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The spin machine upending the climate consensus

March 9, 2020

Climate law rollbacks in the US and Australia have origins in libertarian think tanks that trade in climate denial. Investigative journalists have exposed how one is now trying to strip climate protections in Germany.

USA Trump zum Pariser Klimaabkommen
Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque

"The Trump administration frequently asked us for advice," James Taylor, chief strategist at US libertarian and climate skeptic think tank, The Heartland Institute, told two journalists posing as PR consultants representing German car and coal companies in late 2019.

"What can we get for €500,000?" one of the bogus young PRs asked, offering an anonymous donation to Heartland on behalf of a large German automotive client.

Taylor soon pitched an anti-climate campaign that drew on Heartland's bona fides helping US President Donald Trump dismantle climate protections.

Heartland has claimed it played a "major role" in Trump's decision to withdraw the world's largest historical greenhouse gas emitter from the Paris climate accord.

Since then, the administration has rolled back the 2015 Clean Power Plan that set strict emissions limits in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference, and which the president — who has claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax and is pictured above minimizing future warming — called "a relentless war on American energy."

Frontal21 investigative journalists Jean Peters and Katarina Huth looking in a mirror
Journalists Jean Peters und Katarina Huth go undercover as corporate PRs: They were soliciting a climate disinformation campaign by the Heartland instituteImage: Frontal21

Climate rollbacks

In Germany, where car and coal companies are facing diesel bans and a coal phaseout by 2038, Heartland is offering anti-climate communications tools that have seemingly succeeded in tempering or reversing climate policies in the US.

As revealed in The Heartland Lobby report resulting from a joint investigation by non-profit newsroom Correctiv and current affairs TV show, Frontal21, Heartland's proposed anti-climate spin campaign would focus on rolling back "prohibitive climate laws" in Germany. It would also push "diesel instead of electric cars, energy from coal instead of wind turbines, industry growth instead of environmental protection."

The meeting between Taylor and investigative journalists Jean Peters and Katarina Huth of Correctiv took place at a climate skeptic event in the shadows of the COP25 climate conference in Madrid in December.

Peters told DW that Heartland's PR strategist offered two scientists who, if "properly funded," would downplay the health impacts of diesel pollution and coal-fired power plants.

The paid scientists and experts were part of what Peters calls a much broader "strategy of disinformation." This included spreading doubt about the science of man-made climate change; and branding climate activists as hysterical "alarmists," while climate skeptics are pitched as the "rational" actors in the debate.

In line with Heartland's principle of "free-market environmentalism," those advocating for fossil fuel cuts are to be painted as "socialists who want to take away your freedom," according to Peters — repeating a strategy Heartland used to downplay the health risks of tobacco for clients like Philip Morris.

To help get such messages across, Taylor offered the fake PRs the services of a young and upcoming German YouTuber and "influencer," Naomi Seibt.


The 19-year-old was also in Madrid during the climate denial side event dubbed the Climate Reality Forum, where she spoke on behalf of Heartland. "These days, what scientists say about climate change isn't really science," she said.

Since her February 28 appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the US, global media has dubbed the self-described "climate realist" as the "anti-Greta," a rising counter to climate activist icon Greta Thunberg. Seibt has embraced the moniker, and during a FOX News interview on the eve of CPAC said that "CO2 emissions are not actually harmful to the planet" while also railing against "climate change propaganda."

Taylor told the undercover journalists that Seibt, whose YouTube videos are now generating upward of 150,000 views, would reiterate "buzzwords" and talking points on behalf of their client.

Seibt is affiliated with Germany's far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party — the country's third largest — that has ramped up its climate denialism in recent times. It has also promoted coal and diesel and demonized renewables.

"The amount of [AfD] social media posts attacking climate solutions has tripled over the last year, with Greta Thunberg being one of the most frequent targets," said Stella Schaller, project manager at adelphi, a Berlin-based environment and development think tank.

Schaller notes that the AfD gets most of its climate talking points from shadowy German climate skeptic association, the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), whose funding sources are undisclosed. The Heartland Institute, which received funding from Exxon Mobil and the Koch Foundation in the past but now funnels most donations through a dark money foundation, runs an annual climate denial conference in Munich with EIKE, which is where the Correctiv journalists first met James Taylor.

Read moreHow right-wing nationalism fuels climate denial 

Outsized influence

In Australia, climate disinformation campaigns with Heartland links have also helped to depress support for climate action and roll back protections.

Nearly a decade ago, Australia instituted a carbon price and a tax on mining industry profits that made it a climate leader. But both those policies were repealed in 2014 following a misinformation campaign headed by Australia's incoming conservative prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott — a poster boy for the Heartland Institute and a speaker at climate skeptic conferences who fearmongered about a "carbon tax." Six years later, Australia is ranked last in climate policy among developed nations.

According to Australian scientist, author and climate analyst Ketan Joshi, a watershed moment in this reversal came in 2011 when Britain's arch climate denier, Lord Christopher Monckton, told mining industry leaders that Australia needed a news outlet akin to Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News in the US to fight "bogus" climate science. Monckton also spoke at the Madrid climate skeptic conference in December. 

Murdoch's Sky News soon became that voice, says Joshi, the news channel hiring vocal climate skeptics as regular political pundits who call out "global warming rubbish." Their voices also echo across Murdoch publications that make up around 70% of the print media market in Australia. 

Naomi Seibt inevitably took her bow on Sky last week, telling viewers that Fridays for Future rallies in Germany had been infiltrated by radical anti-fascist protesters. Billed as the "anti-Greta sensation," she also claimed that "Greta Thunberg never talks about the science," and that climate alarmism will lead to "energy poverty." This despite Thunberg's now famous entreaty to "listen to the scientists." 

'Instilling doubt'

"It's not about the science," says Joshi. "It's about instilling doubt, it's about making people distrust information that they receive — even if it's from a trustworthy source." 

Back in Madrid, Taylor also offered the PRs the services of another young YouTuber, his daughter Tiffany. Her latest video argues that climate change has increased rainfall in Australia, and that the recent megafires were primarily caused by arsonists.

The discredited theory that arson was to blame for the intensity of Australia's unprecedented bushfire season was pushed globally by climate deniers fighting back against the consensus that global heating is the culprit. Donald Trump, Jr, for example, helped the arsonist meme go viral by tweeting about an "exclusive" in Rubert Murdoch's The Australian newspaper that promoted the debunked theory.  

The Heartland Lobby investigation aims to highlight the source of such obfuscation — or as Stella Schaller puts it, the ease with which companies "purchase pseudo-experts, fake news and targeted misinformation on climate change" — to ensure that climate protection rollbacks do not happen in Germany.

But the truth may be no antidote to anti-climate PR. "Fear and hope are often stronger than knowledge," Peters says.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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