Climate activists protest outside the U.K. office of YouTube on October 16, 2019
On Twitter, Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said: “Hey @Youtube. It's good you're taking down COVID denial videos. Now it's time for you to remove climate denial videos. They pose an even greater threat to humanity in the long term.”
Mann wrote the tweet in response to a post from a fellow Twitter user regarding a 2013 video titled “Why Has Global Warming Paused?” featuring William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton appointed to the National Security Council under the tenure of President Donald Trump, himself an avid climate denier. In the video, Happer, who is not a climate scientist, claims that global warming appeared to have halted in 1998—a claim that subsequent research has disproved and which NOAA has deconstructed in a Q&A.
Speaking via email, Mann told me: “It’s great that YouTube is taking action to stop the spread of misinformation about Covid-19. But the disinformation promoted by fossil fuel-funded climate change deniers is just as rampant, and ultimately more deadly, given the profound damage we’re already seeing from human-caused climate change. YouTube needs to take action here as well.”
Hey @Youtube. It's good you're taking down COVID denial videos (https://t.co/6lAqb8GdlL). Now it's time for you to remove climate denial videos. They pose an even greater threat to humanity in the long term. https://t.co/zXNNSVvbvm— Prof Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) December 6, 2021
Mann is an authority not just on climate change, but on attacks against climate science. His book The New Climate War charts the U.S. fossil fuel industry’s decades-long battle to derail, deny and delay climate action in Washington and worldwide, via networks of lobbyists, public relations experts and compromised “experts.”
YouTube announced in August that it had removed more than 1 million videos containing misinformation about Covid-19. But the Google-owned platform believes it is already doing enough to combat climate untruths. Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube, told me:
“In general, our systems don’t recommend or prominently surface content that includes climate change misinformation. We raise videos from authoritative sources in search results through the Top News shelf and search ranking, and we connect viewers to additional context from third parties like the United Nations in information panels under a video. We also have policies that prohibit advertisers, publishers, and creators from making money on content that contains misinformation about the existence and causes of climate change.”
Hernandez pointed to YouTube’s advertising and monetization policies, updated in October, which “prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”
Yet this Forbes Sustainability contributor notes that, after viewing the video featuring William Happer posted by Princeton University, he was immediately served a selection of spurious videos featuring prominent climate deniers and skeptics.
While the science around climate change is well understood, misinformation about the phenomenon and its causes is still widespread on social media. Last month, a team of international researchers showed that fossil fuel-backed conservative U.S. think tanks and blogs were responsible for much of the climate misinformation being circulated. The nature of the attacks on climate science has changed over time, shifting from outright denial that global warming is taking place, to attacks on the integrity of climate scientists along with concerted efforts to undermine climate action.
Last month, a report from the Stop Funding Heat campaign revealed that Facebook posts containing climate misinformation were getting 1.36 million views per day on the platform. The researchers also said that reactions, comments and shares to posts containing climate misinformation had risen by 76.7% over the course of the year. Stop Funding Heat called on Facebook to “show not tell” that it took the problem seriously, and that the platform would take steps to develop and implement a concrete plan to reduce the spread of climate misinformation.
Climate misinformation is also rife on Twitter. A report in the journal Science Policy last year showed that Twitter bots skew online conversations about climate change and are designed to diminish support for climate policies. To counter this, Twitter has instated policies such as “pre-bunks,” placing messages containing authoritative, factual context within users’ Twitter feeds. It is not yet clear how effective such policies are.