Aimee Watson knew as soon as she stepped into the packed Kaslo, B.C., community hall on a late April evening that the next few hours would be an exercise in empathy.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, false conspiracies had started circulating about the Regional District of Central Kootenay's (RDCK) climate action plan. As board chair, Watson was expecting residents to lob questions. But she had not anticipated the "angst" that permeated the room.
Some residents claimed the document was a veiled attempt by the government to control them and undermine the local culture. They believed the plan would ban essential items like wood stoves and force the purchase of expensive electric cars and home retrofits.
In reality, the plan covers 16 issues, like supporting local farmers and reducing the risk of wildfires. Most of the initiatives are funded through grants — not taxes — and many are already taking place through pre-existing programs. The document is a guide meant to help the regional district better act on climate; it does not empower the government to force anything on residents.
"That meeting was definitely probably one of the most challenging meetings I've ever attended as an elected official," she said. A lot of people were "really, really upset," making it nearly impossible to communicate and answer questions because she had to "manage the emotions first."
"We weren't able to actually get to the context of the plan because we first had to address … the perspective of (government) control over people's personal lives, which is very much a pandemic outfall and was the predominant conversation that was happening."
Those emotions boiled into headlines earlier this month after the RDCK postponed 17 open houses about the climate plan, citing unspecified threats to staff. The decision highlighted what experts say is the growing reach of online climate disinformation on disrupting essential efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
The uproar over the RDCK's climate action plan "needs to be understood as part of a wider climate lockdown narrative that has been circulating in Canada for a couple of years now," said Carleton University professor and disinformation expert Chris Russill.
That "climate authoritarianism" narrative posits that climate change will be used as an excuse for governments to severely restrict people's lives and is often closely linked to pandemic-related and anti-vax conspiracies. It has traditionally been popular with "populist voices on the extreme right" targeting provincial or federal governments, he said.
The struggle to fight disinformation and "climate authoritarian" conspiracies is impacting how well local governments can tackle the climate crisis.
"In a post-pandemic world, there is this increasing tendency and ability of the right to latch on to the idea of climate lockdown as a means of social and political and very physical control," added Shane Gunster, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University. "To the extent that people are, you know, marinating in these alt-right ecosystems, that can be something that's very difficult to challenge."
But the uproar in the Kootenays is "a really interesting permutation” of climate authoritarianism because it focuses so heavily on local climate action and is trying to disrupt public engagement at the municipal level, Russill said.
Canadian municipalities can influence about half of Canada's emissions, making their efforts key to reaching Canada's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. They also often have more granular emissions data that can help more effectively craft policies that lead to actual changes on the ground, according to a recent article by Sen. Karen Sorensen.
The RDCK plan exemplifies the kinds of detailed and locally adapted actions that municipalities can do to successfully push forward. First announced in 2019, the document is the result of years of community consultations and rewrites by staff. Early versions were "very urban-centric" and "took an 'electrify everything' approach" ill-suited to the region's rugged geography and unreliable grid, Watson said. The newer version at the heart of the recent disinformation storm was specifically designed to support the region's geography, infrastructure and unique culture.
That didn't stop "a small percentage" of residents — up to "15 per cent of the population" in some areas — from organizing to push back against the plan, said BC Green Party candidate and former Nelson councillor Nicole Charlwood. Many were also involved in other protests aligned with right-wing or libertarian conspiracies, such as the Freedom Convoy or the anti-masking and anti-vax movement.
"There's this expectation from a lot of people that live around here for privacy, for self-determination, and I think through COVID that kind of developed into an anti-government" sentiment common among the U.S. right-wing, she said. "There's a lot of influence from the American media that's being consumed here."
The RDCK climate plan exposed this "dark underbelly," which surfaced in the tensions Watson witnessed at her April meeting and the RDCK's warning about unspecified threats. It also coursed through online efforts to fight the plan, such as a Facebook event about the regional government's initiative (it was cancelled after the district postponed the open houses).
One group even organized a Zoom meeting to discuss how the climate plan "may herald in 15-minute cities and the social credit system" and to form "action groups to ask questions as there are definite game's (sic) afoot." In a statement announcing its decision to postpone the open houses, the RDCK explicitly stated it "is not planning for 15-minute cities," a conspiracy that posits governments are planning to prevent residents from going more than a 15-minute walk from their homes.
The plan also does not describe anything remotely similar to a "social credit system," a reference to a social monitoring system developed by the Chinese government to monitor its citizens. Conspiracists have falsely claimed the Canadian government wants to implement a similar system.
"It's literally a bit of a machine that can't stop," said Charlwood.
The disinformation web extends much further than the Kootenays, said Russill, the Carleton University conspiracy expert.
There is an international network of "professional influencers, strategists and extreme-right politicians targeting an array of climate-related themes," he explained, citing Jordan Peterson as an example. The right-wing public personality and ex-University of Toronto professor routinely attacks climate policies with disinformation and conspiracies.
The social media platforms like Facebook where these types of conspiracies emerge and circulate don't reveal how their algorithms amplify and circulate disinformation. Without seeing the ways "engagement and the circulatory flow of information works," it is nearly impossible to link specific influencers or politicians — and the financial interests backing them — to online climate disinformation and conspiracies, he said.
And as the conspiracy-fuelled grassroots movement against the RDCK's climate plan showed, the struggle to fight disinformation and "climate authoritarian" conspiracies is impacting how well local governments can tackle the climate crisis.
"I have real sympathy for people that have this fear on the municipal side (where) there's this unclear picture of a vague populace threat that's going to disrupt your Twitter feed and harass you or your council meeting," she said. "And I think that is affecting the ways they're thinking about public engagement."