From early in the pandemic, commentators were quick to make connections between Covid-19 and climate change. In March 2020, for example, Scientific American explained ‘How COVID-19 is like climate change’; while the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, said that ‘nature is sending us a message’, the content of which, apparently, was that ‘both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end’. The idea was that the Covid response might serve as some kind of model or inspiration for tougher climate-change policies. The same month, the director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, Andrew Norton, argued that ‘Acceptance of the need to make sacrifices and accept restraints’ in response to coronavirus might carry over to the ‘huge shifts in regulation and behaviour that are needed to address the climate crisis’.
At a moment when Covid restrictions were new and temporary, the tone was upbeat, hopeful — the ‘sacrifices and restraints’ perhaps didn’t yet feel too onerous. With hindsight, however, calls for ‘huge shifts in regulation and behaviour’ sound menacing. As detailed in Laura Dodsworth’s 2021 book A State of Fear, the UK government’s approach to Covid communications was informed by behavioural psychology, using fear and guilt to promote public compliance with stay-at-home orders and other measures. In March 2020, the UK’s Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours was already advising that ‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’.
More recently, among the many revelations from the ‘Twitter files’ which emerged after Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform in 2022, numerous instances have come to light of social media companies either collaborating with US government agencies, or bowing to pressure from official agencies working with academics and NGOs, to monitor, control and censor information that ran counter to the official Covid narrative. This included discrediting dissenting experts and stifling debate, ostensibly because misinformation about the disease or about vaccines was harmful and dangerous. Such efforts at narrative control were consciously extended to suppress information known to be true, on the grounds that any departure from the officially-sanctioned position could incite ‘doubt and uncertainty in authoritative voices’. The campaign group Big Brother Watch has revealed similar efforts in the UK, involving a number of government ‘anti-disinformation units’ which are ‘tasked with poring over our digital expression and pressing for the censorship of speech deemed “misleading” or “inappropriate”’.
The leaks and exposés about how media and communications were used to manipulate and control the public during the pandemic are the focus of ongoing controversy, and rightly so. Yet a very similar approach persists, virtually unchallenged, in the sphere of climate communications. Indeed, key features of Covid narrative control were pioneered in relation to the environment.
In June 2023 the newly-launched BBC Verify project, dedicated to ‘countering disinformation’, sharply denounced TikTok for failing to ‘clamp down on climate change denial’. In particular, the BBC highlighted a 2017 video of US businessman Dan Peña describing climate change as a ‘fraud’ without ‘providing any credible evidence’. The BBC’s complaint was that in not removing this and other videos that ‘conflict with [the] scientific evidence’ TikTok was failing to enforce its own policy of banning content that ‘undermines well-established scientific consensus’. Peña’s video was apparently only the tip of the iceberg — the BBC team found ‘hundreds of videos … making false statements about climate change’, which they then reported to TikTok — though they noted with some satisfaction that ‘65 accounts that had been posting wrong information about climate change in breach of the platform’s guidelines were permanently removed’ as a result of their work. The BBC also appears to want to encourage amateur anti-disinformation efforts: one of the Verify authors, Marco Silva (who holds the title of ‘BBC Climate Disinformation Specialist’), has also written articles lauding ‘The “ninjas” fighting climate change denial on Twitter’ and the ‘volunteers keeping deniers off Wikipedia’. Our duty as news consumers, it seems, is to denounce and report ‘deniers’ and other offenders.
Perhaps some might shrug off attempts to remove a six year old TikTok video, or even turn a blind eye to the permanent closure of 65 people’s online accounts. The point, though, is the larger shift taking place — of which BBC Verify is merely one symptom. As Big Brother Watch notes, ‘the right to speak freely has never been a right conditional on being aligned to proclamations of truth or the consensus of authorities’. Today, it increasingly is.
The BBC Verify article gives a sense of how different actors seek to position themselves as arbiters of truth against those spreading ‘misinformation’. Among the interviewees for the article was Paul Scully MP, a minister responsible for the UK government’s Online Safety Bill. Although initial proposals to restrict ‘legal but harmful’ material have been dropped, critics have pointed out that the Bill still presents a ‘significant threat to free expression’ justified in the name of ‘safety’. Another interviewee was Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, described as ‘a UK counter-extremism think tank’. Working in partnership with NGOs, companies, regulators, governments and the European Commission, it appears to be part of what Michael Shellenberger calls the ‘Censorship Industrial Complex’. Having produced numerous briefings on the Covid-related ‘infodemic’, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue argues that ‘some who have opposed Covid containment measures’ have now become ‘conspiracist culture warriors’, peddling disinformation about their ‘new bogeyman’, a potential ‘climate lockdown’.
Though Covid narrative control may be the immediate inspiration for monitoring and banning climate-related ‘misinformation’, calls to delegitimise, even to criminalise, ‘climate deniers’ long predates the pandemic. Comparing ‘climate denial’ with ‘Holocaust denial’, British environmentalist Mark Lynas suggested in 2006 that there should be ‘international criminal tribunals [for] those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths’. The same year, David Roberts, a writer for the climate website Grist, suggested ‘some sort of climate Nuremberg’ for deniers. Perhaps such rhetoric is to be expected from self-righteous campaigners, but it takes on a more serious tone when it finds its way into the judicial sphere. US law professor William Tucker has made a legal argument for prosecution, for example, while in Britain, Philippe Sands KC has argued that a ruling by the International Court of Justice would ‘settle the scientific dispute’ about climate change.
Sands made this case at a high-profile symposium on ‘climate change and the rule of law’ in 2015, sponsors of which included the UK Supreme Court, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UN Environment Programme. There was a ‘broad emerging consensus’ on the causes of climate change and the policies necessary to address it, Sands argued, but these were still ‘subject to challenge in some quarters, including by scientifically qualified, knowledgeable and influential individuals’. It seems absurd to propose that the authority of judges should silence the claims of people who are ‘scientifically qualified’ and ‘knowledgeable’ in order to ‘settle the scientific dispute’. If nothing else, it is singularly unscientific. Yet even without the intervention of the courts, eminent scientists have been ostracised and cancelled if they stray from the official line. Science writer Roger Pielke Jr., for example, has detailed how ‘academic blacklists’ are compiled by groups such as Skeptical Science. One blacklisted ‘climate misinformer’ is Pielke’s own father, a distinguished atmospheric scientist. Another is Professor Judith Curry, formerly chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, who was effectively hounded out of academia under pressure from activists and fellow academics. Naturally, this has a wider chilling effect on scientific debate.
Years before ‘following the science’ became the mantra of Covid policy, it was the watchword of climate campaigners. It sounds like it should be a good thing, but in practice it means enforcing the authority of a single narrative while delegitimising dissent as ‘misinformation’ or ‘extremism’. Likewise, the ‘psychological’ methods advocated by the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) back in 2020 drew on an extensive history of similar approaches in environmental communications.
‘Changing Behaviour Without Changing Minds’
The environment was the first area where behavioural interventions were designed and adopted in Britain, on the grounds that simply providing information about environmental problems did not necessarily lead people to adopt the desired behaviours. The government’s 2005 ‘sustainable-development strategy’ introduced ‘a new approach to influencing behaviours based on recent research’, including a ‘toolkit for climate-change communications … designed to provide a model for future behaviour-change campaigns on other issues’. The document announced that Tony Blair’s administration was ‘establishing a “behaviour change” forum across government departments’ so that the ‘comprehensive behaviour-change model for policymaking’, which had been developed for environmental issues, could be ‘applied in all priority areas’.
A key person behind this new approach was David Halpern, who in 2004 had already offered recommendations to Blair on how ‘behavioural interventions’ could provide ‘alternative, and perhaps more subtle, ways in which government might affect personal behaviour’. Halpern was then chosen by David Cameron to head the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the so-called Nudge Unit) when it was established at the Cabinet Office in 2010. The Behavioural Insights Team has since grown into a global company, but Halpern remains its president and continues to offer advice to government. During Covid, he served on both SPI-B and SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Today, Halpern and the Behavioural Insights Team are working on How to Build a Net Zero Society, offering ‘a fresh consideration of how incentives, standards, nudges, labelling and public information can be brought together to drive decarbonisation as quickly as possible’.
As we saw during the pandemic, the repertoire of official communications includes intensive emotive messaging backed with coercion and threats of punishment, but the core concept of behavioural ‘nudge’ techniques is quite different. The idea is to work indirectly, altering the ‘choice architecture’ and providing cues so that people spontaneously make the ‘right’ choices rather than having to be overtly persuaded or cajoled. The aim, as a Cabinet Office paper, MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, explained in 2010, is ‘changing behaviour without changing minds’. The premise of behavioural approaches is that, as the MINDSPACE authors explained, a rational or cognitive model ‘based on influencing what people consciously think about’ is of limited use. Instead, it is argued that since ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices’, the focus has to shift ‘away from facts and information’ and towards shaping people’s ‘more automatic processes of judgement and influence’.
The nudgers usually claim that the public is already basically on-board with whatever the policy goal happens to be, but just need some prompting to adjust their choices. The How to Build a Net Zero Society report, for instance, claims that ‘consumers want this change in their own lives, at least in principle’. The problem is simply ‘confusion about what actions they should take to make a difference’. The authors cheerfully suggest, for instance, that ‘By using publicly available data (e.g., postcode or vehicle license plate), individuals could receive tailored suggestions, including information and tips to guide their sustainable actions’. Yet the year before the UK government set its ‘net zero’ carbon target in 2019, the Green Alliance — which has been attempting since 1979 to ‘ensure that the political priorities of the United Kingdom are determined within an ecological perspective’ — conceded that ‘climate change is of low importance to voters compared to other issues’. The focus of its 2018 report, Building the Political Mandate for Climate Action, was how to get round the fact that ‘for the overwhelming majority of people, climate change is a non-issue’.
Similarly, a 2021 report from Counterpoint, a consultancy advising the EU how to promote the European Green Deal, acknowledged that ‘there is little public consensus on climate policy’. Counterpoint was heartened that the Covid pandemic had ‘revealed citizens readier than they once were for profound changes’, and that ‘attitudes are most easily “refashionable” in people whose attitudes and emotions are “up for grabs”’. In order to counter the ‘singular lack of engagement and enthusiasm’ for the EU’s green agenda, the report argued, the key is to ‘emotionally curate the aims of policy to appeal to the public’. This is to be done mostly online, via memes, because for ‘emotional (and therefore “triggerable”) communities’, memes are ‘a key weapon in semiotic ideological warfare’. This all begins to sound a lot like covert manipulation of public sentiment in order to produce desired behaviours, while bypassing the normal forums of public debate and democratic discussion.
The news media might be expected to act as one such forum, but they are committed to the same agenda. The UK broadcaster Sky, for example, commissioned a report from the Behavioural Insights Team on ‘nudging viewers to decarbonise their lifestyles’. The report admits that at least some viewers are likely to object, and offers advice on what type of content ‘makes viewers … less likely to argue with information they initially disagree with’. Children’s programming is seen as one promising route: the advice is to ‘use kids’ content to encourage positive environmental behaviours’ since children are ‘important influencers on their parents’. Another indicator of how this sort of nudging media content works is provided by Albert, an environmental organisation focusing on the global film and TV industry. All British broadcasters are signed up, and international partners include Sony Pictures and Netflix. Albert’s ‘Planet Placement’ initative urges programme makers to ‘shift mindsets and make positive environmental behaviours mainstream’ by ‘embedding positive behaviours’ and ‘creating content that normalises sustainable behaviours’.
The idea of ‘embedding’ and ‘normalising’ behaviours across all kinds of programme content is typical of the nudge approach, which often emphasises the importance of making desired behaviours visible. As the Behavioural Insights Team explains, ‘Visibility plays a crucial role in encouraging the adoption of sustainable measures … [and] can raise awareness and promote a contagion effect’. The strategy of contagion or virality — presenting something as the new norm and hoping that larger groups of people will copy the minority who initially take it up — is why electric vehicles have special green patches on their number plates in the UK, and it is why face masks became universally mandated during the Covid pandemic despite initial advice that they were unnecessary and ineffective in most settings.
The Behavioural Insights Team claims that ‘when a quarter of the population publicly advocates a behaviour, such as electric vehicle adoption or a plant-based diet, it can lead to a significant acceleration in its prevalence’. Other environmental campaigners set the target even lower: Extinction Rebellion, for example, aims to mobilise just 3.5% of the population, based on research showing that this is a sufficient proportion to effect change. In seeking to recruit the 3.5%, activists are advised to give a ‘short, powerful talk … inviting people to feel rather than think the crisis – so we can push past denial and on to action’. Though Extinction Rebellion talks of ‘people power’, its minoritarian change strategy and feelings-based activism is quite a departure from the traditions of democratic debate.
Traditionally, political communication was understood to involve engaging and convincing the public with distinctive ideas or policies. For projects of large-scale social change, the informed consent of the majority was thought to be necessary in a democratic society. Today, winning people over to a set of ideas through rational discussion is plainly out of fashion. The goal is simply compliant behaviour. Dissent will be filtered out. Desired behaviours will be modelled and normalised. If we wish still to be treated as rational political subjects, we must refuse to be ‘nudged’ and we must refuse to be silenced.