Politicians Are Still Using the Disinformation Playbook and It Makes Me Mad

March 29, 2023 | 4:09 pm
a referee in a black & white striped shirt is pictured from behind, pointing at a call on the fieldNathan Shively/Unsplash
Kate Cell
Senior Climate Campaign Manager

Just last week, we heard that with regard to climate change, “humanity is on thin ice—and that ice is melting fast.” Yet policymakers still use the disinformation playbook to deceive and misinform the public about climate change, at the expense of our well-being and our future. After 15 years of working for climate action, it still makes me plenty mad when they do. This time, it’s a state senator using Play 3: The Diversion, to dis-educate students at public universities in Ohio.

The Diversion is Play 3 from UCS’s Disinformation Playbook: Manufacture uncertainty about science where little or none exists.

The diversion

On Wednesday, March 23, a story from Energy News Network (EEN) described how one Jerry Cirino, state senator of Ohio, has introduced legislation that would require Ohio college and university instructors to include “false and misleading counterpoints” when teaching climate science.

The legislation would lump climate science together with abortion, immigration, and diversity, equity and inclusion, labelling all of them “controversial.” Professors would be required to “encourage and allow students to reach their own conclusions” and “not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view.” EEN further reports that in drafting his legislation, Mr. Cirino “didn’t actually consult with climate people.”

No kidding, Senator. I’m sure one of the experts from any one of the earth sciences departments at the public universities in Ohio would have been glad to explain climate science is… science. And the rigorous teaching of climate science does not inculcate anyone with anything except a greater understanding of the physical world and how humans are altering it.

It’s about 10 minutes from the School of Earth Sciences at The Ohio State University to the Ohio Statehouse. I’d bet a climate scientist would have been glad to make the short trip to talk to Senator Cirino. Source: Google maps.

How to avoid a pratfall

Reading and taking seriously the news on the Monday before debate on his legislation opened could have saved Senator Cirino this pratfall. He could, for instance, have looked at the front page of the nearby Cleveland paper and seen its lead story on one of the mildest winters in local history—the state climatologist pointed out that “this matches [Ohio’s] long-term-changes.”

Or he could have tuned in to his local National Public Radio program on the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis report, about which United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said bluntly: “This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

But the senator did not heed these clear and urgent warnings. So again, here we are. Sigh.

How do I loathe this? Let me count the ways

Without apology to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I loathe the deployment of the disinformation playbook to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach. Let me count some ways.

As a campaigner for climate action

I loathe this because for a while there, I thought the opponents of climate action had moved on from attacking science to attacking solutions. It looked like fossil fuel companies and their allied political and economic interests had seen that their efforts to undermine public understanding of climate change science had largely failed.

Just a year or so ago, these bad actors seemed to be focused on undermining clean, cheap, renewable energy as an obvious and crucial part of the climate change solution. But now it looks like they’re trying to take us right back to the beginning. Analysts examining climate disinformation leading up to and during the international climate negotiations in Egypt last November found “a surprising increase in content related to outright climate denial.”

I had thought the climate disinformation machine was working against an essentially linear series of truths:

Essential truths about climate change. Ugly graphic created by the author in Powerpoint.

I thought that because over the years, the lies were shifting to attack truths towards the right on the above diagram, we were making progress. But if we’re circling right back to the beginning where bad actors sow doubt on the science, even as it becomes more certain, and the impacts of climate change more onerously and unfairly borne? That’s an ouroboros of disinformation, and oof, we’d best stay suited up.

As a mother

I loathe this as a mother of three people in their teens and twenties, who will live through the climate change impacts we’ll continue to lock in and make worse unless we act now. The idea that fossil fuel interests and policymakers are actively working to dis-educate young people from middle school through college is disheartening and enraging.

I’m a campaign strategist, so I get what the fossil fuel companies are trying to do. Young people are powerful and persuasive messengers, and they can change their elders’ minds, so it makes sense to try to confuse them out of fighting for their own interests. But it’s a despicable tactic.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee famously said, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.” Doing something about it manifestly does not mean requiring professors to lie to their students about climate change science.

As a (former) union member

Here’s the thing: for the most part, Senator Cirino’s major institutional donors aren’t oil or gas companies. They’re trades unions, plumbers and pipefitters, sheet metal and electrical workers. I’m a proud former union member—I took honorable withdrawal from my union when I started working in the nonprofit sector, and I will always support the aspirations and successes of the union movement.

I understand that transforming our energy economy poses risks and challenges to people whose work is connected with the fossil fuel industry, and I understand that some unions (not all!) can be suspicious of climate action. But as someone told me when I first started working on climate and energy issues, “Take a look at the solutions we need to adopt. If you kick them, you’ll hurt your foot.” The solutions need a strong manufacturing base and skilled labor. Successfully addressing climate change will mean plenty of work requiring the skills that the unions who support Senator Cirino already have.

Clean energy is where the job growth is and will be. Moving in that direction now will benefit trades union members in the short and long run. in 2021, according to a White House fact sheet, there were “already 110,272 Ohio workers employed in clean energy jobs,” and 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act will enable even greater investment in the state. The Energy Policy Simulator from the Rocky Mountain Institute and Energy Innovation projects that “If Ohio were to reach 50 percent emissions reductions — a feat far more feasible with the support of the suite of recently passed federal legislation — the state would experience at least a 2.5 percent increase in GDP by 2035 along with the creation of over 45,000 new manufacturing and construction jobs.”

Furthermore, no one benefits when the public good of education is subverted for political purpose, as Mr. Cirino would have Ohio universities do. I’m hoping my union siblings in his district will explain to the senator the value of good jobs, real education, and a healthy planet.

As a human living in the US

Historically, the United States has emitted more global warming pollution than any other country—nearly a quarter of the total since 1750. Just last week I sent an email to hundreds of thousands of UCS supporters asking them to support international climate finance in the federal budget, because we owe it to the world to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem and to support the transition to clean energy and the investment in climate resilience low-income countries demand and deserve.

We won’t get to a place where the US will show any kind of accountability, let alone leadership, if we’re not teaching our young people the plain truth about climate change: it’s real, it’s happening now, that scientists are sure, and that it’s bad for us. And that yes, we can still act. Anti-science bills like the one Senator Cirino’s proposing are designed to undermine public understanding and thwart the action we urgently need.

So here’s a simple suggestion. If you’re reading this and happen to be a constituent of Senator Cirino’s in the Ohio 18th District (Lake or Cuyahoga counties), please feel free to give him a call at (614) 644-7718 and tell him you loathe this legislation, too. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you.

About the author

More from Kate

Kate Cell is the Senior Climate Campaign Manager for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she manages the UCS Climate Campaign, leading a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, policy analysts, legislative affairs staff, and outreach and communication experts working to achieve policies that can reduce global warming emissions and increase resilience to climate change impacts. Her team is focused on demonstrating and alleviating the disparate burdens climate change poses to environmental justice communities, low-income communities, and communities of color.