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Climate Change

Climate Misinformation Is On The Rise — Can We “Reduce The Binary?”

I was talking to a friend who was visiting from the US northeast. She told me about her opposition to an offshore wind project near her home, as she didn’t want to suffer headaches as a result of the turbine blades rotating. While wind turbines do produce sound pressure, if the frequency is at or below the threshold of human perception and the sound pressure level is low at area residences, there is little or no exposure to cause human health problems. I explained to my friend that her concerns had been first raised about a decade ago, but had since been refuted. Yet such climate misinformation persists, and with it comes continued community suspicions about renewable energy.

A 2021 Department of Energy study found that setback regulations now represent the single-greatest barrier to securing locations for wind projects in the US. Why do so many local people — who are confronted with ever-worsening climate impacts — fail to actively engage in trying to create change to tackle it? What role does climate misinformation have in the recurring malaise over the transition to renewable energy?

Real barriers to citizen engagement and effective climate action exist. Misinformation campaigns, backed by what Common Dreams calls “well-funded actors, exploiting marketing techniques, and networks of power,” are actively seeding doubt and denial over climate science and solutions. The expert and authoritative International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of leading scientists from all over the world, has warned that the spread of climate misinformation threatens effective climate policy. Addressing climate risks has been made more urgent by delays due to misinformation about climate science that has sowed uncertainty and impeded recognition of risk, they say. A representative from the UN says climate action is being “undermined by bad actors seeking to deflect, distract, and deny efforts to save the planet. Disinformation, spread via social media, is their weapon of choice.”

The Climate Action against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition is working to shatter the illusion of climate mythology.

CAAD is a comprised of 50+ organizations that are committed to addressing one of the largest barriers to addressing climate change: misleading and false content that perpetuates false narratives on our environment and dilutes productive conversations on the climate. They advocate for the development of a clear plan for action against climate misinformation and disinformation that extend to content, algorithms, and advertising.

For example, Facebook is one of the biggest drivers of misleading content about renewable energy.

Often the misinformation isn’t about denying climate change but, rather, casting doubt on its solutions. Climate misinformation and greenwashing are meant to delay effective climate action. To make sense of the climate divide and to try to weed out the misinformation, we might adhere to some of the concepts offered by Amanda Ripley in High Conflict:

  • Participants in the conflict, she suggests, need to “investigate the understory” that made them so invested in the first place.
  • They should “reduce the binary,” recognizing that they may share more values and interests with their adversaries than they realize.
  • They must “marginalize the fire starters,” ceasing to listen to those who seem to get a thrill out of the fight.
  • They should “buy time and make space,” stopping themselves from escalating when they feel triggered.
  • Most important, they need to “complicate the narrative,” recognizing that any story in which one side consists of pure heroes and the other of cartoonish villains is unlikely to be altogether accurate.

How would we apply Ripley’s principles to today’s pervasive climate misinformation campaigns? Let’s think it overvas we learn next about a prominent and well-funded climate misinformation organization.

Climate Misinformation About Solar

Citizens for Responsible Solar is part of a growing backlash against renewable energy in rural communities across the US. NPR has reported that some of the most powerful people in conservative politics helped to set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. Their website lists “5 things you should know about solar.

  • Industrial-scale solar power plants on rural land negatively impact our ecosystem and contribute to climate change.
  • Industrial-scale solar development is driven by Big Tech demand and subsidized federal tax credits.
  • Solar energy produces large amounts of toxic waste.
  • Solar energy is unreliable.
  • Solar energy is NOT clean or free from CO2 emissions.

You know, they say that, when you lie, you should include a kernel of truth to make the lie believable. Is there a hint of truth in those 5 solar tidbits? Maybe. A small element of each point is accurate. For example, cutting down huge swaths of trees is bad for ecosystems. Yes, tax credits are available for solar installations. When solar panels, which typically have a lifespan of more than 25 years, reach the end of their lives and become a waste stream, they must be managed safely, according to the US EPA.

But so much of Citizens For Responsible Solar’s argumentation is hyperbole at best and mis(dis?)information at worst. They say “solar plants require 100% back up all the time by fossil fuels.” This is an extension of a truth, a way to hold back solar as a carbon sink and prairie preserver, among other attributes. Solar energy is reliable — if stored for off hours when it’s not available.

Citizens for Responsible Solar cites Ron Heiniger, a crop and soil scientist who works at the NC State Cooperative Extension Service. “We really don’t recognize how fragile our agriculture system is. Today it’s under stress,” mostly from low prices, and to some degree due to young people abandoning the farming life of their fathers, he explains. The farming way of life is in jeopardy, but it’s not from solar farms — it’s from massive corporate agriculture and individuals’ poor farming practices.

Solar farms and agriculture, in fact, make for good companions.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes food and agriculture funding that explicitly extends support for organic producers and those transitioning to organic farming within the Conservation Stewardship Program through 2031. It helps farmers defray costs for implementing practices like cover crops to keep soil and fertilizer in place over the winter, buffer strips that prevent severe soil erosion from storms, and hedgerows as habitat for wild bees and other beneficial insects.

Renewables Need a Backup of Fossil Fuels

The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) (love the name, wonder about the ‘independent’ part) says that, “While climate activists would like us to ‘move beyond’ traditional energy sources like natural gas, it’s important to remember that we can’t abandon these sources if we want to keep the lights on.” The statement is accurate if it refers to the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. However, the goal for zero emissions at 2030 is to have adequate battery storage for the times when renewables aren’t available — like solar at night.

Renewable energy has its place in our energy mix, the IWF allows, but we would be better served if we pursued realistic clean energy alternatives, including nuclear power and using carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions produced by natural gas. A major environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Carbon capture has been identified as a type of greenwashing that furthers the production of fossil fuels.

Whenever we hear such climate misinformation, we need to respond with calm and cogent responses that represents the reality of the climate crisis. Whenever we can frame our ideas with personal stories, we build the case for climate action. Our friends and colleagues want to preserve the world for the generations that follow them — and we can help them to strengthen their resilience against false climate claims.

We can replace the lies with facts. We can encourage everyone to stop and think and judge the veracity of the information in front of them. We can ask that everyone pauses before they send online information and check its veracity. We can inspire trust in our digital commons anew by establishing a global code of conduct of integrity in public information.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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