Interview with Laurence Vardaxoglou on the Climate change and disinformation.
This is the concerning picture emerging from a study carried out by the consulting company Kantar Public in autumn 2021. The study surveyed 11 600 adults in 11 European countries, using PUBLIC Voice, an online survey combined with classical recruitment methods. While most online surveys end up using biased samples, this tool allows a representative sample of the population to be selected, according to the company.
Policymakers and society in general have to pay more attention to climate-ambivalent people, says Laurence Vardaxoglou, a Doctoral Researcher at Kantar Public and the Paris School of Economics, and co-leader of the study.
The bright side of your study is that the majority of people in Europe are climate-conscious, right?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: People that believe that climate change is mainly (or entirely) caused by human activity are 66 % of the total. You could say it’s more than enough to win an election. But I would interpret that with caution. Only 32 % of the respondents feel a personal responsibility to reduce climate change. This gap becomes problematic in three scenarios. First, when there are other priorities, like COVID-19 or war. In those circumstances, if you don’t feel personally responsible, your actions start to reduce. Second, when climate action starts to impact your life directly. Would people agree to eat red meat only on their birthday? Third, when communication is polluted and erodes motivation. If you feel that something is really my fault, then you are less likely to accept arguments that say that it’s not a big deal.
What is the climate ambivalence you describe in your work?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: We have found that about 27 % of our sample say that climate change is equally caused by natural processes and human activity. That is, almost a third of the respondents are not sure of the causes. We were quite surprised by that number, because it goes against the scientific consensus, and we thought that the consensus was widely accepted.
Where is climate ambivalence more prevalent?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: In Estonia and the Czechia. These two countries were outliers in many questions in terms of climate scepticism. It comes down to how the topic is generally discussed in each society. The political agenda of each country is important in terms of climate change being an issue or not.
The study also shows evidence of major lack of trust in sources of information.
Laurence Vardaxoglou: Just 23 % of respondents state that it is easy to find trustworthy information on the topic. Only 32 % find it easy to form an opinion about climate change. 57 % report having occasionally or often seen or heard misleading information about climate change in the last month. We don’t know whether that information was really fake. However, these numbers indicate the extent to which people have the impression of being in an information environment that is not clear. As a consequence, people find it difficult to form an opinion. And it becomes even more worrying when you put the focus on the climate-ambivalent group.
Are climate-ambivalent people especially vulnerable to disinformation?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: Yes – among them, the percentages are even worse. They feel less sure, so they are more open to alternative views. The ambivalent people show less trust in mainstream media, and more in social media or conversations with other people, which are less objective sources of information. They feel less sure, so they are more vulnerable to being swayed from one side to the other. And unfortunately, misinformation can be a lot more convincing than the truth, because it uses emotion and travels faster than true information.
Why do so many people feel that the informational environment is not reliable?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: Climate is such a complicated topic that it’s easy to become confused. Moreover, there is a well-documented, deliberate effort to confuse people by those whose objective is to slow down climate action. It’s a strategy of inactivism: stopping progress towards green technology by arguing that it is not mature enough, or that it is too late, etc.
What sort of people are climate ambivalent?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: They are slightly more right-wing, older and living in rural areas. Our data doesn’t say much more, but other research provides more insights. Media literacy is a big factor. Educated people can find clues that news is fake, but that is not a generalised ability. Also, people are more vulnerable to disinformation when they are in an emotional state, especially when they are having a bad time, which then connects them to populism. Fake news helps people find simple narratives to understand complex phenomena.
What can we do to tackle climate ambivalence?
Laurence Vardaxoglou: The major takeaway is that this group exists, it’s sizeable, and it’s very vulnerable to climate disinformation – we have to pay attention to this group of people. Secondly, in general, there is a gap between believing in climate change and feeling a lack of responsibility. Policymakers should tell their communities that there is a trade-off and we are going to need to do things that won’t be easy.
It’s worrying that so many people find it difficult to form an opinion on climate change, especially when considering the potential consequences of inaction. It’s clear that we need to do more to educate people on the topic and make sure that they have access to trustworthy information. We also need to work on building trust in mainstream media, which is currently at an all-time low.