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Climate is the new front in the culture wars

Wednesday 5 May 2021

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


For over a decade, the team I work with at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has analysed extremist movements and information warfare online 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. This conflict, and these grievances, are set to resonate beyond the narrow parameters of this 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 per cent 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. 

Anti-government activists clash with Dutch police during a protest to denounce ongoing coronavirus restrictions

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 call for action. However, when released into cyberspace it 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.

The number of mentions on Twitter of the phrase ”climate lockdown”, and the individual pieces of content that received the highest Twitter engagement during each volume peak

22 september 2020

2,400

Project Syndicate Mazzucato article


23 October 2020

1,600

Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham tweets


16 November 2020

750

Breitbart article on Great Reset


10 February 2021

1,750

Paul Joseph Watson video


26 February 2021

1,990

Tweet by World Economic Forum


3 March 2021

1,550

Guardian article


10 April 2021 

2,500

The Daily Wire article by a director at Media Research Center

This was the peak usage of the phrase “climate lockdown” on Twitter

Data from Brandwatch September 2020 to April 2021

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. Mazzucato’s article changed everything: not only did the acclaimed economist provide a credible face for the conspiracy theorists to attack, 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 per cent of all retweets and 65 per cent 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 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 that 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 the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s 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 per cent 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 land is my land”: the new eco-fascism

Yet there is another, entirely different way in which green politics can be appropriated by extremists. So far, we have looked at those who take an ultra-libertarian approach, and exploit “climate lockdown” to stoke fears of a globalist plot. But there are also nativists and reactionaries who have gone in quite the opposite direction, appropriating parts of the green agenda to advance a fiercely nationalist view around the sacredness of land. 

Of course, Europe has witnessed flurries of so-called eco-fascism since the Nazis popularised the slogan Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) in the 1930s. According to this well-established tradition, there is a mythical connection between rural areas and identity – now signalled online with tree emojis and Nordic runes. The romantic view of homeland – in the literal, pastoral sense – provides a fig-leaf for extreme “solutions” to climate change that include eugenics and population culls. 

We are used to the alignment of progressives and greens, but eco-fascists use so-called green ends to justify brutal means: the only way to save forests is to prevent global mobility and deport migrant communities to their “natural habitat”; the preservation of ecosystems applies not only to flora and fauna, but (they claim) also to the purity of local customs, traditions, and race; environmental protection means dismantling the elites and their culture of diversity, feminism, and LBGTQ+ rights. In this extreme world-view, “wokeness” is inherently bad for the planet.

Neo-fascist movements often boast of their ecological credentials: for example, the Italian group CasaPound, whose “La Foresta che Avanza” branch celebrates the “Feast of the Tree” – a ceremony instituted by Mussolini’s younger brother, Arnaldo – but warns against “alien vegetation”. The neo-Nazi group Dodici Raggi, whose eponymous “twelve rays” refer to a Black Sun symbol that also appears in Himmler’s Wewelsburg Castle, refers to “blood and soil” in their main credo: “Credo nella Terra, bagnata dal sangue degli Eroi e dal sudore della fronte,” (we believe in the earth, bathed in the blood and sweat of [our] heroes).  

Members of Italian far-right movement CasaPound during an anti-immigration demonstration in Rome

In his crazed 74-page manifesto, Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, referred to himself as an eco-fascist and described immigration as “environmental warfare”. The gunman who murdered 22 people in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 named his 8chan manifesto ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (famously, the title of Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary), and expressed rage about environmental decay in the US. He also declared that “if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable”.

In the more mainstream public sphere, eco-fascism has mutated into the softer-spoken variant of “ecological identitarianism”. According to this movement, the environment is, by nature, a conservative issue which must be wrested from the grip of social justice warriors and climate alarmists.  Eco-identitarians tend to pivot away from complex solutions such as decarbonising energy grids, to more basic and gaudily “patriotic” ideas like forest protection. Such themes are increasingly present in political manifestos across Europe – from the Reform UK party (formerly the Brexit Party) and France’s Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) to the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany.  What unites these parties is a simple preoccupation with conservation rather than detailed policy: they deplore wind turbines that “blight the rural skyline” or electric vehicles that will “destroy historic industries” and lean heavily on notions of local pride. 

In some cases, ideology walks hand in hand with opportunism. Nigel Farage – who, lest we forget, has in the past condemned the UK’s efforts to promote more walking and cycling as “anti-car madness”, and called wind energy an “economic insanity” – is now a lobbyist for a Dutch green finance firm that encourages carbon-offsetting. Its website states not only that reforestation “represents an exciting opportunity for the capital markets and for private individuals” but that it will also “act in great service to all life and to the Creator”.

The road to COP26: hearts, minds and memes

Nostalgia for a lost, and often imagined, past has fuelled many extremist movements in recent years: witness white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and Britain First, conspiracy theories like the “Great Replacement” (which claims a “white genocide” is being engineered across the West), and movements like the “tradwives” who disown feminism and yearn for a return to traditional gender roles. As we have seen, extremists who oppose climate action also weaponise fears, distorting the language of civil liberties to stoke anxiety about global plots and serfdom. 

Writ large, anger over the Green New Deal in its various forms is partly rage about who gets left behind, but equally about what gets left behind: a “golden age” way of life and liberty now threatened by multiculturalism, political correctness, and colluding Davos elites. 

The dust had barely settled after Joe Biden’s Earth Day Summit in April before culture warriors sprang into action. From Republican congresswomen to UK tabloids, the message was consistent:  radical action on climate change will deprive citizens all over the world of their freedom of choice, movement, profession, and even diet. Donald Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo captured this moral panic in a single tweet, alleging that the US is now pursuing “climate change first” instead of “America First”. 

What does all this mean for the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November? The platforms hosting such cultural resistance movements are not fringe or “alt-media”, in contrast to those that gained infamy during the 2020 US Presidential Election. Unlike the forces behind the 6 January invasion of the US Capitol, anti-climate conspiracists are not mobilising on shadowy forums away from the public eye. 

More often than not, their arguments gain traction and are amplified across mainstream social media – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – whose Terms of Service continue to be riddled with loopholes. The three most viewed YouTube videos on the topic of “climate lockdown” are from content creators that have been de-platformed elsewhere on social media. Despite this, their videos are still shared across those platforms and supporters can drive traffic to their profiles elsewhere. Both Paul Joseph Watson and “Ice Age Farmer”, banned from Facebook and Twitter respectively, have still managed to become two of the most shared URLs across those sites for the “climate lockdown” discussion. 

Pro-climate groups are rightly calling for radical, transformative targets this November, a plea echoed by negotiating groups such as the G77 and Commonwealth of Nations. Meanwhile, the goal to “build back better” is ringing from the White House to Whitehall. But those advancing such messaging should not underestimate how brittle and febrile public opinion has become during the pandemic, and the extent to which it will remain for the foreseeable future. It is right to push for more ambitious national targets on climate change – a key purpose of COP26 – but such advocacy should be carried out with open eyes. The spectacle of governments pursuing multilateralism will be fuel for culture warriors, who will argue that they are betraying the more pressing concerns of domestic recovery, jobs and social cohesion. 

Previous COPs have passed with minimal fanfare, if they registered at all among the general public. But after more than a year of global crisis the atmosphere is different. The grievances and trauma of the pandemic will still be an open wound for many as leaders gather in November. The familiar rhetoric of loss, scarcity and unfairness may resonate more profoundly than ever, and is sure to be exploited by populists and extremists alike. 

The very boldness required to shift gears on climate – a feat at the best of times – will be especially challenging for populations still reconciling themselves with a “new normal”. Culture wars morph like viruses, and we must be alert to those intent on sabotaging efforts. The stakes could hardly be higher and the need for vigilance, across every platform, has never been more acute. 

Jennie King is a Senior Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and co-author of its report, ‘Hoodwinked: Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour on Facebook’.

Photographs by Getty Images