How climate disinformation is sowing distrust in LTNs

There may be scientific consensus that the climate crisis is happening and it’s caused by human activity, but not everyone agrees. As misinformation and disinformation have increasingly leaked into politics and social commentary in recent years, this means climate denial theories are gaining more attention.

If you’ve noticed a rise in climate denial on social media in recent months you’re not alone. On Twitter, the phrase ‘climate scam’ or other tweets containing climate denial rose by 300% in 2022, according to an Advance Democracy report. Elsewhere, Oxford councillors said they’d been inundated with abusive phone calls and social media messages after a false and misleading article on a climate denial website went viral in December. The article took aim at the city’s recently announced traffic filters, claiming that the measures were part of a conspiracy to impose a ‘climate lockdown’ on citizens. Not long after a far-right protest against the traffic reducing measures took place in the city. But Oxfordshire’s traffic filters will not block access in and out of the city and are designed solely to reduce congestion and improve air quality in the city centre. The whole debacle has unveiled a complex climate disinformation system at work to delay climate action.

While this may seem like the views of a remote few, Jennie King, Head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says the issue is ‘endemic’ and the potential for these ideas to spread is ‘growing by the day’. Climate disinformation has a long history, as the fossil fuel industry has been exposed for misleading the public on the severity of the climate crisis since the 1970s. But King says the conversation has now diversified, as the topic has become part of the wider culture wars, with some groups seeing the climate movement as inherently ‘liberal’ and ‘woke’. This poses a direct threat to climate action, says King: ‘I think that there is a great danger in assuming that issues like climate change are a settled matter, or even that some of the key basic arguments have been won. We’re seeing a historic backsliding of rights and policy in a number of areas, whether it’s sexual reproductive health, or the LGBT community or civil rights, and climate is equally as vulnerable to that kind of backsliding.’

Climate misinformation and disinformation isn’t just featured on social media either, as British media outlets particularly invested in fanning the flames of the culture wars platform controversial climate deniers. ‘One of the major threads of disinformation is trying to claim that there isn’t scientific consensus or cherry picking the scientific data to make counterfactual arguments,’ adds King. The Daily Mail, The Sun and GB News, for example, have all peddled climate denial theories and platformed people who are ‘vocally, determinately and uncompromisingly’ arguing against climate action. The public mandate is informed by everyday debates and discussions which King says is currently ‘entirely skewed towards a very strong, well-funded and developed disinformation ecosystem’.

The danger lies where climate disinformation is now ‘pivoting to these more subtle discourses of delay’ which is less obvious to spot. These exploit the ‘last mile gap’, says King, ‘which is the gap between having broad consensus that climate change exists, is caused by humans and requires urgent action and actually implementing the kinds of policies that are absolutely essential if we’re going to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.’ This can be seen in discussions questioning the necessity of climate solutions, such as solar farms and Clean Air Zones (CAZs). Policies like this are required to not only meet the all-important 1.5° target, but also to achieve clean air that is vital to health. But conversations continue to deny the urgency and importance of doing so.

Traffic reducing measures in particular attract a lot of vitriol, as witnessed by the reaction to Oxford’s traffic filters. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have been proven to reduce air pollution and encourage cycling and walking rates but are regularly attacked with arguments of elitism. Critics say they disproportionately disadvantage ethnic minority and poorer communities, but research shows low-traffic schemes in London actually benefit these communities the most. A 2021 study led by Westminster University in London found that people in the most deprived areas were 2.7 times more likely to live within an LTN scheme. The rising cost of living has also provoked more criticism of Clean Air Zones (CAZs) as people are concerned about having to pay fines. Sadiq Khan’s announcement of an expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) led to people congregating in Trafalgar Square, protesting against the charges. While the majority of drivers have compliant cars, there are still 30% in London’s outer boroughs who have non-compliant vehicles.

Climate action group Possible has come face to face with disinformation when publishing reports on LTNs, as people have questioned who funds the charity and whether the group is part of a wider conspiracy. Research shows LTNs reduce overall traffic, with 46 London schemes seeing a 32.7% median reduction in traffic and a 46.9% drop when calculated as a mean. However, some groups have been pushing the belief that LTNs push traffic onto boundary roads, invalidating the positive results of the schemes. But further research has found that this isn’t quite the case, as traffic on boundary roads changed very little. Hirra Khan Adeogun, Head of Car Free Cities at Possible, says: ‘For about half of boundary roads traffic reduces and for about half of them traffic increases. So, what we can say there is there’s no systemic link between LTNs and traffic on boundary roads, what’s often going on is other localised issues.’ This could be new housing developments leading to more cars in the area or a new office building funnelling cars onto roads.

More emotionally charged responses to traffic reducing measures, such as the ‘climate lockdown’ conspiracy theory, are borne out of fears of people’s civil liberties being taken away following COVID-19 lockdown, says King. ‘People do not trust government to act in their best interests and they perceive, often very legitimately, that there is a huge disconnect between what is happening among elite circles and the average citizen,’ she says. ‘The climate lockdown conspiracy very successfully marshalled those kinds of grievances in opposition to climate action.’

When the public is becoming increasingly mistrustful of forces at large, its vital that communicators efficiently and accurately convey information on LTNs and other measures. Khan says she thinks it’s up to environment groups to ‘be better communicators and to win people over with transparency, openness and honesty.’ With bad faith actors always waiting to jump on slight missteps, however, it’s important to remain aware of a fractured political and social landscape and how information could be purposefully misinterpreted. Politicians are also looking to stoke the flames of the culture wars to advance their own agenda – Boris Johnson was quick to jump on to criticism of the ULEZ expansion and five Conservative councils have launched legal action against it. Figures from City Hall show that 300,000 people live with asthma in outer London where the ULEZ would be expanded to, highlighting the need to reduce deadly air pollution in the area. Khan says: ‘I think one of my key things is that politicians from across all parties across the board need to start being open and honest with the public about the facts around the climate crisis and the action that’s necessary to combat it.’ 

On social media the disinformation network is more difficult to combat, as people can quickly spread false information and sow doubt. King’s recent report on new digital trends in climate mis- and disinformation found that the hashtag ‘climate scam’ is being actively recommended as a top result to Twitter users who search for anything climate related. This is despite some users never having interacted with any climate denial rhetoric and other climate hashtags having more engagement. King says this is unlikely to be a conscious decision to promote climate denial, but rather a reflection of the wider chaos ongoing at Twitter amid mass layoffs and system changes. Twitter could not be reached for a comment on this. It’s believed that the communications team at Twitter has been hit particularly hard by layoffs. King’s report says this reflects the importance of social media companies being more transparent about how and why certain content is platformed and recommended to users.

As mis- and disinformation can cause so much harm, destabilising societies and promoting extremism, this could be something governments start to clamp down on in future. The European Parliament recently hosted its first hearings on climate disinformation, showing a move towards policy tackling these threatening forces. With free speech being a challenging thing to uphold when trying to restrict harmful and false information, it remains to be seen exactly how policy will go about dismantling the disinformation machine. But it’s clear more needs to be done to tackle the dangerous networks at play which could delay climate action until its way too late.

This article first appeared in the March issue of  Air Quality News Magazine


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