So we become immune to fake news about climate change: John Cook of Skeptical Science meets Italian experts from CMCC and WWF
Misinformation is a virus that is always found alongside information on the climate crisis. And especially when climate impacts are most severe, it comes back to infect the news, undermining the understanding of climate change’s relevance in the public sphere. However, there are many tools to keep the virus away, as emerged from the dialogue among the award-winning Australian professor John Cook and a panel of experts at the event organised by CMCC and WWF in Rome.
Long, unusual periods of extreme heat that become the norm, temperatures in the Mediterranean Sea that reach levels never recorded in over a century, severe rains that cause widespread floods: when the climate crisis manifests its urgency in a more evident manner, some false news, aimed at downplaying its magnitude and severity, returns under the media spotlight. This is what emerged from a recent analysis by IDMO (Italian Digital Media Observatory): in May 2023, for example, false stories about the Emilia-Romagna’s floods increased climate disinformation by almost three times the level of the previous month.
“Misinformation has a number of negative effects on people’s perception, but there are powerful tools that help us neutralize the lies and contribute to a more informed public opinion,” these are the words of John Cook, cognitive science expert at the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change and founder of Skeptical Science, the award-winning climate misinformation website and one of the world’s most authoritative voices on the topic.
At the meeting Climate, news and fake news. Navigating the climate crisis between science and information, organised on 15 November by the CMCC – Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change and WWF in Rome, Cook talked with Italian experts including Paola Mercogliano (climatologist at CMCC), Antonello Pasini (CNR), Monia Azzalini (Pavia Observatory), Riccardo Luna (Editor in chief at Green&Blue, Repubblica), Edoardo Zanchini (Director of the Climate Office, Municipality of Rome), Mariagrazia Midulla (WWF) and Mauro Buonocore (CMCC) who moderated the discussion.
As Cook explained, reporting facts, also by using fact-checking techniques, is very important, but it is even more useful to “vaccinate” against fake news: games and humour applied to critical thinking are powerful tools to recognise and debunk rhetorical techniques. “People understand better and more if they are involved in critical thinking. One of the most effective techniques is to involve people actively, with smartphone apps and games, and make them the protagonists of all those activities that are necessary to unmask denialism”. A few years ago, this phenomenon was mainly aimed at denying the existence of the problem and the foundations of scientific knowledge about the anthropogenic causes of climate change. But it continues today, especially by trying to discredit the policies and solutions that are needed to tackle the climate crisis.
“Solutions to the climate crisis are also, and most importantly, created with the active involvement of citizens,” explained Paola Mercogliano, climatologist at CMCC and coordinator of the AGORA research project. “Building societies that are resilient to the impacts of climate change requires identifying actions that are effective if designed and implemented well at the local level. With AGORA we are implementing a series of initiatives across Europe that draw the attention of local communities not only on their right to climate information, but also on how to use and translate the knowledge produced by scientific research into practical suggestions to prevent the negative impacts of the climate crisis and turn it into an opportunity for sustainable development.
“While your house is burning, would you waste valuable time arguing with people who do not want to call the fire department? Certainly not. Yet that is exactly what is happening with the climate crisis,” says Mariagrazia Midulla, head of Climate and Energy at WWF Italy. “Access to timely, verified, science-based information is a citizen’s right. A right that allows not only to understand but also to act on the climate crisis, that is the biggest emergency of our time and whose impacts we suffer daily. By now it is clear that those who deny global warming are only trying to slow down action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, 87 percent of which are caused by the use of fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal). The challenge ahead is too important for nature and humanity. We must ensure that COP28 generates a new common will for action to counter the climate crisis, make the Energy and Climate Plan a tool to really reduce emissions, and make the G7 with the Italian presidency succeed in launching the global transition to renewables. Those who must act must do so quickly and without continuously making up excuses.”
Thus, if information on the climate crisis grows, as shown by the analysis of the main daily newspapers and national news broadcasts monitored by the Pavia Observatory for Greenpeace since January 1, 2022, the road to solutions for the climate emergency necessarily requires citizens to become aware of how to navigate their way through the growing information and recognize what is reliable.