COVID-19 conspiracy groups who have attempted to undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control are increasingly sharing climate change misinformation.
The most common green conspiracy is the claim of an upcoming “climate lockdown”, where countries will be locked down for long periods to meet climate change targets.
Other fake theories claim a rich and powerful group of elites are using climate change policies to control and harm the wider public, with celebrities such as Gary Lineker and Joanna Lumley being “hired” to help brainwash people.
These green conspiracies have flourished, especially in the run up to and launch of climate conference COP26.
Online conspiracy theories can have a harmful effect in the real world, as seen when coronavirus conspiracists attempt to block the vaccine rollout, intimidate mask-wearers in public and even confront COVID-19 patients in hospital.
These groups may also attempt to cause real world disruption over climate change conspiracies, experts have told Sky News.
“Conspiracy theories can affect people’s attitudes, intentions and behaviours,” according to Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent.
“[Conspiracies] historically have been linked with prejudice, genocide, risky health behaviour, climate denial, and more recently some disturbing behaviour related to QAnon and COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
“It may seem like hot air now, but there may be consequences down the line.”
One TikTok video has gone viral in a number of COVID-conspiracy channels on the messaging app Telegram. It shows a man reading an article published in October entitled “Avoiding a climate lockdown”.
The man says: “Under a climate lockdown, governments would limit private vehicle use, ban the consumption of red meat and impose extreme energy saving measures.”
This video has been shared in a number of Telegram groups. One of the groups has more than 13,000 members, many of which appear to be from the UK.
Another user posted a longer version of the video into a group with more than 21,000 members. This extended clip sees the narrator say: “A climate lockdown is just the ultimate, unlimited bail-out system for giant corporations.”
This post appears to have been widely shared with other groups because the clip has been watched more than 69,000 times – far more than the number of people in the group.
Telegram makes it easy for users to share messages between groups, which are also known as channels. This means videos and images can spread widely and quickly with little context.
Talk of climate lockdowns is not limited to Telegram communities.
Broadcaster Richie Allen presents a radio show which regularly pulls in around 20-30,000 listeners on its main platform. His coverage includes claims that although coronavirus is real, there is no pandemic and that the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous.
Mr Allen has increasingly spoken and written about climate lockdowns, including on a recent blog post on his site.
He writes: “Didn’t I say last year that climate lockdowns would be a thing? I said that Sunday driving would be rationed as well as certain foods.”
In response to Sky News’ article, Mr Allen said he believes “climate lockdowns will be introduced at some point in the future and that governments will impose restrictions on people’s movements, including banning driving at certain times”.
He added that he believes that mainstream journalists “failing to do [their] jobs has resulted in the UK turning into a totalitarian state” and that he does interviews with “academics from accredited universities who have said similar, and who dispute the notion that we are in the midst of a climate crisis”.
Callum Hood, from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told Sky News that COVID-19 conspiracists pushing “climate lockdowns” are “justifying their conspiracy theories about the COVID pandemic”.
He says these groups previously claimed that COVID lockdowns were set to become permanent because of “an imagined global conspiracy of the elite would control populations across the world”.
He adds: “As many COVID restrictions are lifted, some of these groups are instead claiming that ‘climate lockdowns’ will be used to achieve the same goals.”
This conspiracy claiming that a rich and powerful group of elites is seeking to control and harm the wider public is sometimes referred to as “the new world order”. Conspiracists claim green policies are now also being used to achieve this – and not just through “climate lockdowns”.
Another conspiracy is that celebrities who support climate activism are stooges working on behalf of this elite group.
In October, actress and environment campaigner Joanna Lumley suggested people could have a rationed number of points to spend on flights and consumer goods to help tackle climate change.
Her comments were widely discussed in the various online spaces Sky News has been monitoring.
The creator of one YouTube video, viewed more than 40,000 times, says: “Once again we have a celebrity who has worked with ‘the establishment’ putting out propaganda”.
He claims the points system will be used to subjugate the population, saying this is “the token system I’ve been talking about that they want to bring in to control you”.
The narrator drops clues about who he believes “the establishment” is: He includes a picture slideshow showing Lumley with Prince Charles, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of the legacy banking family the Rothschilds.
While the photos are displayed, he says: “You can rest assured, she is not speaking for you, she is speaking for them.”
Former footballer Gary Lineker also attracted the attention of green conspiracists last month.
The presenter tweeted praise for climate activist Greta Thunberg, which was the shared in one Telegram channel popular with anti-vaxxers.
The tweet was seen by more than 7,500 people. Users commented underneath, saying “He’s part of the plan” and “He’s brainless. And owned. Wealth distribution scam.” A third comment claimed he had been paid to send the tweet.
The merging of COVID-19 and climate conspiracies is not only happening on social media.
A publication popular among those who are against the COVID-19 vaccine is The Light, a monthly print and online publication.
It launched in September 2020 and its frontpage headlines include “COVID shots kill and injure hundreds” and “The science delusion”.
The first seven editions of The Light made little or no mention of climate change.
However, more recent editions have included standalone articles on climate change – with both the July and October editions this year offering front page stories on the topic.
The prominent articles were headlined “‘Climate Emergency’ driven by faulty models and fake news” and “New research challenges climate change narrative”.
The niche publication has a sizeable online following. Its website receives around 55,000 monthly views according to VStat, an open-source tool which measures website traffic. Although their Twitter page was removed by the social media giant, their channel on Telegram has more than 15,000 subscribers. There is no independent measure of the paper’s print circulation.
In response to Sky News’s article, The Light’s editor, Darren, said: “We think it is criminally negligent of news organisations not to inform the public of what is really going on, but who is going to hold you to account?”
The editor, who does not want his surname published, did not comment on his paper’s climate change coverage and asked why Sky News was not covering the paper’s claims about harmful vaccines.
Quassim Cassam, a professor of psychology at Warwick University and author of Conspiracy Theories, says these theories may result in real-world consequences.
He says: “If you look at the history of conspiracy theories there are lots and lots of examples of conspiracy theories that have done enormous harm. Conspiracy theories that were antisemitic, were involved in the Holocaust, conspiracy theories about AIDS and countless other examples that I could give.”
He makes the point that recent conspiracies may have encouraged people to not take up the vaccine, which leads to more illness and excess death.
He continues: “If, like me, you think that climate change is a really big deal… If that’s what you think then any movement that prevents governments from taking action to deal with the problem is going to make the problem of climate change worse.
“And of course, climate change does kill people and kills people.”
Telegram did not respond to requests to comment from Sky News.
The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.