Imagine, if you will, a plot. It’s an evil plot concocted by a power-hungry global elite determined to ensnare all of mankind in its dystopian, totalitarian net. Even more ominously, it’s specifically designed to deny the planet’s “freest” people — Americans — their god-given rights. If successful, this plot will force them to live within walking distance of schools and shopping and work and entertainment, with many of those short jaunts taking place on known “collectivist” tools like public transportation. They may even be forced onto implements of social control like bicycles and, in the process, lose their cherished right to spend hours and, over the course of their lifetimes, many weeks and even months languishing at stoplights or sitting idly in traffic. They’ll even be denied the right to pour many thousands of dollars-worth of gasoline into their cars and “freely” inhale the ensuing exhaust and “freely” accumulate its particulate pollution in their lungs and brains. According to some, this dastardly design on the human future is now upon us in the form of the dreaded “15 Minute City” and it’s just one part of a multifarious conspiracy hidden in a Trojan Horse called “climate change.”
Yes, it all sounds like a badly-written sci-fi series currently streaming on Fox Nation — but alas, it’s not. It’s just one example of a multitude of conspiracy theories currently replacing a comparatively mundane brand of climate denialism. Increasingly, climate objectors blame offshore windmills for killing whales and believe it’s being covered up to push the “climate agenda.” Some believe Bill Gates is steering a “Billionaire Elite” plan to replace carbon-intensive meat with carbon-friendly bugs. Others foresee a future of “climate lockdowns” engineered by a James Bond-type villain named Klaus Schwab, who, as head of the World Economic Forum, supposedly seeks to “reset” all of humanity.
These fanciful fables are just a sampling of the smorgasbord of conspiracies being served up by politicians, infotainers and influencers at a time when the increasingly harsh reality of a rapidly changing climate is being felt around the world. Perhaps in response to both mounting scientific evidence and the disastrous daily experience of millions of people globally, these “theories” throw doubt upon, or simply explain away, anthropogenic climate change by connecting it to sinister plans and Byzantine plots. These theories also demonize, often quite literally, anyone raising alarm or actually trying to do something about the most immediate environmental threat of the 21st century.
Conspiracy theories are, of course, nothing new. What’s different now is that conspiracy fact is being replaced by conspiracy theory. We know that the oil industry has long known about the climatological impact of burning hydrocarbons. Yet the more we learn about the extent of Big Oil’s knowledge, the more these recharged denialists paint efforts to mitigate climate pollution as a wide-ranging conspiracy to “destroy America.” Their culprits, though, are not the self-incriminating corporations who’ve profited from knowingly polluting the atmosphere while gouging U.S. consumers at the pump. Instead, they blame a strange mélange of “Neo-Marxists,” so-called “climate cultists” and treacherous “global elites.” In essence, denialism is replacing a demonstrable, just-follow-the-money (and documents) conspiracy by Big Oil with a grand, fantastical and wholly unproven conspiracy by elites and radical environmentalists who are supposedly using climate change as an elaborate ruse to dismantle the United States.
That in and of itself is worth noting, because it’s an inversion of a concept that was deployed by the CIA, per a declassified document from 1967, as part of an attempt to discredit anyone with the temerity to question the official story of President Kennedy’s assassination. Back then, the agency labeled dissenters “conspiracy theorists” and dismissed their claims as “conspiracy theories.” But now, in a move that would likely impress the CIA of ’67, conspiracy theories are being actively deployed by climate denialists to discredit the motives of anyone concerned about the demonstrable flow of climate-altering pollution into the atmosphere. This image of an opaque world run by a shadowy agenda effectively justifies climate inaction by framing it as a principled stand against the nefarious intent of people who want to curtail climate pollution and, by extension, control your life. And that, in turn, transforms one’s stance on climate change into yet another “with us or against us” loyalty test in the forever war over culture.
One of the narratives that pops-up a lot, particularly on Fox News, is the not-so-subtle implication that the “Chinese Communist Party” (they always use the full moniker) is somehow behind the “climate cult” pushing its “radical climate agenda” on unwitting Americans. This narrative is advanced through headlines with phrases like “China-linked” or “China-connected” or, most damningly, “China-controlled.” A June 27, 2023, story on Fox’s website splashed this headline in front of its confirmation-biased readers: “Pete Buttigieg consulted China-tied group pushing gas stove bans, electric vehicle mandates.” The implication is that Mayor Pete is cooking up his freedom-denying plans in concert with Red-to-the-core Commies in Beijing. The truth is that the “China-tied group” is the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which Fox describes as “a non-profit dedicated to electrifying the U.S. economy from transportation to home appliances like stovetops.” But, Fox pointedly notes, RMI has also “collaborated with the Chinese government to study transitioning away from traditional fossil fuels,” and recently opened up an office in Beijing to assist with its efforts to “show how China’s economy could adopt new clean energy technologies to replace oil and gas infrastructure.”
In other words, RMI is lobbying the Chinese government to make the changes necessary to curtail its world-leading emissions. The irony is that many of Fox’s infotainers, along with most of the Republican politicians it hosts on its programming, often complain that it’s not fair to ask the U.S. to curb its emissions while the Communist Chinese get away with the pollution equivalent of murder. Yet when RMI works with China to mitigate those emissions, their efforts are shaded in the conspiratorial tones of a Communist plot to control you through their climate-obsessed puppet — Pete Buttigieg. Fox is ultimately cultivating the deeper suspicion that climate change is being weaponized by the Chinese Communist Party to bring the muscular U.S. economy and its gas-fueled, freedom-loving populace to its knees so it can rule the world while the U.S. is mired in its flaccid, renewable-fueled decline.
The upshot is that these elaborate theories manage people’s perceptions by linking climate change to foreign plots targeting innocent Americans who are being betrayed by climate quislings. If nothing else, history has certainly shown the effectiveness of appealing to a population’s fear of betrayal, particularly in a time of crisis. In this case, overwhelming science is itself overwhelmed by relentlessly refocusing the issue onto the supposed ulterior motives of climate reformers.
The Great Reset
Many of these theories are contained under the umbrella of “the Great Reset,” a supposed plot to imprison Americans in a “One World Government” by taking away their cars, their guns and their gas stoves under the guise of cutting emissions.
The real Great Reset is, in fact, an actual scheme promoted by the World Economic Forum, managed by the aforementioned Klaus Schwab. His “Great Reset” — which is often adjacent to the white supremacist “Great Replacement” theory in conspiratorial circles — emerged in 2020 as a Davos talking point referring to the supposed reconfiguration of the global economy into a post-COVID, post-neoliberal paradigm. Rather than “resetting” the global economy, though, it has mostly functioned as a self-serving conversation piece well-heeled 1 percenters can chew over in between bites of caviar and sips of champagne.
That said, “the Great Reset” does sound a bit like a plot. And because it’s an amorphous, glorified PowerPoint explanation of economic forces that self-aggrandizing jet-setters are struggling to control, it serves as a sort of conspiratorial black hole into which anyone can throw unfounded accusations. The same goes for “globalist,” which is a codeword with antisemitic origins, but is just ill-defined enough to function as a catchall for a variety of fears and suspicions. It’s a cocktail of fear and suspicion that climate polluters and their apologists use to taint anything and everything that smacks of a “climate agenda.” And it may be working. The trend line in public opinion is, after a decade of moving away from denialism, showing signs of retreating into Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.
Let’s Counter Conspiracy Theories With the Facts
Columbia University’s Steven Cohen recently identified an important, emergent dichotomy in public opinion. Writing in The Hill, he observed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as “environmentalists” has declined from 76 percent in 1989 to 41 percent in 2021. However, he continues, “poll after poll shows that about 70 percent favor public policies that control air, water and toxic waste pollution.” Cohen points to the corrosive impact of Reagan-era demonization of regulation and the rise of climate change-obsessed moral scolds as contributing to this decline. Yet, one cannot discount the success of resurgent, conspiracy-driven denialism in casting doubt on environmentalism. The repeated use of terms like “climate cult” and “radical environmentalist” drives a culture war-style wedge of cognitive dissonance between our disdain for pollution and our willingness to mitigate the climate crisis with public policy.
The challenge is to bridge that dissonant gap with the one term that links the two — pollution. People understand pollution. It was the problem of pollution (an oil spill off the coast of California) that spawned the Environmental Protection Agency. It was the unavoidable pall of pollution (vista-blocking smog) that led to catalytic converters. And it was shocking images of fiery aquatic pollution (Cuyahoga River set ablaze) that led to the Clean Water Act. Pollution registers. It makes sense. Conservative media certainly understood that when a chemical-laden train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. In fact, that toxic pollution was weaponized into a political attack and, perhaps predictably, it quickly morphed into framing East Palestine residents’ plight as a Great Replacement-style attack on white people. As if on cue, theorists replaced an easily identifiable conspiracy of corporate greed, influence peddling and deregulation with a far grander illusion.
It’s the same type of switcheroo that put whale-killing windmills and Klaus Schwab in a hot seat that should be occupied by Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron. They knew their product would lead to anthropogenic climate change. They also knew their profits were predicated on downplaying the climate pollution that caused it. They introduced doubt, created exploitable dissonance and, according to the Center for International Environmental Law, they essentially authored the playbook that sustained both themselves and the doubt-dependent tobacco industry.
And while it is true that corporate PR has long manipulated public opinion, it is also true that the persistent dissonance they exploit reflects a longstanding shortcoming in the coverage of climate issues. The term “climate pollution” is woefully underutilized in reporting on climate change. Climate pollution is the cause. Climate change is the effect. As such, “climate change” is far too imprecise and encompasses both anthropogenic and nonanthropogenic climate fluctuations throughout geological history. Instead, journalists and reporters need to hone in on the far more accurately named problem of “climate pollution.”
The reason for prioritizing “climate pollution” over “climate change” is clarified by this recent headline featured on Phys.org, a reliable source of research papers from a variety of scientific disciplines: “Climate change likely led to violence in early Andean populations.” Based on a new paper from the University of California, Davis, it focused on “a pattern of increased violence during climatic change in the south central Andes between A.D. 470 and 1500,” which coincides with the “Medieval Climatic Anomaly (ca. A.D. 900-1250)” and, the authors believe, may be a contributing factor to why the “first states of the Andes collapsed.” Of course, this all happened before the coming of anthropogenic climate change.
So when denialists like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene assert that the “climate is going to continue to change” regardless of what humans do because climate always changes, they’re exploiting a glaring weakness in how the climate is being covered. Climate pollution more accurately describes the problem and is far better connected to what we know about the consequences of human action. Climate pollution is what we humans produce and what we inflict on the environment. It is artificially generated and outside the natural fluctuations deniers like Greene often cite when they blithely dismiss human-caused climate change as a conspiratorial scam.
That is also why the reporting on climate pollution must focus on conspiracy facts, and on the long history of profit-protecting corporations that hide the truth from an unwitting public to avoid scrutiny and, at times, even criminal prosecution. The demonstrable track record of corporate malfeasance — from Big Oil to Big Pharma, from chemical giants to pesticide producers — presents an opportunity to hammer home the conspiracy fact that “The Oil Companies Knew.” That conspiracy fact should be part of every discussion of climate pollution and it should be part of every report on climate conspiracy theories peddled by infotainers and politicians. The very skepticism that fuels the right-wing echo chamber is an invitation to counter conspiracy theories with a barrage of conspiracy facts.
While better, more deftly written journalism may never convince the climate war’s stormtroopers to put down their blasters, it does put the fight on a far more even footing. And because it’s true, it appropriately connects the lived experience of climate pollution with an appropriate target for people’s anger and dismay. At the very least, it represents a far more accurate understanding of how we got here.