April 17, 2023

By Ana Romero-Vicente, Researcher, EU DisinfoLab

Executive summary

  • This study analyses the flows of climate disinformation in Belgium, where several websites, academics, journalists, politicians and scientific experts conspicuously admit to being climate sceptics or, as they like to call themselves, climate “realists”.
  • The disinformation landscape reflects the country’s linguistic divisions and is facilitated by the limited number of fact-checkers. Indeed, some of the experts in the field we contacted are pessimistic about the evolution of climate disinformation in Belgium, even suggesting that the worst is yet to come.
  • Therefore, this study wishes to curb this dark future and alleviate the adverse effects of climate change disinformation in the area. We explain who the transmitters of these deceptions are, but, most importantly, what their common strategies and messages they rely on. Almost all of them are ‘delayists’, i.e. stopping climate change action and – by extension – the energy transition.

1. Introduction

In our previous study, we discovered the existence of thirty websites dedicated exclusively to disinforming about climate change, one of them being Belgian. In our second instalment, we focus on the ever-increasing disinformation threat against climate change in Belgium under the framework of EDMO BeLux.

Following this lead, we scanned the country’s disinformation landscape and came across many actors that maintain a sceptic outlook on the climate crisis. A multi-layered ecosystem emerges, which includes disinformation websites, alternative media, university professors, politicians, scientific experts and other actors who use social networks to echo their theories.

In this regard, Belgium is an interesting case study, being a small country divided into two major linguistic communities, French and Dutch. On the one hand, the small fact-checking community is also organised along this linguistic divide. On the other, the language commonality with France and the Netherlands exposes it to disinformation from these two countries.

The type of content ranges from entirely false assumptions about the climate crisis, appealing to emotion or ideology, to somewhat reasonable arguments, often supported by the transmitter’s professional position and community. However, legitimate information is combined with uncertain or misleading data, leading us to question the intentions of the transmitter.

The investigation aims to highlight the common features and strategies of suspicious Belgian actors, which seem directed towards a single purpose: pushing back and postponing climate action.

As for the methods, we focus on a sample of Belgian disinformation websites[1], the one introduced in our first study and others identified through an in-depth monitoring of fact-checked outlets and individuals. As well as analysing the content shared, the specific behaviour, strategies adopted and the actors acting as transmitters and amplifiers, we interviewed Belgian experts from various fields to shed light on the state of the climate debate in the country.

2. Climate change action in Belgium

Despite notable successes in expanding wind power and other clean energy sources, Belgium has been in the spotlight for years for marginally reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The matter was even taken to the courts, an uncommon situation in which Belgium and the Netherlands are pioneers.

In 2021, a Belgian court accused the federal government – a coalition that associates Greens, Socialists and Liberals – of negligence, for not taking all necessary measures to prevent the effects of climate change. Another wake-up call came from the International Energy Agency, which advised Belgium to build on the success of offshore wind power to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

Indeed, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis, Belgium launched a €1.2 billion package last year to speed up the energy transition. Measures include plans to accelerate further and expand the deployment of offshore wind power as well as incentives for solar panels, heat pumps and electric vehicles, among others. The government also announced its intention to extend the operation of two nuclear reactors for a further 10 years, while the country had planned to close its entire nuclear park by 2025. Therefore, the plan was bittersweet news for climate sceptics.

3. Climate-related disinformation actors in Belgium

Based on our analysis, they are:

  • Disinformation outlets. A French language website and a blog are dedicated exclusively to misleading or false content about the reality of climate change. Similarly, other Dutch language alternative websites (e.g., Doorbraak, Golfbrekers, Tegenwind or Wakkernieuws) publish much content on this topic.
  • Academics. Several dubious and sceptical information transmitters are currently, or were previously, employed at various Belgian universities (at the University of Antwerp or the Free University of Brussels), including honorary or emeritus professors. Many of them teach or have taught classes on geology, energy geopolitics, applied economics system dynamics, chemistry, etc.

Figure 1. In the top row: A.P., Prof. of Geology Professor; S.F., Prof. of Energy geopolitics, and H.M., Prof. of Applied Economics. In the bottom row: P.K., Prof. of Systems Dynamics, and Prof., G.G. Department of Chemistry.

  • Scientific branch. We came across a retired meteorologist who spreads climate-sceptical information through his social networks and website. A molecular biologist, known for his statements against the COVID-19 vaccine, also disseminates conspiracy theories about climate change. The list also includes an astrophysicist, a civil engineer and an expert in nuclear reactor physics.

Figure 2. L.T., meteorologist (top left); F.M., Doctor of science in chemistry and photophysics (bottom left); R. L., civil engineer (top right), E.M., Experts in nuclear reactor physics (bottom right).

  • Additional actors are a politician associated with a Flemish conservative right-wing party and a journalist known for challenging the climate consensus.

Several of the sceptical actors identified disseminate their ideas through the Belgian alternative outlets we collected and other international disinformation sites (i.e. Climate Gate or Friends of Science) to further polarise the climate change issue.

Furthermore, various professors from Belgian universities have jointly signed a letter addressed to the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) to condemn the honorary doctorate awarded to American climatologist Michael E. Mann, who has allegedly “positioned himself in the camp of the catastrophists”. Mann has become a target since the University rewarded him for defending “the veracity of scientific facts in the face of the manipulations of climate-sceptics”.

4. Interrelated narratives and common features

CLAIM 1 – Let’s be realistic!

Most of these Belgian actors openly claim to be ‘climate realists’, or even belong to the French language Climate-Realist Association (ACR), according to which the climate is indeed changing due to natural and inevitable causes. They reject human responsibility in causing “a climate disturbance”, maintain that “CO2 is not a pollutant” and that the global temperature “has increased modestly for 150 years”.

Other Belgian actors openly position themselves within the climate-sceptic collective, claiming that their ideas on climate change are equally valid to those defended by ‘mainstream’ climate activists.

DEBUNK. Both scepticism and climate realism are considered a mutation of the denialist narrative, since they do not oppose climate change per se but rather question the seriousness of the problem. Similar claims about C02 or the global temperature have been repeatedly debunked.

CLAIM 2 – Don’t panic!

Through this line, many allege that – despite the existence of climate change – there is no reason to panic. Among these are some Belgian signatories of the document “There is no climate emergency”, published by the Climate Intelligence Foundation (Clintel), even including Clintel ambassadors.

Clintel, a Dutch association part of the European Climate Realist Network (ECRN), was founded in 2019 by the now-retired professor of geophysics Guus Berkhout and journalist Marcel Crok. The Forum voor Democratie, the leading Dutch nationalist party, has quoted the organisation in the past.

DEBUNK. Most of the scientists who appear in the document are not specialised in the study of climate or meteorology, and a sample of even a thousand signatories is not representative of the entire scientific community. A DeSmog analysis found that the list of signatories includes a commercial fisherman, a retired chemist, a cardiologist and an air-conditioning engineer, alongside a number of retired geologists. Moreover, the majority of their claims have already been dismantled by many climate experts on several occasions.

CLAIM 3 – It’s not that hot!

Belgium climate disinformation actors have often questioned the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) system for measuring temperatures. For example, claiming that the “IPCC Synthesis Report is a gospel for climate alarm believers. Measurements refute any form of climate alarmism”.

Figure 4. Extract from a publication on LinkedIn by a Doctor of Science in Chemistry and Photophysics.

DEBUNK. Humans are responsible for climate change and there is a large-scale scientific consensus on the matter. Another sceptical website echoed this theory in an article debunked by APF, confirming that “human CO2 emissions are the main cause of global warming, and not the sun”.

CLAIM 4 – There’s (maybe) something in the air!

Another misleading claim is that “insignificant and innocuous global warming” may be slightly related to air pollution.

Figure 5. Tweet by an expert in Molecular Biology and Immunology
Figure 6. An excerpt from a DHnet interview with a meteorologist, who says: “Indeed, there is global warming, but for me, it is natural. Maybe the pollution strengthens it a bit, but it’s mostly natural.”

DEBUNK. Both climate change and air pollution share a common origin, the current energy model. That is, the burning of fuels enhances both phenomena. Reducing environmental and household air pollution can indeed reduce carbon emissions, but air pollution per se is not identified as one of the main reasons for global warming.

CLAIM 5 – Renewable energies be damned!

Criticism of the energy transition plan abounds among Belgian disinformation transmitters, emphasising its drawbacks. Their content seeks to stop the development of renewable energy sources in Belgium. Discourses range from reasonable arguments over the intermittent nature of green energies and their storage problem to radical claims that solar energy is useless, harmful and dirty. In addition, they claim that renewable energy jeopardises growth possibilities for developing countries.

Figure 7. “Green energy is not clean energy but dirty energy” states a Tweet, naively comparing the mud in the photos with the dirt of the energy source to indicate its undesirability.

DEBUNK. This type of declarations are part of ‘climate delayism’, which hinders climate action, by postponing it indefinitely in the name of other priorities.

CLAIM 6 – It’s all a conspiracy!

In addition, most Belgian climate sceptics blame the media and fact-checkers for their catastrophic approach to global warming. Occasionally, they also spread conspiracy theories intersecting the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, claiming an elite manages both events as part of a secret plan known as the ‘Great Reset’. For examples, a Wakkernieuw article entitled ‘The sect of green lighting’ accuses this alleged sect of wanting to annihilate all dissenting opinions, while energy will be insufficient “to heat, feed, move and run our businesses”. Anuna De Wever, nicknamed ‘The Belgian Greta Thunberg’, is another target in this blame game.

On this note, climate change is described as a ‘totalitarian ideology’ or a ‘new religion’, raising the tone with expressions such as ‘eco-fascism’ or ‘climate terrorism’ in both French- and Flemish-language online communities. There is also a pro-Putin endorsement in some cases, opposing Western Europe’s ‘collective climate neurosis’, resulting in a decision to refuse Russian energy supplies. In an interview, politician J.M Dedecker (LDD) maintained that “I don’t want a generation depressed by climate religion”, promoted by “weather beggars” who fuel “an unreal fear”.

5. The present and future of the climate change disinformation landscape

In recent years, interest in global warming and its consequences has spiked. As the phenomenon entails drastic changes in lifestyle, economic production and efficient policies, it has been broadly politicised, shifting away from being a purely scientific issue. We talked to some experts to make sense of the different perspectives and polarised views that have flooded the public debate.

As we have so far seen, climate disinformation thrives in Belgium. An expert from a Flemish fact-checking entity thinks that “there are many interests at stake in climate-related issues, more than in the case of COVID-19”. For this reason, he is “not optimistic about climate disinformation in the near future”. He adds that “the worst is yet to come”, including “attacks on journalists and fact-checkers”.

A Belgian journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous, shares similar concerns. “There is a lot of work to do” regarding ecological discourse, which is not “on the winning hand, so to speak”. Xavier Fettweis, climatology Professor at the University of Liège, aims directly at traditional media as transmitters of unintentional misinformation. Echoing the need for more media and information literacy training, he emphasises that “some Belgian media make mistakes due to their absence of expertise about climate, and nobody corrects such information”.

Indeed, the limited number of fact-checkers in Belgium makes it challenging to combat anti-climate and green-washing campaigns plagued by hoaxes and half-truths. For the expert from the Flemish fact-checking organisation, “it is hard to act on a national level, as disinformation flows do not care about borders, especially in Belgium, where sources of disinformation are often language specific. In Flanders, a lot of climate disinformation comes from the Netherlands, and vice versa”. Therefore, the expert praises initiatives that ensure a virtuous relationship between the EU and the country level in combating disinformation, such as EDMO. He also calls out the importance of engaging with grassroots organisations that know the local dimension and maintain a cross-national outlook.

Different political, ideological and economic interests have led to the entrenchment of radically opposed beliefs and convictions on climate change in Belgium. When asking if climate science is being used as a political weapon in the country, we got a resounding “no” from the consulted fact-checker and a loud “yes” from the journalist. The university professor acknowledges that “climate science is not listened to and therefore used as a political weapon in Belgium”. We can only confirm the already mentioned polarisation on a matter where consensus is still lacking, which inevitably hinders a unified response.

6. Conclusions

Although we increasingly hear about it, climate change is still a complex subject to grasp. In Belgium, many actors are using their platforms to express views on the matter, despite lacking the expertise to do so. Deriving their credibility from their degrees and profession, or counting on a like-minded community, their statements evidence the post-truth era we live in, where opinions are considered valid as facts, or the latter are cherry-picked and deliberately interpreted to confirm pre-existing views.

Assessing the reasons why these actors spread unscientific claims lies beyond the scope of our study. Nonetheless, we can hypothesise that it is part of a broader disinformation strategy, or that genuine personal convictions are at stake, as well as personal interests (e.g. reputational and monetary goals).

[1] https://www.science-climat-energie.be/; https://doorbraak.be/; https://belgotopia.com/; https://wakkernieuws.be/; www.golfbrekers.be; https://palingenesie.com/; https://palnws.be/.