Issues & Ideas

Separating fact from fiction with climate misinformation

By Claire Zulkey

A woman standing on a ladder uses a Squeegee to wipe away a cloud of newspapers and interspersed with logos of social media sites and reveals a blue sky behind the media storm

The truth was inconvenient all the way back in 2006, when Al Gore’s documentary made waves, but that didn’t make it any less true: climate change is very real and continues to accelerate. Protecting the planet means confronting this reality honestly. But climate change misinformation (both purposefully false information and good-faith inaccuracies) remains rampant. Powerful interest groups manipulate facts using big budgets and political influences. The ill-informed or actively malicious spread conspiracy theories on social media. The threat of viral climate change misinformation has grown so acute that, in 2022, platforms like Pinterest explicitly banned the practice, relegating such false content to the realms of adult content, hate speech, and incitements to violence.

Social media policies are one way to confront the spread of false information about climate change, but it’s a multi-faceted problem that requires a range of expertise, knowledge, and communication tools to combat. In policy, journalism, and community organizing, here are some of the ways Loyolans are working to spread accurate, mobilizing information about climate change.

A time-traveling climate scientist from the 1970s is thrilled to reach the year 2021. “How long have we lived without fossil fuels?” the scientist asks a present-day American, only to learn that they’re still the country’s primary energy source. “What are we going to do?” worries the time traveler, prompting viewers to sign a petition for the U.S. president to work towards transitioning to renewable energy—and, of course, to share the TikTok.

The video is an example of the work produced by Action for the Climate Emergency (ACE), a Colorado-based nonprofit that educates youth about climate change and motivates them to get involved. Their Creator Collective program supports young social influencers interested in sharing accurate climate change information.

“There is a huge misinformation campaign we’re battling,” says Loyola alumna Tonyisha Harris, ACE’s associate director of communications and partnerships, referring to billions of advertising dollars oil and gas companies have spent over the decades. ACE’s strategy for fighting misinformation about the environment is to arm a younger generation at an earlier age with better climate information than their parents had. And crucially, they find young creators who know how to attract eyeballs. “We enable our young people to battle back with paid media,” Harris says. “We give them a platform. We send them a tool kit for them to create their digital media on YouTube.”

That toolkit includes ACE branding, campaign information, and sources that creators may use to develop content. “We tell them, ‘This is the real science and data behind it; this is how you can communicate it to your base,’” Harris says. The group takes special care to ensure its educational materials and ambassadors reflect the communities they’re trying to reach. “We want this information to come from the voice of young people.”

Organizing on behalf of the Student Environmental Alliance (SEA) while at Loyola gave Harris experience connecting with others over climate change. She’s especially proud of “A Place at the Table,” a campaign she developed to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion for environmental discourse. “The SEA helped me change the minds of other people. You learn to connect through your audience, telling them, ‘These are the populations that are impacted, and some are represented at our school.’”

Shriya Patel, former co-president of SEA, agrees that connecting with those around you helps further conversation on climate change. “It helps others connect themselves to the problems that you are talking about—especially if they don’t have first-hand experience with them,” says Patel.

“Facts and figures are important, but they don’t always create emotional ties for people, and getting people to truly care requires a deeper level of buy-in.”
Harris says ACE makes sure all their audiences, particularly BIPOC students, see how climate change relates to their lives and how they can do something about it. “I like to know more about the person I’m talking to,” Harris says, of her methods for communicating with future environmentalists. “‘You care about crime in your neighborhood—did you know that having green spaces can actually alleviate some of that crime?’ We tell them, ‘Our climate; our future.’”

"People die because they’re not believing scientists."

— Meghan Pazik , Loyola alumna working as a legislative assistant

A challenge of tackling climate change misinformation in the governmental sphere, says Loyola alumna Meghan Pazik, is doing it in a way that doesn’t prevent others from exercising their freedom of speech. Pazik is a legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA), in California’s 26th congressional district, and says that some politicians attack the problem creatively. “Representative David Cicilline looked at antitrust laws, and that gained a lot of traction,” Pazik says. “Representative Tom Malinowski has a bill that would fine you based on the number of followers you have and the degree to which you spread misinformation or disinformation. He says that freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”

Many members of Congress concerned about the climate rely on an information portfolio assembled by staffers like Pazik. Her job involves updating a representative’s portfolio so that she has useful information and experts on hand when an opportunity to create new policy arises. Pazik previously worked on U.S. Representative Sean Casten’s (D-IL) climate change disinformation portfolio, which he utilized on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, especially during the committee’s “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action” hearing in 2021.

Her work, Pazik says, has made her more aware of the ways that climate change misinformation intersects with other forms of political disinformation, like those surrounding COVID-19 or the 2020 election results.

“People die because they’re not believing scientists,” she says.
The degrees in environmental studies and communication that Pazik received from Loyola positioned her perfectly to understand how misleading information about the environment is shared in a variety of disciplines, including history, philosophy, and communication. “I took a conflict management class, a rhetoric class. I took a persuasion course. I took these elective communications courses that served me in better understanding the historical context of our country.”

Another nuance of fighting climate change misinformation is identifying and effectively communicating with as many communities as possible—including people new to the country. Loyola alumna Mia Ambroiggio is a sustainability fellow at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which helps municipalities in the Portland, Maine region with environmental planning, development, and resilience. She also writes the “Our Sustainable City” column for the weekly South Portland Sentry, connecting people to environmentally friendly opportunities, and publishes in Amjambo Africa, which guides new Mainers to local sustainability opportunities, climate change news, and avenues to get involved in city planning projects.

Ambroiggio double-majored in environmental studies and communications while at Loyola and gained valuable experience in climate communications by publishing an ongoing opinion column in the Loyola Phoenix on topics like greenwashing and centering Indigenous knowledge in climate action.

Part of the issue of communicating clearly about climate change is what Urooj Raja, assistant professor in the School of Communication, calls “psychological distance” of engaging people on a topic that can seem so large and distant. In her research, Raja has seen the dangers of relying too heavily on fear as a motivator in people, which can make everyday citizens feel overwhelmed and out of control: “That may translate into decision fatigue and ‘What am I going to do?’”

In her current role, Ambroiggio has learned to engage readers with collective terms. “I use ‘we’ a lot, ‘our city’ a lot, to use a sense of group responsibility and ownership and to be a part of the community.” Her tone switches between hyperlocal information for the South Portland Sentry and more inclusive language for new residents. “I’ve worked with the main editor about what accessibility looks like in writing. If English isn’t their first language, how to write and be persuasive and motivating without scaring people off. I make sure to thoroughly explain everything, that my language isn’t very technical or science-based because that’s very intimidating, even to me. I try to make it applicable to everybody.”