Climate Denialism on YouTube Has Evolved Into Something Else

The new trend is disinformation about climate action, study finds.

People holding up phones with the YouTube app loading

Didem Mente/Anadolu/Getty/Grist

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Imagine if you could walk from your house to anywhere you needed to go in less than 15 minutes: the pharmacy, the bakery, the gym, and then back to the bakery. In a certain, conspiracy-addled corner of the internet, this urban planning concept of “15-minute cities” gets a shady, sinister gloss. Conspiracy theorists evoke COVID restrictions and tout efforts to create walkable cities as steps toward “climate lockdowns.” They warn of a plot by the World Economic Forum to restrict people’s movements, trapping and surveilling them in their neighborhoods. 

“They want to take away your cars,” claims Clayton Morris, a former Fox News host, in a YouTube video that’s been viewed 1.7 million times.

YouTube is riddled with false claims like these, so it’s the place to document the evolution of arguments against taking action on climate change. A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit based in London and Washington, DC, working to stop the spread of disinformation, analyzed 12,000 videos from channels that promoted lies about climate change on YouTube over the last six years. Over that time, the reality of climate change long predicted by scientists has become increasingly difficult to dismiss. The report, released on Tuesday, found a dramatic shift from “old denial” arguments—that global warming isn’t real and isn’t caused by humans—to new arguments bent on undermining trust in climate solutions.

“The success is that the science has won this debate on anthropogenic climate change,” said Imran Ahmed, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO. “The opponents of action have shifted their attention.”

The report suggests that, rather than doing a victory lap, climate advocates may want to focus on defending climate policies and renewable energy as necessary and effective. As the world was besieged by intense heat, expansive wildfires, and catastrophic floods in recent years, YouTubers promoting disinformation increasingly embraced “new denial” narratives, such as that solar panels will destroy the economy and the environment, or that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a “fraud.”

“What it is doing is creating a cohort of people who believe climate change is happening, but believe there’s no hope,” Ahmed said. People start watching YouTube at a young age—in 2020, more than half of parents in the US with a child 11 years old or younger said their kid watched videos on the platform on a daily basis. New polling from the center, released alongside the study, found that a third of US teens say that climate policies cause more harm than good.

Six years ago, these “new denial” claims made up 35 percent of denier’s arguments on YouTube; now, they make up 70 percent of the total. The fastest-growing assertions were that the climate movement is unreliable and that clean energy won’t work.

To get this data, the Center for Countering Digital Hate analyzed video transcripts from nearly 100 YouTube channels that spout climate denial, using an artificial intelligence tool to categorize the arguments. 

One popular source is the channel of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and culture warrior with 7 million followers. In an interview with Alex Epstein, the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Epstein makes the case that climate advocates can’t be trusted. “Listening to a modern environmentalist is like listening to a doctor who’s on the side of the germs, somebody who doesn’t have your best interests at heart,” Epstein says in a video entitled “The Great Climate Con” that’s been viewed a million times, reiterating a point once made in the 1990s by the economist George Reisman in an article titled “The Toxicity of Environmentalism.”

The report also points to the libertarian think tank the Heartland Institute and the media company BlazeTV, created by the former Fox News host Glenn Beck, as prominent sources of lies about climate change on YouTube. Videos from PragerU, a right-wing media outlet also known for spreading disinformation, paint solar and wind power as dangers to the environment and compare environmental activists to Nazis. Despite what the name may imply, it’s not actually a university, nor does it offer any degrees.

John Cook, a researcher at the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change in Australia, has documented a similar rise in attacks on climate solutions by conservative think tanks and blogs. “It’s surprising to see misinformation on YouTube shifting so quickly,” Cook said in an email. “The future of climate misinformation will be focused on attacking climate solutions, and we need to better understand those arguments and how to counter them.”

Some research has shown that climate disinformation is compelling: A recent study in Nature Human Behavior found that it’s often more persuasive to people than scientific facts. And once people latch onto a falsehood, they find it hard to let go. That’s why stopping disinformation at the source is so important, according to Ahmed. “The key right now is ensuring that we aren’t flooding our information ecosystem with nonsense and lies that make it more difficult for people to work out what’s true or not,” he said.

Together, the YouTube channels that the center focused on garnered 3.4 billion views last year. And all those views means there’s money involved: The report found that YouTube is potentially making up to $13.4 million a year in ad revenue from channels that post climate denial.

Google, which owns YouTube, promised in 2021 to ban ads on its platforms alongside content that contradicts the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and caused by humans (though it hasn’t enforced it well). To counter the latest wave of disinformation, the Center for Countering Digital Hate recommends that Google should also prohibit advertisements on content that pushes misinformation about climate solutions, so that YouTubers won’t be incentivized to publish more of it. (Content creators that partner with YouTube receive a share of the ad revenue.)

“If it wasn’t profitable, would so many people see it as being a business to produce bullshit?” Ahmed said. “We’re asking platforms to not reward liars with money and attention.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate