People show up at pizza restaurants with assault weapons. People shun the COVID-19 vaccine that might save a life. They storm the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn an election. Why? Because stories, driven by disinformation, were powerful enough to convince them to act.
But disinformation is just as insidious when it drives inaction – shaping how people view climate change, defending the status quo and preventing forward momentum on climate solutions that could not only improve our well-being, but save the planet.
There are recent examples. And at first look, they may seem silly or without consequence. You might have even liked or shared it with your friends and family. But this disinformation sticks with those who might be unsure about action on climate change. When they see stories suggesting that President Joe Biden’s climate plan bans hamburgers, they don’t see a joke. They see a larger narrative about the disruptive and scary change that climate action may bring.
These stories about meat are just the scales on a much larger beast: an anti-climate disinformation narrative that has been around for decades, and most certainly hardens resistance to the climate action we desperately need. When then-President Donald Trump suggested that the Green New Deal bans cows and air travel, he didn’t concoct that lie out of thin air. It was disinformation already spreading through Fox News, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit.
Whatever the claim of the day, they have this in common: They tap into fear that climate change solutions will negatively affect how we live now, disrupting familiar routines, traditional diets and day-to-day decisions that give us comfort and make us feel both free and secure. Even if the looming catastrophe of climate change threatens all of these values, suggestion of a more immediate threat always creates greater resistance.
In order to make lasting and meaningful climate progress, we must find ways to prevent this type of climate disinformation from taking hold. EDF Action and Bully Pulpit Interactive are partnering on concrete solutions that focus attention on those whose views on climate action are most likely to be shaped by the stories around them. We want to disarm disinformation by sharing stories of how climate action will bring large-scale economic and health opportunities, and will improve the lives of everyone in our communities – ensuring cleaner air, safeguarding public health and creating millions of good-paying jobs right here at home.
BPI worked with the Biden campaign in 2020 to help combat disinformation, and with the Ad Council on countering vaccine disinformation earlier this year. In both experiences, we found that seemingly unrelated disinformation stories are not necessarily powerful on their own – but they become harmful when they ladder up to a larger narrative in the minds of voters. For example, the absurd stories about Joe Biden using an earpiece at a debate were just that – absurd. But that was not a reason to dismiss them. False stories about Biden fit into a larger narrative: that he wouldn’t fully be in control of his own presidency, a narrative bad actors were trying to construct when they challenged his age and mental capacity.
Our work tackling this challenge will not be easy; disinformation is most venomous when it reinforces pre-existing doubts, increasing the skepticism of persuadable Americans. We can’t let this growth of disinformation go unchecked, especially among those most susceptible. Rather than dismiss these stories, we have a playbook to reach persuadable Americans on climate action.
First, we must work to take power away from disinformation. We can tell a positive story about the vast economic and global leadership opportunities climate action presents, improving the lives today for the better. Turning the story from disruption to opportunity, we can reassure people that climate action can power our post-pandemic economy, that it can create millions of new good-paying jobs, that it can make the United States the world leader in the renewable energy economy and that it can ensure cleaner air and water for all.
Second, we need storytellers who can cut through the noise of disinformation to connect with people. From BPI’s work with the Biden campaign came real-world learnings about the types of validators who cut through. Fox News stories were most effective in dispelling doubts about candidate Biden, for example, because voters gave the unexpected headline a second look. We can tap into local news – which is far more trusted than national or cable outlets – as well as highlight the voices of conservative and Republican individuals who understand the risk of climate inaction. We can also amplify the voices of average people — suburban dads and busy businesswomen — who can tap into affinities more directly than people squarely defined as climate activists.
EDF Action and BPI are applying these tactics and tools, which are by no means new, to the places where disinformation is spreading: platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. We need to make a meaningful, long-term investment in flipping the narrative around climate — turning climate action from a disruption to a real opportunity.
Today, we have a real opportunity for bold climate progress, with a president and Congress who believe in building back our economy in a way that not only creates millions of good-paying jobs, but also protects our planet for generations to come. We need to take disinformation seriously, not dismiss it as a joke. But we need to understand that the best defense is a powerful offense, and the best way to counter the negative narratives is to displace them. This persuadable audience is getting bombarded with information. If we ignore this challenge, the story of climate runs the risk of being told as one defined by disinformation campaigns that get in the way of climate progress. We can’t let that happen.
Joe Bonfiglio is president of EDF Action, the advocacy partner of the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF Action works to build transformative political power to help protect our environment and the health of American families.
Jessica Reis is a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, where she heads and develops messaging and strategy for political, corporate and institutional clients, using a broad range of data and research tools.
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