20th October 2021
A new ISD report, ‘Climate Lockdown’ and the Culture Wars: How COVID-19 sparked a new narrative against climate action’, details the growth of a conspiracy narrative centred around the phrase ‘climate lockdown’. ‘Climate lockdown’ is a conspiracy intended to drive fear about future ‘green tyranny’. It claims government overreach will be enacted under the pretext of climate change to strip people of civil liberties, using language explicitly related to the pandemic.
Far from being a case of a fringe conspiracy theory worming its way into the mainstream, the report shows how ‘climate lockdown’ – initially meant as an innocuous phrase – developed into a conspiracy narrative as right-wing media outlets and commentators seized upon repeated, misleading uses of the phrase by the perceived ‘liberal establishment’.
The ‘climate lockdown’ conspiracy theory is unlike many other such theories, which begin in niche corners of the internet and are propagated by fringe outlets from their inception. Instead, ‘climate lockdown’ was a phrase first used in liberal, mainstream media to compare the emissions reductions resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns with the cuts in emissions required to meet carbon emissions goals set by the Paris Agreement. The phrase was then picked up by right-wing and fringe media outlets to create a conspiracy narrative. This narrative building contrasts with conspiracy theories like QAnon, which began on an online message board (8chan) before proliferating into the mainstream and being promoted by larger online influencers.
The unusual materialisation and development of the narrative serves as an excellent case study of how a message can be seized upon by reactionary media actors and adapted to serve existing agendas. Our report tracks how, over the past year, the concept of a ‘climate lockdown’ moved from being a positive comparison with public health efforts to an anti-elite conspiracy. This narrative has been repackaged and repurposed to fit with an existing right-wing and often conspiracist worldview, and is now firmly embedded in the mainstream American right. Comments broadcast on Fox News at the end of last year, claiming that President Biden would “bypass democracy” in order to impose climate lockdowns, are a perfect example of how new information can be adapted to a preset agenda.
As the ‘climate lockdown’ narrative developed, transitioning from the mainstream to the fringes, it also picked up a concerning new audience: moving from liberal newspapers and multilateral bodies to mainstream right-wing outlets and key influencers, it made its way to the extreme right-wing. The most extreme end of this is exemplified by the QAnon community or outlets such as Red Ice, an online media entity run by a Swedish neo-Nazi, which has been pushing a version of the ‘climate lockdown’ narrative since February 2021. The entry of the narrative into the extreme right-wing discourse is especially concerning because it could provide a channel through which new audiences are introduced to extreme right-wing ideologies.
The report highlights why it is critical that those communicating about climate, public health, and politics at large, are aware of the way such phrases are disseminated and can be weaponised. It is vital to avoid feeding this engine by employing overdramatic, portentous or ominous language for the sake of attention grabbing headlines – names such as “the Great Reset” are ripe for exploitation, quickly being picked up and repurposed as part of existing political agendas.
Writers, editors and PR professionals must anticipate the tactics of a highly reactionary media system, and future outputs discussing the aftermath of COVID-19 restrictions (whether positive or negative) will need to tread carefully, with an awareness that actors are trawling for any evidence to boost the ‘climate lockdown’ outrage. As populations recover from the trauma of the pandemic, there is greater fear and grievance to capitalise upon, and a broader constituency who could be turned against climate action.