The Signpost


Identifying and rooting out climate change denial

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Femkemilene
The contributor of this op-ed is a member of WikiProject Climate change and has been a Wikipedian for over eight years.

On November 19 last year, BBC News published an investigation into climate denial on non-English Wikipedias.[2] It showed Wikipedia is rife with climate myths. BBC journalist and climate disinformation specialist Marco Silva described the denial as 'alive'. Classical climate denial—denying warming occurs, or denying humans are the primary cause—has been on the wane for a while.[3] Within the English Wikipedia, climate denial has become exceedingly rare. The last time the climate change discretionary sanctions were used was in 2019, and that was against somebody exaggerating the dangers of climate change, as if the reality isn't scary enough!

Is it true that it's still alive and kicking within Wikipedia? My hypothesis is that most of these non-English articles are the ruins of a period in which climate denial flourished. Climate denial is dead, but still rotting.

A cross-wiki project


Climate denial on Wikipedia
Climate change in 143 languages

  Climate denial removed - 38
  Removal in progress - 12
  Removal failed - 2
  No denial - 82
  Machine translation too poor - 12

I started a cross-wiki review on Meta two weeks after the BBC article was published. The goal is to assess the breadth of the denial, and to see it removed from all language editions. We advertised it on seven climate change WikiProjects to ensure it's not just an enwiki project. While the most active editors were still from enwiki, Swedish and Czech Wikipedians also contributed. Depending on the size of the community, we either deleted the misinformation ourselves, or tried to find local editors willing to take on the task. On many articles, it was relatively easy to identify denial as Google Translate has come a long way: For most languages, the translated text was understandable.[4]

The climate myths we found varied significantly. Many articles were an outdated translation of the English Wikipedia. Up to 2008, the English version contained a set of primary sources that supported alternative explanations of climate change. While back then this may have been a significant minority opinion, these views now fall squarely in the fringe or pseudoscience baskets. Displaying this outdated research plays directly into the hands of climate deniers. Their main goal is not making people deny that humans cause climate change. Rather, it is to plant seeds of doubt, as doubt paralyses action.[5]

A smaller subset of languages had more blatant issues. For instance, I encountered the myth that global warming has stopped twice. Some articles contained attacks on prominent scientists. For instance, calling Naomi Oreskes, who was the first to research the magnitude of the consensus, incompetent. Accusations of fraud were also common. The Chinese version gave a platform to somebody espousing an antisemitic attack on Al Gore, even if it did this under a heading which translates as 'conspiracy theories'.

So far, the response to our efforts have been mostly positive. In some communities, talk page comments triggered a full update and rewrite (Catalan and Slovak). In others, the comments were addressed one-by-one (Hindi), or promises were made to update the article (Korean). For less active languages, we removed the denial ourselves, and were occasionally reverted (Belarussian). We found climate myths in over a third of the languages. The 52 articles in these languages are read about 7000 times a day.

It's frustrating that many of these language communities do have the capacity to maintain these pages, as shown by how well they responded to our requests. Should these projects become a routine? Or are more systematic approaches to misinformation needed?

A blueprint for other projects?

Climate change is not the only topic that has been plagued by misinformation. The current pandemic is a prime example. As with climate denial, misinformation on this topic costs lives. Misinformation about abortion puts women around the world in danger.[6] Conspiracy theories surrounding elections are a grave danger for democracy. Can we start similar disinformation monitoring in these areas as well?

There is potential, but perhaps these projects will be more challenging. The misinformation may be spread across more articles, and may be added more recently, so that removal will meet with resistance. Nonetheless, the following steps provide a blueprint

  1. Fact-check the English version. Good Article and Featured Article reviews are great to sniff out final inaccuracies.
  2. Write understandably. We tend to overestimate the educational level of our readers[7][8][9][10][11][12][overcitation for needed emphasis]. Fact-checked information is useless if only half of our readers can understand it. Translators will not be able to translate well.
  3. Set up a meta page. Make a selection of languages, based on viewership. Find editors with technical abilities to help out.
  4. Find editors of major language groups to coordinate with, for instance via User Groups.
  5. Approach interested local editors, translators, and local admins to help out. While misinformation can be deleted with machine translations, keeping it out will require local help.

Or is structural disinformation monitoring needed?

Repeating this for more categories of dangerous misinformation would be beneficial. But it is a time-consuming effort, and in the meantime, our readers will consume heaps of misinformation. It is likely that not all languages will have the capacity to monitor these articles. Should we not be more aggressive? Here are two ideas to add structure to safeguard our readers from misinformation.

Give articles a "best before" date

Our old articles may be long past their 'best before' date

Many topics are 'under development' in the real world. There are new scientific discoveries and review papers on a daily basis. Sensitive political situations change, as investigative journalism unearths scandals. For many articles, these timescales are easy to estimate. For climate change, there is typically little value in research older than 15 years, and even 6 year-old research can be outdated.

What if we give each article a best-before date? If I write an article about sea level rise, with a median source age of 2018, it's best read before 2024. We'll save maximum median source age on Wikidata. If, for a given language variant, the median source date is too old, a warning template could be displayed, perhaps on the article talk page. We could restrict this initially to medical articles, and a few other topics where misinformation is truly dangerous. If an article gets even further out-of-date, language communities may decide to automatically archive or delete the articles.

Archiving articles in addition to deleting

Paper encyclopedias have to make a decision each edition: Does this article get binned, reprinted, or updated? As such, they have a natural decision point to consider deleting outdated research. With over 6.4 million articles just on English Wikipedia, it's completely infeasible to check all articles and make that decision. What if we create a middle ground between deletion and showing articles to our readers? In a (semi-)automatic manner, we could archive many articles that are likely outdated. For instance, articles three years past their 'best before date'. The archive would be accessible to editors, and even readers, with an extra click. No admin intervention needed. A clean slate to write on can be an exhilarating experience. Working in the Dutch Wikipedia, I know how great it feels to start an article on an important topic. Making space in this way might not only help us avoid spreading misinformation, but might also reinvigorate Wikipedia.


  1. ^ @MarcoLSilva (19 Nov 2021). "I've been investigating how good a job @Wikipedia does at explaining climate change. As it turns out, in some of its non-English versions, denial and scepticism are still very much alive" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  2. ^ Silva, Marco (19 November 2021). "Climate change: Conspiracy theories found on foreign-language Wikipedia". BBC News.
  3. ^ Milman, Oliver (21 November 2021). "Climate denial is waning on the right. What's replacing it might be just as scary". the Guardian.
  4. ^ And when not thát useful, at least funny (courtesy of User:Chidgk1):
    • Amharic: "Some people often try to stop global warming by burning small fossils."
    • İloko: "Tattooing is a way for tattoos to ensure the security of the world through the protection of the environment and the awakening of the people through the inundation.""Tattooing is a way for tattoos to ensure the security of the world through the protection of the environment and the awakening of the people through the inundation."
  5. ^ Oreskes, Naomi (2010). Merchants of doubt : how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Erik M. Conway (1st ed.). New York: Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4. OCLC 461631066.
  6. ^ "Anti-abortion disinformation is a 'systematic violation of rights'". openDemocracy. 4 June 2021.
  7. ^ Lucassen, Teun; Dijkstra, Roald; Schraagen, Jan Maarten (20 August 2012). "Readability of Wikipedia". First Monday. doi:10.5210/fm.v0i0.3916. ISSN 1396-0466.
  8. ^ Modiri, Omeed; Guha, Daipayan; Alotaibi, Naif M.; Ibrahim, George M.; Lipsman, Nir; Fallah, Aria (1 March 2018). "Readability and quality of wikipedia pages on neurosurgical topics". Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery. 166: 66–70. doi:10.1016/j.clineuro.2018.01.021. ISSN 0303-8467. PMID 29408776.
  9. ^ Suwannakhan, Athikhun; Casanova-Martínez, Daniel; Yurasakpong, Laphatrada; Montriwat, Punchalee; Meemon, Krai; Limpanuparb, Taweetham (2020). "The Quality and Readability of English Wikipedia Anatomy Articles". Anatomical Sciences Education. 13 (4): 475–487. doi:10.1002/ase.1910. ISSN 1935-9780. PMID 31233658.
  10. ^ Jatowt, Adam; Tanaka, Katsumi (29 October 2012). "Is wikipedia too difficult?: Comparative analysis of readability of wikipedia, simple wikipedia and britannica". Proceedings of the 21st ACM international conference on Information and knowledge management. Association for Computing Machinery. pp. 2607–2610. doi:10.1145/2396761.2398703. ISBN 978-1-4503-1156-4.
  11. ^ Simpson, Andrea; Le, Michelle; Malicka, Alicja N. (2 October 2018). "The Accuracy and Readability of Wikipedia Articles on Hearing Loss". Journal of Consumer Health on the Internet. 22 (4): 323–336. doi:10.1080/15398285.2018.1542251. ISSN 1539-8285.
  12. ^ Brigo, Francesco; Otte, Willem M.; Igwe, Stanley C.; Tezzon, Frediano; Nardone, Raffaele (1 March 2015). "Clearly written, easily comprehended? The readability of websites providing information on epilepsy". Epilepsy & Behavior. 44: 35–39. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2014.12.029. ISSN 1525-5050. PMID 25601720.

In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.
==Climate change denial 1.0 is old news==

Climate change denial 1.0 is old news. Probably at least 1/2 of the people ostensibly denying it know better are are just doing conversational tactics to monkeywrench conversations about the currently promoted solutions, or as a part of the US culture war. Climate change denial 2.0 is denial that population is the main cause and an essential part of the long term solution, of course implemented gracefully. Also denying that some measures (such as nuclear power) that are currently unpopular with those advocating the other measures are an essential part of the solution. Sincerely, North8000 (talk) 20:49, 30 January 2022 (UTC)[reply]

I looked for other types of misinformation as well in all the articles. For instance, I removed twice the statement that there would me more tropical cyclones under climate change (rather than more intense). The myth/framing that population growth (which typically occurs in countries with very low emissions) is the main cause I saw only about three times. Most of these articles are relatively abandoned, and don't talk about solutions at all. I did not encounter any climate myths about the costs of net-zero for instance.
That said, the old misinformation is still having a effect. Only 10% of people believe humans not responsible at all, but soft denial (humans are 50% responsible) is still massively big in Europe and the US. Femke (talk) 21:06, 30 January 2022 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for your work! Once you get into "partially responsible" then you get into the nuances of the exact definition of "climate change" and "cause." My definition would result in calling humans 100% responsible, but there are other arguable definitions. Your growth in countries with low emissions" does not negate the point. The US has massively reduced "per capita" emissions but those gains have been more than erased by US population growth. And per capita emissions and also birth rate do overall correlate with standard of living although of course there are exceptions. North8000 (talk) 21:23, 30 January 2022 (UTC)[reply]
I suspect even within the US, population growth is higher among people that pollute less. That said, on a long term, you want poverty eradicated everywhere, and that will be easier within planetary boundaries if population is smaller rather than larger.
This issue is highly sensitive, and there is a long history of racist discourse and practices around "overpopulation". There exists policy to stop population growth that is not horrible (women's education being the prime example), but once you put too much emphasis on the overpopulation framing, it's unclear what policy politicians will come up with. Overpopulation isn't mentioned much in high-quality RSs on climate change, so in that sense we don't have to cover it extensively. There is a chance scientists self-censor overpopulation as a cause, being aware of historical horrors around the topic. Femke (talk) 22:10, 30 January 2022 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for the link to planetary boundaries. That's a good way try to be more specific about the issue. BTW it can be gracefully tends to happen naturally with an increase in standard of living. E.G simply starting with recognizing Japan as a success story rather than saying that it's a "problem" due to reducing GDP growth and endangering retirement program pyramid schemes. Of course graceful implementation will not bring improvement soon enough without the other measures being discussed. North8000 (talk) 01:04, 31 January 2022 (UTC)[reply]

The Broad Brush

I have a problem with the way the word "climate change denier" is often used. (Before firing up your flamethrowers, please see WP:YWAB for my positions on the scientific consensus on climate change and on global warming conspiracy theories.)

My problem is that the term "climate change denier" is all too often a broad brush used for painting people who hold any of the following views:

You can call me a climate change denier now, because the entries about San Francisco and economic models make a lot of sense to me. --Guy Macon Alternate Account (talk) 18:53, 2 February 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Absolutely, there are a lot of degrees of "denial": from pseudo-science to fringe, and from science to politics. We were lucky that much of the POV content we encountered fell in easier categories (proper pseudo-science to fringe), and that we did not have to engage much in the grey area (a political stance that may be considered denial by some). A lot of the articles stopped after describing the science, and did not mention anything about human impacts, adaptation, mitigation or politics. Femke (talk) 19:18, 2 February 2022 (UTC)[reply]
I just looked over our coverage of climate change Most of the articles, such as Attribution of recent climate change, are excellent. Others, such as Carbon bubble, not so much.
Consider this article in Wired: The Quest to Trap Carbon in Stone—and Beat Climate Change]. (If you hit a paywall, try here:[1])
Our Carbon bubble article acts as if the idea of Carbon sequestration doesn't exist, and makes absolute claims like "these new reserves are unlikely to be exploited, meaning the value of those investments will suffer serious decreases" (sourced to an archive of a claim by advocacy group that they removed from their site in 2014). If ClimeWorks or Carbon Engineering are right, then not exploiting those reserves isn't the only possible way of meeting CO2 goals. --Guy Macon Alternate Account (talk) 03:14, 3 February 2022 (UTC)[reply]
As our society/ civilization crumble, we find these sorts of socio-political divides, where the chattering class has already decided their orthodoxy and the rest of us, Wikipedia editors included, are expected to embrace that orthodoxy without reason. Chris Troutman (talk) 18:09, 1 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

English edit summaries on "non-English versions"


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0