By Eleni Mann
Climate denial is commonly defined as the unwillingness to believe in existing scientific evidence. This suggests a will to dispute and deny acknowledgement of the facts, despite having access to and knowledge of them.
For me, as an earth sciences student, climate change is an undisputed fact. The past three years of my degree has centred around the Earth’s past, present, and future, and the changes the climate is currently facing. The reasons people deny the climate crisis, or more specifically, that we are accelerating the Earth’s natural climate cycles, are completely alien to me.
The motivations behind climate denial are varied, whether they be personal, political, or economic. Psychologists identified that the main barrier to climate change acceptance is discredence, that is, the distrusting, dismissal, and denial of information surrounding the climate change crisis.
Donald Trump’s presidency started a discourse surrounding the intrinsic links between climate change denial and a person’s political persuasion; generally, liberals align with views that accept climate change, whereas conservatives are more likely to take the opposite stance.
It was made clear in his presidential campaigns that Trump was sceptical of the current concerns surrounding climate change. He outwardly supported the coal industry, opposed environmental regulation, and his withdrawal from the Paris Treaty exemplified how steadfast he was on making his vision, of an energised US with thriving coal and oil production, a reality.
However, Trump was not in denial about climate change – in fact, he readily recognised it in his speech about the Paris Treaty. In acknowledging the climate crisis, a shift occurred within the conservative support of Trump. Those loyal followers who closely affiliated with Trump’s persona shifted their focuses from climate change denial to acceptance; those who denied all knowledge of climate change before Trump, distanced themselves from him.
As political views polarise, people’s need to associate with a singular ideological group grows. It follows that people’s opinions surrounding climate change are more strongly influenced by their need to follow the status quo of a particular political ideology, rather than opinions formed by the individual’s own knowledge and personal experience.
Polarisation of political views has often been linked to the rise of social media. We are more likely to accept new information that reinforces our existing views, and therefore people often want to communicate with others that share their beliefs. This increasingly exposes us to a narrower set of beliefs that align more with our own personal principles and politics.
It is easy to forget that not everyone has access to the information we, as university students, do. If desired, I could cross-reference an absurd sounding tweet with a paper off ScienceDirect, or search through my lecture notes to double-check that Facebook post that sounds just not quite right. Often, the opportunity to learn how to critically assess information is reserved for those of us privileged enough to receive a university education.
With last year’s COP26, the buzz surrounding discussions about climate change has grown. The Real Facebook Oversight Board found that within more than 195 Facebook groups, climate denial posts have thus far received up to 1.3 million views. Climate misinformation was viewed an estimated 25 million times in the US within just 60 days, causing Facebook to (once again) come under scrutiny for their lax misinformation regulations.
However, the average social media users reposting climate denial propaganda are but the lowest level in the network of actors financing, producing, and amplifying misinformation spread by those with influence.
Politically-charged news outlets running through social media platforms like Facebook have the monopoly over climate change denial content. Breitbart, a far-right news and commentary platform is one of 10 publishers responsible for 69% of climate denial content on Facebook, and aligns itself with other members of the ‘Toxic Ten’ who have ties to fossil fuel giants.
Exxonmobil often throws around rhetoric describing the alleged ‘risk’ of climate change, but has never outlined how they define the phrase. In doing this, major polluting companies are able to hide behind this ambiguity, never actually acknowledging the climate crisis as a reality and instead downplaying the severity.
Sea level rise and extreme weather patterns aren’t just risks, they’re facts, and this ‘risk’ rhetoric presented by Exxonmobil and its competitors undermines the efforts of credible climate scientists who are fighting the very real risk of climate change.
The importance of open discussion surrounding climate change cannot be downplayed. These conversations need to occur, and social media provides the perfect vessel to do this. However, misinformation propagated through these platforms needs to be combatted, so people are able to formulate their own opinions using trusted, reliable sources.
It’s never been more important for social media to be used for good, encouraging healthy discussion, and helping to unite the human race against climate change.
Image: Thomas Tomlinson