The online world has become a free-speech battleground. Tech platforms have sided with illiberal regimes to censor posts while flagging “misinformation” in free countries. We all share a legitimate interest in avoiding outright falsehoods, but much censorship today — whether at dictators’ behest or in the name of eradicating “misinformation” — ultimately is about restricting discourse to a narrow corridor of the politically acceptable. That makes it harder to identify smart policies.
This is especially troubling for important issues like climate change. Global warming is real and man-made. However, social-media giants — Facebook in particular — are going far beyond censoring people for denying its existence.
Facebook monitors what people say about climate change in 100 countries and uses third-party fact-checkers to identify misinformation for flagging or removal.
Here’s something Facebook’s censors deemed unacceptable: I wrote a comment using the latest peer-reviewed research from the medical journal Lancet on deaths caused by heat and cold. The paper is the first to show that globally, every year, half a million people die because temperatures are too hot, while 4.5 million people die because it is too cold. In other words, nine times more people die from the cold than the heat.
I ran afoul of Facebook’s fact-checkers for noting that over the past 20 years, our higher temperatures, which we would expect from global warming, have increased heat deaths and decreased cold deaths. I calculated the net effect in terms of saved lives every year and was flagged for “misinformation.”
To avoid social-media censorship of this article, I bizarrely have to cite one of the study’s lead authors instead of putting it in my own words. As that author stated, from 2000 to 2019, “Earth’s temperature increased by 0.26 degree Centigrade per decade. This reduced cold-related deaths by 0.51% and increased heat-related mortality by 0.21%, which led to a reduction in net mortality due to hot and cold temperatures.”
It’s worth considering why this is deemed “misinformation.” Clearly, it cannot be climate-change denial to highlight the effects of increasing temperatures. It rather seems that the facts are muzzled because they don’t fit into activist-approved talking points, which frame climate change as an overwhelming, always-worsening crisis everywhere, with no exceptions.
By labeling this evidence “misinformation,” Facebook suppresses crucial facts that could help us identify the best policies to reduce future heat and cold deaths while reining in global warming effectively — which surely should be the goal.
Another example of censorship occurred when I wrote on electric vehicles. A recent Nature article reaffirms that electric cars emit less CO₂ than conventional cars. Unfortunately, large batteries also make electric cars much heavier, and heavier cars are more likely to kill the occupants of other vehicles in traffic accidents. The Nature piece weighed the benefit from less CO₂ against more accident deaths. It found that the climate benefits outweigh accident costs in countries with very green energy, like Norway and Canada, but not in less-green countries like America, Germany, Japan, China and India.
This is an interesting study. Facebook flagged me when I noted the authors had curiously measured CO₂ benefits at $150 per ton — higher than almost any country prices any (let alone all) emissions. The current average global price is $2 per ton. At any realistic price — or even at the still-sky-high price of $100 — the study would show traffic-death costs outweigh climate benefits everywhere.
How this point is “misinformation” is extremely difficult to fathom. The inevitable conclusion is that it did not fit an acceptable narrative to reveal that even if the entire world had 100% clean energy, electric-vehicle climate benefits would be outweighed by additional traffic deaths.
Disturbingly, Facebook’s vice president has admitted fact-checkers are not necessarily objective, and the company even acknowledged recently in a lawsuit that fact-check tags are “opinion,” not factual assertions. That certainly fits my own experience.
Yet some activists want even more censorship. They’ve praised researchers for inventing an artificial-intelligence tool allowing social-media platforms to delete climate-change “misinformation” in real time. Absurdly, the AI tool has such a narrow view of acceptability that many mainstream scientific findings would be deleted.
Tellingly, all this censorship is focused on one side: Activists can claim climate-change effects are far worse than they really are, with little or no suppression. In other words: Inconvenient facts get blocked, but convenient mistruths and exaggerations thrive.
This is disturbing above all because it makes identifying good policies harder. Bank of America has found current global action to achieve net-zero emissions will cost the world $5 trillion every year for the next three decades — more than all nations and households spend on education every year.
Consistently silencing inconvenient truths leaves us all less well-informed and risks us walking blindly into spending a fortune without sorely needed perspective.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”