kim Jong Il, Vladimir Putin, and a number of legitimately impressive scientific figures. The Guardian list was from 2008. There are not any accomplishments of this vein from after 2011.
Lomborg has led not one, but two climate sceptic think tanks (Copenhagen Consensus Center and Denmark’s Environmental Assessment Institute). Lomborg was initially appointed by then prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2002 to run Denmark’s EAI, but dropped out after a couple years to return to academics. However, he dropped out not before creating the Copenhagen Consensus, which he became director of in 2006. In 2012, Denmark pulled its funding so Lomborg moved the centre to the US where he set up the Copenhagen Consensus Centre as a non-profit. In 2012 he was paid $775,000. He took “only” $200,484 in 2013. Since Denmark got rid of the the Copenhagen Consensus, Lomborg has been without a proper academic base. He has tried and failed multiple times to set up an Australia Consensus Centre in Australian universities despite $4m (Australian) in funding allocated in the Australian budget to him. In 2015, the Australian education minister announced that his funding had been withdrawn. In 2020 Lomborg found a place in another conservative think tank, as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Lomborg’s views on Climate Change are more nuanced than most Climate sceptics and this allows him to gain more traction among more intellectual people (mostly economists). He says that Climate Change is real and human-caused, but he thinks that the seriousness of it is greatly overstated and that it would cost too much to reduce emissions and that we wouldn’t succeed if we tried.
Here’s the thing: Lomborg has some sensible opinions, and is perhaps even saying some things which could do with being heard more, like that we should not try and stop developing countries from having access to cheap fossil fuels (to be clear, we should try and invest in renewables in them so that those are less necessary but we have to understand that a lot of our carbon budget should be allocated to developing countries, an idea which policymakers in the global north are not particularly comfortable with). The biggest problem Lomborg has is not really his scientific process in the studies he conducts, but how he uses that data to construct arguments that don’t make sense. This is how he gets papers published in well-known journals and maintains a guise of academic rigor.
Lomborg’s most well-known book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, drew some criticism from the scientific community. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty accused him of scientific dishonesty and concluded that Lomborg was not qualified to write Climate Science. Australia’s independent Climate Council says that Lomborg fundamentally misunderstands Climate science and criticises him of having no credibility in the scientific community - since he is not willing to change his mind as new information becomes available (you know, that fundamental pillar of science).
Enough ad hominem
Climate Feedback, a “worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction” has responded to a number of articles Lomborg has written, which is good because after all the criticism I’ve pointed out, if what he actually writes is sensible, I would be in a bit of a squish.
Despite repeated claims that he wishes for more balanced Climate reporting, Lomborg consistently releases biased, dishonest, and unsupported articles about the positive impacts of Climate Change.
Pierre Friedlingstein, a professor at the University of Exeter, responds to Lomborg’s repeated calls to “look at all the available information” by asking him to do this himself saying that this is “true but the author should set the example and have a balanced view here,… [s]omething he dramatically failed to do.” In another article Lomborg is accused (most quotes are from different scientists, see references for the websites) of “using cherry-picked data that may be compelling in isolation, but belies a firm grasp of the science”. Lomborg repeatedly misinterprets studies and their author’s conclusions and uses data that doesn’t support his claims (perhaps this is because there is practically none that does!). For example, in his article where he claims “global warming saves 166,000 lives each year” his interpretation of a study is in fact “a misinterpretation of a study and interpretation of data that doesn’t support such a conclusion.” In another article he is accused of “using the very flawed reasoning he is condemning others of.” I could go on!
In general, Climate Feedback gives his very low scores in terms of scientific credibility. The quoted articles getting -1.2 “low”, -1.5 “very low”, and (no numerical score here) “UNSUPPORTED” (equivalent to low). Bob Ward from Grantham Research Institute found Lomborg’s book False Alarm to be “based on fantastical numbers that have little or no credibility”.
It’s clear that Lomborg is intelligent and academic, and this is one of his most concerning traits because it makes it very difficult to explain his work other than intentionally delaying action on Climate Change!
Deny, Deceive, Delay
Zooming out from the specific example of Bjørn Lomborg, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and CASM Technology produced a report on Climate mis- and disinformation around and after COP26. The ISD has previously published work about many different areas of disinformation, extremism, and hate.
Deny, Deceive, Delay is a report about mis- and disinformation in a similar vein to other work the ISD does, but this time focusing specifically on Climate mis- and disinformation. Climate disinformation is a huge issue, because sometimes it persuades people, and traditional media feels a pressure to appear “balanced” by featuring climate sceptic points of view. This report (of which I have only read the executive summary) walks us through the ways Climate mis- and disinformation causes disproportionate problems and through the most important next steps policymakers and corporations can take to combat these.
In general, the public strongly believes in Climate Change and wants more action than what we’re currently seeing. That alongside with the IPCC’s clear warnings of the future and the goals of the Paris Agreement, make attempts to delay action potentially damaging and just as problematic as previous efforts to deny the very existence of Global Warming.
Despite a near-global consensus, mis- and disinformation on social media repeatedly outperforms verified content, in one case with a ridiculous ratio of 92,000 interactions relative to 7,500 on verified posts (promoted by the platform itself!). Merely 16 accounts (Our favourite - Lomborg - is on this list!) garnered 507,000 interactions from 25 October to 21 November 2021. Most of these accounts are spreading other forms of mis- or disinformation too, such as QAnon and anti-vaxx crap. Despite all this, there is “little evidence of any enforcement against known disinformers” and on top of this, coverage across other media outlets (radio, print, broadcast) “continues to amplify and legitimise climate-sceptic views”. On social media, these views are in an intense echo chamber which is concentrated on 5% of users. All of this together turns Climate scepticism from a useful check to ensure scientific rigor, to a totally unsupported series of claims with broad enough reach to appear worth considering.
One key idea in combatting this is freedom of speech vs. freedom of reach. Everyone has a right to freedom of speech, but accounts spreading verified lies shouldn’t have disproportionate reach because they make people angry or appeal to an “algorithm” in some way. (When thinking about algorithms always remember that one of the most important ideas in machine learning is that what the algorithm does is your fault. You cannot simply blame it on the algorithm.) Here are some more concrete next steps:
- For policymakers, it’s key to alleviate the burden from corporations of deciding what is or isn’t (climate) mis- and disinformation and to ensure that there aren’t any loopholes in their legislation for the media.
- For corporations, the first step might be to simply start enforcing current policies about repeat offender accounts. They could also improve transparency to facilitate further research and restricting advertising from fossil fuel companies and front groups.
Twitter and TikTok are yet to even acknowledge that Climate mis- and disinformation is a problem, and Meta won’t go any further than that acknowledgement. Google and Pintrest have specific policies on Climate mis- and disinformation but don’t enforce punishments (or at least don’t explain what those are or act on them).
Read and references
The Conversation article
Response to claim that Climate Change is saving lives
Response to “About Those Non-Disappearing Pacific Islands”
Response to “in many ways global warming will be a good thing”
Drilled: The “Culture War” Embraces Climate
Three centuries ago Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” How prophetic this turned out to be. A recent analysis by MIT shows that on Twitter lies spread on average six times faster than truth, and that truth never reaches the same level of penetration. Social media is an engine for the production and dissemination of lies. - Christiana Figueres in The Future We Choose
Thanks for reading! I know this is a little short - there was some extra work I wanted to put into Lomborg’s section but I couldn’t find the time to read any of his papers myself.
Still, it feels good to get back to writing these! Sustainability society is going to be up to a lot this year. Please join us if you’re interested in learning more about Climate Change and/or working to combat it! Email me or AIC or find us at the Societies Fair this Sunday.
See you next edition,