Climate change misinformation on YouTube has turned into a misleading new narrative, a report published today shows. As disasters make it increasingly difficult to deny that climate change is happening, creators spreading disinformation have turned to content that focuses on clean energy.
In the past, content falsely claiming that climate change was not happening or was not the result of humans burning fossil fuels has dominated disinformation channels. That is no longer the case, according to an analysis by the non-profit organization Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Instead, the most common lies about climate change now involve denying the benefits of clean energy, attacking policies intended to reduce the planet’s pollution caused by fossil fuels, and vilifying scientists and advocates who push for change.
This type of “new denial,” according to the report, made up 70 percent of climate-denying content on YouTube in 2023, up from 35 percent in 2018. It largely revolves around misleading messages that “climate solutions won’t work,” that the science supporting these solutions is unreliable or that global warming is not really harmful.
This kind of ‘new denial’ made up 70 percent of climate-denying content on YouTube by 2023
There is overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are causing climate change, that those emissions are fueling deadly weather disasters, and that transitioning to clean energy is the only way to tackle the problem at scale.
In one case study, the researchers point to a spike in this type of content from Canadian expert Jordan Peterson in recent years. “The idea that we can make the planet more livable ecologically, by impoverishing poor people, by raising energy and food prices, is absolute, it is not only logically absurd, but I think it amounts to genocide.” Peterson says in a YouTube video that his channel will be posted in 2022.
Peterson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The edge. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths each year in the coming decades, as the risk of heat stress, malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea increases. Fortunately, renewable energy is already a cheaper alternative to fossil fuel power plants and can help prevent deaths from climate change.
Google’s misinformation policy must keep pace with emerging trends in climate disinformation, the report’s authors say. They found that the company was running ads for that type of content, even though it has a policy that “prohibits”[s] advertising and monetizing content that contradicts the established scientific consensus on the existence and causes of climate change.”
“It is hypocritical for social media companies to claim to be green but then make money and amplify lies about the climate,” CCDH CEO and founder Imran Ahmed said in a press release. “It’s time for digital platforms to put their money where their mouth is. They must refuse to allow the cynical content of climate denial to reinforce or monetize belief in our collective ability to solve humanity’s most pressing challenge.”
Citing Google’s existing climate change policies, Google spokesperson Nate Funkhouser said in an email: “Debate or discussion about climate change topics, including around public policy or research, is permitted. However, when the content crosses the line into climate change denial, we will stop serving ads on those videos.” The company says it has removed ads from some of the videos mentioned in the report because it violates its policies, but that the majority of videos mentioned are in compliance.
To conduct its analysis, CCDH searched 4,458 hours of video transcripts from 96 YouTube channels between 2018 and 2023. They used an AI tool called CARDS to sort different types of false claims about climate change and how common they were.
New climate denial tactics may have already made an impression on young YouTube viewers. In a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 17 conducted by market research firm Survation for CCDH this month, a third of teens said “climate policies do more harm than good.”
“Platforms like YouTube have billions of users and a monopoly on young people’s attention,” Michael Khoo, climate disinformation program director at the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “Social media companies must stop amplifying and profiting from climate denial that threatens addressing the most urgent crisis in human history.”