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From Fringe To Foreground: How The Far-Right Is Influencing Canada's Climate Conversation

By Re.climate
April 2, 2024
On February 28, Re.climate spoke with Dr. Tanner Mirrlees, Dr. Chris Russill, and Geoff Dembicki about the influence of far-right politics on Canada's climate conversation. The panelists dove into far-right tactics and messaging strategies, the networks that move anti-climate politics into the mainstream and provided helpful recommendations for communicators.
In recent years, discussions around climate change and energy in Canada have seen the increasing influence of far-right politics, a trend that’s stirring significant debate and concern among experts and citizens alike. In the most recent webinar hosted by Re.Climate, panelists Dr. Tanner Mirrlees, Geoff Dembicki, and Dr.Chris Russill shared their insights on the impacts of new political voices on the Canadian journey toward a net zero future. Here is what Re.climate heard:


Defining the Far-Right

When it comes to classifying this group, it is important to remember that the far-right is not a homogenous block. As Dr.Tanner Mirrlees explains, “It’s often an umbrella term for individuals, groups, organizations and parties whose ideology and practice is usually further to the right than what has been legitimized as “common sense” or taken for granted as “normal” among mainstream right-wing conservative parties, politicians and voters.”

Dr.Mirrlees shared that most far-right politicians tend to exhibit a combination of ethno-nationalism and an appeal to tradition and hierarchy. They often hold anti-establishment and anti-communist views and, on the more extreme end, share xenophobic and conspiracist views. When it comes to climate change, the far-right tend to deny the science or advocate for the delay of climate action.

Far-Right Politics and Climate Skepticism

Far-right political voices in Canada demonstrate a growing interest in climate denial, shifting their narratives from anti-vaxx and public health topics to climate-related topics. Smith’s recently tweeted photo with Tucker Carlson, Jordan Peterson and Conrad Black should not be surprising. There is a growing alignment in their amplification of doubt and distrust around all things climate-related, including energy transition and climate solutions such as wind and solar and battery power. 

Dr. Chris Russill explains, “[The far-right have] left us with stories about politics that are really about holding their audience in a feeling of not just anger and rage, but a sense of being under threat. When your sense of identity and belonging and existence are threatened, by some ill-defined, often imaginary “other” that have names like ‘globalists,’ politics becomes reduced to maintaining vigilance and being on the lookout for threats from your enemies. And so that’s a hard way to have a conversation about something as difficult as climate change and energy transition.”

Social Media’s Role in Amplifying Far-Right Views

Far-right influencers weaponize the engagement mechanisms of social media, like Facebook and YouTube, to grow and monetize their audiences. They use misinformation about climate change policies to generate anger and distrust, and often present misleading content (including lies) as legitimate simply because it is alternative or transgressive of the perceived mainstream. The panelists point out how this wider influencer-celebrity culture, which has incubated far-right political voices on social media (including a former US president), is rife with misinformation that erodes the boundaries of fact and opinion, of truth and belief, of fraud and free speech.

The panelists warn how this type of online activity creates and reinforces echo chambers. People are increasingly presented with information tailored to their existing biases, hardening their viewpoints and making fact-based dialogue difficult. 

Dr. Mirrlees shared that “some far-right actors are paid influencers that voluntarily engage in the battle of ideas against the ‘green energy opponent’. They use the internet to spread climate disinformation and misinformation, memes, articles, videos, and audio files. They amplify conspiracy theories that frame global climate change as not real, but rather as a liberal left-wing hoax or plot perpetrated by global power elites to control people and undermine their freedom. They leverage algorithms to generate online echo chambers that entice and trap users and ideological communities of doubt and climate change denial. And they also, importantly, frequently log into these platforms to troll, follow, harass, bully, and attack politicians, public servants, scientists, educators, and even journalists.”

The result is what some scholars call an “asymmetrically polarized” media ecosystem, one in which far-right voices find like-minded niches to engage in misinformation on climate denial free from the corrective mechanisms of mainstream journalism or subject-area expertise. The polarization appears especially stressful to young residents of Canada according to a recent report by Justin Ling published by Public Policy Forum. 

Dembicki and Russill discussed the appeal and popularity of far-right ideology. Russill felt it was an unpopular ideology, different in some ways from the libertarian and neo-liberal commitments to market fundamentalism, and often in angry tension with those not having sufficient loyalty to its extremist forms. He suggested there was a highly engaged but limited media market for extremist political content. Dembicki differed, pointing to the widespread appeal of the stories told by influencers like Jordan Peterson and discussed how effectively Peterson appealed to legions of young men, often accumulating massive view counts and audiences.

The Influence of Oil Industry

The relationship between oil and gas producers and far-right political actors is nothing new. Author and investigative journalist Geoff Dembicki shed light on this complicated history while discussing his book “The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change” with the panel.

Dembicki pointed to Sun OIl’s (later known as Sunoco and now Suncor) American CEO J. Howard Pew’s libertarian beliefs and anti-communist stance as driving forces behind his involvement in the oil sands project in Alberta. During our webinar, Dembicki explained that Pew viewed the oil sands operation in Canada as a way of easing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil and ensuring the country had the resources to fight communism around the world. Pew championed the establishment of oil operations in Canada to advance both economic and ideological goals. The fossil fuel industry continues to benefit from political support, capitalizing on denial, doubt, and distrust to delay an energy transition and the adoption of climate protection policies. This relationship reveals a complex web of interests that continues to shape policy and complicates Canada’s path toward net-zero.

Challenges for Communicators

The influence of far-right politics on climate conversations presents significant challenges for climate communicators. According to Dr. Chris Russill, we have seen a shift away from “old-school climate denial” to solutions skepticism. “It’s much more targeted to specific policies and technological solutions for climate change. So you’re not talking about whether the Earth is warming or not. You’re talking about the reliability of renewable energy. Windmills, battery storage, EVs, range on EVs, heat pumps, the effects of nitrogen fertilizer policies, very specific things, like that.”

Combating misinformation and skepticism requires strategies that engage the public, foster understanding, and build consensus on the reality of climate change. Dr. Russill continues, “We’re in an energy transition–we’re going through this moment where Canada is upgrading its energy system. People are upgrading their energy systems, and they’re beginning to ask to what extent they really need the fossil fuel sector, as much as they’ve been told they need them. And they’re starting to ask whether the benefits of the business model of that sector are actually as beneficial to everyone and all of us as they’ve been claimed to be. So for a small number of people, who have integrated ideas of fossil fuels into their sense of self — into their identity very deeply — that question feels threatening to even pose. They get mad. They often don’t like it.” 

So what can communicators do?  Recommendations from panelists include:

  • Advocate for policies on social media platforms to enhance their accountability, such as requiring them to develop and publicize plans to counter disinformation, allow accessibility to non-personal data for academic researchers, and make efforts to prevent the monetization of misinformation. Consider these policy asks by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD).
  • Develop a good situational awareness and a sense of the impacts of misinformation, especially on local climate solutions. Stay abreast of the current narratives and conspiracies circulating in the policy and online discussions, encourage accuracy prompts to inhibit the spread of misinformation, and remember the ‘truth sandwich’ if you decide to engage with it directly.
  • Join the ongoing debate around green populism strategies — learn about the history and ongoing activities of climate justice movements to confront petroleum-nationalism and engage its proponents in conversation.
  • Cultivate well-respected conservative or right-wing messengers to engage and inform far-right audiences that are caught in echo chambers of climate-change denial.
  • “Build a louder megaphone” to amplify the values the majority of Canadians hold around climate action out into the world, including going into the very sites where the far-right is recruiting people and actively engaging in those spaces.
  • Find ways at the community level to tell stories that bring hope to people who are feeling afraid or disengaged — show concrete examples of people they might look up to, who are working successfully in renewable energy, for example.

Further reading and links shared by panelists

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