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The well-funded and organized campaigns that influence climate change science online


Climate Reality Project hopes to counter climate change misinformation campaigns with its grassroots online presence.

In a thorough post for InsideClimate News, Katherine Bagley examines the influence that both climate change campaigners and skeptics are having online (link). The tactics are more organized than you might think. From the campaigner’s side:

The Climate Reality Project, a group overseen by Al Gore, is trying to win over public opinion by getting people to spread accurate global warming science in the comment sections of news stories online, where the battle rages with particular ferocity.

For example, a recent CNN article titled "Global Warming Is Epic, Long-Term Study Says" attracted nearly 12,600 comments. That's more than 50 times what articles published the same day on technology and environmental health received.

Last month, Gore's group launched a website that tips off users to climate news and encourages them to saturate readers' comments with scientific facts. For years, skeptics have filled comments with dismissive views of climate science to sow doubts about the consensus that fossil fuels are responsible for global warming—dominating that space, according to the group.

"We realized the other side's very aggressive, offensive strategy to foster skepticism was having a major impact," said Maggie Fox, CEO of the Climate Reality Project. "Addressing the comment wars seemed like a good place to start fighting back."

The Reality Drop site was created with pro bono help from advertising agency Arnold Worldwide and cost a few hundred thousand dollars to develop. An algorithm on the site generates a list of articles that have become overrun by skeptics or that contain misinformation. Scientific facts are displayed next to the articles, which people can cut and paste and "drop" into reader comments or social media accounts.

This effort is relatively new and is up against a better funded and organized opposition. Again from Bagley’s post:

According to research to be released this month by Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, organizations that cast doubt on climate science have received hundreds of millions of dollars from energy companies and sympathetic interests to combat action on climate change and other progressive causes—including $235 million in 2010 alone. The organizations include the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, conservative groups at the forefront of climate skepticism.

"The money fueling these skeptic campaigns is more than environmental groups will ever be able to match," Brulle told InsideClimate News. "I wouldn't be surprised if their donations jump this year—as they did in 2008 and 2009."

This tracks with other things I have read about organized climate resistance. In a story filed earlier this year, the Guardian UK exposed the coordinated effort to discredit climate change science (link):

Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising "wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives.

The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and [the] Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed any comment ‘drops’ – dozens of simultaneous comments for or against a post – on this site. But posts about climate change do attract strong opinions – not just on this blog, but the rest of the site (example, example, example), which is not necessarily a bad thing. My experience, though, is that most comments quickly go off topic and reinforce previously held beliefs.

According to the Guardian UK, conservative billionaires have funded anti-climate change campaigns. Above, David Koch. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To me, the online climate ‘debate’, for lack of a better term, resembles urban warfare and happens in the streets and alleyways of comment sections. Entrenched interest groups fight with each other. Bystanders receive collateral damage. It’s an effective way to sow disinformation and confusion.

It's encouraging to see an organized effort to spread scientific facts, but I wonder if it becomes noise - like talking heads in political debates - to the masses.

Also check out Andy Revkin’s thoughts on this topic at Dot Earth (link).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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