Climate Inaction and Disinformation

On Jan. 6, 2022, the Cathance River Education Alliance and Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust hosted a program on Climate Inaction and Disinformation as part of their Taking Action on Climate series. Highlights of the program are summarized below and you can watch the presentation HERE. You can also find resources to learn more and get involved below.

This session focused on climate disinformation because of the significant role it has played in delaying meaningful action to address climate change. Our guests were Peter Dugas, a Portland-based citizen activist who co-chairs the Portland chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby – a national nonpartisan advocacy organization working to enact federal policies to address climate change, and Dan Stone, an Associate Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College whose research explores belief formation, political media, and affective polarization.

Highlights from this session:

  • Corporate disinformation campaigns are not new. Past examples include the Keep America Beautiful ‘anti-litter’ campaign, conceived by the beverage industry to stave off bottle bill laws that would hold them responsible for recycling the millions of bottles they sold annually. This tactic of shifting responsibility from the industry (the bottle maker) to the individual (the ‘litterer’) was recycled by the fossil fuel industry. It promoted the concept of the personal carbon footprint, shifting responsibility from the carbon-polluting industry to the individual, implying individuals need to reduce their personal fossil fuel use.
  • The primary disinformation tactics are:
    • denial – climate change is a hoax or isn’t a problem
    • distraction – ‘pay attention to this instead of climate change’
    • deflection – diverting attention from regulatory reforms
    • disinformation – spreading untruths
    • hopelessness- doomism, there’s nothing we can do
    • wedge driving – exaggerate differences of opinion
  • Action is needed at all levels but changes to national policy, such as establishing a national price on carbon (carbon fee), would achieve the most immediate reductions in carbon.
  •  Disinformation campaigns are effective for many reasons.
    • We’re wired to believe rather than disbelieve.
    • Once we have a belief, we tend to stick to it.
    • Confirmation bias – we pay attention to information that confirms our closely-held beliefs (and assume its true) and ignore or discount information that challenges them.
    • We tend to think in Yes/No categories, rather than degrees of uncertainty (e.g. 70/30).
    • Status quo bias – if there’s any uncertainty, we tend to stick to our currently held belief.
    • Motivated reasoning – we look for and focus on benefits of climate change (e.g. warmer winters).
    • Past environmental crises that were solved (e.g population, ozone, acid rain) are pointed to as examples of environmental problems that were overblown.
    • Affective polarization (emotional polarization) may have the biggest impact. In recent decades, we’ve grown to dislike or feel hostile toward people with whom we disagree and we tend not to believe people whom we don’t like.
  • Disinformation is willful and intentional spreading of untruths with the intent to deceive. Misinformation is passing along information not knowing it is false or inaccurate. Be cautious about judging people who share inaccurate information – they may not be aware it is disinformation.
  • Suggestions for combating disinformation and talking to people who have different beliefs
    • Find common ground and shared values FIRST (e.g. similar faith background, love of the natural world).
    • Don’t give in to an initial emotional response.
    • Make people feel that they have been heard.
    • Ask what people’s sources are and offer alternative sources.
    • Maintain respect and understand that they have reasons for holding their beliefs.
    • Acknowledge that you have your own biases. Explain that your beliefs come from a place of fear.
    • Storytelling often resonates more with people than data and graphs.

Resources shared during and prior to this session:


Get started by taking one or more of these suggested actions, then build from there:

  • Talk to a friend or family member about something you learned in this session.
  • Go to the Citizens Climate Lobby webpage and use their online tool to contact your senator and express your support for carbon price legislation.
  • Look for an example of climate disinformation in media or social media.
  • Engage constructively and respectfully with someone in person or on social media about climate change.
  • Look closely at a service or product that is branded as ‘green’. Do a little research and make your own assessment of whether it deserves that ‘green’ branding.
  • Check out free online training resources on how to bridge polarization (Braver Angels and OpenMind).