Shadowy, elusive and drenched in dystopia, the frontman of English electronic band Massive Attack is one of the last people you’d expect to be “banging the stick for regulation”. But the climate crisis has driven the musician and artist Robert Del Naja to do just that.
Networks of misinformation and “greenwashing” are damaging public understanding of the climate challenge. Earlier this month, the CEO of the oil giant Exxon Mobil denied at a US Congressional hearing that the company spreads climate disinformation. Yet just days beforehand, as Del Naja uncovered through his new Eco-Bot.Net project which flags climate disinformation, Exxon was distributing adverts with misleading claims on Facebook.
Confronted with the threat of misinformation, Del Naja, 56, believes action is needed now.
“What we really want is a holy trinity of innovation, standardisation [and regulation]. No one likes to be regulated, but [given] the precarity we face, we need to move quicker,” he told me from his home in Bristol.
Earlier this week, on 9 November, an open letter signed by more than 250 figures from climate organisations, NGOs and businesses called on tech platforms and Cop26 decision-makers to adopt a universal definition of climate misinformation to help tackle the problem.
Climate misinformation and disinformation can take many forms, says the letter, which was organised by the Conscious Advertising Network and informed by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism think tank. These range from disputing the existence of climate change or the need for action, to misrepresenting data and falsely publicising harmful activities.
The intervention is timely. In August, a study revealed major brands were sending an estimated $2.6bn annually to climate misinformation sites. Meanwhile, analysis published during Cop has found the practice of publishing misinformation is increasing “substantially” on Facebook.
The idea for Del Naja’s Eco-Bot campaign, which is exposing greenwashing during Cop26 in Glasgow, was sparked by conversations with the green industrialist Dale Vince and the artist Bill Posters (known for his “deepfake” artworks).
The aim of Eco-Bot’s AI system is to “create a new way of seeing that can help reveal some of these hard-to-understand issues”, Posters explains. Its system scours social media data for potential disinformation phrases so their status can be analysed by a team of in-house journalists.
“With the data we’ve got now, we can challenge power in new ways and hold it to account,” said Posters. “We’re going to flag several thousand adverts that we find during Cop, which is only a symbolic finding in relation to the scale of what’s out there. This is the tip of an iceberg.”
Distinguishing between truth and non-truth, information and manipulation, is something Massive Attack have been exploring for years, says Del Naja, who is drawn to statistics for their “immunity from opinion”. While he wasn’t surprised by Eco-Bot’s findings, he is “bewildered by the sheer scale of it all”.
“We go to Facebook and say, ‘Can you give us a response as to why this information has been platformed?’ and they say, ‘Well, you know, we rely on our fact checkers.’”
But relying on individuals, without a universal system, leaves room for error: “We’re in a climate emergency, and we need to listen to the science. In the same way we can’t all be experts, we can’t have curatorial experts and personalised science. We need to work in a standardised situation.”
Del Naja and Massive Attack have for years been trying to establish how the music industry can best act on climate change.
In 2019, after their Mezzanine XXI tour of the US, the band realised that simply “off-setting” the tour emissions by paying to support green projects was really an excuse to keep touring in a “business as usual” mode. Instead, they commissioned the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change to look at how to make emissions savings for the entire music sector, from audience transport to energy use at shows.
The result was an open-resource, “Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Music”, which details how the industry can become compatible with the 1.5°C climate target and which was officially recognised by the UNFCCC at Cop26 as part of its Race to Zero initiative.
Without a common rulebook, Del Naja fears a situation in which venues and bands employ separate sustainability experts, leading to a “dystopian world of personalised science”.
The Cop26 talks have been dismissed by some climate activists as “blah, blah, blah” – rhetoric without action. Might such a criticism also risk undermining trust in experts’ voices and climate solutions?
“I admire protesters for challenging power at all times, it’s an important part of how we get things done,” Del Naja responds. “I firmly believe that without tactical intervention and mass protest movements, Cop would be purely cosmetic and nothing would change.”
“[But in] a lot of protest movements, when the argument gets oversimplified, I think it loses its power and potency. You don’t want it to become too tribal; it loses its potency when it’s dismissed as a tribal group or demographic.”
Del Naja must be used to dealing with misinformation, I suggest, given the rumours about him being the anonymous street-artist Banksy (which he denies). The parallel makes him laugh, adding that his interest in the subject is “more a symptom of the times we live in than a personal situation”.
Tackling the climate crisis requires collaboration, something Massive Attack know a thing or two about. In their “Eutopia” EP released last year, the voiceover to the first track is provided by the leading climate diplomat Christiana Figueres, who has emphasised that “everyone can play their part, individually and collectively”.
Is the future really “in our hands”, as Figueres suggests? Del Naja is optimistic: “You have as much agency as you have passion to make something change.”
[How environmentally damaging is music streaming?]