Going by headlines and poll results, climate change awareness has never been higher. While social media provides fertile ground for propaganda techniques, smear campaigns, fake experts, and conspiracy theories, the increasingly visible proof of climate disruption, along with movements such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, seem to be persuading more people by the day. Climate change denial—the multitude of strategies deployed by the fossil fuel industry and its political allies to downplay the threat of global warming and suggest an ongoing debate on the existence of climate change—appears to be in retreat.
But climate change denial has not disappeared. Instead, it has shifted—its adherents adopting new language and tactics. The denial machine has a new communications strategy and an “us versus them” narrative: not climate deniers versus climate believers but climate “realists” versus climate “alarmists.”
It’s a canny approach to discrediting a legitimate scientific warning. By associating themselves with the term “realist,” those employing this rhetoric reiterate a longstanding principle of climate change denial: that those who warn about the catastrophic impacts of the climate emergency are out of touch with reality, “alarmists” who want us to “panic” rather than “think,” as 19-year-old German YouTuber and prominent climate skeptic Naomi Seibt has put it. “Evidence is growing that climate alarmists—those peddling the delusion that human-caused climate change is destroying the Earth—are growing ever more desperate,” an article at the libertarian and climate denial-promulgating Heartland Institute, which has employed Seibt, declared in January. These sorts of sentences present climate science as emotional and deniers as grounded and rational.
Curious about the development of this new communicative strategy on social media, we recently collected all English-language tweets that contained a set of keywords linked to climate alarmism and realism since the launch of Twitter in 2006. That amounted to a total of 66,561 tweets, with a tweet matching the keywords first appearing in December 2007. While the use of both expressions on Twitter was negligible until 2016 (an average of fewer than 200 tweets per year), the use of the two terms started increasing in 2016. Not until 2019 did the terms climate “realism” and “alarmism” become commonplace: Between January 2016 and March 2020, the use of these terms grew by 900 percent, with the largest yearly increase recorded between 2018 and 2019.
This obviously wasn’t a peer-reviewed statistical study, which would need to investigate how these trends compared to broader trends on Twitter: the growth of tweeting overall, for example. But we were interested in what these tweets, laid alongside rhetoric shifts from prominent institutions and individuals, suggested about the way this narrative was developing and being deployed in reaction to individual events. The jump from 2018 to 2019, for instance, corresponds to another trend: 2019 represented a watershed year for climate action and public awareness on the climate crisis, so much so that it has been defined on more than one occasion as “the year the world woke up to climate change.”
Peaks in tweeting activity on alarmism and realism often correspond to high-profile speeches by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg; the highest level of alarmism/realism tweeting activity came on the day of Greta’s famous “How Dare You” speech during the U.N. Climate Summit. This is consistent with a longstanding pattern others have observed as well: The climate change denial machine always goes in full gear just as global action on climate change becomes a higher priority for government policies, much like the tobacco industry and its misinformation campaign reached a peak as government regulation of it was about to be enacted.
The term “alarmists” has been used by deniers in the past, mostly to denigrate climate scientists. But today, the dichotomy of alarmism and realism appears to be carefully constructed around Thunberg, whom deniers consider a stereotypical “alarmist.”
While some use of the term “alarmist” may be organic, some of it seems more deliberate. Over the past year, the Heartland Institute has enlisted Naomi Seibt as a counter-figure to Thunberg. Seibt denounced the scientists’ and Thunberg’s “climate alarmism,” contrasting it with the “climate realism” of those who, Seibt and Heartland would have it, are merely skeptics grounded in reality. In March, Friends of Science, a notorious climate change denial website, published a video with a title that all too clearly summarized the communicative strategy: “Greta or Naomi: Climate Alarmism v Realism.”
Accumulating proof of anthropogenic global warming and climate disruption within our ecosystems has made it increasingly difficult even for deep-pocketed deniers to argue against emissions-curbing laws. In the face of record-high temperatures, melting ice caps and rising seas, and more intense, frequent fires, floods, and extreme weather events, how do you keep convincing people that climate change is not an immediate priority and also not humanity’s (or, more specifically, the fossil fuel industry’s) responsibility?
Results from our data analysis show that between 50 and 60 percent of the top users most frequently tweeting on climate realism and alarmism follow the Heartland’s Twitter account. The think tank also frequently used the terms both on its Twitter account and website and, around the end of 2019, went so far as to launch the website climaterealism.com.
The Heartland Institute has received extensive funding from the fossil fuel industry. Most of Heartland’s income comes through Donors Capital Fund and its affiliated organization Donors Trust, both described as the “dark money ATM” of the conservative movement for their ability to funnel funding while concealing identities. Greenpeace’s ExxonSecrets reports that the Heartland Institute has received $676,500 from ExxonMobil since 1998 and at least $55,000 from Koch Industries. But the total today might be even higher. A 2019 Influence Map report found that “the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total) have invested over $1Bn of shareholder funds in the three years following the Paris Agreement on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.”
While Seibt reportedly chose not to renew her contract with Heartland as of April 2020 after facing potential fines from a regional broadcasting authority, the Heartland’s YouTuber phase is crucial to the understanding of the climate denial machine. Seibt offered a strong online presence to counter Thunberg, creating the perception of an ongoing debate on climate change and the degree and timing of its impacts. Transforming climate change into a political issue rather than a scientific one, and making sure it stays that way, allows the denial machine—the fossil fuel industry, the conservative think tanks, the ultra-conservative politicians and their media platforms—to exploit public polarization and to keep telling “their side of the story.”
Framing the debate as “realism” versus “alarmism” feeds off emotions and exploits the public’s fear of an altered planet and the sense of losing control over our future. Who doesn’t want to hear that worst-case scenarios—the loss of beloved cities, the collapse of biodiversity and agriculture, deaths through severe weather and starvation—are mere hysteria? But the deniers’ campaigns are fundamentally economical—it’s about power and money. By spreading doubt and misinforming, the fossil fuel industry can delay emission-control measures and continue to pursue its billion-dollar profits undisturbed.
Current denial tactics, from climate to vaccination or the coronavirus, share fundamental dynamics. The issues are rooted in science, but denial makes them political. Experts who have warned about the dangers of the coronavirus and the importance of acting on the science have also been called out as “alarmists”; those who fear for their assets and their position—including the president of the United States—initially denied the existence of the problem and then downplayed its threat, with dire consequences for the people.
This is what denial does: It reshapes reality, like a funhouse mirror. Calling various activists “alarmists” shouldn’t necessarily be seen as softer than outright denial. Calling those worried about worst-case scenarios “alarmists” denies one of the fundamental principles of climate science: that scientists can predict a range of scenarios but don’t yet know exactly which one will play out. Crucially, that’s not the same as saying scientists have no idea what will happen. And as report after report emerges, suggesting global warming is happening faster, not slower, than earlier projections, the case for so-called alarmism is only growing.