Fossil fuel companies have known about the risks of climate change since the 1970s. For several decades, they did everything they could to convince the public and policymakers that it wasn’t real, spending vast sums on advertisements, planted articles in the press, and studies by sympathetic “think tanks,” many of which were (and are) cited by politicians to justify inaction.
These days, outright climate change denial doesn’t get much traction with educated people, so the defenders of the status quo have shifted their strategies. The oil companies and their allies (which include many automakers, utilities, conservative political parties and oil-exporting nations) now seek to present themselves as the good guys. Not only do they believe in climate change, but they’re at the forefront of efforts to fight it. In fact, it turns out that we can fix our environment while continuing to burn ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels.
Isn’t that great? Our grandchildren can still have the butterflies and polar bears, and oil companies can still rake in billions in profit. Everybody wins! But alongside this counterfeit carrot, there’s a sinister stick—radicals and well-meaning but misinformed greenies are pushing pie-in-the-sky solutions like electric vehicles and renewable energy, that won’t be viable for decades, if ever, and that will bankrupt taxpayers. As if that weren’t bad enough, they also want to take away our burgers and pickup trucks.
As Stella Levantesi and Giulio Corsi write in DeSmog, climate denial has evolved into “a softer, more insidious type of misinformation, one that focuses on denying urgency and action, one that targets the solutions more than anything else. Key elements of this strategy include promoting confusion, doomist perspectives, conspiracy theories, and fabricating lies to convince the public that there is no real need for climate change policy.”
DeSmog set out to quantify the issue. They analyzed over 300,000 tweets from the past five years, using the Twitter API, a tool for researching the platform’s historical archives, and came up with four major narratives that the deniers are using to drum up fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) on social media and elsewhere.
One of these is the “doomsday scenario”—the idea that EVs and renewable energy will wreck the economy. In fact, the costs of current and future climate change are staggering. Billion-dollar disasters are becoming commonplace, to say nothing of the damage to agriculture and tourism, and the costs of dealing with the climate refugees who are already starting to show up on our spoiled shores.
The deniers’ doomsday scenario is a version of the tried-and-true “turn it around” tactic—whatever bad things your opponents are warning about, insist that it’s their policies that will cause it—and it comes in two flavors. For affluent people, it’s fear of higher taxes. For working-class folks, it’s fear of lost jobs.
As one example of the economic-doomsday argument, DeSmog cites a widely circulated 2020 tweet claiming that the proposed Green New Deal “would cost swing-state households around $75,000 in the first year,” as Fox News put it. This “data” comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a fossil fuel-supported think tank.
Another variation of the doomsday narrative is the idea that renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels are vulnerable to natural disasters. During the Texas blackouts of February 2019, natural gas pipelines froze, causing widespread power outages. According to DeSmog, “the state saw nearly twice as many power failures from natural gas, coal, and nuclear compared to frozen wind turbines or solar panels.”
Fossil fuel supporters immediately sought to shift the blame to renewable energy. Climate pundit Alex Epstein, for example, claimed that “the root cause of the TX blackouts is a national and state policy that has prioritized the adoption of unreliable wind/solar energy over reliable energy.” This trope was repeated by numerous politicians in Texas and elsewhere, including Governor Greg Abbott, a long-time climate change denier and opponent of environmental policies. (Governor Abbott has also supported Texas’s ban on Tesla’s direct-sales model in the past.)
The most pervasive scare tactic DeSmog identified is based on the claim that climate change is a Trojan horse meant to set the stage for a socialist takeover. In this particular fantasy world, climate policy is not really about the environment at all. According to a widely shared video from the Heartland Institute, “environmentalism is the perfect set-up for a communist world government.” The popular Trojan horse trope even has a catchy slogan: “Green is the new red.” Shades of the McCarthyist “red scares” of the 1950s (“Better dead than red”).
Like every big lie, the “They’re coming for your cheeseburgers” scenario contains a grain of truth. Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and raising livestock is far less efficient than growing crops—it would probably be better for the environment if humans ate less meat. The Green New Deal resolution introduced by Congressional Democrats in 2019 called for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”
There are many steps farmers and agricultural firms could take to reduce their carbon footprints while continuing to serve up the butter, bacon and burgers (almost) everybody loves—for example, electrifying vehicle fleets and producing fertilizer from green hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. No policymaker we’re aware of has proposed banning meat. Nevertheless, the FUD factory cranks out an endless stream of memes implying that greenies are coming to take away our burgers.
Then there are the outright conspiracy theories. Some claim to believe that green activists are agents of the “deep state,” or “global elites” who are able to manipulate the weather in order to make it seem like there’s climate change, so that they can...do something bad. Prominent figures such as Bill Gates, George Soros, and more recently, Elon Musk, are often said to be involved somehow.
The climate change-denial media overlaps with the pandemic-denial and anti-vax crowd. The wacky fringe tells us that COVID-19 and climate change are both part of a master plan to reduce the world’s population for some nefarious end. Meanwhile, the opinion writers of respectable media outlets concede that these threats are real, but ridicule “alarmists” who are “spreading panic,” and maybe even “scaring children.”
In another ugly trend, anti-immigrant and extreme nationalist parties around the world have started to add anti-environmental strains to their messaging. French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has vowed to end subsidies for renewable energy and tear down all France’s wind turbines if her National Rally party takes power. During the recent election in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party told voters that “your car would vote for the AfD.”
As we all know, the flood of misinformation, greenwashing and gaslighting goes far beyond the climate change denial narratives we see daily on social media. As a recent report from the Aspen Institute put it, “America is in a crisis of trust and truth. Bad information has become as prevalent, persuasive, and persistent as good information, creating a chain reaction of harm.” Those who spread misinformation about any subject are contributing to the general atmosphere of mistrust and nihilism that allows the anti-EV and anti-clean energy ranters and ravers to flourish.