If people will believe in QAnon, why won’t they believe in climate change?

by Oct 28, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

In 2017, 65% of Americans believed climate change was caused by human activity. Today, 55% believe it. (Eco Pulse®, Wave 12, May 2020)

In 2017, 65% of Americans believed that climate change was occurring and that it was caused by human activity. According to our latest Eco Pulse® polling, that number is down to 55%. Now, what I regularly tell people about this seemingly distressing news is that the number of actual climate deniers – Americans who believe climate change isn’t occurring at all – stands at only 17%, which is right where it was in 2016. I regularly say, “We need to stop focusing on whose fault it is. If your kid calls you and says he or she has just been in a car wreck, your first question is, ‘Are you ok?’ not, ‘Whose fault was it?’ So, in our messaging let’s just focus on the fact that there’s a widely acknowledged problem and we should all do something about it.”

I do still think that’s the right approach. But as noted in my blog post a couple of weeks ago, I think those of us in the sustainability community have something to learn from the Disinformation Machine. And I’ve found myself pondering the question in the headline of this piece a LOT.

To me, the QAnon conspiracy theory doesn’t even seem like a viable plot for a Hollywood blockbuster. Imagine the pitch to an A-list star: “So, half the politicians in Washington, and many in the entertainment industry, are leading a Satanic cult, kidnapping children and forcing them into a shadowy underworld of sex trafficking. These terrible villains sometimes kill the children to extract their adrenaline in order to make themselves younger and more powerful. You’re the president of the United States, recruited specifically to run for president so that you can destroy this evil plan. Many people in this terrifying cult will try to stop you – accusing you of courting foreign interference in your election, trying to impeach you, even throwing a pandemic your way. But you will not be stopped!”

Can’t you picture ANY star going, “Um, neat. And no.” It just sounds too far-fetched, right? How could that POSSIBLY be a plausible story?

Of course, that’s how some people feel about climate change. As in, “Really? You expect me to believe in some unseen force that’s going to destroy life as we know it, and I’m supposed to give up fossil fuels and meat to save us all? Come on…”

I can see three things the QAnon story has going for it that we need to figure out in the land of sustainability communications:

  • Save the children. That’s a QAnon rallying cry that looks to be pretty effective in pulling more mainstream moms into the fold. Most moms, myself included, are instinctively wired to protect children in peril. This is why it’s imperative that we stop talking about climate change as something that’s going to impact “future generations.” Who the heck are those people? And how am I supposed to have personal feelings about a generation? No, frame the message as “your children and grandchildren.” Co-opt the idea of “save the children” and use it to move people to take action against climate change.
  • Evil/the Devil. I recently finished the seventh Harry Potter book with my daughter. If you’ve read it – or even just heard about it – you know the entire series is about Harry ultimately saving the wizarding world from Voldemort, the incarnation of evil. We get how awful Voldemort is, and we desperately want Harry to win. That same idea has been played out over and over in books, movies and even in country-building – Nazi Germany horrifyingly positioned an entire group of people as evil. QAnon is doing the same thing (and many parallels have been drawn to anti-Semitic tropes). The trick, then, is how do we create an evil target to fight against to move people to action on climate change? Perhaps climate change itself is the evil? Perhaps it’s Big Oil? We need a villain to make our narrative more powerful.
  • Somebody people want a reason to hate. One thing I think is particularly nefarious and powerful about the QAnon narrative is that it holds up celebrities that many in America may want a reason to hate as perpetrators of the atrocities. It’s unpopular to hate Oprah or the Pope. But say you actually don’t like them, for whatever reason. QAnon gives you a reason to justify your hate. And the whole Hillary Clinton “lock her up” thing that’s really old news? QAnon gives you a reason to bring it back and erase any lingering worries about the fact that Trump didn’t win the popular vote. “Who cares if she won the popular vote…she’s evil!” I don’t know who the equivalent is, but the “fight climate change” narrative needs more than a villain – we need a villain that people love to hate.
News of the Week

Climate denial ads on Facebook seen by millions, report findsThe Guardian

Based on research by InfluenceMap, millions of Facebook users have seen ads denying climate change, says a report in The Guardian. A total of 51 ads, viewed at least 8 million times, questioned the reality of the crisis or the need to mitigate it. Facebook’s former Director of Sustainability, Bill Weihl, now at the NGO ClimateVoice, says, “Calling out the climate misinformation issue on Facebook is crucial because the company’s limited attempts to deal with the problem are failing to keep pace with powerful tactics like micro-targeting.” Last month Facebook said it was “committed to tackling climate misinformation” as it announced a Climate Science Information Center. That announcement says, “Climate change is real. The science is unambiguous and the need to act grows more urgent by the day.” Read more…


4A’s Advertiser Protection Bureau tackles misinformationAdweek

The American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB), the brand safety unit launched by the 4A’s in 2018, has launched a new initiative to help agencies and brands navigate the issue of misinformation and disinformation and its impact on brand safety. “When misinformation and disinformation affects such a large number of people at the same time, it also affects brands,” says OMD Executive Director for Emerging Technology Platforms, Israel Mirsky. (Mirsky played a prominent role in developing the APB’s efforts to guard against misinformation and disinformation.) “We felt it was really important to express and highlight the effect that disinformation is having as a result on growth for brands.” Read more…


Engaging Middle America In Recycling Solutions

Before COVID-19, 41% of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys green products, and many could cite an example of a brand they’d purchased (or not purchased) because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. Now, in the middle of the pandemic, the numbers have dropped dramatically. The big question is, what does this mean for engaging Americans in their number one green activity: recycling? Another question is, what does it mean for companies’ sustainability brand?

Our latest report answers these questions by digging into current consumer attitudes, how they impact consumer behavior, and how organizations should respond to ensure recycling – and other green behaviors – keep happening.


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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


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