Why climate conferences are now hubs of disinformation

Shougat Dasgupta

 

COP28, the global climate conference currently underway in Dubai, has produced so much doublespeak, so much straight-up disinformation, that the point of the whole exercise deserves to be called into question. What progress, for instance, towards cutting emissions can be made when Sultan al-Jaber, the man tasked by the host state with leading the conference insists that there is “no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve 1.5 C” 

1.5 C refers to the legally binding treaty agreed to by practically every state in the world (Iran is the only major holdout) at COP21 in Paris in 2015 to limit the levels of global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. Cutting fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is universally acknowledged to be the path to achieving that target.

Despite the clear evidence that emissions continue to rise — provided by organizations dedicated to tracking emissions, using satellite data and artificial intelligence technology to provide a fuller picture than provided by governments — and that the world is behind on its pledges, al-Jaber was able to say with both confidence and aggression that he was not “signing up to any discussion that is alarmist.”

Weaponizing the phrase trotted out to justify all government actions during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, al-Jaber claimed his position was a product of “respect [for] the science.” This, even though as the head of the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, al-Jaber has signed off on spending $150 billion by 2027 on, among other things, boosting its oil production capacity to 5 million barrels per day. By comparison, the United Arab Emirates (the whole country, not just the state-run oil company) expects to spend $54 billion over the next seven years on tripling its renewable energy capacities. 

For a powerful lobby, kicking the green transition can as far down the road as possible is the preferred strategy. That lobby, of course, includes producers of fossil fuels such as the UAE — hosts of a conference intended to map the way towards eliminating the use of fossil fuels. 

After sustained criticism of al-Jaber’s comments that phasing out — or “phasing down” in the oil industry’s preferred term — fossil fuels was not going to “achieve 1.5 C,” he held a press conference to further explain his position. “I honestly think,” he said, “that there’s some confusion out there, some misinterpretation.” It is, al-Jaber insisted, “the science that has guided the principles of our strategy as the COP28 presidency.”

But the science is clear: An international body of climate scientists put together by the United Nations has said that by 2030 we need to reduce emissions by 43% to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. At the present rate, we will have only reduced emissions by 2% by 2030. 

We need to dramatically reduce our coal, oil and gas usage by the middle of the century to avert crisis. Al-Jaber claims phasing out fossil fuels is “inevitable” but “we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.” Pragmatism has been the mantra of politicians worldwide when it comes to enforcing the changes necessary to achieve carbon neutrality. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, at COP28, said “climate politics is close to breaking point.” What is needed, he argued, is “to meet our targets in a more pragmatic way that doesn’t burden working people.” What this means in practice, Sunak does not define, but part of this pragmatism appears to be to renege on commitments that might help scale down emissions sooner rather than later.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also at COP28, said India “has set an example of a balance between ecology and economy.” He spoke about India’s historically negligible contribution to global warming and the relatively low intensity of its per capita emissions. What he left out is that India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses and in absolute terms is a significant obstacle on the road to “net zero.” Despite enhancing its generation of renewable energies, coal is still overwhelmingly a major source of Indian electricity. How long can Modi talk about climate justice in global forums, calling out the developed world for causing global warming at the expense of poorer nations, while refusing to phase out India’s coal use in the short term?

A new report by the Delhi-based Centre of Science and Environment revealed that India had suffered an extreme weather event “nearly every day in the first nine months of this year — from heat and cold waves, cyclones and lightning to heavy rain, floods and landslides.” When India argues about the need to burn fossil fuels to uplift poorer people, it is evasive about the effects of both extreme weather as a result of climate change and pollution as a product of fossil fuels on those same people.

Climate skepticism and deliberate disinformation is often blamed for undermining the global effort to tackle climate change. But a bigger concern appears to be the willingness of governments to put politics and supposed pragmatism above “the science,” while claiming to be solely guided by evidence. Increasingly, hosting the COP summit gives the appearance of being serious about climate change, while doing little to actually effect a green transition. Incidentally, while in Dubai, Modi pitched India as the host for COP33 in 2028.

Climate disinfo as geopolitical tool 

A report by Climate Action Against Disinformation released last week showed how Russian state propagandists spread disinformation about climate change online to undermine the West and exploit tensions with developing countries. It pointed to the need for a “shared understanding of climate change” and how the lack of consensus is exploited online. Russian state propaganda, the authors of the report argued, is directed by geopolitical considerations rather than any ideological principles on global warming. 

Part of the strategy, it appears, is to portray efforts to tackle climate change as an extension of Western imperialism. This is not unlike points both al-Jaber and Modi made in Dubai. “Please help me,” al-Jaber told former Irish President Mary Robinson in a tense exchange, “show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.” Modi, in his speech in Dubai, said gravely: “Over the past century, a small section of humanity has indiscriminately exploited nature. However, [all of] humanity is paying the price for this, especially people living in the Global South.​​”

But these calls for equitable development and social justice are fig leaves for a lack of political action and urgency. With the UAE, the conflict of interest is evident. But India would benefit hugely from weaning itself off from its debilitating dependence on coal and imported oil and gas.

Who needs social media to spread disinformation, when global leaders are only too willing to amplify Russian talking points when it suits their political agendas?  

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • Joan Donovan, a widely cited and respected scholar of disinformation, has alleged she was fired by Harvard University to appease Meta, reports The Washington Post. Much of Donovan’s work involved the divisive impacts of disinformation spread on social media platforms that profit from these falsehoods. Donovan was dismissed, she says, shortly after a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated $500 million to the university to set up a center focused on artificial intelligence.
  • In Harper’s magazine, writer Ben Lerner details his early experience as a Wikipedia editor, when he set out a kind of project for himself to inhabit different voices and become an internet-fueled authority on any number of subjects. “The work was a bizarre mixture of utter boredom,” he writes, “and exhilaration.” By the end of the piece, he hands the reins over to ChatGPT “because you represent the end of Wikipedia.”  

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.