Climate is the New Front in the Culture Wars

11th May 2021

By Jennie King

The far right has stoked up fear of immigration, elites, and multiculturalism. Now, extremists are turning their attention online to the alleged threat of the green agenda – with an eye to discrediting COP-26.

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For over a decade, our team at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has analysed extremist movements and information warfare on- and offline. We have watched hostile states, special interest groups and conspiracy networks weaponise social media to advance their causes – threatening electoral integrity, and much else besides. Migration and public health are well-established fronts in the culture wars of our time: the latter especially so during the pandemic. Much less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which the arguments over climate change have been grafted onto these conflicts about identity, affinity and belonging.

For eight months, we have reviewed data on both mainstream and fringe digital platforms, providing a snapshot of the ways in which climate issues are – in often subtle and under-reported ways – feeding into cultural confrontation. Just as Covid has generated its own tribes and digital alliances, climate change has become yet another crucible in which formerly distinct movements, ideologies and actors can find common cause. In particular, the virus and associated response measures have triggered conflict over the extension of government power and its impact upon individual liberty – witness the growth of anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer movements worldwide.  No less important, however, is the strategic effect this conflict will have and how such grievances will resonate beyond the narrow parameters of the crisis.

‘Climate Lockdown’ – The Birth of a New Bogeyman

For some who have opposed Covid containment measures, the restrictions are part of a much wider ‘globalist’ agenda; a stark illustration of how quickly civil liberties can be cast aside in the name of ‘public health’. From June to November 2020 alone, our analysis revealed a 92 percent increase in Facebook posts referencing the ‘Great Reset’: a supposed elite conspiracy, taking the World Economic Forum’s project of the same name and attributing to it all manner of covert, sinister and authoritarian objectives. This theory was driven into the mainstream by right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro and Glenn Beck, all pursuing the fairly well-trodden argument that global oligarchies are conspiring against decent people, seeking to rob them of their freedoms by stages.

In recent months, this strand of fear mongering has begun to pivot intriguingly towards the issue of climate, positioning personal agency in direct conflict with the green agenda. Each week there is new supposed grounds for outrage: from France’s decision to ban a handful of short-haul, domestic flights to the Texas power blackouts; the UK government wavering over a new Cumbrian coal mine, to the proposed Euro 7 emissions standard for cars. And nowhere is the bleeding of these two universes – pandemic and climate – more acute than in the recent controversy around ‘climate lockdowns’.

On 22 September 2020, the commentary website Project Syndicate published an article by the renowned economist Mariana Mazzucato, entitled ‘Avoiding a Climate Lockdown’. The piece argues for a ‘green economic transformation’ and a ‘radical overhaul’ of energy provision, warning of the more restrictive measures that may be needed if this initial plan fails: limits on car use, meat consumption and extreme energy-saving measures, to name but a few. Mazzucato also connects the current climate, economic and public health crises, linking pandemics to environmental degradation and social injustice. Her argument does not celebrate lockdowns, but – quite the opposite – sets out the policies needed now precisely to avoid them further down the line, such as ‘patient long-term finance’ and enforcing stricter conditions for corporate bailouts.

The article was undoubtedly a clarion call for action. However, released into cyberspace it morphed and was distorted into something quite different; fast becoming symbolic of supposed ‘climate tyranny’. In the fortnight preceding its publication, the phrase ‘climate lockdown’ appeared in only three tweets with no engagements. In the seven days following the article’s release, the phrase appeared in 2,200 tweets – the most popular of which reached more than 100,000 Twitter users.  In less than eight months, the fateful phrase has become central to the right-wing lexicon of fear, on social media and beyond.

Prominent opponents of action against climate change, including former Republican aide Marc Morano and Fox News commentator Steve Milloy had tried to peddle the idea previously – to little avail on Twitter, at least. Sadly, Mazzucato’s article changed everything: not only did the acclaimed economist provide a credible face for the conspiracy theorists, but Project Syndicate itself has financial ties with George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Both of these organisations – and the billionaires who set them up – are arch-villains in the culture war and perennial targets of the far-Right.

This narrative has now become firmly embedded in digital discourse, fuelled by periodic nods from influencers like Laura Ingraham (3.7m Twitter followers) and British conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson (1.1m Twitter followers, 450m views on YouTube), as well as right-wing outlets like Breitbart (1.4m Twitter followers, 5m+ Facebook followers), and The Daily Wire (3m+ Facebook followers).

According to our analysis, ‘blue tick’ or verified Twitter accounts received 54 percent of all retweets and 65 percent of all replies about climate lockdown, highlighting the vital role these actors play. In other words, proliferation of this particular idea differs from the rise of, say, the QAnon movement, where ideas originated in fringe platforms like 4Chan and more gradually and organically migrated into the mainstream.

The ‘climate tyranny’ narrative has also been inadvertently turbo-charged by statements in the mainstream media and by global institutions – in particular a tweet from the WEF on 25 February 2021 implying that lockdowns were ‘quietly improving cities’; and a headline in The Guardian on 3 March 2021 that suggested lockdowns would be needed ‘every two years’ to meet the Paris Agreement goals on climate change. While both pieces were swiftly removed or edited, the digital cat was out of the bag: screenshots spread like wildfire, and can now be used at whim as supposed evidence of the ‘secret green agenda’. Indeed, screenshots of the original Guardian headline were still trending in our data collections last week.

One only has to search for the most viewed videos on YouTube with the key phrase ‘climate lockdown’ to grasp how central it has become to the greater culture war, merging with classic wedge issues like mass immigration, global elites and the ‘Deep State’. In a clip entitled ‘Coming Soon: Climate Lockdowns’, which currently boasts 77k views and 7.6k likes, Paul Joseph Watson reels off a list of anti-authority talking points: “governments have now set the precedent that normal life is a privilege they allow us to have, something which can be withdrawn at any minute”; “Bill Gates is buying up record amounts of farmland, you’re being told that the dream of property ownership is an ancient relic”; “’doing it differently’ means universal basic income (UBI), it means neo-feudalism, it means financial serfdom…the complete abolition of self-determination and total dependence on technocrats”.

Meanwhile, a video posted by the conspiracist ‘Ice Age Farmer’, entitled “CLIMATE LOCKDOWN – The End Game Becomes Clear: Post-Human Future”, has racked up 93k views and 9.7k likes on YouTube, plus a further 20k views on BitChute and Odysee (video-hosting platforms popular on the far Right).  Describing the experience of the pandemic as “getting people acclimated to the police state”, he predicts a form of surveillance ecology where “we can track down to a farm where there’s an unauthorised cow, by the methane” since “people are already in a used, abused state of learned helplessness.”

What is striking about the video is how useful the ‘climate tyranny’ charge is to conspiracist culture warriors, enabling them to unite a host of themes and fixations under a single banner:  the top trending comment for Ice Age Farmer (“If they can track a cow fart in Florida–Why can’t they track down all the trafficked children?”) directly alludes to a QAnon allegation, while others cite Biblical verses, the “chemtrails” myth, the dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the umbrella notion of a malign New World Order.

Ice Age Farmer’s personal website directs users towards ‘doomsday prepper’ and survivalist sites that will help them get ready for the coming apocalypse. Indeed, after you have watched his video, YouTube’s algorithm recommends channels which provide guidance on self-sufficient living combined with further prophecies of societal collapse. Using the analytical tool SimilarWeb, we can see that domains driving traffic to his website include:

The Duran, which publishes pro-Russian content, vaccine misinformation and right-wing conspiracies as noted in ISD Global Report ‘The Long Tail of Influence Operations’ (2021).

Robert David Steele, who claims to have written the first book on 9/11 ‘trutherism’ and promotes conspiracies involving QAnon, 5G connectivity and coronavirus.

Dr Joseph Mercola, who was listed by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate as one of the 12 people responsible for more than 60 percent of anti-vax content on Facebook and Twitter and has recently published a new book: “The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing The Great Reset, Lockdown, Vaccine Passports and the New Normal”.

OYE News, which publishes disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and fake news stories that resemble real BBC content, as well as content on The Great Reset. It has recently claimed that the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack was a false flag operation overseen by MI5.

Reviewing this content, it is clear that a motley coalition of actors – from staunch anti-vaxxers to Christian Evangelicals and pro-Russian outlets – are finding new common ground in the spectre of ‘climate tyranny’. These protagonists reinforce the measures put forward by climate change deniers such as the Heartland Institute and the Global Warming Policy Foundation ,  as well as libertarian, free market think tanks like the Atlas Network (450 bodies in more than 90 countries worldwide) that provide a more sober voice for ‘climate delayism’.

Presenting their work as ostensibly academic research, such groups no longer deny climate change outright, but argue instead  that the commonly proposed mitigation and adaptation strategies are simply too costly, disruptive and generally unfeasible. So-called ‘lukewarmers’ lean heavily on the language of alarmism and condemn proponents of the green agenda for putting climate change policy ahead of livelihoods, wellbeing, and social cohesion. The softened version of this urges caution over hasty, systemic responses before all options have been considered – which, in practice, amounts to prolonging the status quo.

Climate change policy, in other words, has become another hybridised threat, uniting extremism, hate and disinformation with those in the corporate sector who hope for inaction. A growing international movement has roused citizens against ‘climate dictatorship’, weaponising the frustration and pain of the past 12 months, while others have (correctly) recognised how the issue can be deployed in the broader identity politics of the far-right.

 

This is the first in a two-part series investigating how far-right extremists are turning their attention online to the alleged threat of the green agenda. Part 2 highlights an entirely different way in which green politics can be appropriated by extremists – to advance a nationalist view around the sacredness of land.

This article was originally published by Tortoise Media.

Jennie King is a Senor Policy Manager at ISD, supporting programme design, policy outreach and strategy across the organisation.

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