Misinformation’s Hold on Climate Change: A Wake-Up Call for Africa in the Shadows of Established Democracies

By Muhammad Mustapha Ibraheem

In the ever-evolving landscape of global information dissemination, misinformation has emerged as a formidable adversary, capable of influencing not only political landscapes but also critical areas such as climate change. From Europe to the United States, narratives around environmental issues have become battlegrounds where truth and falsehood conflict, manipulating narratives and, in some instances, even shaping policy.

Recent revelations highlight the vulnerability of established democracies to the insidious influence of misinformation. Europe, for instance, witnessed the infiltration of misinformation into climate policy-making. In its taxonomy of sustainable sources of energy back in 2022, the European Parliament controversially labeled certain uses of natural gas and nuclear energy as “green,” a development that purportedly enables the EU to “boost green investments and prevent ‘greenwashing”.

What is natural Gas? Natural gas is a fossil fuel primarily made of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and is said to emit 58.5% as much carbon dioxide as coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Methane gas, has “contributed to the largest increase in global fossil CO2 emissions in recent years.” Moreover, this shadowy counternarrative gains momentum at a time scientists amplify their warnings on the perils of methane gas emissions and its profound role in climate change. Recently revised analyses titled: “The Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Exported from the United States” by Robert Warren Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, exposed a disconcerting reality: greenhouse gas emissions from liquified methane gas “are larger than those from domestically produced coal, ranging from 18% to 185% greater for the average cruise distance of an [liquified methane gas] tanker.”

Hence, experts warned that this decision could potentially mean redirecting, albeit legally, funds meant for climate-friendly projects towards methane power plants and terminals. “This official opinion of the EU matters because it affects funding for projects as the region charts its path to address climate change,” said Cat Clifford, a Climate innovator and technology reporter in her report for CNBC.

Other experts warned that the inclusion of natural gas in the taxonomy undermines the EU’s goal of preventing greenwashing. “With gas in the Taxonomy, the European Union has missed its chance to set a gold standard for sustainable finance. Instead, it has set a dangerous precedent. Politics and vested interests have won over science,” said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation, in a statement. This marked the global spread of a phenomenon that not only influences public opinion but also shapes legislative decisions with far-reaching consequences.

In the United States too, Democratic lawmakers, in a perplexing alliance, are reportedly found to be “lining up to tout methane gas as “climate-friendly” in exchange for a paycheck from Natural Allies—a consortium funded by fossil fuel behemoths. This unsettling disclosure, investigated by Floodlight, The Guardian and HEATED, paints a stark picture of how financial interests can distort environmental narratives.

In a bold exposé, Arrielle Samuelson of HEATED (a newsletter medium focusing on climate change) revealed tax papers of two past U.S lawmakers, detailing how they’re being paid for PR to spread positive words on how natural gas can be a potential climate solution. “Heitkamp was paid $185,266 and Landrieu was paid $210,690 in 2022, according to IRS 990 tax documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute and seen by HEATED” The investigative report revealed. The documents show payments made to Heidi Heitkamp Inc. and to Landrieu’s consulting firm VNF Solutions” reported heated.

The Screenshot of the Tax paper as culled from HEATED website

HEATED disclosed that Heitkamp participated in public relations jobs for Natural Allies, including a commercial titled Real Talk with Heidi Heitkamp,” alongside Mary Landrieu. Quoting Heitkamp’s assertion in the 2022 commercial for Natural Allies, HEATED emphasized her acknowledgment of an “existential threat to the planet” in the commercial. “We should be doing everything that we can to help other countries do what we did, which is dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions by using natural gas”, the former senator said in the commercial.

The investigative report by HEATED further challenged Natural Allies’ claims of methane gas being a panacea for the climate crisis, revealing that all cited “independent studies” were funded by fossil fuel interests and lacked peer-reviewed validation. “Natural Allies cites multiple ‘independent studies’ to support its claim that methane gas is the best way to solve the climate crisis. But, as we reported last year, all of those studies were funded at least in part by fossil fuel interests, and none were published in a peer-reviewed journal”, clarified HEATED.

“But industry-created climate misinformation is no longer just infiltrating podcasts and social media feeds. It’s also infiltrating the law. The phenomenon started in Europe last year, when the European Parliament voted to label certain uses of natural gas as “green.” That meant billions of dollars that were intended to fund climate-friendly projects could legally be used for methane power plants and terminals,” noted HEATED in a 2023 report.

The implications of this information pollution extend far beyond the shores of established democracies, posing a critical question: What does this mean for Africa? In a region where climate challenges are profound and the stakes are high, the encroachment of misinformation into the spheres of climate policy becomes a matter of existential concern. In navigating these treacherous waters, Africa must remain vigilant, utilizing original insights and factual information to fortify its response against the threats of misinformation in climate change actions. The journey ahead demands a collective commitment to truth and accuracy, ensuring that Africa’s environmental discourse remains untainted by the currents of falsehood that have swept through other parts of the world.