The Power of Narratives – part 1: NODES’ Strategic Mapping to Better Understand Climate Disinformation
A man drinks water at a fountain in Xativa, south of Valencia, on August 10, 2023 as Spain faces the third heatwave of the summer. (JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

The Power of Narratives – part 1: NODES’ Strategic Mapping to Better Understand Climate Disinformation

Fact-checkers use the word ‘narrative’ to refer to underlying messages that are common to multiple individual dis- or misinformation claims. Posts such as one sharing a flawed study suggesting that CO2 levels have no discernible impact on the climate, or a video claiming that there is nothing unprecedented about the current increase in temperatures, both support the same narrative: climate change isn’t man-made.

Linguists and semioticians put a different meaning on the same word. To them, a narrative refers to a deeply-held set of beliefs and values that constitute an integral part of who we are as individuals, and hold the key to understanding the world around us. This definition of a narrative goes far beyond verifiable statements, it is a story about how the world works, such as ‘the government is there to oppress the people and protect the rich’ or ‘the good will be rewarded and the bad punished’.

Regardless of its veracity, new information tends to be accepted by individuals if it fits within a previously-held narrative and rejected if it runs contrary to it (Schmid W. (2010) Narratology An Introduction, De Gruyter. Prince Gerald (1982), Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative, Mouton Publishers). At first glance, this might appear discouraging to fact-checkers who hold dearly the idea that facts should transcend opinion. However, if this is indeed how worldviews are constructed, effectively tackling dis- or misinformation needs to take this into account.

The Narratives Observatory Combatting Disinformation in Europe Systemically (NODES) project looked at dis- or misinformation through this narrative lens. Our objective was to explore a new angle for fact-checking: how can we craft our articles to not only preach to the choir, but actually have a chance at breaking through to audiences that might be reluctant to accept new evidence when it doesn’t match their preferred narrative? Another objective was to investigate whether we can learn from the study of narratives and narrative structures to go one step deeper in understanding how, and why, dis- or misinformation spreads.

Knowing how narratives operate

To answer these questions, NODES researchers analyzed large datasets of both traditional and digital media: blog posts and newspaper articles, and Facebook and Twitter/X posts in four languages (English, French, Polish and Spanish). They identified the main narratives that underlie the current European debate about climate change, COVID-19, and migration and the values each narrative was associated with. 

While narratives appear to center on one popular issue such as vaccines, climate restrictions, or migrants, this analysis reveals that these are only surface concerns. These issues actually serve as props to express values and deeper societal conflicts—between the people and companies, government, and perceived external threats.

We argue that adopting a narratives-first conceptual approach to public discourse provides a powerful method for understanding the underlying reasons that motivate the use of specific dis- or misinformation claims. This approach can also contribute to predicting the impact of certain claims and assist fact-checkers in responding effectively.

The narrative landscape on climate change

Figure 1. The seven narratives that were identified by the NODES project in a large corpus of newspaper articles, blog posts, and social media posts on climate topics. Associated values are indicated in gray below each narrative.

Below, we provide more explanation about the seven most significant narratives that were identified by NODES’ analysis of contemporary climate debates on traditional and digital media.

  1. We need to resist the Green Dystopia: This narrative voices concerns over extreme environmental activism, perceived as infringing on individual freedoms and cultural norms. Proponents argue that the radical measures proposed by some activists could lead to a “green dystopia”, where regulation and control overshadow personal liberties and societal values. This perspective emphasizes the need to balance environmental concerns with freedom, security, and tradition.
  2. Green Policies are Blocking Progress: This narrative suggests that environmental policies can stifle economic and technological advancement. It argues that while sustainability is important, it should not come at the expense of innovation and growth. The narrative calls for a reassessment of green policies to ensure they support progress rather than hinder it.
  3. Let’s Not Panic: Arguing that activists are deliberately exaggerating the effects of climate change and ignoring the cost associated with implementing green policies. This narrative is aimed at blocking concrete, more decisive measures on combating climate change.
  4. Opportunity in Crisis: Viewing climate change as both a challenge and an opportunity, this narrative focuses on the potential for growth, innovation, and positive change. It encourages leveraging the crisis to foster technological advancements, sustainable practices, and a shift towards a more resilient and equitable society.
  5. The Apocalypse is Coming: This dire narrative highlights the urgent and existential threat posed by climate change. It paints a picture of impending disaster, emphasizing the need for immediate and decisive action to prevent catastrophic outcomes. The narrative seeks to mobilize public opinion and policy by stressing the severity of the situation.
  6. Rebellion Against Greed: Centered on themes of equity and justice, this narrative criticizes the current economic systems driven by greed and profit. It advocates for a significant shift towards sustainability, equity, and shared responsibility, challenging the status quo and calling for systemic change to address the root causes of climate change.
  7. We Need to Act Together: Highlighting the power of collective action, this narrative calls for unity and collaboration in addressing climate change. It stresses that everyone has a role to play, and emphasizes the importance of solidarity, community, and global cooperation in overcoming the challenges posed by climate change.

The intersection of narratives and dis- or misinformation

NODES’ map of narratives is a stock take on the different corners of public discourse on climate change; it is not concerned per se about the veracity of the claims often found associated with these narratives.

A second step of the project consisted in reviewing the accuracy of all the pieces of content associated with these narratives in order to help determine how a narrative may be manipulated to mislead audiences. Two narratives stood out as being particularly prone to dis- or misinformation: ‘We need to resist the green dystopia’ and ‘Let’s not panic’.

We need to resist the green dystopia

The narrative ‘we need to resist the green dystopia’ argues that radical environmental measures could lead to a “green dystopia” where regulation and control overshadow personal liberties and societal values. According to NODES’s findings, this narrative is used more frequently in association with dis- or misinformation than others, often misrepresenting the work of climate scientists or public policies aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One example of misinformation that uses this narrative is the misrepresentation of a study on urban agriculture. The study was featured in a Telegraph article, which triggered widespread misinformation on social media. The headline, “Carbon footprint of homegrown food five times greater than conventionally grown food”, was widely shared via screenshots on social media, suggesting that urban agriculture could be found detrimental to the climate and potentially banned.


Figure 2. Screenshot of a social media post misleadingly claiming home gardens may be considered a climate crime.

One post from a Facebook group with 237,000 followers reads, “Now will they come for your backyard veggie garden? #Reason #GlobalWarming.” Another from a group with over one million followers asks, “Which country will be the first to declare home gardens a climate crime? This is absolute lunacy.” Joe Rogan, with 18.6 million Instagram followers, shared the Telegraph headline, commenting, “Anyone that discourages people from growing their own food is not your friend,” which garnered over 410,000 likes. 

In reality, the study did not advocate for any restrictions on urban agriculture or suggest it should be curtailed to manage climate impacts. Instead, it identified ways to reduce the carbon footprint of urban gardening and emphasized its many benefits, such as reducing transportation emissions and enhancing local food security. 

Another example of how misleading claims fueled this narrative relates to a study on human breathing. The study quantified the greenhouse gas emissions from human breathing in the UK, finding that breathing may contribute only 0.05% to the nation’s emissions. Despite these extremely small percentages, the study’s findings were significantly distorted in the media. Multiple tabloids, websites, and social media posts used the study to claim, whether sincerely or disingenuously, that breathing is causing and fueling global warming.


Figure 3. Screenshot of a social media post falsely claiming human breathing significantly  contributes to climate change.

The misinformation led to public confusion and reinforced the narrative that “climate fanatics” exaggerate environmental concerns, suggesting that even our most vital functions could be restricted for climate change mitigation.

In addition to misrepresenting the studies it cited, these misleading and false claims integrate elements explaining why this story makes sense. The portrayal of climate scientists, and more broadly, advocates for climate action, as people who want to control every aspect of our lives (from gardening to breathing), undeniably plays a role in the popularity of the misinformation. It’s by relying on stories of alleged government overreach that malicious actors make misinformation more convincing to their audiences.

Let’s not panic

The ‘let’s not panic’ narrative is also often associated with misleading claims. It pretends to advocate for a rational and measured approach to climate discourse, cautioning against any form of alarmism.

Examples include the false claim that forests are carbon sinks so powerful that they are capable of absorbing more CO2 than humans emit, thus negating all concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. This false claim has particularly gained traction in countries like Canada and Australia, despite being factually incorrect. “Wake up. There’s no CO2 problem, there’s no carbon emission problem, there’s no climate change,” claimed a social media user in a widely shared inaccurate video on this topic.

Figure 4. Screenshot of three fact-checking articles on the false claim that climate change mitigation is a scam because forests already take up more CO2 than humanity emits, published by AAP (top left), CBC (bottom left), and USA Today (right). 

In reality, natural carbon sinks such as trees and oceans only absorb about half of the carbon emissions humans create each year, far from disproving the need for climate action. Due to climate change, some forests are also absorbing less carbon dioxide than before, and the efficiency of land and ocean sinks in capturing CO2 is expected to decline if emissions continue to rise. 

When such a false claim was made in a video, the user presented it as part of a story world where government lies are so pervasive that anyone conducting their own research can easily spot the flaws. “The climate scam is so ridiculously easy to debunk by anyone. Fact-checkers! Here’s the source:” he said. This underscores how, through narratives, such claims don’t just challenge the facts but also explain that the world does make sense with the alleged evidence.

A second example of a piece of misinformation feeding this narrative is the CLINTEL declaration, sponsored by the Dutch climate contrarian Climate Intelligence Foundation, signed by “1,931 scientists and professionals”, according to their claim. In reality, the vast majority of the signatories have no expertise in climate science at all. The declaration builds on a series of familiar myths about climate science to justify its main message that “there is no climate emergency”.

Figure 5. Screenshot of the CLINTEL declaration. 

Ultimately, it claims that “climate science should be less political, while climate policies should be more scientific”, which very well represents the use malicious actors can make of this narrative, aimed at blocking concrete measures aimed at addressing climate change.


We hope this narrative-based perspective equips fact-checkers with additional insights needed to anticipate where and why dis- or misinformation is likely to emerge within specific communities supporting a given narrative. It also offers a new direction for how to frame fact-checks: effectively tackling claims about climate policies preventing citizens from growing vegetables in their backyard requires more than just checking whether any policies advocate for this, it could also address the underlying fear of government overreach.

Continue to Part Two of our series, which focuses on COVID-19, here.