Debunking misinformation and climate change

Apr 28, 2021

It might be surprising given the scale of the problem, but there is an emerging consensus about the current status of the science of misinformation and its debunking in respect to climate change.

Arguably there was some evidence emerging in the US in November last year about the rejection of lies and misinformation but even then Trump managed to get 74 million people to vote for him. In Australia, the lying, secretive and corrupt Morrison Government is still the favourite to win the next Federal election.

But the George Mason University Center for Climate Communications (4C) has produced some basis for hope and action. 4C’s The Debunking Handbook 2020 summarises the current state of the science of misinformation and debunking. The Handbook was written by 22 scholars of misinformation and its debunking, and 4C says it represents the current consensus on the science of debunking for engaged citizens, policymakers, journalists, and other practitioners.

 It states:

“The Handbook is a consensus document that was created by an innovative process that involved a series of predefined steps, all of which were followed and documented and are publicly available. The authors were invited based on their scientific status in the field, and they all agreed on all points made in the handbook. We therefore believe that the new Handbook reflects the scientific consensus about how to combat misinformation.”

Part of the Handbook’s conclusions drew on the long-running 4C studies of how often people “misperceive other people’s beliefs about global warming—for instance, underestimating the percentage of people who think global warming is happening.”

In the US, as in Australia, “perceptions of others vary across political lines and interact with the extent to which partisans align or deviate from the views of their political ingroup.”

This is compounded by a list of problems 4C has identified in its work. To clarify, 4C offers some useful definitions:

  • Misinformation is defined as false information that is disseminated, regardless of intent to mislead;
  • Disinformation is misinformation that is deliberately disseminated to mislead;
  • Fake news is false information, often of a sensational nature, that mimics news media content;
  • Continued influence effect is the continued reliance on inaccurate information in people’s memory and reasoning after a credible correction has been presented; and
  • Illusory truth effect is repeated information which is more likely to be judged true than novel information because it has become more familiar.


In the specific case of climate change perceptions of what others think has a powerful impact on individuals’ own beliefs and actions. For example, 4C research on household energy conservation demonstrates that individuals who consume a large amount of energy tend to decrease their energy use when they learn that their neighbours use less energy, and when they are told their peers approve of lower energy usage.

In Australia, illustrating the phenomenon, putting energy usage data and comparisons on energy bills can encourage conservation measures.

In terms of climate change as a whole, in the US perceptions of what other people think and do can have a powerful influence with misperceptions of public opinion about global warming varying based on an interaction between an individual’s party affiliation and their individual climate beliefs.

Interestingly though, among both Republicans and Democrats “perceptions of pro-climate ingroup consensus correlates with both increased activism intentions and frequency of discussing global warming with family and friends”. So discussions about floods, fires and storms do have an impact.

Nevertheless, 4C finds that people tend to misjudge what the beliefs and actions of others actually are – a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. 4C confirms research that indicates pluralistic ignorance about climate change is a barrier to discussion and leads to self-silencing.

On the other hand “correcting this pluralistic ignorance and promoting the awareness that others are concerned about climate change can increase people’s own willingness to discuss it’ just as “correcting misperceptions about the level of public support for climate policy can itself increase support for such policies.”

With consistent surveys, 4C has found that Americans underestimate how many other Americans think global warming is happening. For instance, “Americans on average estimate that only 54% of other Americans think global warming is happening, when in fact, 69% of Americans do.”

Some just don’t know how many other Americans think global warming is happening with about one in five Americans saying they don’t know whether other Americans believe in climate change – although this is less pronounced among liberal Democrats than conservative Republicans.

“Some subgroups of Americans, including liberal Democrats and those with higher levels of education, more accurately estimate national public opinion about global warming (although even they underestimate the actual percentage). Conversely, other groups, such as conservative Republicans and people living in rural areas, are less accurate at estimating the opinions about global warming held by their fellow Americans,” 4C has found.

Significantly, people who believe a majority of Americans think global warming is happening are more likely to express pro-climate views and behaviours.

4C concludes:

“This relationship between perceptions of others’ views about climate change and one’s own beliefs and attitudes suggests new approaches to climate change communication. Helping the public understand that a majority of Americans already think global warming is happening, think it is a serious threat, and support climate policies can itself help build public understanding, acceptance, and support.”

In Australia treating the Nationals and climate-denying backbenchers as a tiny, dangerous, out of touch minority would be excellent for winning debating points. But sadly it would distract attention from the more subtle and pernicious version of denial – for instance, that of Scott Morrison – for the need for effective action on climate change.

To combat this, Labor could acquire a copy of The Debunking Handbook and apply some of its lessons.

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