Misinformation and conspiratorial politics have enjoyed a boom throughout the pandemic. As the fight against climate change ramps up, it is crucial we learn the lessons from the last two years and do not let these divisive political forces flourish.
Major global events tend to ignite a rise in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Over the 20th century belief in conspiracy theories sharply rose in two periods: around 1900 and in the 1940s, according to a study by the University of Amsterdam. The former marked the Second Industrial Revolution and was characterised by the rise of major companies and changing power structures. The latter marked the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War.
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided similarly fertile ground for such trends to flourish, eliciting a number of conspiracy theories. The virus has been described as a “hoax”, while others have suggested that the entire pandemic has been engineered by governments in order to suppress people. Some, more absurdly, have even proposed that the vaccine contains a microchip used to track us.
These untruths provided red meat for those on the edges of the political spectrum. The infamous Anti-Vax campaigner Piers Corbyn received 100 times more Google searches in December 2021 than in March 2020. These fringe voices preyed on the fearful and in turn have caused an incalculable amount of people to reject vaccination and encourage rule-breaking.
This has had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the response to the crisis. One third of Londoners – 33 per cent – are unvaccinated and this is in no small part thanks to the rise in anti-vax propaganda. The US’s Centers for Disease Control state that Covid-related death is 14 times greater if you remain unvaccinated. Just between June and November 2021 an estimated 163,000 deaths could have been avoided from vaccination in the US. That is roughly double the entire death rate of Americans in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
These unfortunate patterns of misinformation, stimulated by social media, are simply a dress rehearsal for the next great battle: climate change. As we approach the net zero targets of mid century, governments will need to ask their populations to make considerable changes to their daily lives just as they did during the pandemic. While this is an imperative to tackle the changing climate, it will be used by those on the extremes as further fuel to their conspiratorial fires.
This deception campaign has already begun, led by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group founded by Conservative MPs Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay. Just this month, Mackinlay announced the appointment of known climate-deniers to his parliamentary team. Last week, Baker was called out by Carbon Brief for misreporting academic findings to argue that onshore wind has been getting more, not less, expensive over the last twenty years. This is not true.
It is important to challenge the route to net zero and make sure people’s lives are made better – not worse – from the transition to a green economy. But, as climate change mitigation moves from rhetoric to implementation, it will become more pertinent than ever to thwart fake news and untruths from surfacing in the news online and off.
If we are not careful, lies and conspiracy theories will begin snowballing over the next few decades – boosting climate denialism and suffocating our chances of decarbonising our economy. Changing human behaviour is pivotal to success in tackling climate change. If we are not able to win the misinformation battle, we will have no chance of winning the war on climate.