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The next disinformation pandemic: climate change denial

A view of a dried up part of the Var riverbed due to low water level and recent hot temperatures in Carros, southern France, 11 August 2021.
© EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER   |   A view of a dried up part of the Var riverbed due to low water level and recent hot temperatures in Carros, southern France, 11 August 2021.

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On April 25, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic shock, when politicians, scientists and journalists were feverishly searching for some meaning in that swirl of unprecedented events, the British magazine The Economist published a premonitory caricature in the traditional six-page space. The cartoon depicted a ring in which a boxer with the planet Earth for a head was fighting another boxer, symbolizing the pandemic. On the sides, ready to jump the ropes and enter the ring, a third boxer was ready for action, a giant twice the size the two that were already inside. The giant boxer was climate change.

The match between Earth and the pandemic seems to be approaching the final gong. But according to the parable in The Economist, the victorious and weary humanity must now start another fight, this time against an even bigger and stronger opponent. Will it still have enough strength for the much harder fight that is right around the corner?

Climate change denial and conspiracy theories

Last year, immediately after the US election, CNN aired a documentary entitled “The Lost Years”.  It was a recap of all the actions to dismantle previous American environmental policies, actions initiated by the Trump administration. The former US president was - and probably still is, despite some nuanced statements - a leading denier of climate change. “Global warming is a hoax”, he said in the 2016 election campaign. Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 election seems like a blow to climate deniers. But it is far from decisive.

The pandemic temporarily froze the climate denial offensive, because the denialist exercise gained a new field of manifestation overnight. As an audience, it has been much more profitable lately to deny the virus than climate change. However, the same suspension effect occurred with the pro-environmental movement. The cartoon in The Economist that I mentioned earlier was published on Earth Day 2020. Normally, a hundred thousand environmental activists should have gathered and draw politicians' attention – time and time again - to the seriousness of the pollution caused by people. But they didn’t do that, because of the coronavirus. So the post-pandemic freezing and unfreezing work the same for both sides: after a reset, the campaigns start again from where the pandemic left them.

The pandemic has taught researchers in the conspiracy phenomenon a lesson which, by and large, includes climate denial: the resilience of the followers. In the pandemic, it’s become much clearer that rational arguments have almost no effect on believers in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. There are many unknown elements about the pandemic; but the fact that the virus that caused it exists is not one of them. Or, its mere existence is massively denied, with tenacity, even after two years of pandemic. It’s rather scary to imagine this tenacity oriented and extended to climate phenomena.

I am just giving an example of how difficult it is for people to reconsider the beliefs that shaped them in the first place. In the United States, a hotbed of global conspiracy theories, the QAnon movement is an inexhaustible source of more or less apocalyptic predictions. One was that Donald Trump would be reconfirmed as president on January 20, 2021, even though he had lost the election. I even met people in Romania who were claiming that would happen.

However, Joe Biden became president that day, according to the election results. The QAnon fans weren't impressed. Trump's reinstatement was postponed to March 4. Then again, to August 13, 2021. Finally, when that day passed too and Joe Biden was still the president of the US, the prediction was again postponed for November 2nd, when the former president JFK and his son, JFK Jr., both deceased, would have appeared before the crowds and present Trump as president, with JFK Jr. as vice-president. That didn’t happen either, but excuses and explanations were found for all the failed predictions. The temptation to shape  reality according to one's own pattern is seemingly irrepressible. I remember how dismayed I was hearing the reply of an anti-vaxxer whom I told the head of the Orthodox Church said he’d got the vaccine. “He just said that to mislead them, he is not vaccinated” he said to me in confidence.

Deniers’ arguments: global warming is good, fighting climate change causes poverty

It is therefore expected that in one form or another, the old arguments used to deny climate change will be brought back to life, in forms more or less adapted to the situation resulting from the pandemic. I will mention a few of them. Some have said that the climate changes in the last hundred years, triggering global warming, have been caused by a more intense solar activity; as that activity decreases, temperatures will return to normal. However, scientific studies have shown that a reduction in solar activity, indeed predicted to take place somewhere in this century, would lead to a “cooling” of the Earth by 0.1 - 0.2 degrees Celsius. The researchers have stressed that it is not the outer atmosphere of the planet that is warming, but the one closest to Earth - which shows that the influence of the Sun in this warming process is not decisive.

Another argument is that in the end, warming is good, leading to the transformation of cold areas into warmer and more welcoming places. In reality, the transformation would make some hot areas uninhabitable, heat waves would cause more and more direct deaths, and the extreme weather triggered by the effects of climate change would destroy crops and could thus generate waves of migrants; moreover, the warming of cold areas also leads to the melting of the permafrost, which could have catastrophic effects due to the release of methane and carbon deposits trapped in the soil.

Another argument would be the economic one: fighting climate change makes the world poorer.

People can't afford to give up fossil fuels, such as coal. This is what the Prime Minister of India said at the GOP26 summit in Glasgow late last year, but he was told that there are now alternative sources of energy that are not so expensive. He could have been given the example of Romania, which currently has a share of “clean” energy of 70% of total energy produced in the country and which has managed to take important steps in the transition from the communist oil and coal industry to a slightly greener economy.

Closely related to this logic of the economic risks is the political aspect. American Republican supporters of the minimalist state say a government-led campaign to combat the effects of climate change could disregard people's economic freedoms. The state would become too strong in this context. Hence the accusation of “leftism” and “Marxism” against environmental movements. But it is clear that without the involvement of governments, combating climate change is difficult to implement; the issue is too big and important to be left to civil society or government alone.

Finally, another conspiracy line of attack is the alleged lack of functional stability of new energy technologies. It emerged last year, when a huge power outage occurred in the American state of Texas. However, this did not prove to be related to the way the current was produced. And on the other hand, power outages and energy crises can occur in the most traditional fossil countries, such as Venezuela, with its huge oil reserves, or Romania in the last decade of communism, when power cuts would occur every day in both villages and cities.

The 21st century will be green or it will not be at all

However, deniers don’t need to make too big an effort for the strategy aimed at combatting the effects of climate change to go in the wrong direction. Governments and people in general do not seem deeply impressed with scientists’ warnings. In connection with these warnings, the denial may not be as open as it was before the pandemic. Yes, there is some truth here, the usual conspiracy theorists now say, but it will not be as dramatic as we are told.

That is why I believe that in this case, after scientists and some activists have failed, it may be the turn of literature to try to raise public awareness. During the pandemic, in October 2020, Kim Stanley Robinson, a well-known American author of climate change-themed SF novels, published a book entitled “The Ministry of the Future”.  The author combines here, as in previous books, verified data and information from the present to design the framework of actions that will take place in the more or less distant future.

This time, he took into account people’s current reaction to the challenges posed by climate change. At the end of the novel, set in 2053, the level of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere finally begins to drop. But hundreds of millions of people have already died or been displaced. The sea coasts have disappeared under water, and many regions have turned into deserts. Economies have collapsed, refugees have invaded the still inhabitable areas. Governments, using state-of-the-art technology, have avoided the extinction of the human species, but the price has been huge. And this, the author says, “would be the best possible scenario”.  The conclusion is, therefore, that the 21st century will be green or will not be.

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Ionuț Iamandi

Ionuț Iamandi




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6 minutes read
  • The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a wave of fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories. As the end of it is drawing to a near, conspiracy theorists and deniers will focus on a new goal: climate change.
  • The pandemic has taught researchers in the conspiracy phenomenon a lesson which, by and large, includes climate denial: the resilience of the followers. In the pandemic, it’s become much clearer that rational arguments have almost no effect on believers in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. There are many unknown elements about the pandemic; but the fact that the virus that caused it exists is not one of them. Or, its mere existence is massively denied, with tenacity, even after two years of pandemic. It’s rather scary to imagine this tenacity oriented and extended to climate phenomena.
  • However, deniers don’t need to make too big an effort for the strategy aimed at combatting the effects of climate change to go in the wrong direction. Governments and people in general do not seem deeply impressed with scientists’ warnings. In connection with these warnings, the denial may not be as open as it was before the pandemic. Yes, there is some truth here, the usual conspiracy theorists now say, but it will not be as dramatic as we are told.
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