Climate Disinformation, Heat Resilience & Sustainability Leadership: IGS & BU at ClimaTech

Experts from Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability (IGS) took the stage with global climate and technology leaders at the first-ever ClimaTech conference, hosted in Boston June 3-5.

Co-organized by Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and industry and academic partners including BU, ClimaTech convened professionals from a wide range of industries and sectors to exchange innovative ideas and mobilize climate action. IGS faculty presented their research on climate disinformation and heat resilience, and BU’s provost ad interim discussed the University’s leadership in sustainability.

“When you talk about even reducing emissions, you’re talking about technologies that you need to deploy in manufacturing, in housing, in transportation, in healthcare, you could go on and on and on,” Healey said at the event. “That’s basically what climate technology is. And we think that with the likes of people attending in this room and who will be attending and presenting at this wonderful conference, we have an ability to do it in an unparalleled way right here.”

Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the indispensable role of academic institutions in fueling both climate solutions and economic growth. 

“Boston’s business community is unique in that we benefit from being home to the best colleges and universities in the world,” Wu said in her opening remarks. “These institutions offer not only the best and brightest talent but also highly developed technical infrastructure that lends itself to creating groundbreaking climate technology.” 

IGS faculty presenters at ClimaTech included Michelle Amazeen (College of Communication), Patricia Fabian (School of Public Health), and Lucy Hutyra (College of Arts & Sciences). BU Provost ad interim Kenneth Lutchen also delivered remarks.

Native advertising perpetuates climate disinformation

The vast majority of people are unable to distinguish between a piece of news journalism and a piece of native advertising, said IGS faculty Michelle Amazeen, an associate dean and associate professor in the department of Mass Communication, at the top of her talk on how news organizations contribute to climate disinformation.

Native advertising is a covert form of marketing where an ad is formatted to look like content native to the platform on which it appears. As newsroom revenue has declined, and ad blockers have surged, many major news outlets have created in-house brand studios that offer native ads to corporate and special interest groups. The result: A proliferation of sponsored content on news sites that is displayed alongside and closely resembles reported pieces. Amazeen and colleagues have demonstrated that these advertisements are effective in swaying peoples’ beliefs.

While the Federal Trade Commission requires that disclosures accompany such content, they do not mandate the use of any specific language. As a result, disclosures vary widely across outlets. When articles are shared on social media, disclosures often disappear altogether. Prominent news organizations have run native advertisements for the fossil fuel industry which were later cited as evidence in climate lawsuits for being “false and misleading.” 

In an analysis, Amazeen and her colleague found that the presence of native advertising for a corporation often suppressed ensuing news coverage of that company in a given publication

“As news organizations have launched their own in-house content studios, they are now creating commercial material for advertisers that may suppress future reporting on that client, that has been shown to tarnish perceptions of the genuine journalism coming out of their newsrooms, and content that may actually contradict what their own journalists are reporting,” Amazeen said. “Often, these news organizations are contractually required to promote the native advertising content on their own digital and social media properties, which creates a competing agenda for consumer attention.”

Researchers are working to identify effective interventions. Amazeen and her team have found that both clear disclosures and social media posts forewarning participants of the tactics used in native advertising campaigns reduced susceptibility to influence.

Michelle Amazeen stands in front of a presentation screen.
Michelle Amazeen presented on climate disinformation at ClimaTech. ClimaTech photography by Shutterstock.


Practical, community-oriented approaches to urban heat

2023 was the hottest year on record, and 2024 is on track to be even warmer. Excess heat and its effects are a particularly pressing issue in cities, where more than half of the world’s population resides, according to the United Nations

IGS faculty Lucy Hutyra, a professor in the department of Earth & Environment, and Patricia Fabian, IGS associate director and an associate professor in the department of Environmental Health, participated in a panel to discuss the urgent need for heat resilience solutions in urban communities while transforming our energy system.

BU organized the panel, which also included Penni McLean-Conner, executive vice president, Customer Experience and Energy Strategy, Eversource Energy, and a member of IGS’s Advisory Board, and Melissa Lavinson, executive director, Office of Energy Transformation at MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Cities are prone to warmer temperatures than nearby areas, but environmental changes can promote cooling. Hutyra discussed two of these during the panel. Planting trees can reduce heat by offering shade and evaporating water in the air. A particularly cost-effective cooling measure is painting urban roofs white instead of black to increase the radiation they reflect, cooling the inside of the building and surrounding areas. Hutyra also described the importance of tailoring solutions to each community. 

“Trees are wonderful, but in some of the most vulnerable parts of our cities, there’s no space to plant trees. So as wonderful of a solution as they can be, if there’s nowhere to put them, it’s not a viable solution,” Hutyra said. “I think that we need to invest more in building the data sets and the tools that optimize what the reality across different parts of a city and a community looks like to come up with the right set of solutions for that community. Not what might have been the right set of solutions for Los Angeles or Ohio, but what the right set is for your specific community.”

Fabian added that seniors, pregnant people, babies, people on certain medications, and those with particular health conditions like asthma are especially vulnerable to ill effects from heat exposure. She shared compelling personal accounts from residents of Chelsea, one of Boston’s most heat-susceptible neighborhoods, on their experiences struggling to afford air conditioning and walking to work in areas that lack tree cover. These stories enrich knowledge around the local, personal costs of climate change, which is essential to inspiring rapid action, Fabian emphasized. 

“We need to change the narrative from ‘clean energy transition for climate mitigation or greenhouse gas reductions’ to ‘clean energy transition to build climate resilience and reduce health disparities,’” Fabian said. “If you can lead with making communities healthier, reducing disparities for communities that have been historically disinvested in, providing job opportunities that promote economic growth, if that is the story, if it’s about health and resilience, then you get buy-in.”

From left to right: Penni McLean-Conner, Lucy Hutyra, Patricia Fabian, and Melissa Lavinson discussed community-based solutions for urban heat. ClimaTech photography by Shutterstock.


Leading by example

In a panel on academia’s role in meeting the climate crisis, Kenneth Lutchen, IGS affiliated faculty and provost and chief academic officer ad interim, discussed the necessity of uniting policymakers, investors, urban planners, community leaders, researchers, and more to achieve meaningful climate progress.  

“Our world-leading research universities are pretty much the only organizations that happen to have within their walls every one of the disciplines we need to solve the problem,” Lutchen said.

He shared the University’s commitment to confronting climate change through its more than 500 relevant courses, Campus Climate Lab funding for student research, Climate Action Plan, and IGS, which includes 100 faculty experts from a variety of disciplines to advance a more resilient future.

“We have to embrace the fact that great minds do not think alike,” Lutchen said. “Solutions need to combine people from all these disciplines in every sector you can imagine.”

Bringing together investors, food scientists, communicators, activists, hiring managers, engineers, and more, ClimaTech embodied Lutchen’s call. The event is anticipated to be held annually and to elevate Massachusetts as a leader in climate technology.

Alongside leaders from other Boston-area academic institutions, Kenneth Lutchen spoke about academia’s role in fighting climate change. ClimaTech photography by Shutterstock.