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."

Keep reading

It's strange how we treat disinformation around policies to address climate change as a 'social media' problem, while at the same time expressing outrage at China's attempts to interfere in our elections. The former is funded by wealthy (mainly foreigners) individuals, while the latter is funded by a foreign state. Both have local enablers. Yet we don't treat what are largely US-influenced attempts to derail climate policies as foreign-interference.

Good observation but ignorance and happy to be ignorant prevails in Western Canada

Can't say that one's a Western Canada exclusive. Central and eastern provinces are as enamoured of fossil fuels as the western ones, and everywhere people build again on the flooded-out or burned-out sites. Till the insurance company says it won't pay out for that, or the government says No.
I get it that the Heart Wants what it Wants, and the Heart Loves Home. Despite that people die in an incident, those who didn't seem able to chalk it up to who knows what, and run back into the fire ... or dive into the boiling pot.
It's as though any animal survival instinct has been disconnected from senses and reason. And not enough time has passed to attribute that to evolution.
Governments need to get over themselves and their "Sunny Ways" ... and start truth-telling and calling things by their real names. They are doing an excrementally-describably poor job at obeying the law, giving credence to science, and communicating factually, and that leaves "out there" -- i.e., "here" -- a well of indignation and anger in people without the pink lens advantage or the educational advantage that might allow them to understand applied high-school math.
Most nonsense comes down to the education system. Most of the rest of it comes from people in power behaving as though they can't understand facts, and needn't bother with science.
Kudos to the official who understood that the problem was not simply laying out the facts, but meeting people where they were at, and taking it from there.
When people with good educations haven't bothered to get a grip on the facts, there's no good reason at all to expect the un- or under-educated people to do better.

Why on Earth don't people actually read a plan like the one proposed, then actually think, and THEN provide rational comment?

They don't read because it is easier to use social media to find and fuel their thinking. And because they don't read period, anything but social media. I have a 62 year old brother in law who is proud he hasn't read a book since high school. Why bother reading when the internet gives u something to be angry about.

As Max discusses China here and in previous article, we r now on a path to eliminate fossil fuels . China is way ahead of us as their system of government doesn't have to deal with social media bumpf. China installs more renewable energy per year than the rest of the world combined. They are on a path to eliminate coal, strictly due to economics of inexpensive renewables.
I don't like their system of government but they do get things done. Canada doesn't even have an industrial plan to convert or attract industry which can use electricity. And our folks in Kootenay don't appreciate BC electricity is 95% green hydro. If they want wallow in ignorance, let them. They and their children will be left out of the huge cost savings of converting to heat pumps and getting off fossil fuels.

Canada has no intention, let alone path, to eliminate fossil fuels. Canada doesn't even have a plan to *reduce* fossil fuel extraction.
They had billions of trees planted while we were still figuring out how to burn our forests fast enough.

Remember Trudeau's comment about China, how he envied them because of how much easier it is to enact important societal changes? That keeps coming up because the cons obviously spend most of their time vilifying him, which has succeeded quite spectacularly for various reasons, i.e. whatEVER he in particular says or does matters not one jot because he truly can't win, and now includes the Liberals.
What I keep pointing out is just how pervasive that perspective has been when even commenters on here, generally more enlightened/educated than usual have succumbed to a degree, many mature ones still considering him as PET's less intellectually accomplished "kid" who's too effusive and handsome to be taken seriously, or some such, despite the political reality with its truly terrifying alternative. The tribal NDP'ers are the worst because they should be joining forces with the Liberals at this point; it's an emergency, which to their credit they HAVE done federally. But Jagmeet couldn't help himself with this David Johnston thing; he piled on with the undermining. I'd like to think that was part of the Liberal strategy, to out the Bloc guy and Boilievre as primarily being that, i.e. underminers in chief.
I take your point David where "folks in Kootenay don't appreciate B.C. electricity is 95% green hydro....;" I think that lack of perspective on THEIR part is very much part of the whole problem here. The left can't seem to help themselves with their parade of earnest do-good impulses, even if they're a bridge too far in the current super-charged political context and will clearly INVITE the rampant paranoia in that "suite of stupidity" saturating the right wing now. Because the emotional satisfaction on THEIR part that comes from "virtue signalling" is simply too compelling to resist. It's how THEY define themselves, it's THEIR way.
What's become crystal clear after the pandemic and the convoy is that emotion trumps reason with most of us so there are clearly limitations to being open or honest if you want to govern effectively. China does have a BIT of a point here....

The right wing disinformation machine is really scarring me. It is taking over the hearts and minds of people and shutting down any will to progress. Be it on environmental or any other issue. I can't even talk to my sister any more without getting waves of these crazy conspiracy theories tossed at me.

It isn't just the Kootenays. There's three different wingnut movements active in Kamloops. Shawn Jason's _Druthers_ magazine, the "Kamloops Citizens Safety Committee", which claims that the provincial government is going to ban cars, and the "Hands Off Our Kids" group. The latter group had a protest march last week, and were heavily outnumbered by counter-protestors. They are planning another march on Oct. 21.
This stuff gets a lot of money from U.S. wingnut interests, and many of the followers are fueled by crystal meth.