Climate skepticism is dead, long live climate skepticism. Since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the challenge to the scientific consensus around human responsibility for climate change seemed to fade from public debate. However, it has resurfaced in a spectacular way on social networks, notably on X (formerly Twitter). In July 2022, this type of speech was carried by 30% of active accounts, according to an analysis by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The acceleration of extreme weather events and world temperature records in July have done little to set back the movement. On the contrary, it is the climatologists who have undertaken to desert Elon Musk's network, tired of the widespread protest fury. Heir to the fights against health restrictions, this revival of climate-sceptical discourse is notably driven by a new generation, more engaged on social networks, who have appropriated anti-totalitarian discourse and do not hesitate to resort to the most improbable conspiracy theories.
Historically, arguments denying climate change or human responsibility for it were carried by three main types of actor: industrial lobbies, conservatives and scientists on the fringes of their communities, as detailed by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in the reference book on the subject, The Merchants of Doubt (Le Pommier, 2012).
Denigrating the welfare state
For representatives of polluting industries, the challenge was to prevent the State, convinced of their responsibility for environmental degradation, from regulating, or even reducing, their activity. For American conservatives, it was about protecting the free market, for both ideological and clientelistic reasons. Between 1972 and 2005, 92% of English-language climate skeptic books published were linked to conservative think tanks. In France, although less politicized and structured, the movement borrowed the same arguments as those deployed to denigrate the welfare state, analyzes Antonin Pottier, lecturer at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, in the journal Natures science societies.
Finally, the third group of climate skeptics was made up of scientists obsessed with the Soviet threat, and convinced that their pacifist and environmentalist counterparts were double agents of the Russian enemy, defenders of its model of collectivist society. “These are people who were in the anti-communist struggle and [themselves] retrained in the anti-climate struggle,” observes Antonin Pottier. In France, these reflections have, for example, been taken up by former minister Luc Ferry, who denounces the “green Khmers”, or by the essayist Christian Gérondeau, who criticizes the “watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside”.
But these three profiles have now taken a back seat. “‘Historical channel’ climate skepticism has become almost out of date,” observes Sebastian Dieguez, neuropsychologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Switzerland) and co-author of the book Le Complotisme. Cognition, culture, society (Mardaga, 2021).
Forgotten, or almost, the institutional discourse which was expressed in suits and ties in specialist magazines and the media. “Contemporary climate skepticism has become intensely ideological,” note political science researchers Renaud Hourcade and Albin Wagener in 2021, in the journal Mots. The languages of politics. It is no longer the business of the big oil majors, but that of conservatives white-hot by the feeling of an existential threat. »
The refrain of opponents of health restrictions
In France, where, according to the Ecological Transition Agency, only 18% of public opinion contests the anthropogenic origin of climate change, this skepticism is found mainly within the sovereignist extreme right with a conspiracy tendency, that of François Asselineau or Florian Philippot.
“Personalities have taken advantage of the pandemic to give themselves an image of defender of freedoms against the “system”. Thanks to this, they have built very powerful digital communities on which they seek to maintain their influence, observes mathematician David Chavalarias, research director at CNRS, head of the Climatoscope project and author of Toxic data (Flammarion, 2022). This created fertile ground for all more or less conspiracy or anti-system theories. »
In two years, the “anti-system influencers” have gone from denouncing the “health dictatorship” to that of the “climate dictatorship”, one of the terms that has exploded the most on , notes a publication from the Jean Jaurès Foundation. They also see the vaccination pass as a prelude to a supposed “carbon pass”, which would limit the freedom of movement of individuals, or raise the specter of “climate confinements”, replaying the refrain of opponents of health restrictions.
“The authors of these speeches were not interested in the substance of the subject, they only adapted the arguments,” points out Antonin Pottier, who evokes “slogans” more than analyses. For some, the theme even appears as an opportunistic turn. “Elpis”, a pseudonymized
If, for the most followed accounts, it is a question of surfing the debates of the moment to maintain their audience, observers of the phenomenon wonder about the deeper motivations of certain activists. Out of 10,000 “climate-denialist” accounts referenced by the CNRS, 60% also relay pro-Russian propaganda.
Nearly half have suspicious behavior similar to that of bots, automated accounts, or trolls, professionals who pollute public debate. “We cannot rule out interference from foreign powers,” judge David Chavalarias. We know that hybrid warfare is one of the favorite weapons of the Kremlin, which seeks to divide populations to destabilize democracies considered dangerous to its power. »
An anxiety fueled by conspiracy
In the United States, these speeches found a particular echo among Trumpist activists. In France, the fear of repressive projects has been linked to authentic episodes of suspension of freedoms, such as the measures taken during the state of health emergency, or of democratic denial, such as the violent repression of the "yellow vests". » or the forceful passage of pension reform.
But this movement is not short of contradictions. While covid-scepticism heavily criticized “Big Pharma,” the term for the pharmaceutical industry, those who have taken the climate-skeptic turn curiously have no word for “Big Oil.” “Whereas we have an incredibly powerful fossil fuel industry, represented by people who have lied for decades. It’s an intellectual debacle,” Sebastian Dieguez despairs.
Instead, they attribute secretly totalitarian intentions to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the planet's main decision-makers. The man who had already been accused of planning a “great reset” with the Covid-19 pandemic would now, according to them, be planning a dystopian society in which milk, meat and cars would be banned, currency would have disappeared, and humans would eat cockroaches. Several disinformation experts suggest we no longer speak of “climatoscepticism”, but of “climatoconspiracy”.
This dark view of society is accompanied by a widespread denial of scientific consensus, the honesty and competence of climate experts, and even the nature of the most striking weather events. “Some of it is science fiction. We hear about lasers or other technologies to explain extreme phenomena! », indignant Sebastian Dieguez, who evokes a “phenomenon of almost sectarian mental secessionism”. Behind its slogans about freedom in danger, climate conspiracy would be the new bar of a mental prison.