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A new kind of climate denial has taken over on YouTube

Climate change disinformation on YouTube has morphed into a misleading new narrative, according to a report published today. With compounding disasters making it harder to deny that climate change is happening, creators spreading disinformation have pivoted to content that targets clean energy.

In the past, content that falsely claimed that climate change was either not happening or not a result of humans burning fossil fuels dominated disinformation channels. That’s not the case anymore, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Instead, the most common lies about climate change now have to do with denying the benefits of clean energy, attacking policies meant to slash planet-heating pollution from fossil fuels, and maligning scientists and advocates that push for change.

This kind of “new denial” made up 70 percent of climate-denying content on YouTube in 2023, according to the report, compared to 35 percent in 2018. It largely centers around deceptive messages that “climate solutions won’t work,” that the science backing those solutions is unreliable, or that global warming isn’t actually harmful.

This kind of “new denial” made up 70 percent of climate-denying content on YouTube in 2023

There’s overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are causing climate change, that those emissions are supercharging 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 kind of content from Canadian pundit Jordan Peterson over the last few years. “The idea that we can make the planet more habitable on an environmental, on the environmental front by impoverishing poor people, by raising energy prices and food prices, is absolutely, it’s not only absurd logically, but I think it’s tantamount to genocidal,” Peterson says in one YouTube video his channel posted in 2022.

Peterson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge. Climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths each year in the coming decades as it raises risks from heat stress, malaria, undernutrition, and diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization. Fortunately, renewable energy is already a cheaper alternative to fossil fuel power plants and can help prevent deaths linked to the effects of climate change.

Google’s policies on disinformation have to catch up with new trends in climate disinformation, the report authors say. They found that the company was running ads on that kind of content, even though it has a policy that “prohibit[s] ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”

“It is hypocritical for social media companies to claim to be green but then monetize and amplify lies about the climate,” CCDH CEO and founder Imran Ahmed said in a press release. “It is time for digital platforms to put their money where their mouth is. They should refuse to amplify or monetize cynical climate denial content that undermines faith in our collective capacity to solve humanity’s most pressing challenge.”

Citing Google’s existing climate change policy, Google spokesperson Nate Funkhouser said in an email that, “Debate or discussions of climate change topics, including around public policy or research, is allowed. However, when content crosses the line to climate change denial, we stop showing ads on those videos.” The company said it removed ads from some of the videos mentioned in the report for violating its policy, but that a majority of the videos mentioned were compliant.

To conduct its analysis, CCDH combed through 4,458 of hours of transcripts of videos from 96 YouTube channels between 2018 and 2023. They used an AI tool called CARDS to sort different kinds of false claims about climate change and how frequently they occurred.

New climate denial tactics may have already made an impression on young YouTube viewers. In a poll of more than 1,000 teenagers in the US between the ages of 13 and 17 conducted by market research company Survation for CCDH this month, a third of teenagers said “climate policies cause 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 off the climate denial that threatens action on the most pressing crisis of human history.”

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