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What would a climate-conscious Facebook look like?
By Alejandro de la Garza
Reporter

After a summer of devastating hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires, Facebook's new measures to address climate misinformation leave something to be desired. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking they were a joke.

In a blog post headlined "Tackling Climate Change Together," Facebook said it would be adding quizzes to its climate information center and donating $1 million to organizations that fight climate misinformation, among other measures. Those pledges, activists and disinformation experts say, are piddling compared to the amount of climate misinformation and paid pro-fossil fuel advertising on the site. In 2020 alone, U.S. oil companies spent nearly $10 million on Facebook ads promoting the continued use of fossil fuels, according to an August report from Influence Map, a nonprofit watchdog group. Another report, from nonprofit Friends of the Earth, showed how faulty narratives around renewables spread far and wide on social media sites like Facebook following the Texas blackouts in February. "The initiatives that [Facebook] took are far too little, far too late," says Michael Khoo, Friends of the Earth's disinformation spokesperson. "It's missing the big picture problem."

There are smart, reasonable people working at Facebook—people well aware of the dire climate situation, and the shrinking window of time we have to avoid the worst effects down the road. But why haven't they taken more serious action? Is addressing climate misinformation on Facebook a matter of a few simple fixes—something a programming team could accomplish in a week? Or would it require a rethinking of everything Facebook does and is? For that matter, what does a climate conscious Facebook even look like? Would we know it if we saw it?

I put those questions to an array of climate activists and social media scholars. They uniformly agreed that making such changes is well within Facebook's power. "You've got the smartest kids in the room and the most money on the planet. How on Earth can you not figure out a solution?" says Khoo. "They literally created this problem, so there's no one better positioned to deconstruct the problem."

Indeed, some of the fixes researchers and activists are talking about sound relatively straightforward. Faye Holder, a program manager at Influence Map, says part of the issue is a matter of Facebook implementing its own advertising policies by clamping down harder on obvious falsehoods in paid posts—like claims that climate change is a hoax. Facebook could also expand that policy to include advertisements from fossil fuel companies portraying oil and gas as clean energy sources. "Facebook isn't including all of these claims as misleading or misinformation, but there's definitely scope [for them] to," says Holder. "That's something they need to address and figure out where they fall on this."

There's also a broader problem: Facebook's advertising-based business model is powered by engagement—its algorithm promotes whatever content keeps people hooked. The system makes Facebook the perfect breeding ground for conspiracies and disinformation of all sorts, including climate denialism, because that kind of content is some of the most engaging, says Danny Rogers, co-founder of The nonprofit Global Disinformation Index and an adjunct professor at New York University. Changing the algorithm would cost the company—which reported $10 billion in profits in the most recent quarter—financially. "Facebook makes money by luring users to the platform and keeping them on the platform," says Rogers. "If people are spending less time on the platform, [Facebook] makes less money."

What, then, might a responsible Facebook look like? It might be a company that decides it's in its own best interest—if not the rest of society's—not to exploit engagement to the maximum extent, which would stop conspiracies and climate disinformation from spreading like wildfire. It could come to such a decision due to government regulation, or a restructuring that ends the almost complete control of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It might even choose to become part of the solution, giving an extra boost to posts that demonstrate positive climate action.

There could be a trade off though: With a decreased emphasis on engagement above all else, this new version of Facebook might seem a little less exciting from a user's perspective, with fewer high emotions and comment thread screaming matches—more of a school field trip vibe than an MMA cage match. "At first glance that sounds disappointing, like a healthier diet sounds more boring compared to a gluttonous feast," says Rogers. "But ultimately it's not a bad thing."

A New Data Point
Climate change will put millions of people at risk of slavery

As temperatures warm, seas rise and extreme weather becomes more common around the globe, millions of climate refugees are at risk of falling victim to modern slavery, according to a Sept. 20 report from Anti-Slavery International and the International Institute for Environment and Development. Extreme weather events like hurricanes as well as slower-moving climate disasters like drought can force people out of their homes and put them at risk of being taken advantage of by human traffickers or forced into slavery-like conditions, according to the report.

The report's authors focused on two case studies, one in Ghana and the other in an India-Bangladesh border region. In Ghana, climate variability in agricultural regions has forced young women to migrate to the country's cities, where they are at risk of being forced into debt bondage. In the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh, rising sea levels and worsening natural disasters have caused large numbers of people to resort to trafficking networks to find work, a system that often forces them into sweatshop labor or prostitution to pay off debts to smugglers.

Read More »
Quick Talk...
...with Ajay Mathur, director general of the International Solar Alliance

 

TIME Senior Correspondent Justin Worland spoke with Mathur on Sept. 1.

 

With the COP26 climate change conference coming up, what's on your mind with regard to the International Solar Alliance?

With ISA not being a country, our expectations are slightly different. Nevertheless, we do have political goals for the COP. One of the flagship initiatives that the Solar Alliance wants to go through with is called One Sun, One World, One Grid. We have these regional grids across the world, for example, the Canadian, the U.S. and now increasingly the Mexican grids. Similarly, in East Asia, in Southern Africa. What we want is for these grids to also be interconnected.

 

So, the great advantage is, when it is evening, for example, in India, it is still daytime in the Middle East. If they produce electricity from solar, and if this electricity from solar travels across lines to India, we could still have solar electricity in India but at night. Similarly between India and East Asia, or between Europe and Africa, or Australia and Singapore. What we would like at COP is a political statement of countries that we would like to go ahead with this kind of grid.

 

There are many things that you could focus on in the area of solar, and you're doing other things as well, but why is it so important to the scheme of all these other solar initiatives?

 

This is one activity which cannot occur unless there is international collaboration. National countries cannot do it. Even bilateral becomes difficult if you don't see an international framework. That is the overwhelming reason why we started doing this: because there was nobody else.

 

What's your timeline?

 

We expect that we will start working with our key and our priority member states sometime in the middle of next year. That's the time the report will be done ... We hope that the first decisions would be made by early 2023, and therefore construction to start somewhere in mid-2023. So we are talking about two years to the start of construction.

What Else to Know
The world's climate pledges don't add up

The world needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions some 45% by 2030 in order to have a solid chance of zeroing them out by mid century, according to the United Nations. But if current emissions pledges made by counties under the Paris Climate Accord are carried out, those emissions will trend in the wrong direction, rising by almost 16% over the next 10 years, according to a Sept. 17 U.N. report. Those trendlines put the world on a "catastrophic pathway," according to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Read More »
The Biden Administration builds momentum

U.S. President Joe Biden’s team has unveiled a slew of climate initiatives in past weeks, from an Energy Department announcement that the U.S. could be running on 40% solar energy by 2035, to a new joint commitment with Europe to cut methane, writes my colleague Justin Worland. The heightened tempo comes ahead of November’s Glasgow climate summit, where the Biden Administration hopes to establish the U.S. as an international climate leader.

Read More »
Fossil fuel execs in the hot seat

House Oversight Committee lawmakers announced Sept. 16 that they will be investigating oil companies’ efforts to spread climate disinformation and slow public action to address carbon emissions. The legislators have asked the companies to provide documents related to anti-climate science initiatives over the past six years, and have invited fossil fuel executives and lobby group heads to testify on Oct. 28.

Read More »
A deadly year for environmental defenders

Violence against activists who try to defend the planet from businesses and governments causing environmental destruction reached record levels in 2020, with 222 people murdered for such work, according to a report published yesterday by Global Witness. The watchdog says the number of such murders has risen steadily since 2018, when it stood at 164, as the climate crisis and battles over resources intensify.

Read More »
Zeroing out South African coal

The U.S., U.K., Germany and France will soon send representatives to South Africa to try to negotiate a financial deal to begin to transition that country's coal power plants to renewable energy, according to Bloomberg. The county's heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants has made it the world's 12th largest emitter, though its economy is only the 32nd largest.

Read More »
Trashing misleading plastic labels

A new California bill would ban plastics manufacturers from stamping a recycling symbol on plastics that facilities in the state aren't able to melt down into new products. The bill, which could spur national action to address misleading recycling labels, passed the state Senate on Sept. 9.

Read More »
Thank You For Reading

This edition was written by Alejandro de la Garza and edited by Alex Fitzpatrick. We welcome any feedback at climate@time.com.

 
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