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Why disinformation is a persistent scourge in the battle against climate change

The melting of glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme heat waves are stark reminders of the ongoing climate crisis. Despite the scientific community’s consensus on human responsibility for these changes, as reaffirmed by the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a significant portion of the population remains skeptical, fueled by disinformation campaigns orchestrated by certain vested interests.

Combating climate change disinformation

The University of Geneva (UNIGE) has taken a novel approach to address this issue by developing and testing six psychological interventions.

A team led by Tobia Spampatti, a PhD Student and Teaching and Research Assistant in the Consumer Decision and Sustainable Behavior Lab (CDSB Lab), has conducted extensive research involving nearly 7,000 participants across twelve countries.

The study underscores the persuasive nature of disinformation and the urgent need to counteract it. According to Spampatti, certain companies and lobbies spreading disinformation over the last 50 years can explain this phenomenon.

‘‘For instance, these messages can take the form of an unfounded questioning of the scientific consensus or an overestimation of the socio-financial burden of climate policies,’’ says Spampatti.

Psychological factors at play

Spampatti and his colleagues have developed a theoretical framework based on the psychology of climate change disinformation. This framework considers various factors, including the source, content, recipients, and psychological aspects influencing the processing of information.

‘‘As individuals, we do not process scientific messages as neutral receivers of information, but by weighing them up against our prior beliefs, desired outcomes, emotional ties and socio-cultural and ideological backgrounds. Depending on the configuration of these psychological factors, anti-scientific beliefs can be amplified and become resistant to correction,’’ explains Spampatti.

Preventing climate change disinformation

Based on their findings, the researchers developed six psychological intervention strategies to prevent climate disinformation from influencing people’s climate-related beliefs and actions. They tested these strategies on 6,816 participants across twelve countries.

Each strategy focused on a specific theme: scientific consensus, trust in climate scientists, transparent communication, moralizing climate action, accuracy, and positive emotions towards climate action.

The team divided the participants into eight groups. Six groups each received one of the strategies, one group received disinformation without any preventive measures, and one served as a control group.

For example, the researchers gave the “trust in climate scientists” group verified information to establish the credibility of IPCC scientists. Similarly, they presented the “transparent communication” group with information highlighting both the advantages and disadvantages of climate mitigation actions.

Following this, the team exposed each group to twenty instances of false or biased information, including ten related to climate science and ten to climate policy. The UNIGE scientists then assessed the impact of these interventions by gauging the participants’ attitudes towards climate mitigation actions.

Results show great challenges ahead

Tobias Brosch is an associate Professor at the CDSB Lab and the final author of the study. He notes the alarming persuasiveness of disinformation.

“We found that the protective effect of our strategies is small and disappears after the second exposure to disinformation,” says Brosch. “Climate disinformation used in this study has a negative influence on people’s belief in climate change and their sustainable behavior.’’

According to the study, climate change disinformation persuades extremely effectively, apparently more than scientific information does. Only the ‘accuracy’ group, whom the researchers asked to think deeply about the accuracy of online information, demonstrated a slight advantage.

Tobia Spampatti concludes, “Research in this field is still in its infancy. We are going to continue our work and look for more effective forms of intervention.”

In summary, the urgency to combat climate change disinformation is paramount, as it hinders the implementation of crucial climate change mitigation measures. This research from UNIGE represents a crucial step in understanding and addressing the complex issue of climate change disinformation.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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