Opinion: Climate change, misinformation and the UK election

ACT Climate Labs head Harriet Kingaby

2024 is already setting records. This year, we experienced the hottest February in recorded history, due to human-driven global heating of land and oceans around the world.

The climate crisis is here and impacting our daily lives.

With a much-anticipated general election now just weeks away, ACT Climate Labs head Harriet Kingaby looks at why it’s important for climate communicators to help combat misinformation during the upcoming political elections.

More than half the world’s population is going to the polls this year, including the UK. Billions of people around the world will be deciding who to vote for and which parties will best tackle crucial issues.

They will do this against the backdrop of culture wars and misinformation. In January, the World Economic Forum shared its Global Risks Report 2024, which warns that misinformation and disinformation are the world’s biggest short-term risks, while extreme weather and critical change to Earth systems are its greatest long-term concern.

In the UK, we already know all about this. From 15-minute cities conspiracy theories, to battling against misrepresentation of how much climate policies take to enact, it feels that the starting gun for the 2024 election has well and truly been fired.

Cutting through climate misinformation

At ACT Climate Labs, we believe this election will probably bring the most climate misinformation we’ve ever seen. How can the truth cut through?

According to studies, misinformation flows through our media environments far quicker than the truth, and we’re being outspent by Big Oil with their greenwashing agenda. In the last decade, Big Oil outspent clean energy groups by 27 times, with billions in advertising and lobbying to keep fossil fuels flowing.

Imagine what happens when we add the power of AI to this threat, as election pundits and the WEF are already warning?

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Global misinformation, disinformation and climate denial has gone mainstream with severe consequences. At this crucial time, it’s imperative that we strive to get ahead of it wherever possible.

To do this, we must start to reach the ‘Persuadables’ – a group of people that account for 69% of the UK population and are neither climate deniers nor climate activists.

How to reach the Persuadables?

This group of Brits are hugely influential in the fight for climate action, yet their day-to-day media diets, from social networks to newspapers are full of climate scepticism and misinformation. Surveys tell us that 40% of people across the UK don’t consume any newspapers at all, while younger groups are increasingly getting news from places like YouTube and Tiktok.

This is why, at ACT, we think of media diets that extend beyond traditional press, to encompass the online and offline places our Persuadables get their information. Campaigners must engage with Persuadable audiences to ensure their message is heard over the misinformation which has become our main competitor.

To get ahead, we need to rethink our media strategies to get cut through across platforms, outside of traditional news brands.

Advertising is a powerful tool which provides a potent avenue to reach mass audiences quickly and effectively, changing perceptions at scale. In an era where misinformation spreads rapidly, campaigners need to be proactive.

At ACT, we talk about getting ahead of misinformation. By reaching people first, we can build up their emotional connection to the need for climate action, making them less likely to respond to attacks.

Election and climate change issues

So, what issues might be fought over with a climate lens? We’re closely monitoring narratives around the cost-of-living crisis, transport, food, infrastructure, rivers and nature, extreme weather, energy security and cost of climate policy implementation.

One example ripe for misinformation is energy security. The IEA defines it as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. It covers everything from energy prices and fuel suppliers to national security and community resilience, making it a useful opener for both pro- and anti-climate action communications.

Another topic high on our radar is the cost of climate policy implementation, based on the underlying belief that climate initiatives are too expensive for us to afford.

We know that locally-focused approaches to build climate support work, but this is also true in the reverse. Whether it’s ULEZ misinformation in the South East, fearmongering over pylons in local areas, or hijacking traffic speed calming campaigns, local spins make misinformation more salient.

Creating effective communications

Data and arguments alone won’t win the public over, so our arguments must appeal to groups emotionally.

We can do three things: safeguard the public against misinformation by reaching them with a positive message, reframe by communicating the benefits of climate policy, or rebut misinformation with the relevant facts.

Also key to targeting Persuadables is rethinking our media strategies.

We’re often fighting to place press releases in media that are hostile to climate action and progressive causes, but key to reaching right-leaning audiences, or working with algorithms which are designed to show our organic content to people who already agree with us.

This means entire sections of the population simply aren’t hearing our messages.This is where advertising comes into play, helping us break into the content diets of that audience.

ACT Climate Labs has developed pioneering ways of increasing the effectiveness of climate communications. We want everyone to prioritise talking to Persuadables, especially in the lead-up to important events like general elections.

Simply conveying the scientific facts is not enough. To win the hearts and minds of this key demographic, it’s imperative to present the information in a way that resonates with their values, beliefs and concerns.

The power of advertising

ACT combines a deep understanding of the Persuadables with targeted, data-driven communication efforts. It recognises the importance of not only having the right message but also delivering it through the right advertising channels.

By investing in initiatives that focus on this fact-based communication, campaigners can bring about significant change in the climate communication landscape.

I have seen first-hand the power of well-executed climate communication campaigns.

For example, ACT’s campaign for climate action organisation Possible – about the benefits of car-free cities – used trusted messengers from Birmingham to increase relatability and effectiveness.

Positive associations with Possible saw an uplift of between 27% and 47%, while sentiment around ‘neighbourhoods should be for people not cars’ saw an uplift of between 40% and 59%, with a 22% increase in willingness to drive less and take public transport more regularly.

Over the last two and a half years, ACT has delivered seven major ad campaigns reaching over 18 million people, with over 160 million impressions across six out of seven campaigns – all increasing the audience’s ability to spot climate misinformation.

Advertising is a potent tool and now is the time for us all to step up, recognising the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to get ahead of disinformation. When information is delivered in a way that resonates with the audience, it can drive positive change.

The elections and the climate crisis will not wait, and neither can we. It’s time to act now.

Climate crisisFeatureInsightOpinionPolicy

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