“Exxon Knew” by Johnny Silvercloud is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ben Goldson

As public concern over climate change grew towards the end of the 20th century, a sprawling network of denialist groups emerged. Financed by major fossil fuel companies, the denialist lobby put forward their own experts to cast doubt on the reality of human-induced climate change. Even as the support from industry began to wane in the 2010s, denialism remained a political force, entrenching itself as a core tenet in the world of conspiracy theories.


Part One: 1984-2007

Climate denialism as an organised force emerged out of an existing network of various groups which shared an opposition to government regulation. During the 1980s, think-tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute had been set up to oppose calls for the regulation of commodities such as tobacco. In doing so, they supported the attitude of the Reagan administration, which relied on industry-friendly experts to dispute the notion that scientists were in agreement about the harms caused by the specific issue.

Despite these attempts, the 1990s would see increasing public awareness of climate change, with the Clinton administration initially signing the United States up to the Kyoto Protocol. In response, the Competitive Enterprise Institute established the ‘Cooler Heads Coalition’, which gathered together various similarly-minded groups, such as the Heartland Institute, to successfully lobby against ratification. Having won this initial battle, the denialist lobby would continue growing into the 21st century, putting forward its own experts, such as Fred Singer, an Austrian-American physicist already known for heterodox beliefs on topics such as the harmful effects of tobacco smoke.

A fellow of the Heartland Institute, another free-market think-tank which had been an early member of the Cooler Heads Coalition, Singer founded the ‘Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’ in 2003, which challenged the work of the United Nations’ similarly-named Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The NIPCC’s initial work would be superseded by the ‘International Conference on Climate Change’, an ongoing series of meetings supported by the Heartland Institute. First held in 2008, the ICCC would bring together denialist groups from around the world. These included the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, which gained notoriety for taking legal action against Crown Research Institute NIWA over its climate change models in 2010.

These initial attacks on climate science were heavily sponsored by industry, with ExxonMobil becoming known as a particularly important source of funding. Then, in 2008, after handing out an estimated $23 million since the 1990s, the fossil fuels giant announced it was reducing its support for denialism. The move was part of an industry shift away from outright denial to a softer ‘sceptical’ position, likely in response to the growing weight of public opinion. Over a decade on, major fossil fuel companies now claim to have embraced the science while quietly lobbying against specific legislation, with ExxonMobil’s website currently including a section on ‘climate solutions’. Climate denialism was well-established by this point, and would continue to survive.


Part Two: 2008-2023

Already linked to conservative politics, climate denialism saw an expansion of influence through the Tea Party movement in the 2010s. Although much of the industry was softening their stance, wealthy individuals remained an important source of funding, particularly the industrialists, and Tea Party benefactors, Charles and David Koch. Along with the Kochs, the Heartland Institute was also linked to the insurgent movement inside the Republican Party, with Heartland staffer John O’Hara setting up a Tea Party branch in Illinois. On the electoral side, denialist candidates associated with the Tea Party would receive donations from companies such as BP.

By 2016, Republican voters had swung behind Donald Trump, an ardent denier whose decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was reportedly influenced by the Heartland Institute. On the campaign trail, Trump had claimed that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the People’s Republic of China, reflecting the growing trend of conspiratorial beliefs in denialism.

Behind the industry-friendly facts and figures of the early 21st century, climate denialism had long had an element of conspiracy thinking. Decades later, the increasing acceptance that scientists are in agreement on climate change appears to have required the expansion of these beliefs, with the idea that climate change is a falsehood propagated by shadowy elites now a common theme in the sprawling mythology of modern-day conspiracy theories. Although the exact motivation for this varies according to the specific conspiracy, the general notion is that climate change regulation is part of the encroaching tyranny, such as the creation of a world government or forced depopulation.

Moreover, the general decentralisation of politics through social media has created a new generation of climate denialists, who are less tied to established think-tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Instead, a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified ten organisations responsible for the bulk of the interactions with denialist content on Facebook. Of the ten, only two were noted as historical recipients of industry funding, while the rest included newer outlets such as Breitbart News and The Daily Wire.

With industry pulling back from denialism, their support has been replaced by a self-funding system based on online monetisation, with the ten outlets earning an estimated $5.3 million in ad revenue from March to November 2021. Driven by these changing factors, climate denialism has moved on from the conferences and think-tanks of the early 2000s, towards a new generation orientated towards social media. During a heat wave in Europe earlier this year, news reports of temperatures over 30°C were angrily disputed online. Most notably, on X, formerly known as Twitter, conspiracy theorist Robin Monotti claimed that the media was basing their numbers on ground temperature, which is typically higher than air temperature. The lengthy tweet was seen 1.8 million times according to X metrics, fuelling further attacks from other figures who continue to promote denialism.

Monotti, also an executive producer of River of Freedom, a sympathetic documentary about the 2022 Wellington protest, reflects the recent developments in climate denialism. Although they echo the arguments put forward in the earlier years of the 21st century, they are less bound by institutional forces such as the Reagan-era think-tanks. Instead, they act as more independent operators, which is may be something of a silver lining. Whereas denialism as a political force was once organised towards a shared goal of opposing specific policies, it now exists as one of many conspiracies, which can often compete with each other for attention. Simultaneously, the fact that climate denialism has adapted to survive in a digital era means that it remains relevant at a time when the effects of the sciene it rejects continue to push their way into public debate.


Ben Goldson is a research assistant for Ngā Ara Whetū at the University of Auckland.

The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and are not necessarily the views of The Big Q.