I don’t have a good or clever title for this blog post, and as I sat down to write it I didn’t know where it was going, and that fact that it doesn’t conclude satisfactorily is probably a reflection of that.
What got me started? I thought it was the rhetoric from UK political parties after the Uxbridge by-election (I’ll talk about that further down). But really I have been angry for a while, and I think I started seething when I read the following from APNews in the US, when they reported on Climate Envoy, John Kerry answering questions on his climate negotiations with China.
In the most heated confrontation, Republican Rep. Scott Perry accused Kerry of drumming up a “problem that doesn’t exist” in global warming. When Kerry asked why the world’s scientists and the 195 global governments behind the Paris climate accord would make up global warming, Perry responded, “Because they’re grifting, like you are,”APNews
Social Media and Climate Change
I’ve been involved in information and digital literacy for a long time, and I am an environmental scientist, so I am obviously interested in these issues, and follow them. Over the last few years, as spring changes to summer, and the migrating birds have arrived back in the UK and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, so have reports of record breaking temperatures and other abnormal weather phenomena. In fact watching the behaviour and patterns of bird and insect migrations help provide evidence that something is happening to the earth’s climate.
And with the reports of climate change, we get the outrage of the climate deniers, calling everyone liars and grifters on social media. And even as the BBC finally no longer feel the need to field idiots like former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson (no qualifications in science) to provide a “balanced debate on whether climate change is real”, there is still a growing attack against the calls for action on climate change. In fact it seems to be a major theme of new right wing media channel GB news, where the majority of news hosts attacked climate action on the channel in 2022, while one in three spread climate science denial.
This week saw a huge blow for the Tory Party, a massive loss in the North, and South West, and they barely held on to the safe Tory seat of Uxbridge, vacated when serial liar and former Prime Minister Johnson resigned in a tantrum. The Uxbridge campaign has been painted by the media as a campaign over green issues (namely the Ultra Low Emission Zone aimed at older and more polluting vehicles). The Tories won (by 500 seats) because their candidate opposed the scheme, which is being rolled out by a Labour Mayor of London – hence framing it as a labour policy. The truth of course is that it is a Tory policy, and the minister for transport instructed the mayor to roll it out. There is a whole debate in here. But that is not the point. Both parties now have significant numbers of political activists and MPs calling on their respective leaders to walk their policies back from green and net zero targets.
“Never mind the science, what about the votes”
What’s this got to do with AI
As I watched the results unfold on social media the climate deniers came out in force to troll environmental policies of all parties. These extremists argue climate change is anything and everything, from bad science and readings taken from “urban heat islands” to “Cosmic Ray Flux”.
An investigation by Newsguard earlier this year found it was relatively simple to get around safeguards implemented to stop AI creating misinformation, and that plausible, climate denial statements could be produced rapidly, convincingly. I tried it on one system and in a short period it came out with the following.
“While the loss of ice mass in Greenland and Antarctica is evident, attributing this solely to human-induced climate change ignores other possible causes. Ice sheets have naturally fluctuated throughout Earth’s history. Some studies suggest geothermal heat sources, such as volcanoes beneath the ice, could contribute to the melting. Also, satellite measurements are subject to errors, which can influence our understanding. Thus, linking ice melting exclusively to human actions simplifies the complexities of Earth’s climate system.”
It’s complete nonsense and sounds completely reasonable and plausible.
That’s the danger, before wide availability of AI it was much harder for trolls and deniers to generate authentic sounding arguments. Now, they can. I refined the above by asking it to produce something more “scholarly”.
“The observed decrease in the ice mass of both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, while undeniably occurring, cannot be unequivocally attributed to anthropogenic climate change without considering other contributory factors. The Earth’s cryosphere has demonstrated considerable variability throughout geological history, fluctuating in response to natural climatic variations (Alley et al., 2010).
Recent research has proposed the influence of sub-glacial geothermal heat sources, such as volcanic activity, as a contributing factor to ice melt (Smith et al., 2017).
Furthermore, methodological considerations regarding satellite-based ice mass measurements necessitate caution, as these data are subject to inherent uncertainties and potential errors, including atmospheric effects, snow accumulation rates, and isostatic adjustments of the underlying bedrock (Hanna et al., 2013).
Consequently, positing anthropogenic climate change as the sole driver for the observed ice mass loss oversimplifies the intricate and multifarious dynamics of the Earth’s climatic system.”
- Alley, R.B., et al. (2010). History of the Greenland Ice Sheet: paleoclimatic insights. Quaternary Science Reviews, 29(15-16), 1728-1756.
- Smith, A., et al. (2017). Sub-glacial heat sources and geothermal heat flux under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Cryosphere, 11, 2541-2554.
- Hanna, E., et al. (2013). Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change. Nature, 498, 51–59.
Sounds even more plausible now, and also the 1st and 3rd references are genuine articles, but they don’t support the argument. The second reference appears to be a fabrication.
AI is making it easier to spread misinformation.
But that’s not the only problem for those concerned with climate change.
Carbon Literacy and Climate Literacy
Carbon literacy is an approach to raising awareness about the climate crisis by understanding the influence that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases exert on the climate, alongside knowledge of how to reduce our personal carbon footprints measured in CO2 equivalent (CO2e)*, a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. Most of these education or awareness raising resources are based on neoliberal approaches, looking at how individual actions impact the climate, talking about individual choices and actions related to our consumption of resources.
Climate literacy requires understanding of the earth’s climate system, including the large-scale, systemic factors that contribute to climate change; this goes beyond the individualistic focus of carbon literacy. The broader perspective helps to combat neoliberal thinking by emphasizing that addressing climate change requires systemic, coordinated efforts, including robust policy interventions and corporate accountability. Whilst it does promote the idea that personal actions matter, it also promotes the idea that they must be paired with larger cultural, societal and political changes.
Climate literacy requires individuals to recognise the limitations of relying solely on market mechanisms and individual actions to combat climate change, and that they will not be enough to stem the coming climate crisis. For change to happen we need more climate advocates. Using our voices in the spaces we live and work in to argue for better climate policies, supporting renewable energy projects, and applying pressure to be more responsible for environmental footprints.
Right now, almost all the corporate responses are firmly in the neo-liberal “this is how we all as individuals make an impact.” We see lots of corporate training about reducing your carbon footprint, about waste reduction, about being green. And the things that are pushed most are those that also save the organisation money.
Climate Change is a Political Issue
Neo-liberal approaches to carbon literacy, with a focus on market-based solutions and individual responsibility, may inadvertently hinder cultural change around climate issues. By framing climate change primarily as an economic problem to be solved through carbon pricing, market mechanisms, and individual choice and action mean that we look less at the broader social, political, and systemic dimensions of the climate crisis. Consequently, they could undermine the urgency needed to address the root causes of climate change, such as excessive consumption, unsustainable production practices, and the influence of powerful corporations on environmental policies.
Furthermore, emphasizing individual responsibility for carbon reduction without addressing the role of governments, industries, and institutions may foster a sense of eco-guilt or eco-anxiety among the general public, creating an environment for climate deniers and skeptics to thrive by playing into narratives that promote inaction. Additionally, by focusing solely on personal carbon footprints, neo-liberal approaches might overlook the importance of systemic changes, such as transitioning to renewable energy, promoting sustainable urban planning, and supporting community-based initiatives. As a result, this approach risks stifling meaningful cultural change around climate issues by perpetuating the notion that small individual actions are enough to tackle the global challenge we face.
A more holistic approach to climate literacy, where individuals have had education and are aware of both the carbon impact of humans on the planet, and an understanding of the way in which climate systems are interconnected through environmental, social, and economic issues, might empower individuals to advocate for larger systemic changes at political levels that can actually make a difference.
Educational technology, including the use of AI, offers potential to enhance climate literacy and debunk climate change denial. But, at the same time, it’s also enabling the spread of misinformation and having a negative impact on public understanding of the climate crisis. Hoping for responsible and ethical use of AI systems is not enough, vendors need to ensure they uphold scientific integrity and contribute positively towards climate awareness.
For staff in higher education, efforts should be directed towards promoting climate literacy that goes beyond the neo-liberal perspective. A pedagogy focused on systemic understanding of climate change, its causes, effects and the role of different actors in mitigating it, should be encouraged across the whole curriculum.
Finally, higher education institutions, as influential organisations in society, have a role to play in mitigating climate change, including speaking truth to power. They have the potential to shape public discourse, influence political action, and foster a culture of sustainability. Thus, they must also lead by example in reducing their own carbon footprints, adopting green practices and encouraging critical thinking among students and staff.
The challenges posed by climate change, AI, social media, and politics are complex and interconnected. They demand a collective, coordinated, and informed response that harnesses the strengths of higher education, the potential of educational technology, and the power of informed civic action. Combating climate change and the misinformation surrounding it is not just a scientific endeavour, but an educational, technological, and socio-political imperative as well. Higher education can equip the current and future generations to navigate, adapt and contribute to a rapidly changing climate, pushing back collectively against denial and lack of action by governments. It has to be collective. We can’t change any of this alone.
* CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. The idea is to express the impact of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming. For example, methane (CH4) is over 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a 100-year period, so one tonne of methane is equivalent to over 20 tonnes of CO2, and therefore its CO2e is 20. Similarly, nitrous oxide (N2O) is nearly 300 times more potent than CO2 over the same time span, so its CO2e is 300.