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Livestream Report - Climate Change, crossroad between fake news and science truth

Climate Change Denial


At the end of March 2019, the EP Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and the Committee on Petitions (PETI) held a joint public hearing n the context of the ongoing confrontation between deniers and scientists: Is Climate Change real? Is it a partisan view? What role do humans play in the planet’s condition?


Why a hearing concerning climate change denial?

The climate change is one of the most discussed challenges of our century: it has involved a wide audience, from the show business (e.g. Leonardo Di Caprio) and young activists (e.g. Greta Thunberg), not only scientists and politicians.

Although the scientific community has no doubt, the several studies carried out, the effects are clearly visible on a daily basis and there is overwhelming evidence, a lot of people believe that climate change does not exist or that its catastrophic effects are overestimated.

Recently, denial assumptions worn down, but the main question, the unpleasant one, remains the same: is man responsible for climate change?

The aim of the hearing was to deepen on the climate change denial from different perspectives and to examine the communication techniques used in politics and by private companies to mislead the public about the negative impact of certain industrial activities and policies on the climate.

Ms Adina-Ioana VĂLEAN, Chair of the ENVI Committee in the opening speech immediately got into the matter of the debate: “tackling climate change is a focus of the Committee ENVI activities … we should help citizens to be aware of climate change science”.


A Climate change denial overview

Climate Change denial was born in the 90s of the 1900 in the United States, with the Global Climate Coalition, formed by oil companies, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. For a long time, scientists from different fields (e.g. cognitive scientists, social psychologists and neuro-economists) have been asking about the reasons behind the climate change denial. On the one hand, the real motivaton is pure economic interest: on the other one, there is a connection with the perception of threat in the human brain. as climate change does not immediately trigger a “state of alarm”, it appears temporally and spatially far and without immediate effects on the environment.

On media and in the political field, climate denial has been widespread for years and, on a smaller scale, among scientists that support this theory (despite some exceptions).

A similar negative strategy - in general called “the tobacco strategy” - has been frequently adopted, for instance in the asbesto case, acid rains and the ozone hole, as well as for the health damage, such as passive smoking and vaccination.

Defining the main actors of climate change denial, Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, Vice-Chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said “we cannot longer speak about “climate skeptics” - distancing ourselves from the skepticism at the root of the scientific method - or about “climate-deniers” - distancing themselves from people who deny the Holocaust- but he proposed to use the term “climate confusers”.

The roles of Humans, Science and Politics

In a recent analysis (collected in a study by the Department of Energy of the United States DOE and Earth Networks - last March 2019), we can see that current data about the increasing of the CO2 concentration coincide with the forecast data of some scientific analyses, carried out 30 years ago (Broecker, 1975).

“We used the atmosphere as a large free trash bin for our greenhouse gases” said Van Ypersele during the hearing and he drew attention to the crucial role that human activities play in climate change, with a cause-and-effect combination.

As presented in the reports of the first IPCC working group, emissions related to human activities increase the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and, with a good approximation, the temperature will increase by about 3°C and the sea level will rise on average between 60 cm and 1 m: climate and weather extreme episodes will be more and more frequent and intensive.

Institutions such as IPCC have been set up to link scientists to politicians for providing them with some objective information on the causes of climate change, potential environmental and social impacts and possible options in response to climate change (e.g. adaptation and mitigation actions).

Although people have the capacity to build a sustainable and resilient future, there are various conflicting views: on the one hand there are climate-confusers ideally close to oil lobbyists, on the other hand there is the legislators’ responsibility concerning the behaviour adopted for implementing an economic adjustment based on the decarbonisation.

The recent study “Convenient Truths”- presented in the hearing by Alexander Carius (CEO of ADELPHI) - proposes a mapping of ideologies on climate issues in a particular group of political parties in Europe (Adelphi 2019 - study based on an analysis of 21 official political party programmes, statements from party leaders, spokespersons, press releases, and other new sources). The study estimates that the climate-confusers are mostly from populist parties which could obtain more than 150 seats in the next European Parliament elections, probably increasing the negative influence on the vote on climate and energy international policies.

In European politics, politicians take three types of different attitudes towards climate science:

  • someone remains skeptical/denialist, rejecting the theory of climate change and the human influence;
  • disengaged/cautious parties do not take a clear position and analyse the problem very carefully, sometimes opposing climate policies at national and international level;
  • affirmative parties still recognise the danger and the existence of climate change, its link with human activities and support Europe in climate and energy policies.

The arguments put forward by skeptics focus on an uncertain explanation of the causes of climate change and doubt the anthropogenic impact, also highlighting the positive aspects of CO2 in plant growth.

On the contrary, politicians with a more cautious attitude compare facts with ideologies: despite of the consensus given to science, they consider climate change as a geological event that has already occurred and the climate change theory as a conspiracy where data is manipulated by economic interests. However, they fully recognise the global role on emissions and the need for reduction strategies, starting from states where these strategies have a less onerous impact.

The last analysed group supports multilateral climate actions and they recognise the importance of “energy and climate package”, although they are looking at the impact of this progressive policy on its economy, exspecially at a national level.


Denial between myths and facts

Denialistic arguments often propose catch-phrases using “weather and climate” notions, sometimes misused as synonyms. Moreover, among the main denialistic assumptions, a topic that currently creates much debate is the high cost of climate policies and their secondary priority over other issues perceived as more “essential” (e.g. the fight against poverty, disease and hunger). Actually, a cost-benefit analysis shows that the problem of the mitigation action cost is mostly a political problem, than economic one. Although there are several social accompanying and compensating measures for the most negative effects, climate policies are often perceived as a damage to social justice, increasing energy prices with unfair effects on the poorest populations. Recently, words such as “global warming, extreme events and climate change” have been mentioned in many discussions and debates that take place on social networks.


Global warming: a social debate between information and disinformation

“Recently, social media have become the dominant form of public debate and have a great influence on public opinion”, as stated in an interview Bill Rand, co-author of the article “Characterising climate change discourse on social media during extreme weather events” and associate professor of marketing at the Poole College of Management of NC State. Indeed, the ‘online debate’ has an increasing influence and it is necessary to understandhow much the audience participates to the discussion. An increased attention is being given to media communication in political and economical terms, from facts to fake news.

In this regard, a very interesting case was the protest letter presented recently by some US public bodies to the “GAFA” big companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) in order to emphasize their responsibility about the no-vax movement (against vaccination). In response on that, these companies have decided to remove anti-vaccination documentaries.

The other main discussion point concerns the possibility by the European Parliament of taking measures to contain media climate disinformation, while misinformation about climate change is not a breach of the European law. An example is the Freedom of Information Law in the United States which allows free access to data used in the law causes where people deny climate change.


The importance of communicating climate science with communication campaigns

Thus it is necessary to create a good communication on climate science. A winning coalition is certainly the one that connects scientists, students and media to influence politics and brings real news, far from the “ever-presented” fake news.  Dr. Van Ypersele, during the hearing, reports as a virtuous example the Greta Thunberg movement “Friday for future”.

Communication campaigns have a crucial role: billions are used to finance the denial and distrust the public opinion about the climate science (a similar case was the campaign in favour of the Brexit).

As highlighted by Georgi Stefanov (Chief climate and energy expert, “Climate Change and Green Economy” manager programme manager, WWF Bulgaria), campaigns attract a wide audience, “trying to make the impossible possible and generating a critical mass sufficient to promote a change from the business as usual”.

Especially the fight against climate change may be carried out as a strategic campaign that promotes mechanisms of action and stimulates public motivation. It is an important communication strategy at European level where we are investing to “transform everything into action”, in line with the slogan used by many European NGOs “think global and act locally”.


Federica Milioni

Europe Direct Emilia Romagna