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More than 48 million Americans deny that climate change is real

A pioneering study led by the University of Michigan (U-M), utilizing advanced artificial intelligence and social media analytics, has found that approximately 15% of Americans are skeptical about the reality of climate change. 

This revelation comes at a time when scientific consensus has repeatedly warned of the increasing risks posed by a warming climate, including heightened occurrences of flooding, wildfires, and sea-level rise, among other disasters.

Focus of the study 

Drawing on Twitter data spanning from 2017 to 2019, the researchers employed AI techniques to gauge public sentiment on climate change, mapping out both belief and denial across the United States. 

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on February 14, delves into the role social media plays in propagating climate change denialism, pinpointing influential figures, such as former President Donald Trump, who have significantly contributed to spreading misinformation.

Social media data 

“Prior to the advancement of AI and social media data, this work relied on expensive and time-consuming surveys,” explained Joshua Newell, the study’s senior author and a professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

By analyzing over 7.4 million geocoded tweets with ChatGPT’s Large Language Model, the team distinguished tweets as either supporting or opposing climate change, subsequently mapping these attitudes at both state and county levels. This analysis not only confirmed the 14.8% national denial rate, aligning with prior studies, but also highlighted demographic and geographic patterns in climate change skepticism.

The findings indicate a higher acceptance of climate change along the U.S. coasts, whereas central and southern regions, including Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Dakota, exhibit higher rates of denialism. Intrastate variances were also notable; for instance, California’s Shasta County and Texas’s Hockley County showed significantly higher denial rates than their respective state averages.

Political affiliation emerged as a dominant factor influencing climate change beliefs, with a notable correlation between Republican voters and climate change skepticism. The study also observed a link between climate denialism and low COVID-19 vaccination rates, suggesting a broader trend of skepticism towards scientific consensus.

Shaping public opinion 

The study also ventures into the social media landscape, identifying key influencers and the formation of distinct communities around climate change belief and denial, largely operating within echo chambers with minimal cross-communication.

“The most heavily retweeted post includes one by Trump that questions climate change due to unusually cold weather in the U.S., and another where he casts doubt on a U.N. climate report,” Newell noted, emphasizing the influence of prominent figures in shaping public opinion.

Combating misinformation 

Given the divisive nature of climate change discourse, the researchers advocate for social media platforms to take a more active role in flagging misinformation and consider stricter policies against users who perpetuate falsehoods about climate change.

“This study provides a basis for developing strategies to counter this knowledge vulnerability,” Newell concluded, stressing the importance of combating misinformation to foster a more informed public discourse on climate change.

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