From denial to delay: Climate action blockers adopt new tactics

A man takes a newspaper at a kiosk in central Madrid, Spain, December 21, 2015

A man takes a newspaper at a kiosk in central Madrid, Spain, December 21, 2015. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

The media today gives little space to anti-science views, but new narratives have emerged aimed at slowing the green transition

Dr Sheila Ochugboju is executive director of the Alliance for Science.

First, some rare good news on climate. Our new study on misinformation finds that overt climate denialism in mainstream-media news coverage has become vanishingly scarce. Studying the occurrence of six Twitter-generated climate denialist memes, we found that only 0.02% of media coverage repeated this misinformation without rebuttal.

But as we launch our report on the margins of the Africa Climate Summit in Kenya, we wonder why the gap between climate change rhetoric and climate action remains so wide, if the consensus is clear.

How did we carry out the study? In order to estimate the proportion of climate misinformation in the world's press, we analysed six false climate-sceptic themes which emerged on social media, and examined their 'breakout' occurrence rates in wide-circulation global news stories. We found only 59 articles containing unchallenged misinformation on these themes in more than 300,000 climate-related articles, a misinformation rate of just 0.02 percent.

An ice sculpture with Facebook’s logo embedded on the inside melts near the U.S. Capitol building, as part of a protest over Facebook’s role in the spread of climate misinformation online in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2021
Go DeeperHow online disinformation threatens climate change action
A worker is pictured at the natural Ashaafean park, Libyan's first and only UNESCO listed biosphere reserves, which local conservators say is threatened by increasing wildfires, pollution, war, and overall neglect, in Msallata, Libya, November 9, 2021
Go DeeperScientist fights climate change deniers causing 'dangerous' delay
A student smiles while holding a climate protest sign at her school in the Kibaha district, Tanzania, October 9, 2022
Go DeeperAfrican climate activists fight online surveillance

The 99.98% of media coverage that does not contradict the consensus on the human cause of climate change almost exactly parallels the 99.6% figure we earlier found to be the level of scientific consensus in the peer-reviewed literature on climate change. Both scientists and the media now agree: Human activity is causing climate warming. No serious voices deny this any longer.

However, because of the enormous volume of media coverage on climate change, even this small 0.02 percent proportion was estimated to have an audience reach of 4.4 billion. The majority of this misinformation was carried on mainstream outlets like Yahoo! and MSN via PR distribution networks, as well as right-wing and conspiracist media such as Epoch Times.

Social media ‘cesspool’

This shows that the debate is essentially over - at least in the news media. But social media is a different issue altogether. In our study we took our climate misinformation top themes from Twitter (now renamed X), because social media has become an increasingly unregulated cesspool of falsehoods in numerous areas of science, climate in particular.

Perhaps in response to this, Twitter/X has now made it virtually impossible for academics to study misinformation on the platform by restricting the ability to search tweets and charging impossibly high prices for access to large-scale content.

Of course, it is encouraging that the media conversation on climate change has moved on from denialist talking points - and the news media can be confident that, overall, it is doing a good job with climate coverage. But that is not the whole story. Overt climate misinformation may be relegated to the margins, but the power of the fossil fuels lobby means that things have shifted from denial to delay.

Today the controversy - which has all the makings of a culture war in some parts of the world - has moved from 'denialist' to 'delayer'. Populist politicians and commentators, especially in the Global North, are trying to back-track on net zero commitments, to stall the clean energy transition, and to reduce the financing available to developing countries that desperately need support in adapting to climate impacts.

Thus, translating the scientific consensus into the necessary action to tackle climate change is the hard part, and is already facing serious political pushback. World leaders are currently meeting here in Nairobi for the Africa Climate Summit, an appropriate venue because sub-Saharan Africa is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of the climate emergency.

With the Paris 1.5-degree Celsius limit for global warming now practically consigned to the rear-view mirror, the issue of loss and damage is front and centre here in Nairobi. Our study shows that the debate on human causes is over - but climate justice demands that those who catalysed this emergency pick up the majority of the bill for the damage.

The battlelines have been drawn for COP28 later this year: Climate deniers have rebranded as delayers and will be making every effort to derail progress on financing for adaptation, loss and damage and the clean energy transition. The world must come together and support the Global South in making the case for a just and enduring solution to the climate emergency.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Tech and climate
  • Government aid
  • Climate finance
  • Circular economies
  • Climate inequality
  • Communicating climate change
  • Climate solutions

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context