If you’re over 30, you likely remember a time when there was a lot of hand-wringing and furrowed brows over the ozone hole and skin cancer, as well as the threat of acid rain destroying ecosystems.
In the 1980s and ’90s, those global environmental crises created buzz and grabbed headlines, but in the decades that followed, the world turned its attention to another threat: climate change.
Yet the success stories of how those threats were tackled — through the co-operation of scientists, policy-makers and the public — are often overlooked, if not outright denied.
A barrage of misinformation on social media, including various tweets and videos, claims those issues were never real in the first place. It’s a conspiracy theory that takes on various shapes, but the underlying common thread is the false claim that climate change is just the latest in a series of hoaxes invented by governments to control the public.
One TikTok video (reminder: this is misinformation) with more than three million views dismisses several global threats as “politics,” listing off a series of examples: “In the ’80s, it was acid rain will destroy all the crops in 10 yrs; in the ’90s it was the ozone layer will be destroyed in 10 years; in the 2000s it was the glaciers will all melt in 10 years …,” the TikTok poster says.
The video claims it was all “fear-mongering nonsense” that never came true.
Watching the video during an interview with CBC News, atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon nods knowingly. It’s not the first time she’s confronted that attitude.
“I’ve heard that kind of — I don’t want to even call it a line of argument — I’ve heard that kind of assertion in the past,” said Solomon, who is a professor in the department of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s a little bit like saying, ‘I had a heart attack and my doctor put a stent in. They told me I had to exercise and now I feel great. So I think that was all just nonsense to make money for the medical establishment.”
Scientists set the record straight
It was Solomon’s research in the 1980s that helped establish the cause of the thinning ozone: refrigerants called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
She recalls a particular meeting where colleagues were discussing ozone depletion. Solomon, 30 at the time, said she presented her paper identifying how refrigerants were breaking apart in the stratosphere.
“People just laughed,” she said.
But Solomon knew she was on to something, and her work contributed to the growing body of evidence that ultimately led to the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, phasing out the harmful refrigerants.
That treaty is working, according to a recent international report, which said the ozone is expected to recover by 2066.
“The fact that we have actually done the right things and fixed certain problems is a cause for celebration. It’s not a cause for pretending that those problems never existed,” Solomon said.
The reason acid rain doesn’t grab headlines anymore is similar — it wasn’t a hoax, it’s another case of governments responding to the scientific community’s alarm bells with regulations, which worked.
“The acid rain story [and] the ozone story show that we are capable of dealing with environmental problems and that we can make significant progress,” said Mike Paterson, a senior research scientist at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.
Paterson wrote his master’s thesis on acid rain in the 1980s, and he recalls the very real impacts at the time, such as declining fish populations in North America and northern Europe.
Scientists established the cause — sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides produced by burning fossil fuels — and North America eventually took action with a series of policy reforms in the 1990s that successfully curbed emissions and reduced the acidity of rain.
How misinformation threatens climate action
The fact that the global threat of climate change is happening in a digital age rampant with misinformation adds a novel layer of complexity to solving the crisis, with its severity constantly being undermined.
A government-funded report published this week by the Council of Canadian Academies — a non-profit organization that gathers experts to examine evidence on scientific topics — states that “targeted misinformation campaigns have played a documented role in creating opposition to policies addressing climate change.”
The report, called Fault Lines, used modelling to estimate that COVID-19 misinformation and its impacts on vaccine hesitancy likely contributed to 2,800 deaths and 13,000 hospitalizations in Canada over a nine-month span in 2021.
The study highlights how misinformation can cause real harm — and warns of the threat that it poses to dealing with future crises by eroding trust in science and making people more susceptible to falling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.
Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, who contributed to the report, studies misinformation and public opinion around climate change.
“Exposure to misinformation about climate change leads people to take it less seriously and to be less willing to support policy actions,” Lewandowsky, who is the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in England, said in an interview with CBC News.
Society is “drenched” in misinformation, he said, and the solution must go beyond teaching individuals how to debunk conspiracy theories and include shifts on a broader scale.
“We also have to look at the structures that are in place right now and that are assisting people with nefarious intentions to spread misinformation,” Lewandowsky said.
“We’re living in an environment where outrage or anger or fear — anything that evokes attention or captures attention — is being favoured by the algorithms of social media.”
Even if there is a strong scientific consensus on global warming, a steady stream of misinformation makes it difficult for people to sift through it all and sort fact from fiction, he said.
“If people are exposed to this blizzard of false information about climate change, then their right to be informed about risks is being undermined.”
If misinformation isn’t addressed, Lewandowsky said, it will make it all the more difficult for the public to realize and react to how serious climate change truly is, as it increasingly contributes to deadly disasters around the world.
www.cbc.ca 2023-01-28 09:00:00