A few years ago, Zeb McGill sat at his computer in North Carolina and streamed a debate on YouTube between the creationist Ken Ham and the popular scientist Bill Nye.
McGill had been brought up to believe climate change was a myth and that the world was 6,000 years old. This was 2014: bang in the heart of the sixth-form common room era of YouTube, when “shocking viral video” meant Richard Dawkins delivering a particularly barbed riposte about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. For a “Young Earth Creationist” like McGill, watching someone who shared his worldview battle it out against a scientist was tantalising. He sat back and waited for his ideas to get vindicated in front of an audience of millions. “It didn’t happen,” he laughs. “He flopped dramatically.”
McGill now accepts the reality of climate change, and – obviously – he’s not alone. For a bulk of people in 2021, the conspiracy theory that climate change is, simply, “a hoax” seems increasingly irrelevant, almost quaint. It is now filed alongside Flat Earth, chemtrails and fake moon landings – still around, but on the fringe of the fringe.
This is partly because the pandemic has ushered in a new wave of conspiracy thinking. From 5G to anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 denial, we’ve witnessed how the anxiety created by a crisis can curdle. But as we begin to deal with disinformation around these issues, we are potentially sleepwalking into an even darker dawn for science denial and magical thinking. Unreconstructed climate change denial might be on the ropes, but the effects of global heating could create new conspiracy theories with equally life-threatening effects.
“I can tell you ahead of time they’ll be incoherent and unsupported by evidence, or by a conventional interpretation of scientific evidence,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, author of The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. He predicts new theories will build on existent anxieties: a world government, communism and socialism, fear of being controlled.
The same people who’ve been active during the pandemic will probably play a role. “The so-called lockdown sceptics, they’re all climate deniers,” says Lewandowsky. “And it’s the same think-tanks that are sponsoring both.”
A think-tank that organised The Great Barrington Declaration – a controversial open letter calling for an end to lockdowns – was organised by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian free-market think-tank that has previously denied scientific consensus on climate. There are lots of groups like this, whose anti-government and anti-regulation talking points often cross over. In of December 2019, for instance, a “drop” from the QAnon movement’s imaginary military intelligence insider, Q, painted the Paris Agreement as a phoney takeover of treacherous big government, calling it “Another Scam to Ripoff Taxpayers and Enrich the Politicians”.
Extreme weather events will probably get drawn into the meta-theory of Q, which has become a sort of life-support machine for climate denier clout. Michael Khoo, an adviser to Friends of the Earth, points to Naomi Seibt, a Gen Z climate change denier who was once financially backed by the Heartland Institute think-tank as a sort of Shelbyville Greta Thunberg, and rose to a certain level of prominence following a profile in the Washington Post. But she has since ended her financial relationship with the think-tank and started skirting around the edges of QAnon.
“I can’t say Naomi [Seibt] went down that rabbit hole because she wanted more followers, but she certainly got more followers because she went down that rabbit hole,” Khoo says. “Whether it’s her or [QAnon-following Republican congresswoman] Marjorie Taylor Greene, you can see that there is a lot of extra virality to gain by espousing crazier QAnon theories.”
The way to stop this trend in its tracks is to take away the likes that act as both an algorithmic amplification of disinformation and as an incentive to create and spread fantastical BS. If nothing happens, the trajectory we’re on as extreme weather becomes more common is clear: Marjorie Taylor Greene has already pushed a baseless anti-Semitic theory that California wildfires were started by a “space laser” controlled in part by the Rothschild banking firm. Others have claimed Texas’ winter storm in February was “weather warfare”, orchestrated between Biden and China.
The nihilistic creativity behind these theories attracts attention – the way they take a kernel of truth like space solar technology and weave a sort of delusional racist folklore around it. But the content of the theories is irrelevant. “The only part of the story that matters is the identification of a villain,” says Dr Yotam Ophir, a specialist in media persuasion at the University of Buffalo. The specifics will probably oscillate between the bizarre and banal, but this is the element that will likely remain consistent in the months and years to come.
Khoo – who’s currently working as part of a coalition with data agency Graphika and others, to analyse climate communication online – has seen how scapegoating can drive misinformation in the climate space if nothing is done. “It’s the cultural battles of racism and misogyny that have driven so much of the extra attention [recently],” he says. “We’ve talked about climate change policy for decades, but it never got so bad as when the Green New Deal was introduced by [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,] a young Latino woman of colour.”
There are tools we can use to stop ourselves from plummeting down this black hole. “What the research shows is that you can pre-bunk and inoculate people against conspiracy theories by pointing out the rhetorical techniques,” Lewandowsky says. Some conspiracy theorists will believe Princess Diana faked her own death and was killed by MI5, for instance. Highlighting these habits can alert people so they don’t end up getting misled.
But ultimately, whether or not climate emergency conspiracy theories really kick off depends on the tech platforms. It’s easy to compile the list of offending accounts who are acting in a coordinated manner to spread climate misinformation: Khoo and his coalition are calling on social platforms to act now.
“It can be done like that,” he says, clicking his fingers.