climate change democracy

The toxic myth of the climate lockdown

This month Oxford council had to call in the police to deal with abuse and death threats against their staff, after online stories about a ‘climate lockdown’ in the city. I won’t link to the original stories because I don’t want to give them oxygen, but the gist of the conspiracy is summed up in this introductory sentence from one well known climate denial website:

“Imagine if your power mad politicians liked Covid Lockdowns so much, they wanted to continue them indefinitely. This is going to be trialled in Oxfordshire in Britain.”

The articles go on to describe how Oxford Council plans to divide the city up into regions, and then would “lock residents into one of six zones to ‘save the planet’ from global warming”.

It’s nonsense of course. The plans are part of a traffic management scheme to reduce through traffic in congested streets, and shift the city towards a series of ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ instead. No doubt the automobile lobby hates it, but it’s hardly “confining residents to their own neighbourhoods.” Nevertheless, the project caught the attention of conspiracy theorists who have spent the last two years predicting climate lockdowns, and the lie was halfway round the world before the council had typed up the minutes.

The idea of a climate lockdown has been kicking around since 2020, and you can see why it would loom large in the imagination. There’s a big overlap between lockdown scepticism and climate scepticism. Plenty of people are convinced that climate change is a way to take things away from them – their cars, boilers and burgers in particular. I don’t know why governments want to do that, but apparently they do. Lockdown was similarly about government control. As soon as someone noticed that lockdown was clearing the air and bringing down emissions, it was easy to make a paranoid connection. Sooner or later, would governments declare a lockdown for the climate?

Well, no. It’s a very bad and oppressive idea, and nobody wants to do that. There are slim positives to almost every disaster, but few would choose them as a way to deal with a problem. I could lose weight by giving myself food poisoning. I could declutter my loft by burning my house down. And yes, you could in theory confine everyone to their own houses in order to reduce carbon emissions. But nobody was suggesting that as a genuine policy idea. Where did it come from?

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) have studied the idea and tried to trace its origins. Their report suggests that the trouble started with a Guardian editorial in March 2020 that challenged a return to ‘business as usual’. It advocated green recovery stimulus approaches, but it was interpreted by right-wing US commentators as embracing lockdowns to deal with carbon emissions. I don’t remember that article, but I did read the one from Mariana Mazzucato a few months later that specifically referenced climate lockdowns. No matter that her article is about how to act now so that they are never necessary. The idea was out there now, legitimised in the eyes of a growing lockdown sceptic movement.

The fear of a climate lockdown began to circulate online, combining two big fears about government control into one iconic threat. Within weeks it was being discussed on Fox News, where commentators suggested that President Biden was planning a climate lockdown. It was soon incorporated into every other conspiracy, nestling like a jigsaw piece into Q-anon, fringe Christian paranoia about the Pope, and ‘great reset’ scaremongering about the World Economic Forum.

When you’re expecting a climate lockdown, other things start to look like one. Such as traffic reduction strategies in Oxford.

What can we learn from this incident? The ISD conclude that this was a story that orginated in liberal media circles, and was picked up by conspiracy theorists later. Language around climate change stories, especially headlines, need to be carefully worded. Journalists and editors need to be more alert to the ways that language can be “weaponised” by those looking to undermine climate action.

There’s a delicate balancing act here of course. We need to tell the truth about climate breakdown and the urgency of the moment. But we need to avoid phrases that suggest masterplans and control. So talk about the energy transition by all means. But maybe don’t call it The Great Transition and play into the hands of conspiracy. Avoid “overdramatic, portentous or ominous language for the sake of arresting headlines,” the ISD advises. As examples, they cite phrases such as “the Great Reset”, and a Time Magazine front cover that read “The Pandemic Remade Every Corner of Society. Now It’s the Climate’s Turn”.

I think it’s also important that the environmental movement say more about what they’re for, rather than just what they’re against. Talk more about freedom and democracy. Try and identify exactly what it is that people fear when they worry about a climate lockdown, and directly address those things, without judgement.

And so with that in mind, let me just say this. I will never support a climate lockdown. (I know a lot of people working on climate, and I don’t personally know anyone who does support it.) It would be oppressive, destructive and misguided. It would blame individuals for a systemic problem, and blame everyone equally when some people have far higher carbon emissions than others. They won’t, because it’s a terrible idea nobody wants to do – but if the government ever attempts to call a climate lockdown, I’ll oppose it.

But – and this is important for the mental health of people just trying to do their jobs – save your anger for an actual climate lockdown. Not Oxford Council trying to put in some traffic filters.

1 comment

  1. Whilst I appreciate your thinking around avoiding language that might be used against you in future, the reality is you are then creating two issues.

    1. Conspiracy theorists will always find a conspiracy. How information is presented won’t change that.

    2. It allows them to shape narratives and in doing so make it more challenging to communicate problems.

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