By Ana Romero-Vicente, Researcher, EU DisinfoLab
- A group of non-scientific outlets dedicated exclusively to questioning and disseminating false and misleading content about the climate change crisis exists online.
- We have found 29 websites specialised in climate disinformation. A recurrent position is not to “stop now” with pollution, but to delay environmental protection policies. These alleged climate “realists” (as opposed to climate “alarmists”) share several characteristics that turn them into serial disseminators of false content.
- From the identified case studies and available publications, this report designs a short guide to climate-centred disinformative discourse, focusing on its evolution and adaptation over time as a strategy to reach more people.
During the early years of the 21st century, explicit denialism of the climate crisis was frequent despite the scientific evidence to support its existence. Sceptical, forceful, and even hostile terms such as ‘scare’, ‘scam’, or ‘fraud’ were standard among fake climate experts and disinformation outlets aiming to denigrate real climate scientists. Already back in 2007, one could come across websites called “Global Warming Scare“, “NoTricksZone“, “Climate Fraud” or “Climate Skeptical”. These outlets are not operative anymore, but many more came into existence, using a less aggressive but equally damaging technique of denialism.
Currently, climate change scepticism and disinformation moderated its positions, placated its tone, and adapted to the surrounding environment. The denialist machine has kept the same goal but has adopted more subtle and sophisticated strategies to keep sowing doubts and contradicting the scientific consensus on climate change. Denialist discourses have been updated and renewed by a wide network of websites belonging to the sceptical sphere and massively spreading on social media.
As the evidence of anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) global warming has become irrefutable even for the toughest deniers, climate change can no longer be categorically dismissed. Therefore, deniers shifted their paradigm and became delayers in counter-tendency with the asks of the scientific community and activists. This alleged reasonable approach is a purely cosmetic rebranding that consists of postponing the needed actions to combat climate change indefinitely rather than rejecting them immediately. Yet, the result is the same.
At EU DisinfoLab, we have compiled some of these disinformative climate-related websites, and the discourses used by these malicious actors to deny the climate crisis.
The striking omnipresence of climate disinformative websites
As we delved into this matter, we encountered a surprising number of sceptical climate change outlets spreading polarising narratives. A study by the THINKClima project of the Pompeu Fabra University already mapped the websites of the eight most important climate denialist European think tanks. Besides these outlets from France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK, others operate in Europe (i.e., the Irish Climate Science Forum, in Ireland) and outside, such as the Canadian Friends of Science or U.S.-based Heartland Institute.
In addition, we stumbled upon 29 functioning websites that are exclusively disinforming about the climate crisis. These originate from 9 European countries (i.e., Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) and the United States.
From our experience, disinformative websites deal with general content, with specific sections on various topics: politics, economy, migration, Covid-19, etc. Therefore, it is striking that the denial of climate change has the support of so many specific disinformative sites entirely devoted to this purpose.
To understand their dimension, we looked up each website’s total visits on Similarweb – ranging from less than 5.000 to over 139.000 monthly visits. The more visits the website has, the bigger the bubble in the chart below.
These websites have several common features:
- Name. In almost all cases, the name includes a term connected to the climate sphere (e.g., climate, environment, weather).
- Authorship and origin. For the most part, the sites’ founders, editors, and funders are easily identifiable, as well as the country of origin.
- Discourses. Each website makes a limited and specific number of narratives its hallmark. On this front, we analysed their most recurrent features and plotted them into the word cloud below to convey a sense of their frequency.
In detail, most of our sample’s websites profess climate change realism, fully-fledged denialism, or strategically minimise its existence and impact. Some propose alternative theories to explain climate change (e.g., solar theory). These outlets favour fossil fuels and CO2, some support nuclear power, and they are generally against the development and use of renewable energies. Environmental action is discouraged by stressing its economic downsides and accusing it of a hidden political agenda. In a few interesting cases, they even rely on religious language or offer alternative media literacy tools to indoctrinate newer generations.
Lifting the veil: unpacking the denial discourses that hinders climate action
This guide is intended to help detect denialist, sceptic, and disinformative discourses about climate change caused by human action through a recollection of existing studies and media publications.
As mentioned, bad actors adopted a more subtle communication repertoire, which allowed them to disseminate counter-narratives on global warming successfully. Climate “contrarians” smoothened their tones and stances in what sounds like a more reasonable position. Their cautious and tranquil approach – in opposition to climate activists’ cry for action – let them gain greater acceptance among the public. However, indefinitely delaying actions against climate change produces the same effect as denying the phenomenon in the first place.
1. Alarmism vs. realism: are realists pretending to be worried?
One of the strategies we observed was a semantic rebranding of actors operating on the climate change political stage. Posing as “climate realists”, past deniers are looking to appear as moderated and pragmatics, opposed to “climate alarmists”, posing as an alternative to the climate “alarmists that want us to panic rather than think.”
The ideal stereotypical characters to embody this dichotomy are, on the one hand, Greta Thunberg and, on the other hand, her nemesis Naomi Seibt, employed by the Heartland Institute to contrast the climate activist’s alleged alarmism. The same accusation is echoed by Michael Shellenberger in his controversial book “Apocalypse never”, who claimed, in an interview, that “alarmism is an anti-human religion”.
Definitions invite careful consideration of country and language differences. For example, in English- and French-speaking countries, the term climate realism (“climato-réalistes” in French) has the same connotation. In Spanish, the same expression (“realistas climáticos” in Spanish) promotes the opposite concept. The closest thing to climate realists in Spanish would be “climate-rationalists”.
2. Climate delayers: is inactivism the new activism?
In the book The New Climate War, its author Michael Mann, explains that climate change deniers have switched tactics to ‘inactivism’. They intend to discourage climate action through deflection, delay, division, despair-mongering, and doomism.
The so-called “climate delayers” wish to hinder effective measures against global warming. Again, their plot line is based on recognising that climate change exists, but it is not urgent. So, they provide a series of arguments with half-truths or absolute falsehoods to postpone and delay action against the climate crisis. Within the COP27 framework, we noticed that an overall strategy of delayism is to frame fossil fuels as the only salvation in the current energy crisis.
A Cambridge University study from 2020 detailed the general strategies of climate delayers:
- Discourses redirecting responsibility:
- Individualism. Climate action is redirected from systemic solutions to individual actions, such as planting a tree or driving a more efficient car.
- Whataboutism. Arguing over who should act first or who is more to blame for the planet being damaged (e.g., China or developing countries) offers a distraction from promoting actual action.
- Promoting non-transformative solutions:
- Technological optimism. The belief that technological progress will soon bring a reduction in emissions entails, for example, blind faith in renewable energies, the promotion of technological ‘myths’ (e.g., hydrogen-powered airplane), and practices like greenwashing.
- Fossil fuel solutionism. It claims that the fossil fuel industry is “part of the solution to the scourge of climate change”.
- Emphasize the downside. Zero-sum game where climate protection is perceived as completely at odds with economic progress (e.g., overcoming poverty and inequality) or the resolution of health-related emergencies (e.g., epidemics).
- Surrender: “Change is impossible” narratives and “doomism”. Delayers acknowledge the existence and seriousness of climate change but try to convince the audience that it is unavoidable, either fostering a sense of resignation or adaptation, which are both ways to remove responsibility from people.
3. Other conspiracy disinformation features
Deniers also resort to conspiracy theories to present alternative explanations for climate change that remove responsibility from people and put the blame on the elites.
- Association with conspiracy theories:
- External technological control. A popular conspiracy theory assures that climate change is due to the global geoengineering (chemtrail) program according to which the terrestrial climate is being modified deliberately and massively. In alternative, some believe that climate change is triggered by 5G to destroy biodiversity in favour of highly digitalised smart cities.
- The imposition of an apocalyptic new world. Another theory claims that climate change is part of the Agenda 2030. Accordingly, global elites fabricated the concept of climate change to accelerate the affirmation of a New World Order, where there will be total control of natural resources and food supplies, forced vaccinations, and so on. One of the narratives that has been seen the most since the beginning of 2023 claims that the “15-minute cities project” will impose climate quarantines and lockdowns. Similarly, deniers accused climate change defenders of supporting a neo-Malthusian ideology, according to which: “people must die for the planet to survive, cultivating poverty, promoting economic decline and ceding power to states and world corporations”.
As climate change becomes harder to disregard, malign actors have adapted their communication strategies. Both social media and those climate change disinformative websites are accelerating the circulation of denialist and greenwashing messages, which represents a major problem.
Our report has mapped the most recurring features and unpacked denialist discourses and nuances from recent years. Although 2023 has just begun, we are already seeing how new narratives are beginning to sediment, triggering social alarm to stop support for the climate fight. For instance, we anticipate that hydrogen might become a disinformation target soon and be instrumentalised against the existing decarbonisation plan, similarly to solar or wind energy. Therefore, our next step will be to determine new trends from false and misleading content.
Data visualisation: Maria Giovanna Sessa & Heini Järvinen, EU DisinfoLab
 The Institute of Economic Affairs, Center for Policy Studies, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Liberales Institut, Institut Économique Molinari, Austrian Economics Center, EIKE, Instituto Juan de Mariana.
 The websites are: “Clima et Verité”, “Climate Curious”, “Climate Depot”, “Climate Etc”, “Climate Exit (CLEXIT)”; “Climate Gate”, “Climate Intelligence Foundation (CLINTEL)”, “Climate Resistance”, “Climato-Réalistes”, “CO2 Coalition”, “De Groene Rekenkamer”, “Destaatvanhet Klimaat”, “Ecologia, Clima, Aquecimento”, “Energy Talking Points”, “Environmental Progress”, “European Climate Realist Network”, “Everything Climate”, “Klimaat Feiten”, “Klimaat Gek”, “Klima Realisme”, “Klima Realistene”, “Klimat Sans”, “Klimat Upplysningen”, “Koklimaat”, “La Question Climatique”, “Science, Climat et Énergie”, “Sky Fall”, “Weather Action”, A Grande Farsa do Aquecimento Global”.