Back in December 2019, two conspiratorial worldviews collided as, for the first time, QAnon’s Q suggested his followers should question anew a topic that, by now, has been considered, and reconsidered, for decades: climate change.
“The Paris Agreement on Climate is Another Scam to Ripoff Taxpayers and Enrich the Politicians,” the Q-Drop (the term QAnon followers use to refer to messages they believe come from some sort of government insider who signs messages with the letter Q) claimed, labeling climate action a “con.”
In May, a second Q-Drop riffed on climate change, with a link to a snarky tweet about science and the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg by a would-be House Republican who’d lost her primary race in March.
Both of those Q-Drops were picked up by a report commissioned by a coalition of environmental groups and conducted by the research firm Graphika, which found that a group of vocal climate science deniers began using QAnon hashtags in May — and they haven’t stopped since.
“The QAnon movement hasn’t traditionally covered climate change, but in May, when an influential QAnon account tweeted about climate denial, there was a notable and sustained increase of QAnon content shared within the climate denial group,” Michael Khoo, an advisor on disinformation for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, and Melissa Ryan, CEO of CARD Strategies and author of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete weekly newsletters, wrote in an article published today on Medium.
QAnon sign on a truck at a Trump rally in Columbus, OH, on August 4, 2018. Credit: Becker1999, CC BY 2.0
Asked and Answered
The questions that Q advanced on climate change have been asked and answered — as essentially all of the burning questions on climate science still churning around in climate denial circles have been.
And today, as the impacts of a warming climate are accelerating, it is very clear that we collectively have little time to spare waiting until those who haven’t been keeping up with, or who refuse to acknowledge, the scientific consensus are convinced. The longer the world waits to slash greenhouse gas pollution, the less chance we collectively have to calm the worst impacts of a warming world, according to the world’s top climate experts, and if we don’t, climate change could make all of the calamities we’ve faced in 2020 soon pale in comparison.
Q, however, raised different concerns about climate action.
“Who audits where the money goes?” the December Q-Drop asked, linking to an article about the Green Climate Fund, which provides funding to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to help them meet their Paris Agreement goals.
Nevermind that if you want the audits of the Green Climate Fund alluded to in the Q-Drop, the answer is extraordinarily unmysterious and unglamorous: the audited financial statements are posted online and they’re done by accountants. Nevermind also that the Paris Agreement itself was never fundamentally about the movement of money, but instead involves countries promising to regulate pollution inside their borders — something we’re still continuing to fail to do, both in the United States and worldwide.
And nevermind that the U.S., whose politicians the Q-Drop implies are pocketing money somehow along the way, has nearly walked away from both the Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund. That’s despite the glaring fact that the U.S. has been the world’s worst climate polluter since 1750, meaning that this country has played the single largest role in causing the very problem that the global climate pact attempts to (somewhat) address.
To turn Q’s question around, one very basic question Q has never answered is who exactly they are — and to what extent, if any, they’ve sought to monetize the power and influence they’ve been busy amassing. “At this point, who’s behind it is speculation more than anything,” Ryan told DeSmog.
Another key part of the problem — as ever — is that climate science deniers publicly talk a lot more than others. Whereas in years past, mainstream media was faulted for giving climate science deniers a misleading amount of airtime, today, they’re using social media to achieve the same ends. Graphika’s research found that for every social media post by the vocal climate scientists and environmentalists they studied, the vocal climate science deniers they studied posted four times.
QAnon sign at a Trump rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on August 15, 2019. Credit: Marc Nozell, CC BY 2.0
“On average, they observed that the Climate Denial group was about four times ‘louder’ (number of tweets relative to the group size) than the Climate Science group,” Khoo and Ryan, both advisors to a coalition of environmental groups that commissioned Graphika’s research, wrote.
Clutching at Q’s Coattails
Not only is QAnon taking up climate denial, but prominent climate deniers have been taking up QAnon.
“The other thing we see is that the right needs QAnon more and more to amplify their messaging,” said Ryan.
Take, for example, Naomi Seibt, a young German YouTuber who has questioned climate science and who has worked with the Heartland Institute, a U.S. think tank and notorious promoter of climate science denial.
“So do you want a beautiful planet that you can stare at but that’s it? It’s just like looking at a TV screen,” the Express, a UK newspaper, quoted Seibt as saying in May. “As a climate realist, I don’t deny that we don’t have some negative impact on the planet. But I don’t think that it’s related to CO2 emissions.”
Seibt briefly rose to broader prominence following a Washington Post article about her in February — though she remains far less well-known than Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist who the Heartland Institute has sought to compare with Seibt. “She reportedly chose not to renew her contract with [the] Heartland [Institute] in April 2020 after facing potential fines from a regional broadcasting authority,” DeSmog’s profile on Seibt notes.
In addition to speaking about climate, Seibt has publicly spoken about her views on race and religion. “Seibt’s rise as the young face of climate skeptics has drawn scrutiny of her past remarks. On Friday, video circulated of Seibt’s remarks after a shooting at a German synagogue,” Bloomberg reported on February 28. “’The normal German consumer is at the bottom, so to speak. Then the Muslims come somewhere in between. And the Jew is at the top. That is the suppression characteristic,’ she said in comments first reported by The Guardian.”
In July, the trial of that synagogue shooter, charged with murdering two people and the attempted murder of dozens more, began with the accused shooter stating that he felt he was “on the bottom rung of society” and that he was “superseded,” as he sought to justify horrific crimes.
As in Germany, white supremacists in the U.S. have increasingly engaged in racially motivated “mass shooter” armed attacks on unarmed people. And QAnon followers have also begun committing violent acts. “I think it’s also important to remember that the FBI has declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat,” said Ryan, “and QAnon has inspired kidnappings, it has inspired at least one murder, it has inspired arson, there is a real danger from these folks who are drawn to this and become just embroiled in it.”
Naomi Seibt speaking at a Heartland Institute event.
The teenage Seibt has previously denied allegations of anti-Semitism and her mother, an attorney whose clients have reportedly included politicians from the far-right German AfD party, previously told The Guardian that Naomi is not a supporter of the far-right. “’In fact, I was commenting that I think it’s wrong to comment on different races and to view them differently,’ Seibt said,” in response to questions about her views on race, The Guardian reported. “’We should just all be regarded as the same.’”
More recently, in addition to talking about climate change and other topics, Seibt has begun posting about QAnon. “As of right now, I don’t consider myself an active part of the QAnon movement,” Seibt said in a YouTube video posted earlier this month and whose title refers to two QAnon themes, “but I am on the side, watching and evaluating for myself what I think is verifiable and what to me seems too far out there.”
“I do not consider myself an active part of the QAnon movement, nor will I ever attach a label to my activism,” Seibt said in response to a question from DeSmog about whether her position had since changed, adding that she also does not identify as a white nationalist, part of the far-right, or an anti-Semite. “But as long as the QAnon movement continues its peaceful protest against matters of injustice, I consider it a positive contribution to the global political discourse.”
“I do not view any ethnicity or religion as superior,” she said, adding that she identifies as a libertarian. “I promote a reduction of centralised state power so that individuals may act freely. The premise for that freedom, of course, is that the individual does no harm to his or her fellow citizens.”
Social Media Fail
Khoo and Ryan pointed to the ways that social media companies for years failed to conduct the most basic scrutiny of information that they publish online and allowed all sorts of demonstrably false information to be repeated in an endless rumor mill online.
“Facebook has policies that let Trump lie uninterrupted,” they wrote. “And when climate deniers get a simple fact-check on Facebook, members of Congress themselves have sent letters to company executives to complain.”
All of this can, of course, have significant policy consequences in the real world.
“The danger for environmental advocates and for the planet is that QAnon could be the energy that stops a big push for any meaningful climate action,” Khoo told DeSmog. “If a Green New Deal is the next thing, we could see QAnon followers serving as the foot soldiers in that war.”
There’s also the risk that fossil fuel companies and trade organizations might jump on the QAnon bandwagon, inspired by the conspiracy theory’s popularity. Last week, President Trump praised the movement, claiming not to know much about it except that “they like me very much.”
“If QAnon becomes more mainstream,” Ryan said, “I could see a scenario where industry groups that are invested in climate denial and fossil fuels and such will be incentivized to embrace QAnon or rely on those tactics and networks.”
The other risk is that conspiracy theorizing, when mixed with social media, can not only bring in adherents, it can also raise money.
“The new addition to this history of climate capitalism is the capitalism behind the clicks, the monetizing of disinformation that happens on all the platforms,” Khoo and Ryan wrote. “Virality is central to the profit model, as are ads. Whether or not they’re true is secondary, from a business perspective.”
And the reality is that QAnon has been growing, with NBC News reporting earlier this month that Facebook discovered QAnon accounts and pages have attracted over 3 million member and follower accounts.
Last week, Facebook removed nearly 800 QAnon groups and took some steps to restrict QAnon hashtags and other social media. That follows moves by Twitter to take down roughly 7,000 Twitter accounts and designating QAnon as “coordinated harmful activity.”
Some see that as far too little, far too late. “They’ve had three years of almost unfettered access outside of certain platforms to develop and expand,” Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, told MIT Technology Review in July.
As of press time, Facebook and Heartland have not responded to questions from DeSmog.Main image: Pittsboro Halloween weekend League of the South, 2019. Credit: Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0