In early February, as millions of Canadians were struggling to stay warm and keep their water pipes from bursting amid a brutal polar vortex, Pierre Poilievre's Twitter account was chirping. In a series of tweets that received close to 500,000 views, the Conservative leader laid the blame for higher heating costs on the federal government's fuel charge, or so-called "carbon tax."

That claim isn't true. The federal carbon tax is designed so Canadians are reimbursed hundreds of dollars every few months to offset the additional cost of fuel. People with the lowest incomes will actually receive more than they likely paid for fuel.

Poilievre's tweets add to the vast swath of disinformation, misinformation and greenwashing designed to hinder efforts to tackle climate change. For nearly 50 years, the push to discredit climate science and transform responses to the crisis into a political hot potato has successfully delayed policies to reduce oil and gas production and greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if it is no longer outright denial, climate disinformation remains effective. It tears through social media, slowing or even blocking climate action and fuelling the rise of right-wing politicians like Poilievre, Donald Trump and Danielle Smith.

For instance, Trump infamously launched his 2024 campaign with climate falsehoods. Smith in January launched a full-blown misinformation campaign attacking the federal government's plan for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, stoking rage among her voting base.

Chances are climate disinformation has popped up unnoticed in your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds. You may have heard it from smooth-talking businesspeople or recalcitrant relatives at a holiday dinner party without even knowing it was disinformation. If so, here's your guide on what climate disinformation is, what it isn't, why it matters — and what you should be looking out for.

What is climate disinformation?

Climate disinformation is false information about climate change or climate-related topics — think fossil fuels or meat consumption, two major sources of planet-warming pollution — that misrepresents the problem and undermines efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to strategic communications expert Michael Khoo, the former lead campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, disinformation specifically occurs when false information is spread by co-ordinated networks angling to achieve a specific goal. The term emerged in the wake of Russian disinformation campaigns in 2016 targeting the U.K.'s Brexit vote and the American presidential election and has since become commonplace.

Climate denialism is out. Disinformation and greenwashing are in. Unpacking the thin green line to examine how both affect politics and climate solutions. #disinformation #greenwashing #ClimateDenier

Climate change has long been a target for disinformation campaigns, Khoo said. He cited recent U.S. congressional hearings that exposed how the planet's largest fossil fuel companies knew the climate risks of fossil fuel extraction, yet ran decades-long campaigns to hide that knowledge from the public.

How is this any different from political spin or greenwashing?

Disinformation is closely related to political spin, the practice where politicians or political operatives cherry-pick facts or frame them to achieve a political goal. Poilivre's tweets blaming high gas prices on the federal carbon tax without noting how the program reimburses Canadians fall under this category.

Greenwashing is a specific type of disinformation where polluting companies use branding to make consumers believe their products or corporate sustainability efforts are more beneficial than they actually are.

Khoo said these campaigns range in size. Smaller efforts might include a detergent company colouring its products green to make them appear sustainable. On the larger end are campaigns by Big Oil to aggressively market its sustainability initiatives while downplaying its efforts against regulations to limit oil and gas extraction.

A study published last February found that while major oil companies have recently started referring widely to "low-climate" and "transitions" in their marketing material, their minimal investments in clean energy tech "do not match"their marketing pledges.

For instance, Shell Oil says it supports the Paris Agreement to keep global warming below 1.5 C, a goal that can only be achieved by drastically reducing fossil fuel production. Yet the company is estimated to have only dedicated one per cent of its long-term investments to low-carbon energy sources like wind or solar.

Misinformation is false or erroneous information that isn't spread by co-ordinated networks or generated to achieve specific political, social or economic goals. Unlike disinformation or spin, it doesn't necessarily serve to advance an ulterior motive and can be spread by mistake.

Why does this matter?

Simply put, climate disinformation blocks desperately needed policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned "climate science has been undermined significantly" by co-ordinated campaigns, many fuelled by social media.

These have eroded public trust in scientists, governments and other institutions, making it harder to generate support for measures needed to reduce emissions. There is also lots of online overlap between climate disinformation, COVID-related conspiracies, misogyny and other forms of hate and right-wing populists. These networks have played instrumental roles in driving the rise of right-wing populism, including the rise of Poilievre, Jordan Peterson, and Alberta premier Danielle Smith.

What does social media have to do with the problem?

Climate disinformation has been around for ages. What's new is how social media amplifies false information, messages and political spin to audiences far larger than previously possible, Khoo explained. A 2021 report found only 10 online publishers were responsible for nearly 70 per cent of online content denying climate change.

This phenomenon was evident during COP27, the annual global climate summit that took place last November.

Research by Friends of the Earth found a sample of fossil fuel industry-linked organizations spent over $4 billion on Facebook and Instagram ads ahead of and during the conference. On Twitter, the hashtag #ClimateScam — a hashtag linked to climate denialism — soared to the top of the platform's rankings, but it remains unclear why Twitter's algorithm made it so popular. In both cases, the social media platforms' algorithms emphasized climate disinformation instead of accurate reporting on the issue. For instance, researchers found posts containing climate disinformation created during the 2021 COP26 climate conference received 12 times the number of views as accurate ones.

That's not a coincidence. The platform's amplification of climate disinformation is the direct result of decisions "made by humans who wrote code, who are actively prioritizing certain people and certain behaviours," Khoo said.

How can I tell which posts are climate disinformation?

Researchers have identified several different types of climate disinformation. Here's a quick rundown of the top five:

  1. Climate change denial — The oldest and most obvious form of climate disinformation is simply to deny climate change exists. These campaigns have been around since the 1970s, when researchers — including some employed by fossil fuel companies — started warning that fossil fuel use would lead to catastrophic warming. They have included efforts like funding academics to spread doubt about climate science or supporting pundits who reject climate science as false. The truth is there is widespread scientific consensus that the climate is warming as a result of humans burning fossil fuels.
  2. Individualism — The idea of a "carbon footprint" was invented in 2004 by oil and gas giant BP to help people understand how their actions impact the climate. It is the flagship term of a long-standing effort to shift the blame for climate change onto individual actions as opposed to the political and economic systems that embed fossil fuel use in our society.
  3. Technological optimism — The idea that we don't need to implement measures to curb fossil fuel use or reduce emissions because new or yet-to-be-invented technologies will be able to stop climate change. Carbon capture and storage, a range of technologies that aim to capture carbon from oil and gas production or the atmosphere and store it underground are one example. While some of this tech is successful, it is not currently a feasible solution at the scale needed to tackle the climate crisis. Canada has committed at least $9.1 billion to research into the approach, some of which comes from a controversial tax credit announced last year.
  4. Fossil fuel solutionism — Arguments by fossil fuel companies that they must be part of the solution. These campaigns frame fossil fuels as essential to a low-carbon future, even in the face of clear evidence we need to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. In Canada, this has often taken the form of campaigns by natural gas companies to argue their products are more sustainable than oil and thus should continue to be produced.
  5. Doomism — The idea that runaway climate change is already occurring and efforts to stop using fossil fuels and reduce emissions will be both useless and painful to billions of people. This is not true. Researchers have stressed that while the climate is already warming rapidly, swift and deep cuts to emissions can keep planetary warming within a relatively safe limit.

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Climate change is the real emergency the world faces. And its not just fossil fools who want to change the channel on that. In the west, NATO nations have decided that its more profitable to demonize one nation and its authoritarian leader. But from a climate perspective, it matters not a jot who we finger as the culprit for the massive amounts of greenhouse gases war creates.........we can laser tune our focus as much as we like, so that no one talks about the methane releases that accompanied the destruction of Russia's Nordstream pipeline.......

THE REALITY ON THE GROUND REMAINS THE SAME: the military is the biggest emitter; war put those emissions on steroids, and the USA's power play that destroyed Russias pipeline are all climate destroyers.

We make a peaceful world, and work together now for a just transition.......or we are all toast.

We as consumers are the largest emitters. With our constant demand for more, houses for 2 people with 6 baths, 3 vehicles including an SUV. Then we like to travel, of course by air. Here in the north we warm up our diesel pick up for what? The convenience of sitting in a warm vehicle after half an hour of spewing CO2 and particulates into the air. Then there is transportation which is usually 1 person, 1 vehicle. The military produces lots. As individuals we create far more. Can't get pineapples from Hawaii or blueberries from Peru, we feel cheated. Just think how many trucks are needed to deliver that 500 gram package the next day! Keep us in food and especially goods which are mostly wants not needs

David - you're shifting the blame onto individuals, as noted in the above list.
Yes, of course the behaviours you've mentioned are unsustainable, but they are legal, encouraged and often celebrated in our current economy. Furthermore, with Liberals building pipelines and the NDP championing fracking, citizens keep getting the message that there is no climate crisis, so for most, these behaviours probably don't cause any dissonance.
With climate disinformation, we might wait decades for sufficient citizen climate literacy to make real headway through individual choices; in the meantime, we've got elected officials who ought to be looking out for the public good - and who know what's happening. We should be organizing and pushing them hard to make the regulatory changes needed to follow the science toward 1.5 degrees.

And lets not forget the many millions truck/SUV companies spend advertising. Even CBC news depends of their advertising designed by psychologists and ad agencies to influence our behaviour. Individuals are deluged by messaging from fossil fuel companies plus thousands of other companies to believe their lives are worthless unless they are part of the problem which remains unmentioned. The problem is senior managers who are paid by shareholders to maximize profit regardless of the cost to humanity. Either they deliver shareholder profits or their bonuses and salaries stop. No, the problem is not individuals acting in a vacuum but huge concentrations of wealth motivated by excessive greed.

Article says "Chances are climate disinformation has popped up unnoticed in your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds." Not in my case, no. I avoid this problem the easy way: I don't use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Nips a bunch of problems in the bud.

Fawcett-Atkinson: "There is also lots of online overlap between climate disinformation, COVID-related conspiracies, misogyny and other forms of hate and right-wing populists."

There also seems to be strong correlation between climate disinformation, new pipeline construction, attacks on environmentalists, vapid talking points, creative emissions accounting, contradictory climate policy, reliance on white elephant climate non-solutions, political donations from the Big Banks, indifference to the health of indigenous communities, lip service to UNDRIP, endless fossil fuel subsidies, and orange and red party hats.

When political-party-captured academics claim at election-time that Trudeau's Liberals are the most climate-sincere party, does that qualify as disinformation or greenwashing?
When Trudeau, Notley, and Horgan call themselves climate leaders, is that disinformation or greenwashing?

Confused in Alberta

The science-denial campaigns over the last few decades have been very successful at delaying climate action. The perpetrators should be held accountable and there is a growing number of law suits attempting to do that. However, we all have to assume some of the responsibility for the mess were in. It's true that putting the blame on indiduals for driving cars and heating their homes is a con game. But as a society we've made choices to buy the SUVs and the super-sized homes. It's our choice to watch TV instead of volunteering as a climate activist or heading out to a Fridays For Future protest. Yes, we all have busy lives and we have the right to spend our money on whatever we fancy, but that has to change. It can't be all about me anymore. We have to take on those difficult conversations, and set the example by investing in a heat pump instead of a spending 6 weeks in Italy. Our choices have to be better and we need to press our governments and businesses to make better choices as well. It will take that kind of commitment. And it's going to take a lot more people making that commitment.