The term ‘climate lockdown’ refers to a conspiratorial narrative which claims that global elites are using climate change as a pretext to restrict individual freedoms and civil liberties. Discussion about climate lockdowns first gained traction on social media in September 2020 as reports emerged on the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns on global pollution, and some actors began to argue that these restrictions were in fact a precursor to future climate-driven lockdowns. More recently, it has been used to instil fear over proposed ‘15-minute cities’.
The phrase ‘climate lockdown’ emerged after the first COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in Wuhan on 23 January 2020, appearing a mere two days later in social media posts. Most initial uses of the phrase had positive connotations, contrasting the relative urgency with which one deadly threat (COVID-19) was being approached, to the other catastrophic, long-term issue of climate change. In mid-April 2020, a Guardian editorial called for the post-lockdown world’s ‘return to normal’ to be challenged to continue reducing carbon emissions. On 22 September 2020, economist and University College London Professor Mariana Mazzucato published an article for Project Syndicate titled ‘Avoiding a Climate Lockdown’. In it she called for radical economic transformation and a “radical overhaul” of energy to mitigate the climate crisis and any potential restrictions that might eventuate, such as limits on car use, meat consumption and extreme energy-saving measures. Financial news site Marketwatch later republished a large portion of the article.
The phrase climate lockdown received growing attention across social media platforms as high-profile influencers, pundits and hyper-partisan media outlets argued that governments were actively preparing to use the climate crisis as a pretext for restricting individual freedoms, akin to the measures introduced in response to COVID-19. Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham argued in a tweet that ”climate lockdowns will come right after the Covid lockdowns.” Prominent climate sceptics Steve Milloy and Marc Morano made similar claims, and news outlets like Fox News and Breitbart also included content about planned climate lockdowns in their on-air broadcasts and online articles. Such messaging was not restricted to the US, but also emerged in other countries, for example in Germany.
The belief that global elites wanted to exert control over the world’s population underpins many conspiracy theories and movements which have proliferated before and since the COVID pandemic, including the ‘New World Order’, the Great Reset and QAnon. As the term climate lockdown became associated with anti-elite tropes, it made an entry into wider public discourse and became tied with beliefs that climate action is primarily a means for elites to exert control and impose surveillance.
New World Order: The ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theory argues that a shadowy elite force is trying to implement a totalitarian world government. Adherents of this conspiracy believe a small group of people wielding great political and economic power is conspiring via the media, press and civil society.
Great Reset: The Great Reset is the name of an initiative launched by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in June 2020 that called for ‘fairer outcomes’, and a rethinking of global investment and government expenditure in order to revive the world’s economy following the catastrophic economic effects of the pandemic. Conspiracy theorists interpreted this initiative as a plot to destroy capitalism and enact a one-world government under the cover of COVID-19.
World Economic Forum (WEF): The WEF is an international non-government organisation based in Switzerland. Founded in 1971 by German engineer Klaus Schwab, its stated mission is to engage “the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” The WEF is known for its annual conference in the city of Davos, attended by large numbers of political and business leaders from across the globe. The WEF and Klaus Schwab have long been the target of anti-elite conspiracy theories.
QAnon: QAnon is a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that claims an elite group of child-trafficking paedophiles (‘the cabal’) rules the world. The conspiracy theory gained substantial traction during former President Trump’s term in office as QAnon followers believe Trump has a secret plan in place to bring the ‘cabal’ to justice.
From ‘climate lockdown’ to ‘15-minute cities’
The use of the term ‘climate lockdown’ returned to prominence in late 2022, in the wake of Oxfordshire (UK) County Council’s decision to introduce a ‘traffic filter’ scheme on six roads in the city of Oxford. On 30 November 2022, the fringe online outlet Vision News published an article about this decision. Rather than reporting the actual policy, the article claimed that the Council had voted to trial climate lockdowns starting in 2024. It further alleged that citizens would be confined to their local areas and circulation to other parts of the city would be restricted and dependent on the local administration’s approval. A few days later, the issue was picked up with the same climate lockdown framing by the prominent climate sceptic blogs Watts up with That and the Daily Sceptic.
These events gave the previously abstract notion of climate lockdowns a more concrete form in the concept of the 15-minute city and other public policy measures like Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). At the same time, drawing on the ‘lockdown’ reference, it attempts to exploit the genuine trauma experienced by millions from the COVID-19 pandemic, directing it toward arguments against public policy change as an ‘infringement of civil liberties’.
The term 15-minute city was coined by urbanist and Sorbonne University professor Carlos Moreno to describe neighbourhood planning that aims at making all basic amenities available within a 15-minute walk or cycle. The emerging conspiracies linked this concept to climate lockdowns by falsely claiming that instead people will be forced to stay within a 15-minute zone around their homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Oxford traffic scheme has since been linked by copnspiracy theorists to communism, via references to Soviet-era internal passports and Chinese-style movement restrictions. The impression of an alleged authoritarian dystopia is further underlined through references to the ’Hunger Games’ Sci-Fi novels. As with the initial emergence of the climate lockdown narrative, this framing was subsequently amplified by a similar array of prominent climate sceptic influencers, pundits and media outlets.
The spread and visibility of these claims is evidenced by the numerous fact-checks and debunks that have subsequently been published by USA Today, Associated Press and Reuters. Mark Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, attacked 15-minute cities as an “international socialist concept” during a parliamentary speech, further exemplifying how the conspiratorial framing has entered the mainstream.
Even when climate lockdowns are not directly referenced, key elements of anti-lockdown conspiracies from the pandemic are being transposed to unrelated local traffic schemes and LTNs. One example is ‘Digital IDs’, which became a prominent reference point for claims about totalitarian surveillance and control among anti-lockdown conspiracists. The WEF and the United Nations, as well as the New World Order and Great Reset conspiracies, have been frequently referenced in connection with 15-minute cities.
Full ISD study on the emergence and mainstreaming of the phrase ‘climate lockdown’ across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
ISD report tracking the same trend on German-language social media.
Longer write-up of the conspiracy-driven backlash against the Oxford traffic scheme – by Byline Times
Reporting on local protests against the traffic measures in Oxford – by Bloomberg UK
Investigation into the use of the ‘climate lockdown’ narrative by climate sceptics – by DeSmog
This Explainer was uploaded on 8 March 2023.