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On YouTube, climate denialism takes a turn

A study of more than 12,000 videos found that efforts to discredit the climate movement have moved on from whether climate change is real to focus on skepticism of solutions, activists and scientists.
A piece of the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, breaks off in the Los Glaciares National Park on April 5, 2019, in Santa Cruz province, Argentina.
A piece of the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, breaks off in Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz province, Argentina, in 2019.David Silverman / Getty Images file

The voices that deny climate change have settled on a new refrain.  

Instead of rejecting the fact that the Earth is warming, they’re now focusing on skepticism of climate solutions, as well as scientists and activists and altogether the idea that climate change will cause harm, according to a new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit organization that researches digital hate speech and misinformation.

The organization’s analysis suggests that the outright dismissal of climate change is no longer as convincing an argument, so climate skeptics are shifting the ideological fight to how seriously humanity must take climate change or what ought to be done about it. The report also claims that the content policies of YouTube’s parent company, Google — which are supposed to block advertising money from content that rejects the scientific consensus about the existence and causes of climate change — are ineffective and ought to be updated. 

“A new front has opened up in this battle,” Imran Ahmed, the organization’s CEO, said at a news conference. “They’ve gone from saying climate change isn’t happening to now saying: ‘Hey, climate change is happening, but there is no hope. There are no solutions.’”

Scientists who study Earth systems have agreed for decades that the human burning of fossil fuels creates an imbalance of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere that are warming the world. Earth has warmed by roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius, on average, since before industrial times, when fossil fuels began to drive economies.  

That warming is melting ice shelves, causing sea-level rise and intensifying the water cycle. In recent years, scientists have been able to connect individual events, like killer heat waves in 2021 in the Pacific Northwest, to human-caused climate change.  

U.S. public perception of climate change has shifted in recent decades, but it remains highly politicized, according to the Pew Research Center. The nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute said in a report in February that "Americans are increasingly convinced that global warming is happening, human-caused, and a serious problem. Americans also increasingly understand that climate impacts are here and now and would like to see more government action."

The Center for Countering Digital Hate is a nonprofit organization whose stated goal is to “protect human rights and civil liberties” by holding social media companies accountable. Ahmed said the organization has been “tightly integrated with the climate movement.” 

For its analysis, the organization used an artificial intelligence model to evaluate the arguments used in more than 12,000 YouTube videos from 96 channels it said featured climate change denial content, including videos from Blaze TV, a conservative media channel, and the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank. The videos were published from January 2018 through September 2023. 

The “deep learning model” processed YouTube transcripts and sought to identify whether particular climate denial themes were present, the report says. Independent evaluators checked part of the text transcripts and graded the model’s accuracy. The independent evaluators said it accurately found denial claims about 78% of the time. 

“We feel very confident that, at scale, this analysis gives us ... very strong data indicating the trends,” Ahmed said. 

Over more than five years of videos, the researchers said, arguments suggesting climate solutions won’t work or that climate advocates in science or activism are unreliable have grown 21.4 and 12 percentage points, respectively. The idea that global warming isn’t happening at all has dropped by 34.3 percentage points.

Outside researchers said the analysis mirrors trends they’ve observed in recent years. 

John Cook, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at the University of Melbourne in Australia, developed the artificial intelligence model used by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. 

Cook’s research has focused on trends in climate contrarian blogs and conservative think tank websites from 1998 to 2020. 

The research, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, found a similar trend. 

“It’s clear that the future of climate misinformation will be more and more focused on solutions and attacking climate science itself,” Cook said in an email. “Misinformation targeting solutions is designed to delay climate action, while misinformation attacking climate science erodes public trust in climate science and scientists.” 

John Kotcher, a research associate professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication who surveys Americans’ beliefs and opinions about climate change, said he has seen similar trends. His polling asks Americans what kind of questions they’d ask a global warming expert. 

From 2011 to 2023, respondents have grown less interested in questions like whether global warming is a hoax, whether global warming is happening, how experts know it’s happening and whether it will hurt people, polling shows

“This is all consistent with the notion that oppositional messaging has shifted focus strategically — from questioning whether climate change is actually happening to focusing on how serious is it as a problem, how bad is it actually and how effective are proposed solutions to it,” Kotcher said. 

Kotcher said his research suggests that those interested in action on climate change agree with a set of key facts — that climate change is real, that humans are the primary cause, that scientists agree about those two ideas, that it has negative impacts today, that others care about it and that solutions exist today. 

“Calling a truce on one of those key battlefields — just the existence of climate change — it does move the needle slightly farther in what I would argue is the right direction, getting people to have a more fact-based understanding of the issue,” Kotcher said. 

The report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate takes aim at YouTube’s policies on climate misinformation, saying it is failing to prevent monetization of denial narratives; the report includes screenshots of advertisements on videos it categorizes as “old denial,” which outright denies climate change is happening.

The nonprofit group argues YouTube and Google should broaden the kind of content that can’t be monetized to include content it categorizes as “new denial,” which rejects scientific consensus about the “causes, impacts and solutions” to climate change.

YouTube has enforcement teams that review questionable content, including content about climate change. YouTube reviewed the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s report and agreed that some of the videos it cited did violate its climate change policies. However, it said most of the videos complied with its policy. 

“Our climate change policy prohibits ads from running on content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change,” Nate Funkhouser, a YouTube spokesperson, said in an email. “Debate or discussions of climate change topics, including around public policy or research, is allowed. However, when content crosses the line to climate change denial, we stop showing ads on those videos. We also display information panels under relevant videos to provide additional information on climate change and context from third parties.”