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People working on climate solutions are facing a big obstacle: conspiracy theories

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Communities big and small are trying to rein in climate change. But many people working on these climate solutions are running into a big obstacle: falsehoods and conspiracy theories about their work. So what does this mean for fighting global warming?

To talk about the current state of climate disinformation, we checked in with three NPR reporters who have reported on climate, disinformation and the media — and they can answer our questions: Climate solutions reporter Julia Simon, media correspondent David Folkenflik, and reporter Huo Jingnan, who writes about conspiracy theories among other things.

This was adapted from a roundtable discussion on All Things Considered.

What kind of false narratives about climate are we talking about?

Julia Simon: Climate disinformation in the past — sometimes paid for by fossil fuel interests — often related to false ideas that global warming is a scam or that the threat is overblown. Those falsehoods are still around, but what we're seeing a lot more of these days are attacks on climate solutions even if we don't always know who funds them. Think attacks on renewables. False ideas that wind turbines cause cancer or cause birth defects in animals. Disinformation may be spreading because solutions are really spreading.

For instance, this weekend we'll have a story about a trend in urban planning called 15-minute cities — designing cities so that you access amenities in a short walk, bike ride or trip on public transport. Now there's a conspiracy theory saying that this is a way to restrict people's movement or to trap people in an open-air prison.

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Podcaster Joe Rogan spoke about it on his show last month. "You'll essentially be contained unless you get permission to leave," Rogan said, "That's the idea they're starting to roll out in Europe."

That is false.

Earlier this week the U.K. transport minister Mark Harper used some of the language of conspiracy theories when talking about 15-minute cities at the conservative Tory party conference. "What is sinister and what we shouldn't tolerate," Harper said, "is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops."

It is false that local governments in the U.K. are deciding how often citizens can go shopping.

Huo Jingnan: The false narrative surrounding 15-minute cities is but one part of a larger sprawling conspiracy theory called the Great Reset. The theory goes that a shadowy global elite — often Jewish — wants to strip away ordinary people's freedoms and make us live a life of deprivation. Under this theory, 15-minute cities are a ploy to take away people's freedom to move around.

More about false narratives about climate change:

The buildings of downtown Los Angeles are partially obscured because of smog.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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The buildings of downtown Los Angeles are partially obscured because of smog.

What is the role of the media in all this?

David Folkenflik: Different kinds of false information spread in different ways. But if you're considering misleading claims about climate — that's predominantly on the right. And that involves an information ecosphere defined by Joe Rogan, as we heard above, but also Alex Jones, Breitbart, the Daily Wire, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and above all Fox News.

The funny thing is they are at once testers and popularizers of things that have gotten some traction online, and then you hear prominent figures on the right picking up the melody.

Back when he was on Fox earlier this year, Tucker Carlson made utterly unsubstantiated claims about dead whales coming ashore on New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts beaches.

Folkenflik: But you hear versions of it from former President Donald Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — once it passes audition, it makes the rounds.

More about the role of media:

How does fear-mongering affect the actual implementation of climate solutions?

Huo: It is a distraction from the issues we need to work on. If these narratives ring true to you, you might think that climate activists aren't really talking about climate but about something else, so much so they could be secret agents of the government trying to take away your freedom.

One interesting example of a strawman here is one of the subplots of the great reset conspiracy theory, which is that the government wants to force people to eat insects. Including insects in the human diet has been an idea on the edges of climate circles. The mainstream idea is simply to eat less meat. But it attracted more attention over the years because many news outlets — including NPR — are easily intrigued by the idea of eating something seen as exotic.

And that gets turned into raw material for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in March 2022:

Simon: And a muddied information landscape about climate solutions can sometimes complicate the process of getting them enacted, says Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

"In the end, it actually doesn't matter if 99% of the public believe in climate change," King says, "if you're able to embed real fear and seeds of doubt about the solutions that are on the table you end up with the same outcome, which is no legislative agenda, no meaningful policy proposals, no local action."

More about how fear-mongering affects solutions:

What sort of impact do these conspiracy theories have on the people in the field trying to work on climate solutions?

Simon: I met with Carlos Moreno, a Franco-Colombian professor who developed this idea of the 15-minute city — these more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods that conspiracy theorists think are preludes to open-air prisons. Moreno says he's gotten death threats, and so have other scientists and researchers.

Moreno says the attacks give his colleagues a reluctance to publish articles about their work. And he says this is what the conspiracy theorists want: to silence them. And we've seen harassment and threats based on conspiracy theories targeting climate scientists and meteorologists for years.

More on the impact of conspiracy theories:

Can anything break the cycle of disinformation or rumors?

Folkenflik: It's not in the interest of Fox News and others who benefit financially from stoking outrage and, by and large, also have partisan rooting interests. In a few instances, there have been defamation cases against those media outlets — but those all come from specific people and institutions who claim they've been knowingly harmed and defamation law isn't going to solve the wider issue of spreading false claims about climate research and solutions.

For other journalists and others, it's tricky — you do need to address falsehoods and fact-check them. But by fact-checking, you're also sometimes elevating these ideas that may not get widespread currency. News organizations, including NPR, generally try to balance those imperatives as they plan out coverage.

Huo: When it comes to social media, the platforms can change how they label, recommend and moderate content to change what users see and how they interact with platforms. Studies by researchers who were able to run experiments on Facebook and Instagram during the 2020 election showed that changing the algorithm changes user behavior, sometimes leading to less time spent on the platforms.

There's also a practice called pre-bunking, like a form of inoculation against bad information, which has two strands. One way involves preventatively unraveling specific false claims before they reach a critical mass. Another is essentially news literacy training, to help equip people with tools to evaluate such claims critically. These things have to be done in a way that appeals to the people they're trying to reach, not patronize them, and also acknowledge that known facts sometimes change, as they have for COVID-19.

While we do not have enough experimental studies on altering platform design to draw conclusions beyond specific interventions, experts in the field place hope in them. A lot of people put stock in hearing from those they trust (like friends) and those they admire (like influencers and celebrities). And they need to absorb it in settings where they seek such content out. That said, some major platforms are dialing back how much news they serve up and how much attention they want to spend on moderating. There's no single easy or widely embraced answer yet.

More on disinformation and rumors:

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Arielle Retting is a growth editor for digital content at NPR. In her current role, she helps the newsroom develop digital skills so NPR can expand our storytelling to meet our audiences where they are.