How fighting information pollution promotes a healthier environment

Polluters have been manipulating the information sphere to shut down opposing voices and worsen the climate crisis — here’s how people are fighting back.

9 min readSep 27, 2023
Signs that read “Big Oil, Tell the Truth” and “Exxon’s Lies” are seen during a protest, as students and environmental activists deliver a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in support of his investigation of ExxonMobil, Manhattan, NY, USA, 22 February 2017. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Although the international consensus that climate change must be urgently addressed is overwhelming, our political systems have generally failed to implement the radical solutions required to tackle this and other environmental crises. Most of the world’s population, especially groups disproportionately affected — Indigenous people, the young, the economically disadvantaged, people living with disabilities — are excluded from crucial decision-making processes related to the environment.

Below, we show how one of the IFEX network’s key activity areas — defending the right to access and impart information — is fundamental to addressing this global problem.

The foundation: “Environmental Democracy”

It’s not as widely used a term as environmental justice — at least, not yet. But for those attempting to hold big polluters to account, or defending the rights and lives of those groups that bear the brunt of — but not the responsibility for — drastic damage inflicted on the natural world, strengthening environmental democracy offers a strategic approach.

It’s rooted in the belief that meaningful public participation in decision-making about natural resources is fundamental to ensuring that those decisions are made equitably, and that they adequately address the public’s needs.

An effective environmental democracy rests on three interdependent pillars: transparency — the right to access and share information; public participation — meaning that citizens’ voices are heard and influence decision-making; and justice — the enforcement of environmental laws and treaties, and the opportunity to seek redress when governments or companies violate our rights.

Information: Knowledge is power

Why is access to — and the dissemination of — reliable information proving to be such a crucial battleground when it comes to achieving some form of environmental justice?

We need accurate data to inform our arguments and actions, to make us more effective activists, rights defenders, journalists, and citizens.

  • Information is an essential tool to persuade — or force — elected officials and environment-damaging businesses to make the necessary changes to ensure a liveable world for all, or to offer just compensation for the damage they have done.
  • It is also critical to our ability to inform and engage others in these struggles.

So it’s no wonder that the powerful entities responsible for wreaking destruction on the environment are trying to impede the free flow of accurate information.

Governments have introduced legislation that suppresses public demonstrations or other awareness-raising events by environmental activists. Businesses have exploited the law — for example in the form of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) — to intimidate journalists or activists seeking to expose their deeds.

Actions to silence individuals also take more violent forms. High-profile cases include Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who were murdered in Brazil while investigating and exposing Indigenous rights violations and environmental destruction in the Amazon, and rights defender Berta Cáceres, who built a movement to protect and defend the land of the Indigenous Lenca people of Honduras against mining, damming and other environmentally harmful projects.

Perhaps most perniciously of all, fossil fuel giants have for decades deliberately spread disinformation about the environmentally damaging effects of their industry in order to deceive both governments and the public; and these disinformation campaigns, now turbo-fuelled by the internet, have also created unwitting misinformers of those citizens whom they hoodwink, who then disseminate those lies to others. We take a look at some egregious examples of this below, courtesy of the fossil fuel industry.

Climate change activists read mock newspapers in George Square, Glasgow in support of victims of oil exploration and against fossil fuel investments in Africa during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, on 7 November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Weaponised disinformation

Meaningful public participation relies on a foundation of understanding — but not everyone is on the same page when it comes to climate change.

In 2021, just 57% of US citizens believed that human activities were the main cause of global warming; another 23% believed that there was significant disagreement about climate change among scientists. How can there be so many doubters when 99.9% of peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is both anthropogenic and mainly caused by burning fossil fuels?

In large part it’s because the fossil fuel industry has waged a decades-long disinformation campaign to cast doubt on warnings about climate change, even when it knew that these warnings were based on solid science, and that burning oil and gas was the main driver of the crisis.

We know about this thanks to the work of various actors: the journalists, activists and researchers who have spent years examining companies’ internal documents and external communications, interviewing former employees, sifting through archives and filing freedom of information (FOI) requests; and to the many environmental and Indigenous groups whose activism helped disseminate this information.

In 2015, ground-breaking research by InsideClimate News, the LA Times and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism revealed that Exxon knew in the 1970s that burning fossil fuels was causing global warming. In 2017, Harvard researchers presented proof that the corporation had deliberately misled the public about anthropogenic global warming. In 2023, the same researchers revealed that Exxon’s own private analysis (beginning in 1977) had accurately forecast the rate at which burning fossil fuels would cause global warming, and that the company’s modelling was often more accurate than NASA’s.

The fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign began in the late 1980s and stressed the so-called “uncertainty” of the science around climate change — creating a climate of doubt and promoting a lack of trust in the data and analysis provided by independent scientists. They didn’t need to convince anyone — they only had to disempower them.

Groups were formed to lobby US lawmakers and thousands of advertorials aimed at confusing the public were published. Headlines like If the earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder? were commonplace. Ostensibly independent scientists and organisations that downplayed the risks and causes of climate change were recruited and funded by the industry. The aim was to convince the public that climate change was a debate, not settled science.

As has been the case with all disinformation campaigns, social media has enabled the oil and gas sector to better direct its false narrative, adapting the messaging to respond to the public’s growing concerns about climate change: in the months leading up to COP27, fossil fuel companies spent approximately USD $4 million on Facebook and Instagram ads that spread false climate claims, much of it ‘green-washing’ the companies’ activities.

On the other side of the coin, inadequate rules implemented by Twitter and Facebook in order to eradicate political advertising on their platforms have — apparently inadvertently — blocked advertisements by genuine clean energy businesses. In these cases, a mere reference to political policies or political figures in advertisements for green events or products have been enough to result in a block, thus hindering the circulation of information about clean energy initiatives. For Facebook, ‘environmental politics’ actually falls under its ban on advertising related to certain ‘social issues’.

Information empowering action

The pivotal role of journalists and researchers in providing the public with accurate information about what Exxon and other fossil fuel giants knew about their own contributions to climate change — and how they covered it up — has been crucial in seeking redress.

Following the 2015 exposé of Exxon, the New York attorney general opened an investigation into the company demanding that it disclose documents showing what it knew about climate change and what it had hidden from the public.

That same year, a petition signed by over 350,000 citizens called for a federal investigation into Exxon.

In 2017, cities and states across the US began filing lawsuits against Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, claiming damages for the environmental devastation they had suffered as a result of climate change and demanding urgent action to limit further harm. All the lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry deliberately misled the public about the dangers of burning fossil fuels, thereby exacerbating the problem.

It’s not only states suing fossil fuel corporations, and it’s not just happening in the US. In March 2023, the European Court of Human Rights heard a case brought by lawyers representing more than 2,000 senior Swiss women in which they accuse Switzerland of not doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the climate consequences of which (the lawyers argue) are especially damaging to senior citizens’ health.

In the same month, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution — spearheaded by the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu — requesting the International Court of Justice to examine states’ legal obligations to protect the climate system and the legal consequences for failing to do so, especially with regard to small island developing states and future generations.

The disproportionate impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples has been extensively documented. Several Indigenous communities, including those whose entire livelihoods depend on natural cycles for survival, are bringing lawsuits against fossil fuel giants and governments. In 2020, the Waorani people of Ecuador joined a group of CSOs in filing a lawsuit against PetroOriental SA for causing “atmospheric pollution and its direct effects on climate change”. In 2022, Indigenous youth plaintiffs in Hawaii filed a suit against the Department of Transportation over construction projects that “lock in and escalate the use of fossil fuels, rather than projects that mitigate and reduce emissions”.

And most recently, in August 2023, in a ground-breaking climate trial, a US judge ruled in favour of 16 young plaintiffs (many of them minors) who accused the state of Montana of damaging the climate because its pro-fossil fuel policies violated provisions in the state constitution guaranteeing a “clean and healthful environment”.

IFEX member actions to strengthen environmental democracy

As that recent legal victory in Montana demonstrates, when the key principles of environmental democracy — transparency, public participation, and justice — are upheld, citizens are empowered to engage strategically in activities to bring about environmental justice.

Whether supporting initiatives to strengthen the inclusiveness and accuracy of environmental information, or countering attempts by corporations or governments to suppress it, IFEX members are contributing to this work. Here are just a few recent examples.

  • The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) launched a climate change journalism fellowship, the aim of which is to train young West African journalists to produce impactful reporting on climate change that will “increase public access to climate change information” and “instigate holistic action for tackling the climate crisis”.
  • ADISI Cameroun implemented a project to draw attention to the devastating impact of disappearing mangroves, a major carbon sink, off the West African coast. They selected and trained journalists in data journalism and investigative journalism applied to environmental issues, and produced and published investigative articles.
  • In Ecuador, Fundamedios — in collaboration with regional and international partners — organised the II Amazon Summit on Journalism and Climate Change. Journalists, activists, academics and others attended the event, with Indigenous women playing a leading role. Subjects addressed included the risks faced by environmental journalists in the field, disinformation and climate change, and gender equality in the environmental movement.
  • In Cambodia, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and other regional and international groups called for an investigation into the detention of journalists and activists who had been recording the deforestation of a prohibited area in Phnom Tamao forest. The groups called on the authorities to “uphold the Press Law, Constitution and all national and international laws which ensure the right to freedom of expression”.
  • In Mongolia, Globe International Center (GIC) campaigned for the protection of individuals targeted and criminalised for expressing their views about development projects and their impact on the environment, calling on authorities to publicly recognise the importance of freedom of expression, meaningful participation and unimpeded access to information.
  • In Turkey, Bianet launched the Ecology Journalism Project, seeking to strengthen ties between environmental groups and local journalists, produce more accurate reporting on environmental crises, and thus more effectively challenge those responsible for damaging the environment.
  • Ahead of COP27 (2022) in Egypt, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the government for severely curtailing the ability of environmental groups to carry out “independent policy, advocacy and field work essential to protecting the country’s natural environment”. The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) is calling for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to refrain from conducting surveillance related to the upcoming COP28 and its attendees.

We encourage you to follow the ongoing efforts of IFEX members to promote and protect both the circulation and integrity of information as it relates to the environment and to other relevant topics, through IFEX’s Access to Information hub.

Originally published at on September 27, 2023.




IFEX is a nexus for free expression expertise contributed by over 100 member organisations, spanning 70 countries, and committed to transformative advocacy.