This Week in PR Ethics (5/18/23): Taking on Climate Lies

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending a Symposium hosted by the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability about “Taking on Climate Lies – Climate Disinformation Initiative.”  The program included a keynote from Jonathan Schrag, the Deputy Climate Chief at the Office of Climate, Innovation and Resilience for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as the presentation of four academic research studies around the spread of climate misinformation.  I was fascinated by the studies and believe they provide some insights that will be of use to any communication professional dealing with climate change or clean energy. The studies showed how social media and news media are spreading climate misinformation.

One crucial message clearly resonated. Schrag believes that our communication efforts have been effective and are overcoming consumer hesitancy and confusion about adopting clean energy. He believes this will create an “explosion of demand” leading to a transition from a demand problem (getting consumers interested in heat pumps in cold climates) to a supply problem – how will we have enough to meet the demand and have enough trained installers? I was also heartened to hear him highlight the role that offshore renewables and Quebec renewables will play in powering Massachusetts’ transition to electrification.

But the main focus of the event was the academic studies. Three key takeaways include:

  • Reddit and Twitter are helping drive the spread of climate misinformation – The research found 50 organizations drove 22,000 climate tweets that created clusters of misinformation.

    On Reddit in science-driven communities, 51% of the posts highlighted climate skepticism claims, and on skeptical community subreddits, unsurprisingly only 33% of discussions support the current scientific consensus. This is particularly important, because Reddit is a prime news source for Gen Z and Gen Alpha.

    The research found the most popular skeptical claims are:

    1) CO2 is plant food
    2) It’s the sun
    3) We’re headed into an ice age
    4) Global warming stopped in 1998
    5) Climate models are not reliable

    Note: For Reddit the researchers analyzed 150,000 posts between 2008-2023 on three subreddits


  • Native advertising is perpetuating climate change misinformation and potentially serving as a channel for greenwashing. The study found that there were more than 27,000 native ads mentioning climate and the environment. Some of these just had one word mentions so the researchers narrowed down their analysis to a smaller number of “problematic” ads across 16 media outlets. There were 30 companies with at least 20 native ads each on the topic. The most popular media outlets for this type of native advertising were Forbes, BBC, and CNN.

    The study found this native advertising has an impact on editorial coverage in those prominent outlets. The researchers found a decrease in negative coverage of key companies after they purchased native advertising. Additionally, many of these news outlets have content teams to help native advertisers write copy. One of the researchers made the strong claim that this makes prominent “news organizations complicit in actively creating and spreading disinformation about the climate crisis.”

    Also of note, when Politico EVP Cally Stolbach Baute was asked about native ads and sponsored content in general, according to Heated, and reported by the LA Times, she stated “It is not up to us to decide what is factually accurate or what is not factually accurate. We frankly respect our readers enough to be fully transparent with them on our advertising and encourage them to evaluate our journalism on its merit and its accuracy.”
  • Lack of disclosure – Many communication professionals make use of native ads and follow the PRSA Code of Ethics when it comes to proper disclosure. One of the most surprising, and concerning, points I saw raised yesterday is that while most of the news organizations do a good job marking content as sponsored on their websites, when the content is shared on social channels from the website only 50% of the ads examined included the proper disclosures. This could lead many social media consumers to conclude the content was earned media and not paid.

I recommend you follow Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability if you find this information of interest.

Note: C+C did a small project for the Institute in Q2 2021.

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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