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Climate lies ramp up ahead of crucial climate talks in Dubai

November 29, 2023

From climate-denying bots on Elon Musk's X/Twitter to Big Oil Facebook ads and right-wing news sites, an echo chamber of disinformation is set to muddy efforts to cut emissions in the UAE.

An illustration showing people speaking at lecterns emerging from smartphones
Image: Assala Chouck

"How many private planes will be heading to Dubai for COP28," wrote one user of X, formerly Twitter, on November 18. "These 1 percenters want us to believe there is a climate emergency but every month they are flying private all around the world to scold us on our behaviour."

Of the 70,000 attendees expected at the UN climate summit beginning in Dubai this week, some will indeed arrive by private jet. 

But the social media post is typical of a brand of climate mis- and disinformation — both refer to false or inaccurate information, while the latter is deliberately intended to mislead — that delegitimizes climate action, including the greenhouse gas reduction targets that need to be ratified in Dubai to limit record global heating.

"[Recent] COP meetings coincided with a surge in misinformation targeting climate solutions — specifically the argument that climate policy is economically harmful," said John Cook, a cognitive scientist, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and founder of the Skeptical Science blog that has long debunked climate misinformation. 

As one reply to the above X/Twitter post exclaimed about world leaders flying into the COP:

"It's all a scam to bleed us dry financially!"   

This narrative correlates with recent attacks on the cost of climate solutions by right-wing, fossil-fuel-friendly political parties.

Alice Weidel, the co-chairwoman of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) that is now second in national polls, claimed in July that government plans to switch home heating from gas and oil to renewable energy-powered heat pumps will "impoverish" Germans and "ruin our country." 

This is despite the fact that the cost of wind and solar energy production is already significantly lower than conventional coal and gas power, experts have said

How climate misinformation goes mainstream online  

Such talking points have been amplified on social media in the lead-up to COP28, often with the help of Big Energy advertisers. 

Researchers have revealed that fossil fuel companies paid Meta, which owns social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, up to $5.12 million (€4.68 million) for climate disinformation ads in recent months. 

Four oil and gas majors — Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and TotalEnergies — accounted for 98% of that advertising spending, noted "Deny, Deceive, Delay (Vol.3): Climate Information Integrity Ahead of COP28," a new report published by the global research coalition Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD). 

The pro-fossil fuel social media advertisements serve to reinforce — and monetize — climate disinformation generated by right-wing news websites and publications like The Daily Telegraph in the UK, The Daily Wire and Breitbart in the US, and Sky News in Australia.

On Facebook, ads surveyed included misleading green claims about Big Oil's commitment to renewable energy — despite the sector providing barely 1% of global investment in clean power, the report noted.

Ads simultaneously promoted the need to maintain the flow of oil and gas, which are among the biggest sources of planet-heating greenhouse gases that delegates in Dubai are looking to phase out.     

"We're increasing investment in lower carbon energy and keeping oil and gas flowing where it is needed," ran one Facebook ad by petroleum giant, BP. 

The content has been feeding an echo chamber of misinformation that the report said is "undermining public and political support for action" before COP28, while also centering "climate as a vector for wider conspiracy theories, scapegoating and social division."

"On the eve of COP28, the world is grappling with an environmental crisis compounded by an information crisis," said Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at UK-based NGO Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CAAD Intelligence lead. 

"2023 is set to be the hottest year on record, yet the urgent climate action we need is beset by denialism," she said of the CAAD findings.  

The study confirmed a continuing trend. In the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, fossil fuel companies and lobbying groups spent $574,000 (€526,000) on political and social issue Facebook ads alone that were viewed 22 million times, according to a studyby the UK-based think tank InfluenceMap.  

BP logo surrounded by tree branches
BP has been accused of funding misleading ads that contrast green claims with a commitment to oil and gas Image: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Social media fails to label misinformation 

Social media companies such as Facebook and TikTok have promised to label climate misinformation. 

But while there has been "incremental progress," said Callum Hood, head of research at the global nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), he added that recent analysis shows barely 50% of Facebook denial and disinformation posts carry labels. 

A 2021 CCDH study of "toxic ten" publishers of climate disinformation online shows how Google further amplifies this content, having paid out $3.6 million in ad revenue to these publishers over six months as they peddled climate denial

A face looks at Meta and Facebook logo
Much climate disinfirmation is not flagged on Facebook, despite promises to label contentImage: Rafapress/Zoonar/IMAGO

Moreover, Google has failed to systematically enforce its 2022 promise to demonetize YouTube videos that contain climate disinformation,a recent study by CAAD noted.

Former Twitter still amplifying climate denial on eve of COP28 

Meanwhile, outright climate denial is still rife on X/Twitter, where a majority of climate misinformation is marked by "an abundance of personal attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists, as well as conspiracy theories," John Cook explained.

Such theories include a response to calls to develop so-called 15-minute cities that require fewer cars, and to limit the consumption of high-emission meat products. According to the UN, livestock farming creates 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

"The climate fanatics are trying to control what we eat," read a typical post on X/Twitter that erroneously claimed that a "global elite" wants to ban meat and dairy products along with private car ownership.

"Aggressive pro-meat posts online are undermining a shift to more sustainable food and farming in Europe and North America," noted the largest-ever analysis of online meat and dairy-related misinformation released ahead of COP28.    

Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter in July 2022 and subsequently renamed it X, such climate disinformation and conspiracy posts have "nearly tripled to 110,000 tweets per week," according to a 2023 CAAD study.

The report noted that these posts tended to spike in the run-up to COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, last November, and during the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the US, which had strong climate provisions.

X/Twitter ranked last in a September CAAD report exploring how Big Tech companies are addressing climate misinformation on their social media platforms. The EU also recently labeled X/Twitter as the biggest source of online disinformation in the region.  

Twitter under Musk: Threat to activists worldwide?

Resurgence of misinformation could limit ambition in Dubai 

"Mis- and disinformation about the climate emergency are delaying urgently needed action to ensure a liveable future for the planet," the United Nation's Policy Brief for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms said in June.

Callum Hood of the Center for Countering Digital Hate — which has been sued by Elon Musk for calling out both disinformation and hate speech on his site — said, "We don't really have five years for Facebook to do something."

He said he fears that, as the planet heats up and extreme weather impacts worsen, politicians and policymakers can also succumb to a resurgence of misinformation that "will simply frustrate and delay any effective action."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.