Climate denial is evolving, targeting youth on YouTube, says study

Researchers also found that YouTube ran ads for well-known brands such as Hilton Hotels and Nike on videos containing climate denial

Climate denial on YouTube has evolved dramatically in recent years, presenting a new challenge to mobilizing public support for climate action, particularly among young people. This is the conclusion of a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

Researchers analyzed transcripts of text from 12,058 climate-related YouTube videos posted by 96 channels over six years (2018-2023). Using artificial intelligence, they identified a radical shift in the tactics of climate deniers, from “Old Denial” to “New Denial”.

“Old Denial” centered on two key false narratives, which have both declined:

  • “Global warming is not happening” (from 48% of all denial claims in 2018 to 14% in 2023)
  • “Humans are not causing global warming and climate change” (from 17% to 16%)

“New Denial” has evolved to focus on three increasingly prevalent narratives:

  • “Climate solutions won’t work” (from 9% to 30%)
  • “Climate science and the climate movement are unreliable” (from 23% to 35%)
  • “The impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless” (from 4% to 6%)

“New Denial” narratives – which constituted 35% of all climate denial on YouTube in 2018 – now represent the vast majority (70%). In the same period, the share of “Old Denial” has dropped from 65% to just 30% of total claims.

Youtube channels

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Photo: Envato

These types of narratives have been popularized by online figures such as Jordan Peterson (7.62 million subscribers), and have been championed on channels such as BlazeTV (1.92 million subscribers) and PragerU (3.21 million subscribers).

Researchers also found that YouTube ran ads for well-known brands such as Hilton Hotels and Nike on videos containing climate denial, as well as paid ads by nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children.

For the CCDH, these findings represent a major challenge to climate action. A Pew Research Center survey, published in December 2023, found that YouTube is the most widely used social media platform among 13- to 17-year-olds (71%).

In addition, a new CCDH poll conducted in January 2024 among American 13- to 17-year-olds found that:

  • 31% agreed that “the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless”, including 39% of teenage boys
  • 33% said “climate policies cause more harm than good”, including 40% of teenage boys
  • 30% said “climate science and the climate movement can’t be trusted”, including 37% of teenage boys
  • 31% said “climate change is a hoax to control and oppress people”, including 41% of teenage boys
  • 45% of teenage boys said “politicians are exaggerating the urgency of climate policies” and 44% believed “climate scientists are manipulating data”
  • 34% of all teenagers said “the earth is actually entering into a new ice age”, compared to just 23% of adults

“Climate deniers now have access to vast global audiences through digital platforms. Allowing them to steadily chip away at public support for climate action – especially among younger viewers – could have devastating consequences for the future of our planet,” said Charlie Cray, Senior Strategist at Greenpeace USA.

The CCDH is calling on Google, which owns YouTube, to expand its monetization policy to also demonetize content that contradicts the authoritative scientific consensus on the “causes, impacts, and solutions” to climate change. Currently, the policy prohibits only the monetization of content that “contradicts the authoritative scientific consensus on climate change”.

“Scientists have won the battle to inform the public about climate change and its causes. That’s why those opposed to climate action have cynically switched focus to undermining confidence in solutions and in science itself” said Cray.

“Young people spend a huge amount of time on video-sharing platforms like YouTube. These new forms of climate denial, which have proliferated rapidly over the last six years, are designed to confuse and weaken public support for climate action in the coming decades. It is hypocritical for social media companies to claim to be green but then monetize and amplify lies about the climate”.