To what extent is the corona crisis delaying meaningful action on climate change and ecosystem protection? Is it possible that a health crisis is playing into the hands of the fossil fuel industry? Why are the protest movements against government corona measures so steeped in long-disproven climate change denial misinformation? Why do conspiracy theories often mix denial of the corona crisis with denial of the climate emergency?
Big Oil and the corona crisis
When Democratic governments first responded to the corona crisis in early 2020, climate activists and other conservationists could not believe their ears. Everywhere, politicians preached “Follow the sci-ence!” – the very demand Greta Thunberg and generations of protesters and climate scientists before her had been making in vain for decades. Common sense, which politicians had been immune to for so long, was suddenly demanded by them?
But it wasn’t just a relief. Ironically. While the 2019 climate movement took to the streets with this very demand for politicians – to follow the (climate) science and act accordingly – the 2020 govern-ments swept the streets by imposing lockdowns and policies that follow the (epidemiological) science. Unfortunately, the resulting ’shutdown’ of the extremely vital and fast-growing climate movement of 2019 has done a tremendous service to the fossil fuel industry. This was simply so – PLEASE NOTE: I am in no way suggesting that this was intentional.
This is a story of pure opportunism and jumping on the bandwagon. I am in no way suggesting that the fossil fuel lobbyists and their associated think tanks “planned” the corona crisis. Conspiracy the-orists, please don’t read anything into this! (But please read on.) This is about unregulated hypercapi-talism destroying the planet. And that is bad enough.
The background. As I describe elsewhere (Part 1), the fossil fuel industry today employs a plethora of strategies to bend public opinion, delay meaningful conservation and climate action, and thereby extend their own highly profitable life span. The strategies they employ can be summarised as fol-lows:
- Disinformation and Deception
- Distraction and Deflection
- Doomism and Despair
Always watch out for the big Ds! These strategies are actively used in a myriad of ways by so-called “think tanks” whose top executives design various campaigns and even classic psyops to divert public attention from the real news. They form an “influence network that can tailor people’s opinions, emo-tional reactions, and create ‘viral’ sharing,” by employing “behavioral micro-targeting and emotional manipulation.” *(1)
These “think tanks” have respectable-sounding names and pose as objective and neutral “institutes.” But they were founded with an agenda and are funded by far-right libertarian billionaires, mostly with dark money through a network of shell foundations and via “weaponised philanthropy” (see Part 6). The astronomical budget of the Far Right to influence the media and the public is around $900 mil-lion per year. Read more about this in Part 7.
For Big Oil, the corona crisis is a godsend because it effortlessly fulfils many of its strategic objectives. Since 2020, the corona crisis has caused a prolonged Delay in climate policy, simply because the pres-sure from the street has disappeared and society is very distracted. This ticks off another strategy: Dis-traction and Diversion. And the 24/7 pandemic coverage with its reinforcement of fear for one’s life completes the strategy of sowing Doom and Despair. People who are desperate or scared are paralysed and don’t have much interest in conservation.
These are colossal bonuses for the fossil industry, and they perpetuate its flourishing. Again, this is not to say that Big Oil has created a “plandemic” – I am not trying to add another conspiracy theory to the already existing mix. I am simply pointing out that the fight for the climate and the planet needs mo-re attention and action than ever before. But the industry-driven “climate change counter-movement” is creating and reinforcing conspiracy theories about the climate crisis and the corona crisis, fulfilling its main strategy: Disinformation and Deception.
Ground Zero of climate crisis denial and corona crisis denial
It is clearly documented that some of the think tanks funded by the far-right “libertarian” billionaires have actively invented and disseminated corona disinformation and even explicit conspiracy theories. Among the very first to undermine public confidence in the government’s corona measures were the ar-chetypal climate change denial think tank, the Heartland Institute, *(2) the far-right, black-money fund-ed think tank Center for American Greatness, *(3) and two die-hard British climate change deniers who publish in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. *(4)
As climate scientist Michael E. Mann describes: “The same individuals, groups, and organizations that have for years served as purveyors of climate-change denial were quick to attack and undermine public faith in the science of the corona virus crisis. … So we saw the standard denialist modus operandi in play. Russian trolls early on promoted disinformation and conspiracy theories. Right-wing organiza-tions pumped out anti-science propaganda.” (Mann, p.241)
This is not to say that all is well in the real but young and rushed corona science. I am merely reporting on the fact that from zero hour (i.e. unreasonably early) flood waves of pronounced corona denials came from the same old right-wing suspects. Understanding this is important because it contributed to the fact that scientists and left-liberal governments were so reluctant to doubt largely untested vaccines from the start. The waves of corona doubt originated in the echo chambers of the American Far Right (see Part 6) and spread through their established networks of mass manipulation (see Part 7).
Next, grossly overreacting leftist/centrist/moderate governments blamed and stigmatised their own voters whenever they doubted the state’s corona measures, branding them “anti-science,” “conspiracy theorists” and even politically “right-wing,” even though most of them had probably never had a fascist thought in their lives.
But the situation is more complicated than that.
Big Oil orchestrates “anti-elite” movements
Remember the Tea Party “movement” that helped break President Obama’s neck politically? At the grassroots level, the Tea Party rallies were ostensibly anti-elitist, but the “rebellion was funded, stirred, and organized by experienced political elites” (Mayer, pp.167-8), namely those think tanks funded by fossil billionaires. It was mainly the organisation Americans for Prosperity (AFP), funded by the Koch brothers themselves, that “helped transform the nascent Tea Party movement into a political force” (Wikipedia). Among the few identifiable donors: the American Petroleum Institute. And Jim DeMint, a prominent figure in the Tea Party movement, was president of the Heritage Foundation, one of the ten most influential ultra-conservative think tanks (see Part 7).
Another example: the French yellow vests movement originally wanted France to “put in place a real ecological policy and not a few piecemeal fiscal measures.” *(5) But Russian troll-bots working for US libertarian think tanks flooded cyberspace with messages that climate measures would be exclusively “financed by the working class and poor to the benefit of multinational corporations.” (Mann, p.106) This transformed the movement – and more importantly, its public perception – into an anti-elitist anti-climate movement.
And last but not least, the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2016 Trump election are well-documented examples of how large parts of the population could be stirred up by behavioural micro-targeting and emotional manipulation, orchestrated by libertarian far-right billionaires like Robert Mercer (see the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal). *(6)
With their vast and influential media networks, the Far Right “can make it appear that the traditional media are merely talking the talk of a corrupt elite, while they themselves are the direct expression of the will of the people.” Offering recognition, feel-good experiences and illusions of community and be-longing, the far right maintains thousands of propaganda websites, videos and social media accounts that deny the climate crisis, the corona crisis and drag science in general through the mud – all with money from the fossil fuel industry. This assault by the ultra-right began decades ago with the climate disinformation war, but has now evolved into an all-out threat to democracy itself. *(7)
Tragically, it looks like the “anti-corona” movement – within which quite a few hope to simply defend democracy and personal freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of movement, power of disposal over one’s own body) – is repeating the mistakes of the lower echelons of the Tea Party movement in 2009, unknowingly dancing an anti-elitist dance to a hidden elitist flute. The majority of people on the street are anti-elitist, but they are being used to reinforce the old ultra-conservative call for “more freedom from the state.”
For the “libertarian” billionaires of the Far Right in their far-away ivory towers, however, “more free-dom from the state” means something quite different, namely freedom only for themselves: Freedom from taxes, from global trade restrictions, from any rights of the general public, and not least freedom from governments per se. It is pure elite thinking, and in a grotesque way the 0.01% have hijacked the term “libertarianism,” which originally aimed at the freedom of all people.
So almost any course of action and any result serves them. If a broad street movement loses con-fidence in the government, this weakens the state and strengthens the 0.01%. When a government res-ponds with more restrictions or even police violence against protesters, this weakens the state and the public and strengthens the 0.01%. When the public is divided over Brexit, vaccines or a war, that wea-kens the state and the public and strengthens the 0.01%. “Divide and rule.”
And all this distracts from the truly essential question: How can we stop the destruction of the eco-sphere of this planet?
Thus, the think tanks of the fossil billionaires even manage to penetrate various movements again and again with climate lies that have long been shelved.
The origin of the most common climate tropes
1. “Global warming is a hoax. It’s just rigged computer modelling. Carbon is not bad, plants grow from it.” – The basic, long debunked arguments of the denialist camp. Yes, trees grow from atmospheric carbon, but studies have long shown that excessive increases in CO2 in the air do not increase tree growth. Computer modelling has improved over decades and nowadays is well in accord with real measurements; in fact, the real-time shifts in climate parameters (such as polar ice melt) even exceed scientific warnings. The beginnings of the collapse of the Earth’s once benevolent climate system are now plain for all to see.
Please also consider that the world’s problem with Big Oil is not just the carbon footprint. Methane emissions are just as bad. And fossil fuel mining and extraction also cause other serious pollution from chemicals and radionuclides. On top of that, oil spills and gas leaks are a constant problem that usually don’t even make the news. *(8) The oil industry costs lives. It kills people and ecosystems in many re-gions (read more in Part 4). All the more reasons why the fossil fuel industry needs to be dismantled so urgently.
And it’s not just the fossil industry. Our entire extractive economy gobbles up “resources” all over the land and sea, leaving destruction and contamination in its wake. Lead poisoning in areas where lead is being mined or batteries are being recycled kills children or maims them for life. How can we sleep with a clear conscience? Our excessive consumer culture must change.
Deep down, most people know this, but feel too powerless to do anything about it. (Klein 2019, p.84) The main resistance to systemic change comes from the 0.01% of humanity who profit the most under the current status quo. But they manage to infiltrate much wider circles with their beliefs.
Have you ever noticed how the deniers try to limit the discussion to climate change alone? As if spe-cies extinction, global plastic pollution, soil erosion and freshwater scarcity didn’t each have the poten-tial to seal the fate of humanity on their own, long before rising sea levels might become a threat at the end of the century? But “end of the century” sounds so nice and far away (delay as a key Denial strate-gy), and limiting all discussion to “carbon” is obviously effective too – and profitable as well (see Part 3).
2. “Climate change is a Trojan horse whose belly is filled with red Marxist socio-economic doctrine, a plot by left-liberals or socialists to stifle American freedom and replace capitalism with some kind of eco-socialism. They want us to give up our SUVs, our guns, our steaks and our freedom.” – This narrative was brought to the fore in late 2011 at the annual climate conference of the ultra-conservative Heart-land Institute, one of the leading climate change denialist think tanks heavily funded by the Koch brothers and the Mercers themselves. This trope has been smouldering ever since, but made a brilliant comeback in 2020 on the corona denial channels.
3. “The United Nations lays the foundation for a socialist world government financed by global taxes” – The Far Right think tank Accuracy in Media (AIM) originated this idea in 2009. AIM denies climate change, AIDS, the harmful effects of DDT on birds, and opposes same-sex marriage. AIM’s funders include Chevron, Exxon, Getty Oil, Pepsico and Ciba-Geigy (see Part 7).
4. “An ominous ‘world government’ is secretly preparing to take us all.” – Again, a fairy tale spread by the Heartland Institute in response to calls for overdue regulation of financial markets and the fossil fuel industry (governments would have to work in unison to avoid loopholes for tax-avoiding billion-aires and for corporations that still receive huge subsidies for destroying the planet – hence the threat of ‘world government’). (Klein 2019, p.88)
5 “The ’world government’ will impose climate lockdowns [aka massive restrictions on personal free-dom] that will be far worse than the corona lockdowns, and permanent at that.” The spreading of en-vironmentally responsible lifestyle choices among the population is the core fear of the Far Right liber-tarian billionaires, because it poses a threat to current consumption and profit levels. The real possibili-ty of trade regulation and taxes on the rich prompted market fundamentalists to invent terms like “eco-dictatorship” and “eco-terrorism.”
If left-liberal governments were out to establish an “eco-dictatorship,” why haven’t they done so al-ready? Instead, governments have done next to nothing in the last thirty years to prevent climate colla-pse – just as industry has demanded. And the UN, on the one hand, is not only the only international stronghold to advocate action on climate and other pollution, habitat loss and species extinction (which is precisely why the extreme right wants to weaken it), but on the other hand, it is nothing more than a toothless sage that can only recommend but not mandate (quite unlike the World Trade Organisation, see Part 5). So where is the alleged “world government”?
Or is it being prepared by Bill Gates, Klaus Schab and his World Economic Forum? Why are they in the spotlight so much? More about this in Part 9.
The libertarian network of the Far Right seems to rule supreme. It is not only infiltrating the mainstream media in the industrialised countries around the world, but also taking advantage of con-spiracy ideas and their spread in the counter-movements. But all hope is not lost!
The world has experienced two years of corona lockdowns that abruptly halted the climate movement in 2020, as well as many protest movements around the world demanding change (e.g. in Hong Kong, Chile, Algeria, Bolivia, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan). *(9) The lockdowns forced many people into a kind of mild “house arrest” and exposed them to the e-emerging climate change denial narratives. But despite all this, polls show that climate concerns remain very high among the public, even in the US, where more than two-thirds of people see human-induced climate collapse as a major concern.
The public awareness may not be as easily mouldable as most major players believe after all.
The fight to take back our planet
Part 2: The fossil fuel industry’s mind-bending strategies (continued)
Part 9: How conspiracy theories only serve one master
Part 10: The “Great Reset” and totalitarianism vs the real green revolution
Michael E. Mann 2021. The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet. Scribe 2021.
Naomi Klein 2019. On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Penguin Random House UK.
Jane Mayer 2016. Dark Money: How a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe, London.