Climate Change and Conspiracy: How Information Disorder is Warming Our World

Is online disinformation contributing to climate change skepticism? Blackbird.AI explores perception manipulation and information disorder around the biggest environmental challenge of our time.

Roberta Duffield

Disinformation Analyst

November 22, 2021

Firefighters work to contain the ongoing Dixie Fire in northern California, July 2021 – the largest non-complex wildfire in the state’s history. In recent years, climate change has precipitated record-breaking temperatures contributing to increased wildfires across the US (NBC News)

Human actions are changing the Earth’s climate in unprecedented, devastating, and sometimes permanent ways, according to a recent major report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Increasing incidents of extreme and deadly weather such as droughts, flooding and forest fires are described by scientists as the unequivocal result of greenhouse gas emissions largely derived from the burning of fossil fuels across our industries. This includes energy and transport; and food and agricultural systems, as well as the side-effects from changes in land use and deforestation. If left unchecked, many parts of the world will become increasingly uninhabitable for millions of people across the world in upcoming decades.

UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the time to act to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe is now – but this is contingent only on the international community and local populations working together to halt and mitigate human activities responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. A shared understanding of climate change’s causes, risks and solutions is therefore necessary to sustain the levels of cooperation needed to achieve the universal goal of climate change reversal. This understanding starts with the international bodies, politicians, scientists, and industry and business leaders with the power to enact and enforce sustainable policies, while also resounding at an individual level to inculcate sustainable local behaviors and put consumer and electoral pressure on power stakeholders to commit to carbon neutral initiatives, products and services.

Media coverage of the IPCC’s August 2021 climate change report (The Guardian)

Where does climate change disinformation fit into this?

The ubiquity of social media and Internet-based communications in recent years—usage of which has dramatically spiked during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—has allowed increasingly sophisticated forms of malign information operations to permeate the digital platforms we rely on to consume news, interact with others and learn about the world. For the past three years, Blackbird.AI has examined how pervasive digital influence campaigns built on disinformation, conspiracy, and politically polarized rhetoric have effectively come to function as a cyberattack on human perception and intelligence.

Climate change disinformation primarily coalesces around dispute of the mainstream scientific consensus that human activities have a critical negative impact on the environment, meaning our world will become increasingly difficult to live in as a result of increased food insecurity, water scarcity, extreme weather conditions, mass displacement and other causal ramifications. There is an overwhelming professional agreement on the nature of climate change as a human-induced phenomenon, with no scientific body of national or international standing refuting this position.

Climate change skepticism or denialism can be largely considered the by-product of decades of campaigning and information operations organized by commercial and political stakeholders who wish to protect the existing global economic system that relies on the fossil fuel industry to operate. These stakeholders include oil, gas, transport and industrial agricultural corporations and other business leaders, and affiliated think tanks, trade associations, foundations and research institutes. Their interests are systematically amplified by sympathetic, largely right-wing media voices, politicians, online influencers and advocacy groups. Their motivation is simple: any changes that attempt to limit how business is currently conducted in the name of environmental concerns means a loss in profit. Instead of reworking how business, trade or services can be conducted and provided along more sustainable lines, it is financially preferable to fund information operations that aim to persuade as many people as possible that the problem simply does not exist.

Examples of print-media climate change disinformation (via BBC News)

This dense interconnected network of mutually supportive voices has proved a powerful mechanism in creating doubt around the realities of climate change, the urgency for industry regulation, and the credibility of climate scientists. Indeed, over the last few decades public awareness of rising global temperatures—and humans as the primary agents for the change—has steadily increased, with a 2020 Pew Research Center survey revealing that two-thirds of Americans now believe global climate change is a “major threat to the country,” up from forty-four-percent in 2009. However, this has not necessarily translated into an informed consensus across all demographics. This rise in concern is markedly overrepresented by those citizens that lean Democrat, rather than Republican, with the latter displaying significantly less trust in the idea that climate policies are an efficacious way to help the environment and the economy. With levels of political polarization in the United States currently at an all-time high, stance on climate change has become an increasingly divisive political issue.

What does climate change disinformation look like?

Over the month of June 2021, Blackbird’s AI-driven deception detection system surfaced numerous emergent and influential social media narratives that incorporated elements of climate change disinformation. The five narratives profiled in this article provide a closer insight into the various ways that environmental issues—as well as the digital platforms they are propagated on—can be exploited and manipulated to forward specious information or independent agendas that threaten the realization of an informed global consensus on how to tackle climate change.

DISINFORMATION NARRATIVE 1: “Climate lockdowns” will soon be imposed as an extension of COVID-19 lockdowns as governments seek authoritarian control over societies

Blackbird.AI detected high volume conversations around the notion of “climate change lockdowns” as  soon-to-be implemented method of population control that world governments impose upon their citizens. These conversations appear to have been largely triggered by an article entitled ‘Avoiding a Climate Lockdown’, originally published by reputable international media organization Project Syndicate in September 2020, and reposted a month later on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) website. Its author, Professor Mariana Mazzucato of University College London and World Health Organization expert, posits that if drastic change is not undertaken to reverse the effects of climate change, “climate lockdowns” may be needed, under which limitations would be placed on activities such as use of private vehicles, consumption of red meat and drilling for fossil fuels. The focus of Mazzucato’s article however, is on how we can make changes now in order to avoid these extreme measures and irreversible damage to our planet.

Mazzucato’s article has been interpreted by certain online users as heralding a new age of social control and political tyranny in the name of environmental protection. Frequently heard claims include the idea that COVID-19 lockdowns—a pandemic containment procedure implemented in many countries across the world since 2020—were merely a ‘test run’ for future population control measures. Once the threat of the virus recedes, climate change will be touted as the next existential threat to keep citizens in line. This is often interpreted within the framework of the ‘New World Order’ or ‘Great Reset’ anti-establishment conspiracy theories, which broadly propose that shadowy global elites are seeking to install an authoritarian one-world government via the orchestration of staged “emergency” events such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, or financial crises.

In a May 2021 talk show segment FOX News host Laura Ingram proposed that government-mandated climate change lockdowns may soon be imposed in order to further social control measures instigated during the COVID-19 pandemic (YouTube, FOX News)

DISINFORMATION NARRATIVE 2: Backlash to President Joe Biden’s statement that “climate change is the biggest threat to US security”

In a speech to US Air Force personnel on June 9, 2021, US president Joe Biden stated that top Pentagon officials consider climate change to be the “greatest physical threat” to face America in coming years. Surging temperatures will precipitate increased natural disasters and vast population displacement as people across the world seek to escape inhospitable territories, exacerbating conflict over resources and land. Biden’s words came on the eve of his attendance at the G7 summit, where world leaders pledged ongoing efforts to prevent the projected global temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Online response to Biden’s statement was polarized, with right-wing media sources and user communities seeking to downplay his warning. The suggestion of alternative security threats from foreign states such as Russia, Iran or North Korea was leveraged to demonstrate Biden’s supposed incompetence, lack of patriotism, or otherwise potential duplicity when dealing with hostile powers.

Others seized on Biden’s remarks during his first presidential joint address to Congress in April, where he cited systemic racism and white supremacy as the “most lethal threat” to America today. His apparent pivot towards climate change was variously interpreted as indicative of indecisive leadership, or an attempt to deflect attention from his son Hunter, whom in early June right-wing media sources—originating from an unverified report in British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail—claimed had used racist language in text conversations with his lawyer.

International solutions to tackling climate change were top of the agenda for world leaders, including US president Joe Biden (third from left), at the G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, in June 2021 (Getty Images)

DISINFORMATION NARRATIVE 3: Backlash to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s castigation of cryptocurrency’s energy consumption as a driver of climate change

In a Senate Banking Subcommittee hearing on June 9, 2021, US Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren called for a crackdown on “environmentally wasteful cryptocurrencies” in order to help fight the climate crisis, citing the energy-intensive processes required to digitally mine Bitcoin as consuming “more energy than entire countries”.

Her words provoked backlash from online cryptocurrency communities, declaring Warren’s words to be “disinformation”, authoritarian, or indicative of her deference to the prevailing financial establishment. Although assessing Bitcoin’s actual environmental impact is extremely complex—indeed, more so than Warren’s words convey—it is not, as some social media users claimed, an entirely carbon neutral process. Messaging also often focused on the social and economic benefits of cryptocurrencies as justification for its negative impact on climate change.

(Hedgeweek)

DISINFORMATION NARRATIVE 4: Fundamental flaws in climate modelling have exaggerated the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change

Climate change skeptics often ground their justifications in the idea that mainstream science is based on unsound or fabricated data. A central theme is distrust of climate modelling: the use of mathematical equations to simulate how matter and energy interact in different parts of the atmosphere, oceans, ice and land which can be used to project future changes within the Earth’s climate system. Output from these models drive further scientific research and climate policy at national and international levels. If the model itself is calculated incorrectly, however, then the logical conclusion appears to be that the results it produces will also be wrong.

This anti-establishment strain of thinking is particularly persuasive, as it does not rely on an outright denial that environmental changes themselves are taking place. Instead, it proposes that merely the long-term effects of these changes have been overstated by the mainstream scientific community, either unwittingly or with intent. Common claims Blackbird.AI noted amongst anti-climate modelling conversations include the fact that the Maldives are yet to “fall into the sea” as predicted, or pointing to spells of cold weather—such as recent low temperatures recorded in Australia—to disprove the notion that the planet is warming.

In reality, it is important to remember that climate models cannot function as oracles of infallibility, but are based in scientific reasoning that attempt to take into account the myriad of contexualities surrounding our environment and variations in emissions output. Modelling conducted by the reputable, established international scientific community over the last four decades has consistently and successfully predicted rising temperatures as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, relatively in line with what subsequently occurred in reality. Narrow examples of less-than-accurate model results or temporary, localized snaps of cold weather cannot detract from climate change as a long-term, ongoing process.

Projected temperature changes across the United States under higher and lower emissions scenarios during the twenty-first century. Brackets on the thermometers represent likely range of model projections (US Environmental Protection Agency)

DISINFORMATION NARRATIVE 5: Secretive US government experiments are the real cause of climate change

And finally, some conspiracies just never fall out of fashion. Throughout the twentieth century, numerous unfounded theories have placed the US government at the center of nefarious schemes of subterfuge and control, from NASA’s faked Apollo moon landings, to AIDS as a CIA-developed bioweapon to depopulate Black and LGBTQ communities. Climate change is no exception, with multiple variations identified in online circulation around the theme that secretive US government experiments and geo-engineering projects are the real cause of rising global temperatures. 

Common theories often cite chemtrailsthe temporary water-based condensation trails left in the sky by high altitude aircraft—as chemical agents sprayed for unknown, sinister purposes on unwitting populations and environments; or HAARP (High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program), a state-funded ionospheric research facility alleged to act as a front for government-controlled weather modification initiatives. Conspiracy theories surrounding chemtrails and HAARP have been around since the late 1990s, with the latter blamed for precipitating everything from Hurricane Katrina to the 2010 Haitian earthquake. These represent so-called ‘zombie narratives’; hoaxes often propagated among fringe groups of conspiracy theorists which fall in and out of circulation in response to ongoing events, but never truly disappear.

Aircraft contrails over northern Virginia, US (NASA)

What can these narratives tell us about climate change disinformation?

The examples above show clear incidences where the scientific process of climate change is not only rejected or downplayed, but is consistently conflated with numerous other political and personal agendas and narratives. In the case of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and the rejection of mainstream science’s climate modelling, concerns regarding climate change are often interpreted through a partisan lens as Democratic scaremongering or Big Government control tactics. Theories on climate change lockdowns are similar, drawing on anti-establishment themes often propagated within anti-mask or COVID-19 denial communities, whereby social, public health or environmental initiatives are viewed as a smokescreen for authoritarian state overreach.

This demonstrates the persuasive power of information and narrative manipulation – when disinformation messaging is grafted onto other pre-established beliefs and ideals, it becomes easier to accept as credible or indeed, desirable, as ‘proof’ of another group’s lack of legitimacy. The notion that liberal politicians or mainstream scientific institutions exaggerate climate change in order to further their own interests thus becomes a default part of a broader normative worldview. Warnings about climate change or exhortations to change environmentally-unsound behaviors become easier to dismiss if automatically conflated as a partisan political agenda.

Our perception of climate change disinformation must therefore be broadened to understand how environmental issues can be leveraged across a wide range of topic areas such as partisan politics, anti-lockdown anger or pro-cryptocurrency sentiment in order to manipulate human perception and reasoning. This goes beyond merely denial or skepticism of climate change’s existence, effects or causes. Nor, as seen in the case of conspiratorial narratives around secretive US government experiments, is this any less concerning if the disinformation messaging in question accepts that climate change is dangerous and real. The net outcome remains the same: by proposing alternative spurious causes for rising global temperatures, the genuine issue of greenhouse gas emissions—and thus pathways to action and effective solutions—are obscured. The end result in all cases is an increase in the lack of trust and understanding that the general public holds around climate change as a result of narrative manipulation detected on widely-used digital content platforms.

Protestors from the Extinction Rebellion global environmental movement march in central London in September 2020 (Getty Images)

At Blackbird.AI we therefore believe that the issues of climate change action and disinformation are intimately entwined. The manipulation of our information ecosystems with falsified and misleading messaging and incorporation of environmental issues into wider ideological conversations only serves to dilute the urgent message that global cooperation is paramount to ensuring the wellbeing of our planet and its populations in the immediate and long-term future.

As COP26—the twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference—approaches in November 2021, robust anti-disinformation measures should be integrated into holistic strategies that seek to support the global consensus on tackling climate change. Disinformation messaging cannot be discounted as merely “something that happens on the Internet” – the real world impact of these information campaigns results in the over-politicization of climate policies that detracts from the universality of climate change’s detrimental impact on every society across the world. A failure to mitigate and prevent information manipulation on our online platforms will therefore only hinder the realization of a shared global pathway to sustain our planet’s livability for our generation, and those to come.

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