Researchers offer 4 ways to counter climate skepticism

Source: Ines Kagubare, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Yale University researchers yesterday released a road map for countering coordinated efforts to spread doubt about mainstream climate science.

The paper by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, identifies four strategies, including “inoculating” the public against climate misinformation.

“Many people see these efforts to undermine science as an increasingly dangerous challenge and they feel paralyzed about what to do about it,” Justin Farrell, lead author of the study and professor at Yale, said in a press release.

“But there’s been a growing amount of research into this challenge over the past few years that will help us chart out some solutions,” he said.

Here are the methods the researchers identified:

Public inoculation

The study suggests making people immune to climate misinformation by exposing them to it before they have a chance to hear from skeptics. Further, the study says people need to be made aware of the financial contributions and economic and political motivations behind deceptive messages.

“Similar to how a vaccine builds antibodies to resist a virus a person might encounter, attitudinal inoculation messages warn people that misinformation is coming, and arm them with a counter-argument to resist that misinformation,” the study says.

The researchers identified three possible pathways of achieving “public inoculation.” First, they say scientists need to collaborate with reporters to spread inoculation messages via the media. Second, teachers should teach inoculation to students with the intent to “directly refute common sources of misinformation.” Third, the study recommends targeting thought leaders in communities “exposed to higher amounts of misinformation.”

Legal strategies

The study also advises using legal means to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change. It refers to litigation against Exxon Mobil Corp. over the company’s alleged efforts to deceives its investors about climate risks.

“Such lawsuits may prove to be the most effective strategy for directly confronting and discouraging the spread of scientific misinformation, but they are also very costly and have a long time horizon,” the study says.

Coverage of these types of lawsuits may serve a public benefit, too, as more people become conscious of “industry efforts to deliberately mislead them,” the study says.

Political mechanisms

Political influence and partisan gridlock influences public perception on climate change and environmental regulations. The study highlights three mechanisms to confront this area.

First, the paper says researchers must better understand when and how the political process is being manipulated as it relates to the influence that various groups may have on public opinion toward climate change. Second, the study highlights the many organizations that have divested funds from fossil fuel industries and their associates in an effort to defund and publicly stigmatize their negative impact on the planet.

The study also suggests focusing on geographic places where skepticism of climate change is widespread. It urges better and more media coverage of local candidates’ views on climate change science.

Financial transparency

Finally, the study recommends disclosing fossil fuel financial contributions and keeping track of where and how the funds are spent.

According to the study, from 2000 to 2016, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $2 billion on climate lobbying, outspending environmental organizations and renewable energy corporations by a ratio of 10 to 1. The study also found that within the last year, financial contributions from groups leading misinformation campaigns on climate change has quadrupled, topping $100 million.

The four strategies are not mutually exclusive. According to the researchers, they’re more effective at combating climate science misinformation if they’re coordinated.

“Ultimately we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the huge imbalance in spending between climate change opponents and those lobbying for new solutions,” Farrell said.

“Those interests will always be there, of course,” he added, “but I’m hopeful that as we learn more about these dynamics things will start to change. I just hope it’s not too late.”