Long before Elon Musk's takeover drew accusations of increased disinformation on the platform, there was already a rapid growth of climate scepticism and denial on Twitter, according to research by The IRIS Academic Research Group.
Their analysis studied climate discourse during the annual UN Climate Change Conferences (COPs), and found that criticism of climate action had grown from 1% of influential accounts during COP20 in 2014, to 16% of accounts during COP26.
Bertie spoke to two of the researchers, Professor Andrea Baronchelli and Dr. Max Falkenberg, to discuss this trend, and what might be driving it.
Happy New Year, and welcome back to the Land and Climate Podcast. I'm Bertie Harrison-Broninski, and this week we'll be hearing about the rise of online climate scepticism from two social network analysts from City, University of London. They are Andrea Baronchelli, Associate Professor of Mathematics, and Max Falkenberg, a physicist and postdoctoral research associate. They are coauthors on a recent paper in Nature Climate Change that studied English-language climate discourse on Twitter, and how it's changed each year during the annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences, which are also known as COPs for Conference of the Parties. Their research produced some stark findings for climate campaigners.Max:
Opposition to climate action, where that viewpoint is dominant, that has grown from about 1% of influential accounts to about 16% of influential accounts. So there's been a really, really large growth in these contrarian views.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
Before we get into the details of it, maybe you could just summarise the kind of key top line findings of the paper?Max:
Our background coming from physics is really to look at the structural patterns in communication. Instead of starting from content identifying misinformation, what we did is to simply look at the shape of the conversation. And if you do that around COP from COP20 to COP25, you see the same pattern every year. And that pattern is that you have one very large centralised conversation of generally climate-supportive, pro-climate action, groups. There is a variation of opinion amongst these groups. But generally 99% of all users between COP20 and COP25 are part of this centralised conversation who are talking about pro climate issues. So pro climate action issues. If you look at this conversation though, what you see is that you have a little appendix hanging off, if you look at the network of interactions. And between COP20 and COP25 this appendix has a very small group of highly climate specialised accounts who oppose the climate mainstream. So these are climate contrarians you might say, of various forms. There are stronger claims and weaker claims within this community, but safe to say between COP20 and COP25 this is a small group, about 1% of influential accounts. And generally they didn't receive a lot of engagement. So the main finding we have in this new research is what actually happened in COP26 is that this minority appendix where the opposition to climate action, where that viewpoint is dominant, that has grown from about 1% of influential accounts to about 16% of influential accounts. So there's been a really, really large growth in these contrarian views. If we try to look at why this might be, what we see is that before COP26, the people supporting contrarian views around climate change were very focused on this as a specific issue, whereas since COP26, people who have more general views on, you know, climate or non-climate issues, but they are starting to engage with the opposition to climate action in a way they didn't previously.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And to clarify, included within that less climate specific group that is now more critical of climate action, we're talking about journalists, politicians, as well as kind of more random influencers, right?Max:
Broadly speaking, if you look at before COP25, you see the same three names appearing over and over again. One is an academic based in Europe, who is well known for taking an economics perspective about why we should be slower with climate action. Another is a former Trump official in the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency in the US. And one is generally a sceptic blogger. But none of these figures are, you know, hugely well known in the public. They're just very climate specialised. And if you then look in COP26, what you find is lots of the most influential people in this opposed minority appendix are prominent politicians from the Republican Party in the US people like Lauren Boebert. In the UK you have some members of the Conservative party such as Steve Baker, but mainly former members or current members of the UKIP party, Brexit party, or the Reform Party, and then you have lots of media organisations who are affiliated, broadly speaking, with those general views. That doesn't mean that these communities all align with the same political views, but generally, you see a lot of engagement with politicians who are not necessarily climate specialised. We're speculating now, but there's an argument to say these politicians now see opposition to climate action as a vote winner, like something that can get them political traction.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
It is interesting that you said that this kind of growth of climate scepticism did begin in 2019, peaking during the global climate strikes in September 2019, and Australian bushfires in January 2020. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And perhaps why you think that was?Max:
We need to be careful when we talk about the rise in climate scepticism. We're not necessarily arguing there are more climate skeptics. But there's clearly a change in how willingly these individuals express their views, at least on Twitter. So that's the real shift we're seeing.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
They're becoming more mainstream, in a way, even if they're not more popular?Max:
Mainstream, I'm not sure I would use the word "mainstream", but they're certainly more visible. So going back to 2019 and 2020, the two events we refer to. So if you look at general climate sceptic rhetoric over about the last 10 years on Twitter, you find that levels were actually remarkably low before 2019. If you just look at this time series, the first time you see a really large increase is in the middle of 2019, towards the end of 2019, when there were the global climate strikes. If you look at the things that were discussed at the time, there was a lot of general broad criticism of climate activists, and of climate activist organisations, of course by this minority group. What you then see is that after that there was a sort of drop in attention that sort of coincided with COP25. So during COP25, you don't see a lot of this rhetoric. But in January 2020, when the Australian bushfires were, there was a surge again in this sort of minority sceptical rhetoric, and that was specifically to do with narratives associated with whether the bushfires were due to climate change, or whether the bushfires were due to arson. And there was a really, really strong narrative saying that these bushfires were caused deliberately. But in inverted commas, 'pro climate activists are weaponising arson, to say it's due to climate change'. The same can be said straight back in reverse in principle, but those were the two major events where we've seen a surge in activity. And the point is, since about the Australian bushfires, there's been steady, steady engagement from this group on Twitter with these kinds of issues.Andrea:
The Australian bushfires, it's likely to be very represented in our dataset because it's a dataset focusing on English language, even though of course, the news was everywhere. But in general, this is also a time in which different countries, the EU for example, massively are starting to implement policies that are dictated by the climate emergency. And so in a sense, a broadening of the conversation is not so surprising. It is, however, very interesting in this framework to see that the conversation is so polarised, and at the same point, you have a growth of axis along which the scepticism can express itself. For example, the way in which you can somehow oppose climate change is not just by denying it, fewer people are denying it. But you can say, for example, that forests are becoming greener, or, and this is very clear anecdotally in the debate in Italy, and as far as I know, also in Germany, that are the two biggest manufacturers in the EU with a large chunk of car manufacturing, the way in which your post climate politics is by saying that 'it's too fast', the implementation of a policy that reduces CO2. So what we observe is fitting with what one can observe even in the news if paying attention. What's interesting, and not trivial at all, is the fact that this conversation is so detached. Different views, from what we see around COP, don't talk to one another. And in fact, and this is the last bit of the paper, there is one topic bridging the two communities. And this is not a topic you would want because it's the accusation of hypocrisy towards politicians. So both camps say, 'hey, you're talking about climate, but then you take the private jet, and therefore you are not credible'. This is of course, in a broader frame of the disintermediated information landscape on social media and trust towards political order, or democracy even. It's a piece that goes in the direction of decreasing trust towards the institution. And so the fact that this is the unifying topic of the two camps, of course, calls for further investigations, and it's an interesting finding.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I wondered if I could continue the chronology by asking about the pandemic and how that has fed into this too, because one of the parallel trends I think you noticed was the same demographic that are talking about some of this more climate sceptical stuff or more reactionary views, even conspiratorial views, perhaps for that example from the Australian fires, is that they're the same group that in some cases that were anti vax, or perhaps that had other kind of reactionary responses to the pandemic. Am I right in saying that? Could you add any more to that?Max:
It's an interesting comment you make. And when we started this project, we were somewhat of the assumption that yes, COVID would likely have been a large part of the development of this conversation. The thing is, though, when we looked at the data, the real big surges in this minority climate sceptic view happened prior to COVID. That's not to say that COVID and the political issues around COVID didn't have an influence on this conversation, but certainly the seeds of this rapid growth were already there. One thing that's very interesting to mention is that if you look at the sort of taxonomy, let's say, of typical climate contrarian claims, one of the most common you see these days, and it's probably what you'd call the softest form of climate scepticism is about discrediting your opponent. And this is common in all of politics for that matter, but specifically in the context of climate. And that is to say that politicians working on climate action are not credible, because they don't want to reduce their carbon footprint themselves. Or the only reason these individuals are interested in climate action is because they can get rich by investing in green energy, those kinds of claims. If you take that framing, you see that a lot of the narrative during COP26 towards politicians was associating their action around COVID saying that that was not credible or not reasonable, for instance around mask mandates, and then using that as a tool to say, well, if this is what they did to the general public around COVID, can we trust them on climate issues? The interesting thing about that point is that in the 12 months since, COVID has become far less of a topic. And those individuals who are making those claims are still part of this climate minority who are attacking politicians. The difference is now they're no longer talking about masks. This year, it was even more so about private jets. So there's definitely an overlap, it's likely that COVID did play some role and was certainly used to fuel the conversation. But based on sort of the data we've seen, I'd say the COVID impact was probably secondary to sort of the wider emergence of climate issues in the public debate.Andrea:
We know from many laboratory experiments that if you are systematically exposed to a certain kind of information, you tend to review your views. For example, especially if towards science, because science is a method that is very good at convincing if you give it time. COVID vaccination climate change, if exposed to the evidence in an ordered way, many people tend to review their opposing views after the exposure. In the wild, very likely, this doesn't happen too much simply because you have an opinion that you have formed in your social circle and through main media in general, that often also correlates with other opinions. Certainly, there was a fraction of individuals who both oppose vaccinations and masks and now any action against climate change, or to reduce CO2. We also live in a world of virality and memes. So once you have neglected an aspect that is then being weaponised, reverting the process is extremely difficult, because there is a layer of entertainment which can keep it going forever. It's a lazy weapon for your opposers and it always will be. Plus there is a game of virality sharing influencers that are simply good in packing information so that it spreads more itself. We form our opinions on climate, on COVID, on whatever, simply by being around other people, through main media, through social media contact we have. At that point, the information we look for is the information we want to find. People finding information that says that climate action is exaggerated now are probably looking for things like 'is the climate action implemented by governments right now exaggerated?', and you find the information. So in the very act of searching, of consuming information, is an act of selection. And this is, of course, a gigantic problem. There are many aspects we still don't understand clearly, but what I wanted to say is that we need always to consider carefully all the results on how easy it is to convince people, if you present evidence. It is, but the ecosystem we are living in doesn't work like this. So even if media put an effort to do this, it would certainly be good, they would certainly reach a fraction of those with anti-scientific views, but they would still miss a very decent proportion of them.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
These contrarian accounts critical of climate action, do you get the impression that they're a connected network or that they have shared lobbying interests? Or are they disparate actors? And on a related note, I was interested to know whether you get the impression there's any money involved in this? Are they profiting off it? Are they promoting tweets? Is anything being paid for?Max:
So what we can say about that is, okay, take something simple. Our analysis is on Anglophone Twitter. So you may think that pro-climate views will be closer in the network structure to climate contrarian views in the same country, than to separate conversations that are happening elsewhere in the world. For instance, we might have expected to see a network of the Canadian conversation, a network of the UK conversation, a network of the Australian conversation. That is not something we see. What we in fact see is that largely contrarian views are together in one group, regardless of the country they are in. And the same is true for majority pro-climate views. That said, within each of these larger groups, there are substructures. And what typically binds these substructures is a small number of very influential accounts. In terms of money involved, that's really, you know, difficult to talk about, but there are certainly politicians who are involved in certain think tanks. And the only one I'll mention, because it's in the paper, is Net Zero Watch is a well known think tank in the UK, and it is also associated with some politicians from the Conservative Party who have been, I believe, on the board or advisors of Net Zero Watch. And of course, they have interest in these climate areas. But on a pure Twitter basis, I don't think we can categorically say there is a lot of money being poured into the minority position on climate issues. I don't think we could fairly make any claim in that direction.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And before you go, COP26 is over a year ago now, have you looked into how trends have changed more recently?Max:
This is preliminary, very preliminary, but we've looked at COP27. And broadly, what we were seeing in COP26 has been maintained. There was some reason to believe that maybe now that COP is no longer in the UK, maybe because COP27 is a less important summit than COP21 and COP26 polaridation would go down, climate scepticism would go down. That in fact does not appear to have happened. So COP27 is looking very much like the conversation was very similar to COP26.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
My thanks to Max and Andrea for coming on the show. Do read their paper in Nature, which is linked below alongside some other reading. It's packed full of interesting findings and charts, and is well worth a read for anyone working in climate policy, lobbying and campaigning. On a less related note, do also check out our recently published collection of articles and podcasts on carbon removal with a leading article from former IPCC chair Bob Watson. That's also linked below or you can go to www.landclimate.org/negative-emissions Please subscribe if you enjoyed this episode, and we'll be back in a fortnight. Thanks for listening.