November 16, 2023

Climate Delayism is the New Climate Denial

Climate denialism has been the bane of climate scientists and advocates for decades, but in recent years, outright climate denial has seen a precipitous drop in global media coverage. Extreme weather events from record-breaking wildfires to once-in-a-thousand-year floods are now more frequent, thus making complete denial much harder to maintain. It is far too early, however, for climate action proponents to declare a victory over denialism, because actors with a vested interest in fossil fuels have simply decided to shift gears. Denialism may be (mostly) out, but delayism - the idea that climate action is more harmful than good, and therefore we must delay it by any means necessary - is in and it’s running rampant across the globe.

Climate delayism is a tactic that relies heavily on the same themes as climate denialism, including distrust of scientists as well as conspiracy theories around the motives of public institutions, such as the “Great Reset” theory. In recent months, GDI has observed delayism narratives that closely echo arguments put forth by denialists for decades, such as the false idea that wind turbines are disproportionately harmful to birds compared to fossil fuels or the conspiracy theory that the World Economic Forum (WEF) is planning to ban meat and dairy consumption. While some climate groups have celebrated the shrinking influence of denialism, the strong similarity in narratives suggest that delayism simply represents a new form of denialism. 

Delayism allows politicians, businesses and interest groups to claim that they “trust the science” and appeal to constituents who increasingly prioritise climate action while simultaneously letting them off the hook for undertaking any substantial climate action. In September, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to delay a ban on new gas and diesel-powered cars set to take effect in 2030 among other measures, citing “unacceptable costs” to the British public. Sunak called his watering-down strategy “sensible, green leadership,” using the language of climate advocacy to enforce delayism. In response, former US President and noted climate denialist Donald Trump congratulated Sunak for “recognising the SCAM” of the “Green New Hoax,” comments that are indicative of the strong overlap between delayism and denial. 

Delayism also provides conspiracy theorists with fertile ground to spread disinformation aimed at fostering mistrust of scientific institutions, academics and civil society groups that advocate for climate action. In our research, delayism-related conspiracy theories typically allege that climate action is a front for a tyrannical, authoritarian “new world order” run by global elites. These narratives dovetail nicely with popular conspiracy theories like the COVID-19 “plandemic” and anti-vaccine disinformation, creating a convenient route for delayists to bring wider audiences into the fold to agitate against action. Additionally, we have observed that delayism conspiracy theorists frequently target climate proponents with other hate-fueled narratives such as antisemitic smears against Greta Thunberg and Michael Bloomberg. 

Fossil fuel companies are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of climate delayism narratives which provide a convenient pretext for the continued extraction of fossil fuels. Though many fossil fuel companies still peddle denial to influence political opinion, companies are increasingly deploying delayist tactics such as greenwashing to mislead the public on their intentions and true extent of their harm. Greenwashing narratives that make a company’s actions sound more eco-friendly than they really are were pioneered by fossil fuel companies but have now also been adopted by other industries such as retail, agriculture, manufacturing and banking.

Left unchecked, climate delayism may turn out to be a far more dangerous problem than denial. By co-opting the language of climate science and advocacy climate delayists can bring climate disinformation from the fringe into the mainstream. To fight it, we must recognise climate delay as denial by another name and push to disrupt the harmful disinformation that props it up.