Climate change misinformation and a new wave of civil resistance

By: francesca scott&
November 14 2022

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Climate change misinformation and a new wave of civil resistance

A new generation of climate activists are using increasingly controversial methods to alert people to climate catastrophe. But why does the truth need such high optics?

Just Stop Oil (JSO), established in April 2022, is a well-organized, high-optic, youth-led activist group that utilizes civil resistance as a form of protest. They are a step away, and a step up, from their predecessors Extinction Rebellion (XR), which, like JSO, was founded by the activist Roger Hallam. They have targeted the Metropolitan Police, high-end luxury goods retailers, the M25 motorway, and oil companies with aggressive, provocative tactics that risk prison sentences and the physical dangers involved in blocking oil tankers or scaling suspension bridges. They deem their actions a proportionate bid to force the government to stop new fossil fuel licenses and production. Throwing a can of soup over Van Gogh's Sunflowers in the British Museum is an unusual, controversial stunt. Some have even claimed it was part of a psyop, though Logically debunked this. 

Clearly, these activists are not looking to appeal to or persuade the public. Their tactics are divisive, at best; the press and public hate them. So, what inspires such a strategy? At least 97 percent of climate scientists agree our planet is doomed if we don't reduce CO2 and methane emissions. Eighty-three percent of British people surveyed in 2021 responded that they are "extremely/very/fairly worried about climate change." Surely, people should be on board, right? 

Online misinformation no longer seeks to persuade us that man-made global heating is a lie. It wants us to think hope is lost.

Logically's 2019 investigation into climate change misinformation online showed that climate change denial has evolved, splintering into several nuanced narratives. Traditional denialism is now a thing of the past. Online misinformation no longer seeks to persuade us that man-made global heating is a lie. It wants us to think hope is lost. Dr. Jacquelyn Gill, a climate scientist at the University of Maine, said: "2018 felt like a watershed moment in terms of climate discourse. A shift happened in the direction of "It's too late. Nothing can be done. Just start building the bunkers." Overcoming climate misinformation has been a huge challenge, but for Gill, there's a new problem. "We were so focused on convincing people that [climate change] was real. We have not shifted our message towards inspiring action fast enough."

These misinformation narratives include denialism relating to either the scale or the source of global heating; Great Reset and New World Order conspiracy theories; and doomerism, or defeatism. The doomerist narrative tells us that "climate change has progressed too far for human intervention to have a significant impact." Our climate report data showed a consistently high volume of social media posts expressing this belief and that "the users associated with this narrative believe strongly that climate change is a problem and will seriously affect our way of life. This is in contrast with the user base of the other narratives, who believe that climate change is a hoax, or that its effects are being exaggerated."

Gill's findings also showed that high volumes of negative media coverage on climate change sustain this narrative. For example, "A high peak occurred on September 24, 2019, which coincided with Greta Thunberg's speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit. Here the doomer narrative was popular on Reddit as well as independent blogs and forums." But what distinguished doomerism from other types of climate misinformation is that it "sparked countless articles and posts aiming to communicate that substantive action is still possible." This response is markedly different from conspiracy and denialism narratives, "whose followers are often siloed off into isolated communities, with lower overlap with academics and communicators."

So what happens when you win over the deniers, and climate change becomes a broadly accepted fact, but then the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction? "People say we reached the climate tipping point. It's game over. That's not true, but you see the conundrum, right? If you push back, you are a denier. Engaging with people who are feeling genuine despair is really hard, and a lot of those messages are spreading quickly," Gill told me.  

Inertia and Action

Negative messaging about the climate crisis is overwhelming. It causes a sense of fatalism, which produces inaction. But activists don't succumb to inertia. They join together and organize. It strikes me that there is a parallel between conspiracy theory groups and activist groups, though they are distinct in the cultures they nurture. Both comprise a community of people looking to make sense of a problem, and both find hope in the act of collaboration within the support network of their community. The difference, of course, is that climate activists base their goals on scientific facts.

Climate activist and microbiologist Dr. Abi Perrin spoke about how activism changed her perspective: "I was in a space of 'I'm just going to give up. I'm going to have a few good years and, it sounds dark but, then, end my life.’ The reason I'm not there anymore is because I'm participating in climate activism. That is an act of hope. I have conversations with people all the time that make me feel inspired, that bring hope in a world where it's very easy to have that stamped out of you." 

Perrin and a group of XR activists were recently acquitted of charges relating to a protest in response to the government releasing its energy strategy. The group glued their hands and climate science papers to the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial actions. Her statement at the time said, "I took part in this peaceful and non-destructive protest action in the hope that it would help raise the alarm about policies that exacerbate the loss, suffering, and violence already being experienced around the world." The action had a low impact in terms of disrupting people's lives, but it made front-page news. Disruptive climate protestors aren't seeking to persuade people who already agree with the facts; they seek to gain attention and inspire hope for the survival of our planet. After all, as Doestoevsky said, "To live without hope is to cease to live."

Method or Madness

"I’ve never heard anyone say, 'We want to cause maximum irritation. It's not about trying to alienate people or trying to push people away. I think it's brought on by desperation." Perrin tells me. Modest protests and government-approved Saturday afternoon marches do not garner anywhere near as much media attention. Activists like Perrin are well-versed in what is and isn't effective: "We collaborate with a group of doctors, and a lot of those actions are very thoughtful and moving. They get no traction, no press, and nothing changes as a result." She argues that civil resistance is the only recourse left to dominate headlines and get people thinking and talking about climate change. 

From Gill's perspective, "a lot of activists are exercising their very understandable rage, anger, and frustration at, not just inaction from leadership, but collusion." The unsympathetic part of JSO is that, though they target symbols of wealth and fossil fuel companies, they also attack much loved cultural artifacts and cause havoc to working people's lives with roadblocks. "I think it's better to focus on the levers of power. The painting did not contribute to climate change. There was a really famous example of someone who was blocked on the highway and was going to miss his parole meeting. That's something we should be in solidarity with," says Gill. She believes we should look to past examples of successful movements in a way that links political and social issues with climate justice. Perhaps combining climate change with issues people are active and concerned about will counter inertia. "Find that common ground. How are our labor rights a climate issue? How are our reproductive rights a climate issue? Climate is an everything issue, so let's start acting like it and stop expecting people to have to put aside all their other concerns." 

In recent days, a JSO spokesperson drew comparisons to the suffragette movement: "The suffragettes slashed paintings and quite violently destroyed them, while we're just throwing soup at a glass pane but still trying to get the message across in the same way and make people question their own comfort zones." High-optic, disruptive tactics are far from new. In the past, they have been instrumental in gaining traction for protest movements. Nowadays, research tells us that disruptive protests don't negatively affect support for climate policies. Throwing soup at a painting is not going to slow climate change. But it is a visceral demonstration of individual power. In a culture of climate change misinformation and inertia, that action can be seen as a radical act of hope. As Perrin says, "Even if you did something that's deeply, deeply unpopular, it doesn't have to be liked to be effective."

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before