“For the first time in its history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has named the spread of climate misinformation as an obstruction to climate action, particularly in the United States.[i]” The question becomes, how do we deal with this onslaught of misinformation and disinformation? The first step is to understand what we are dealing with.

Dr Eileen Culloty, co-author of Disinformation and Manipulation on Digital Media,[ii] says “The distinction between misinformation and disinformation is about intention. Misinformation is false information that is shared without an intention to mislead. Disinformation is intentional.” We saw disinformation last Tuesday night from the Orange Monarch during the debate.

“Climate change is a Chinese hoax, windmills cause cancer, the oceans are going to rise 1/100 of an inch, every one of the signatories to the Paris climate accord lags behind America, the Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion, energy saving lights make me look orange,” are all lies he’s spoken at one time or another.

On Tuesday, he used something called the Gish gallop to overwhelm his opponent, President Biden. He also uses it in his rallies.

“The Gish gallop is a rhetorical technique in which a person in a debate attempts to overwhelm an opponent by abandoning formal debating principles, providing an excessive number of arguments with no regard for the accuracy (lies) or strength of those arguments and that are impossible to address adequately in the time allotted to the opponent. Gish galloping prioritizes the quantity of the galloper’s arguments at the expense of their quality.

The technique wastes an opponent’s time and may cast doubt on the opponent’s debating ability for an audience unfamiliar with the technique, especially if no independent fact-checking is involved or, if the audience has limited knowledge of the topics.” [iii]

With respect to the problem of global overheating, we face a Gish gallop of disinformation from climate denialists and deceivers. Fossil fuel companies, their PR firms, and their think tanks pump out denial, delay, and greenwashing. Trying to counter all their disinformation is like playing whack-a-mole. Yet we fall into the same trap as Biden. Trying to refute all disinformation at once. That’s what they want us to do.

In climate communications, I first like to repeat Anat Shenker-Osorio’s saying, “Don’t feed what you fight.” By fighting it we give whatever the subject is a PR lift. I see this in social media posts saying how terrible the Right’s Project 2025 is. As a result, more people hear about Project 2025. Next when confronted with a lie or a frame, we have a tendency to refute it with facts or trying to negate it. This gives the lie life. “Windmills do not cause cancer,” only serves to strengthen the brains neural connections between wind turbines and cancer. It doesn’t work. (Again. it’s better to say Wind turbines are clean, healthy and the cheapest electricity we can generate.) Finally, we can’t argue with someone who didn’t use reason to arrive at their position the first place.

We’ve been stuck in the paradigm trying to prove climate change is real for 30+ years. It doesn’t work. It’s also clear the media doesn’t challenge the absurdity of the Orange Monarch or call out the lies of fossil fuel firms and utilities. They would rather make their coverage about balance, giving equal weight to arguments as if there is a debate about climate, or they give sporadic lip service by using climate catastrophes to catch eyeballs and increase clicks.

Even when they do challenge or fact check, there is one other thing that prevents people from changing their minds when a falsehood is corrected. It is the discovery that misinformation stays in your head even though it has been corrected. Admit that there’s a tiny little tinge in your mind that windmills might cause cancer somewhere even though this has been debunked and there is no evidence for it at all. This is called the “continuing influence effect.” It’s a depressing little discovery of how our brains work.[iv]

Add to this the law of propaganda, often attributed to Nazi Joseph Goebbels, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” This is known as the “illusion of truth” effect among psychologists.[v]

While a debate is a formal process, all of these techniques have five characteristics wherever they are used:

  1. The disinformation has the explicit purpose and intent of denial, delay, and deflection
  2. The content is misleading or outright lies
  3. The volume at which they are delivered is overwhelming and loud
  4. The style in which they are delivered is confident and assured
  5. They are repeated rapid fire and often

We’ve heard the Orange Monarch do all of these, indeed the NYT said he had “bluster,” during the debate. F’ bluster, he was f’ing lying and no one fact checked or challenged him.

And it makes us so mad we want to scream liar, liar, liar. Then we go post some scientific facts or climate doom on Facebook. All this does is depress people and make them want to give up. So here are a few things we can do when confronted with climate lies.

  1. Take a breath. Understand what’s happening and develop a strategy.
    This means, rather than reacting reflexively, we pause, take a breath, assess, and develop a strategy that will work. This is hard for climate activists and Liberals to do. Most of us aren’t in debates, but we do talk to others, and the media. We believe we are rational, that making reasonable arguments will prevail, and can’t understand why others won’t listen to logical arguments. So much for the age of enlightenment. But let’s use that reasoning. The questions to ask are:
    a. What is the source of this piece of mis/disinformation and is it mainstream yet? For example, is it just troll on social media or has the Washington Post got it wrong?.
    b. Who is the audience for their or our communication? Is it anyone whose mind would really be changed?
    c. Does this piece of misinformation require a response?
    d. Can we sustain a valid challenge to disinformation?
  2. Don’t feed what we fight. Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!
    The answers to the source and whether the mis/disinformation is mainstream help us decide the risk of elevating misinformation. If we decide to proceed, it’s hard not to talk about something without mentioning it.Yet we can talk about health, security, damage to the natural world, climate justice and other narratives. We can also tell stories. Remember the misinformation, “EVs are worse for the environment than gas cars.” If we respond and say, “EVs are NOT worse for the environment,” all our audience hears is EVs and worse. It’s better to pivot to “EVs are clean and hands down better for the health of all of us.” Or ask a question, “Why should any child die from asthma attacks because of dirty fossil fuels?” Then tell a story about a sick child or one we’ve lost.The caveat with the pivot is that in order for it to have an impact, it has to be repeated ad nauseum. Not many climate organizations or media have that capability or determination. But we need to repeat it until we are sick of it, then repeat it again. Don’t forget to add our vision of the future. For example, the image above.
  3. Name the villains and their motivation. Be specific.
    Again, disinformation has a purpose. It is to create doubt, deflect responsibility and delay action on climate solutions. Behind it is an infrastructure of well-funded think tanks and their donors.[vi] This includes the media and politicians that repeat the disinformation. We must name them and why they are creating the disinformation.

“Of course he would lie about the impact of fossil fuels, he just asked them for a billion dollars for his campaign of drill baby drill.”

“You’re a journalist, why don’t you fact check and point out the lies?”

We sometimes get the Gish gallop outside of public discourse. If you are confronted with the Gish gallop, even from Uncle Ralph at Thanksgiving, you can also point out the technique and why it’s being used. It’s misinformation and designed to confuse you and overwhelm you.

4.  Make sure we have the right messenger
In today’s polarized and identity-based political environment, one of the strongest tools for fighting disinformation is the right messenger. When Liz Cheney, a strong conservative, says that the former president is lying when he says the election was stolen, it means ten times more than if Kamala Harris says it. Or if Bob Inglis, a former Republican North Carolina congressman says we need to act on climate change and wants his fellow conservative to see it too, that rings true for conservative voters more than if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the same thing to North Carolina voters.

Finally, there’s one more technique that I haven’t tested, but have wondered whether it would work. It’s a Truth Gish. What if we list 7 short truths in a row in rapid fire? The evidence and effects of climate change are overwhelming. The purpose here is not to convince “the unconvincible,” but to use the technique to counter disinformation by also using quantity and confidence in our communications. Let them attack us for a change. Because when they attack us, we win. Let them do the work of showing that their arguments are BS. Let them lift our direction and vision.

So imagine you are commenting to the media, or giving a 3 minute testimonial at a Public Service Commission (PSC) hearing, or even debating a Public Service Commissioner. I’ll use the case here in Georgia of the PSC collusion to build the world’s most expensive nuclear energy plant rather than more solar. It might sound like this.

  • As public service commissioners, you went against PSC staff and energy expert recommendations that Plant Vogtle not be built.
  • Then you allowed Plant Vogtle to go $22B billion over budget and cost 10x more than any other electric generation equivalent.
  • Next, you watched and did nothing while the project went 7 years over schedule.
  • Instead, you made sure Georgia Power and its parent Southern Company recorded billions in profits during this time.
  • Then you allowed for this incompetence by making customers pay for plant Vogtle, not the utility. Why should we pay for incompetence?
  • You ignore climate change as a factor in your decisions. You ignore clean solar energy by limiting it to only 5000 residential households.
  • The PSC is supposed to protect the people from monopoly abuse. Instead you take campaign donations from the utility you’re supposed to regulate.

“You think we should be polite? We are outraged. You sit there with the pretext of reasonableness at this hearing. But there is no reasonableness. There is no accountability for any of you. You’ve delayed elections and extended your terms. Your system is corrupt and incompetent, and your ideas are bankrupt. You should all resign. Today.”

Remember. Global overheating is real, we are causing it, it is f’king serious, we must act to stop the worst impacts, we must stop burning fossil fuels, switch to clean renewable energy and electrify everything as fast as possible. That’s 7. Your thoughts?

Thanks for all you do.

We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™

L. Hobart Stocking
Facebook: @SkyWaterEarthConnected
Twitter: @SkyWaterEarth

[i] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-spot-and-help-stop-climate-misinformation

[ii] https://www.amazon.com/Disinformation-Manipulation-Digital-Media-Communication-ebook/dp/B08PVNLP46

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gish_gallop

[iv] https://www.thebehavioralscientist.com/glossary/continued-influence-effect#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20Continued%20Influence%20Effect%3F,has%20been%20corrected%20or%20debunked

[v] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161026-how-liars-create-the-illusion-of-truth

[vi] https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2024-1-spring/feature/climate-science-deniers-fossil-fuel-shills-plot-against-green-energy