Deliberate climate misinformation is delaying climate action: we need new funding models to combat it


Harriet Kingaby


According to a 2022 report by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), between 55 per cent and 85 per cent of people in surveyed countries believe some form of climate misinformation. The predictable result of deliberate misinformation campaigns: well-funded actors, exploiting advertising techniques, are actively seeding doubt and denial over climate science and solutions. In democratic countries, where popular support informs government policy, this is a major barrier to climate action. 

A sign at a student protest in Melbourne, Australia. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Often, the misinformation is not outright denial that climate change is happening. Instead, it is touted as ‘scepticism’, casting doubt on the severity of predicted climate impacts, or the viability and consequences of climate solutions. Delay narratives and outright disinformation now accompany most climate-related events, from extreme weather to COPs, and are transported via the press, politicians and social media to the eyes and ears of millions.

This isn’t surprising or new: the International Panel on Climate Change has referenced the growth of climate misinformation over the last few years, and how this continues to challenge elective climate policy. But with the window of opportunity to meet the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal vanishing rapidly, every moment of delay costs lives and represents a win for vested interests who oppose meaningful action.

So, what can be done? 

Civil society organisations are already coordinating to resist the spread of climate misinformation. Some are pushing for greater enforcement of journalistic or advertising standards in print and broadcast media to restrict false claims and ‘greenwashing’. Others are calling for new legislation to counteract dangerous misinformation online

It is important and necessary work. However, change can be slow, and once people have been exposed to misinformation and persuaded by it, it is harder to eliminate its influence and persuade them otherwise. Climate sceptics are already targeting particular groups – older men, working-class communities and rural communities for example – often using advertising tools to reach those that are most vulnerable. 

At ACT Climate Labs, we are testing ways of supercharging the effectiveness of climate communications. This includes how to ‘inoculate’ people against climate misinformation – to foster greater resilience against false claims they subsequently hear.

The vast majority of people are neither climate activists nor climate deniers: they believe that climate change is real but don’t necessarily accept the need to act urgently. We call this group the ‘Persuadables’ and they make up over two thirds of the UK population. As they are ‘persuadable’, they are particularly susceptible to climate misinformation. But they are also open to pro-climate action messaging when framed in ways that make sense to them.

This majority is critical for popular and political support for climate action. 

Unfortunately, most of the climate movement currently talks to its bread-and-butter audiences -– the young, white, well-to-do, and typically women. The stories we tell lean into the activist narrative that focuses on the threat of climate change or the moral imperative to act. 

This is off-putting for Persuadables, for whom climate change is not a great motivator, and who are being slowly made more sceptical due to confusion, a hostile press, and a lack of people who look and sound like them talking about the issue. 

This is where philanthropy can play a significant role. Climate funders can create a widespread shift in how we communicate on climate. Critically, we need these campaigns to scale and become more effective at reaching new audiences. 

Changing the frame is critical. We need to discuss climate in a way that resonates with Persuadables: moving away from the global, and focusing on how they, their families, and their local area can benefit from climate action; using health, jobs or community frames that centre how action answers human need. We also need to use new spokespeople which aren’t your typical climate activist, who can resonate with older, working-class, male and non-white audiences.

Communicators also need to employ more diverse communications channels. Philanthropists can and should work with groups who are trusted by the Persuadables in totally different areas – in sports and recreational spaces, or cultural centres like museums or theatres, for example – to talk about climate solutions that relate to them.

Advertising is another highly effective channel that philanthropists should support. There’s a perception that it can be hugely expensive, but we’ve found even small amounts of money can be effective in reaching and persuading hard-to-reach groups.

We worked with a British electrician influencer to talk about how green technologies could bring his sector more work. Spending £8,000 in total – £3,000 on video production, and £5,000 on paid promotion on Instagram and TikTok, delivered 2.4 million video views and 28,000 clickthroughs to a site where electricians could sign up to training courses. All of this from one of our most hard to reach groups – tradesmen over 40. 

Of course, larger budgets can deliver even bigger and better results. We worked on a campaign to promote how a green industrial revolution could bring jobs and skills to the West Midlands. An investment of £250,000 in media spent across a mixture of out of home (such as billboard), social media and print media adverts reached 5 million people around 750,000 people. 

Crucially, the ads changed what people thought about climate change and helped inoculate them against misinformation. Among those that saw the ads, 11 per cent fewer said that ‘doing something about climate change will not benefit me at all’, and people’s confidence in spotting climate misinformation increased by four per cent. 

This mirrors results we’re seeing from partners in the USA and beyond. 

Of course, there have also been failures. Paid promotion on Facebook, for example, optimises campaigns for engagement, which makes it useful when commenters agree with you, but can risk fanning the flames to discussions about climate denial and delay when they don’t. We’ve set out a series of recommendations for how NGOs can best reach their Persuadables in our new report.

We have a narrowing window to put the world on a different track, towards a low-emissions future. Without actively inoculating against climate misinformation, delaying tactics and narratives will prevail. 

Philanthropy and climate funders are well placed to lead the inoculation charge, because of their resources and connections with different groups across, and ability to reach beyond the climate movement. That means using a wider range of frames, spokespeople and channels to ensure positive messages about tackling climate change reach everyone, not just the relatively small group already committed to climate action. 

Harriet Kingaby leads ACT Climate Labs at Media Bounty and is an expert in climate communication and misinformation. She was recently featured by the UN Climate communications team at COP27.

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