Our 2020 Highlights: COVIDenial, Polluter Backlash, and Big Oil's 'Forest Fever'

Our 2020 Highlights: COVIDenial, Polluter Backlash, and Big Oil's 'Forest Fever'
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Climate change took a bit of a backseat this year, there’s no denying it. The Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikers and Extinction Rebellion protesters stepped out of the limelight, for the most part, as all eyes turned to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

That’s not to say the issue disappeared completely, of course, with a “green recovery” from COVID-19 quickly becoming the go-to rallying cry for campaigners.

And despite the much-anticipated COP26 UN climate summit being pushed back till next year, the government has nevertheless made a flurry of climate-friendly announcements in recent weeks: a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, an end to public money being used to support overseas fossil fuel projects (albeit with some exceptions), and an upping of the UK’s 2030 emissions target from 57 to 68 percent.

There’s still a gaping hole between the UK’s lofty ambitions to be a “climate leader” on the global stage and the policies needed to get us there, though.

And it’s exactly that mismatch between words and actions that DeSmog exists to shine a light on – cutting through the spin and delving into the heart of the story.

In that respect, this year has been no different, even if climate change has slightly slipped down the political agenda.

So without further ado, here are some of our highlights from the past 12 months.

Weaponizing COVID

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK, commentators with a history of dismissing the science and dangers of climate change quickly switched their focus to COVID-19.

Some claimed the virus was no worse than the flu or was being used by global elites to impose a “New World Order” and enslave the population. DeSmog kept track of the key groups and individuals pushing these messages in an extensive series on “COVIDenial”, covered by the Guardian and Independent.

Meanwhile, others used the public health crisis as an opportunity to argue that fears about climate change were overblown by comparison, and policymakers had become distracted by it. Here, they said, was a real emergency.

Big Oil’s pivot into forestry

The fossil fuel industry doesn’t – at least nominally – go along with that kind of denial any more, however responsible they might be for the problem.

What oil and gas companies have been doing instead is claiming they’re putting far more effort into reducing their climate impact than they really are.

One of their latest strategies, a DeSmog investigation found in July, is to invest in tree-planting and “forest offset” schemes. And not everyone’s convinced.

While experts agree these “nature-based solutions” can go some way to helping absorb human-caused emissions from the atmosphere, they’re no substitute for widespread, systemic change in the fossil fuel sector. And campaigners are concerned they’re being used to greenwash oil and gas companies’ sluggish progress on that front.

Dirty investments

It’s that lack of significant change that has led climate activists to call on institutions to move their money out of fossil fuels, sparking a global movement backed by organisations worth over $14 trillion.

Faith institutions have taken a leading role in fossil fuel divestment campaigns – though not all have got on board just yet, as DeSmog revealed in an investigation co-published with the New Internationalist magazine.

We looked into investments held by Church of England dioceses and estimated they owned nearly £18 million worth of shares in fossil fuel companies. Many have been working to reduce their exposure to oil and gas and increase their holdings in clean energy, but our research shows they still have some way to go.

Deregulatory trade deals

It’s been easy to forget during the pandemic that the UK government has been busy trying to secure trade deals around the world, as we prepare to leave the EU at the end of the year (in theory, at least).

We decided to dig into who exactly has been advising the Department for International Trade, led by Liz Truss, and it turns out the network of economically libertarian groups based in and around 55 Tufton Street is pretty well represented, with two figures from the Institute of Economic Affairs sitting on its Trade and Agriculture Commission.


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Others include former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and former Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, recently handed a peerage by Boris Johnson.

We also took a look at the powerful US agribusiness lobby groups, some with histories of climate science denial, hoping to flood the UK market with products currently banned under EU law, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef.

Backlash against clean air measures

An investigation we published in October looked at another set of lobby groups – this time on the issue of air pollution.

Our months-long research highlighted 20 trade associations and pressure groups, mostly hailing from the transport sector, that have been pushing back against the introduction of Clean Air Zones in cities across the UK.

As well as mapping their multiple connections to politicians, we found one of the influential trade bodies – Logistics UK – had boasted to its members that it had successfully delayed the schemes for “as long as possible”. Those members include numerous supermarkets with a relatively “green” reputation, and the story was picked up by the Independent and the Times.

Climate-friendly pesticide companies

Greenwash was a theme in another investigation we carried out recently, highlighting the increasing tendency of the pesticide industry to market itself as a “climate champion”.

Whereas pesticide giants might have previously shied away from discussing their environmental impacts, they’re now trying hard to convince the public and policymakers that they have a key role to play in a “net zero” world.

We found that although the two strategies the industry is particularly keen to push – “regenerative” and “precision” agriculture – could bring climate benefits, campaigners are concerned they’re being over-hyped and don’t avoid the need for more fundamental changes to the high-input, fossil-fuel dependent form of agriculture we currently rely on.

We launched a new database on the key companies and trade groups featured in the investigation – and did the same for the groups lobbying against air pollution measures, too.

Database updates

Alongside these flashy new databases, we continued to add to and update our main Climate Disinformation Database, which provides information on prominent individuals and organisations who dismiss mainstream climate science or argue against the need for action.

So, if you want to find out a bit more about the online magazine Spiked (and the donations it’s received from the US oil magnate Koch family) or the German teenager Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “anti-Greta Thunberg” by some media outlets, you know where to look.

And we’re hoping to add lots more profiles in the coming year to keep you up to speed on the commentators, lobbyists, and politicians slowing down action on climate change.

But first we’re having a break. And we hope you’re able to have one too.

See you on the other side.

Our 2020 Highlights: COVIDenial, Polluter Backlash, and Big Oil's 'Forest Fever'
Rich Collett-White is Deputy Editor of DeSmog. He joined the organisation in December 2018 as a UK-focused investigative reporter, having previously worked in communications for the climate charity Operation Noah. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists.

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