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Elon Musk tweets false climate claim

, July 4, 2023, 0 Comments

elon-musk-twitter-climate-marketexpress-inThe world’s richest man has made public statements that deny basic science about the role of agriculture in heating the planet, say experts.

Elon Musk, the wealthy owner of Twitter, has falsely claimed that farming has no major effect on the climate — prompting corrections from scientists and raising fears about misinformation on the influential social media platform.

In a tweet in late June, Musk said “what happens on Earth’s surface (eg farming) has no meaningful impact on climate change.” He continued that the risk of climate change came overwhelmingly from moving carbon deep underground into the atmosphere. “Over time, if we keep doing this, the chemical makeup of our atmosphere will change enough to induce meaningful climate change.”

Scientists quickly pointed out that he is wrong on two counts. First, greenhouse gas pollution from agriculture, forestry and other land use made up 13-21% of global emissions between 2010 and 2019. Second, humans have heated the planet 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 Fahrenheit), which has already made extreme weather events from coastal floods to heat waves stronger and more likely.

“Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unquestionably caused global warming,” tweeted the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a global research organization based in Austria, in response to Musk.

Musk, a public figure with 145 million followers on Twitter, who has called himself “a free speech absolutist,” has repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories since he bought the platform in October. His recent targets have included billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the frequent recipient of antisemitic abuse; Nancy Pelosi, a US politician from the Democratic Party; and investigative journalism group Bellingcat.

“I’ll say what I want to say, and if the consequence of doing that is losing money, so be it,” said Musk in an interview with US broadcaster CNBC in May after being challenged on his engagement with conspiracy theories and its effect on Twitter’s advertising revenue.

A DW request for comment sent to Twitter’s press office on June 27 received an automatically generated reply of a rude emoji. This appears to have become the social media company’s standard response to media queries since widely reported layoffs among its communication team earlier in the year.

Climate denial and abuse

The level of climate denial on Twitter has risen in the last year, according to a recent analysis published by global campaign group Climate Action Against Disinformation and misinformation researcher Abbie Richards, a fellow with the nonprofit Accelerationism Research Consortium.

Starting around July 2022, they found the number of tweets with climate denial terms rose from about 30,000 per week to about 110,000. Tweets included claims that climate change is a “scam” pushed by “globalists.”

Scientists say the level of abuse from climate deniers has also increased since Musk took over.

“I haven’t seen it to the same extent as some of my colleagues because I have an itchy block finger,” said Julia Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She estimates she has blocked tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of climate-denying or abusive accounts. “Things have definitely gotten a lot worse since Musk took over.”

Steinberger, an author of the latest report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), called Musk a climate denier in a widely shared thread hours after his tweet. Some of the replies contained genuine criticism about what counts as climate denial and what Musk meant by the word “meaningful,” she said. Many more came from climate deniers and abusive trolls.

Jordan Peterson, an influential Canadian psychologist with 4.4 million followers who describes himself as a classical liberal, said Steinberger was appropriating the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust by calling Musk a climate “denier.” Steinberger, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jack Steinberger, said the backlash “was quite intense but manageable” until that point.

The level of abuse depends on the size of the account and the behavior of their supporters, she added. “Up to a few hundred thousand followers I can handle, but Jordan Peterson has 4 million,” said Steinberger.

Farming and climate change

Musk is also the boss of SpaceX, which makes spacecraft, and Tesla, which makes electric cars. Over the last decade, he has made several comments about the severity of climate change, which he has described as both real and catastrophic.

But in recent months, Musk has downplayed the role of agriculture and said efforts to curb pollution from farms will not help. In response to a tweet in March about Belgian farmers protesting laws to cut nitrogen emissions, he said: “I’m super pro climate, but we definitely don’t need to put farmers out of work to solve climate change. Not at all.”

Then, in June, Musk replied to an article suggesting Ireland may cull 200,000 cows to meet its 2025 climate targets with: “This really needs to stop. Killing some cows doesn’t matter for climate change.”

According to Ireland’s Environmental Protection agency, agriculture was responsible for 38% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. Most of that came in the form of methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilizer and manure. Some scientists warn that shrinking herds in one country may grow them in others if demand for meat does not fall with supply. Still, they agree that livestock emissions are a key contributor to climate change.

“There’s no question that fossil fuel emissions are bigger, but this is a significant aspect,” said David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in the US.

World leaders promised to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, but their current policies put it on track for nearly double that. Several studies in recent years have found the emissions from agriculture are enough to blow past the carbon budget on their own.

Global food consumption alone could add nearly 1 degree Celsius to warming by 2100, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in March. More than half of the warming can be avoided by producing food better, adopting healthy diets everywhere — including more vegetables and less meat — and cutting food waste from consumers and shops, the researchers found.

Experts have stressed the need to quickly tackle emissions from agriculture. Tim Searchinger, technical director of the food program at the climate think tank World Resources Institute, said its emissions are rising so fast they are “likely to emit more carbon in 2050 than the world can accept from all human sources.”