1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
MediaGlobal issues

How can media react to disinformation, climate change?

June 18, 2024

Experts say that climate change and disinformation are two of this century's biggest issues. Speakers at DW's Global Media Forum in Bonn discussed how journalists can respond when the two intersect.

Attendees sit in concentric circles around a panel at the Global Media Forum 2024
DW's Global Media Forum 2024 took place over two days in mid-June and was held in BonnImage: Philipp Böll/DW

Recent reports from a variety of institutions, including the World Economic Forum, say the world is currently facing two challenges, both of which can be considered extremely urgent for humanity.

One is disinformation, when false images and deliberately inaccurate information, often known as "fake news," undermine democracy and deepen social divisions. The other is climate change, which is devastating the environment and will eventually see parts of the planet become uninhabitable. The former is mostly considered a short-term problem, the latter a long-term one.

What happens when the two collide?

Answers to this question were discussed at several sessions of DW's annual Global Media Forum (GMF) held this week in the western German city of Bonn.

Disinformation about climate change is a huge problem, said Isabelle Schläpfer, research manager at the US-funded media development organization Internews. In early June, her organization published a report on journalism and climate change, Covering the Planet, in which over 700 journalists were surveyed.

A farmer stands next to a figure made of hay bales as Belgian farmers protest over price pressures, taxes and green regulation
There were fears that farmer protests against new EU rules may have been motivated in part by far-right disinformationImage: Yves Herman/REUTERS

"Over 45% of journalists say [disinformation] has increased, mostly due to social media," Schläpfer told DW on the sidelines of the Global Media Forum. "It distorts the conversation about climate change. It takes attention away from what matters and what it means for ordinary people's lives."

Experts sayclimate change must be countered by government policies. But it is very important that ordinary people buy into those. That's why growing levels of disinformation are problematic.

The 'new denial' of climate change

At times, disinformation around climate change can be part of political campaigns, or arguments being made by certain interest groups, such as farmers' groups opposed to tough new European Union environmental regulations.

It may also be outright denial that climate change is happening, with some people insisting droughts or extreme weather events are simply part of Earth's normal seasonal cycle.

However, as researchers at the British nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reported in January, there's also a new form of climate-change denial emerging that journalists need to be aware of. They call it the "new denial." Other researchers at the London School of Economics have described it as climate change "delayism."

A panel of five sits on stage at the Global Media Forum. From left to right: Natascha Schwanke (DW Akademie), Zoé Titus (Namibia Media Trust), Helani Galpaya (LIRNEasia), Asmelash Teka Hadgu (Lesan) and Michael Schloms (BMZ)
Journalists attending the GMF2024 discussed how to cope with disinformation in all its formsImage: Björn Kietzmann/DW

"'New denial' claims now constitute 70% of all climate denial claims made on YouTube, up from 35% six years ago," the CCDH researchers wrote in January. It is a "substantial shift from denial of anthropogenic climate change to undermining trust in both solutions and science itself … [and] seeks to undermine solutions and delay political action."

"Disinformation is shifting from outright denial to challenging arrangements for doing something about climate change," said Anna Nanu, a delegate at the GMF; Nanu is a communications officer for the Brussels-based Cool Heating Coalition, a group of organizations promoting sustainable, renewable, and affordable heating and cooling systems in Europe.  

Her organization has recently seen a rise of disinformation about using hydrogen to heat homes, despite scientific advice against it. "It's a false solution," Nanu told DW. "We actually already have the technology we need."

Gaea Katreena Cabico, a reporter from the Philippines who specializes in environmental and social justice stories, gave the audience at her GMF session another example of climate change "delayism," recounting how a local influencer back home had been asked to promote a liquid natural gas (LNG) company.

A ship carrying LNG heads for Germany
Environmentalists contend that LNG is a harmful pollutant, challenging conventional narratives that it may be a sort of "diet fossil fuel"Image: Stefan Sauer/dpa/picture alliance

The influencer was told that LNG was "good for the environment," Cabico said. Although LNG may produce fewer polluting emissions than, for instance, brown coal, it is still a fossil fuel. "And she didn't seem to know that, but the LNG company that tapped her [to promote it], certainly did," Cabico noted.

There has also been disinformation about Catalonia's devastating drought, confirmed Pere Bosch, a reporter and presenter at the Spanish region's public broadcaster, TV3, who spoke at the GMF. "In February, when water was at its lowest, every day you'd open up social media and see people posting pictures of the so-called chem trails that were supposedly preventing rain," Bosch told DW.

There were also examples of new variety of climate change denial, he added. There are those "who don't openly deny the problem, but they want these unlikely solutions, like big desalination plants," Bosch explained. "Even though these are hugely expensive and also polluting."

The dry riverbed of the Fluvia river as it passes by Sant Miquel de Fluvia, Girona, in north Catalonia.
Catalonia has seen hardly any rain for four years. In February this year, authorities declared an emergencyImage: Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

What can be done?

All the journalists working in this area and other experts at the GMF recommended using science and facts in stories about climate change.

Some also suggested making sure that explanations were couched in simple language and easy to understand. Others, who had seen audiences turned off by crisis reporting on the environment, suggested a solutions-based approach to stories and to making sure that they weren't being all negative, all the time.

Mitali Mukherjee, director of journalist programs at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, suggested a more immediate or personal focus could also help. During a study conducted in countries of the so-called Global South, her institute asked local media workers how climate change was impacting them and their communities. Many were not sure.

Pedestrians walk in front of the India Gate amid heavy smoggy conditions in New Delhi
Around one fifth of air pollution in Delhi comes from the industrial sectorImage: MONEY SHARMA/AFP

"But when we asked them if it was impacting their health, then they said, yes, it was happening," she recounted. They talked about air pollution or how extreme heat threatened newborns and the elderly. "The health impact felt like it was here and now," she told delegates at the GMF.

"We cannot forget there are people at the heart of all this," Nanu agreed.

"We should be talking about this more," Schläpfer added. "There are people who might lose their jobs because they're working in a sector that is going to change. They need to know what a certain policy measure might mean for them personally. It's important for journalism to respond in an honest and sincere way."

Edited by: Maren Sass

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.