Railing Against the Wind

A well-orchestrated disinformation campaign targets offshore wind projects

By Pam Reynolds

Earlier this year, worried residents crowded into a meeting room at the Hyport Conference Center in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

“Let’s begin today’s event by trying to uncover the truth,” announced Hyannis radio host Ed Lambert, who opened the event.

Over the next few hours, a parade of representatives from community groups – one from as far away as Virginia – ascended the stage. A member of Save Greater Dowses Beach said the purpose of the day-long event was to “give voice to citizens that oppose all or some aspects of ocean wind development.” Questions about offshore wind development, she said, have been “constantly derided as misinformation.”

The president of the anti-wind citizens’ group Green Oceans followed, hastening to explain that fossil fuel companies do not fund her organization. “Our mission is to protect the ocean and biodiversity because that ensures our own survival,” she said. “A healthy ocean is one of our best defenses against climate change.”

Her sentiments were words that almost all of us would agree with. Who doesn’t want a healthy ocean? Or diverse ocean wildlife? As extreme storms pummel our region and New England waters heat up faster than anywhere else, who among us isn’t concerned by climate change?

But here’s the trick: Many of the arguments posed by local anti-wind groups have been borrowed directly from fossil fuel-funded think tanks like the Texas Policy Foundation. That’s according to a wave of investigative reporting and two 2023 reports released by Brown University. (Green Oceans was among the groups specifically referenced).

Borrowing Bil Oil Talking Points

The reports, produced by Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab, a student-faculty partnership, show how conservative think tanks, funded by oil and gas interests, have seized upon pro-environment rhetoric, especially concern for whales, as a subversive path to turning public opinion against offshore wind. Their secret weapons on that campaign? Local citizen groups like Green Oceans.

“They are unsuspecting foot soldiers in the bigger effort to maintain the status quo, which is fossil fuel dependence in the U.S.,” says J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown and executive director of the Climate Social Science Network. “And that’s at the expense of our children’s future.”

“The most significant threat to whales and a healthy ocean is climate change, just as the most significant threat to human health and the vitality of our communities is climate change,” says Kate Sinding Daly, senior vice president of law and policy at CLF. “The reality is, we need to quadruple the clean energy coming into New England to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels so we can have a clean, safe, and healthy environment for future generations. Offshore wind is a critical component of that.”

Tilting Against Windmills

Scientists agree that offshore wind is one of our most viable renewable energy sources. It is reliable, local, and readily available. When coupled with diverse sources of electricity and grid-scale storage, it could quickly supplant fossil fuels, preventing further harm to eco- and social systems. According to NOAA, there are no known links between whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities. Most importantly, the uncertainties around possible threats to our ocean from offshore wind must be weighed against the scientifically established certainties of the harm burning fossil fuels already inflicts on marine life.

This we know for sure: Climate change is sickening our oceans and killing sea life, from coral reefs to fish species to dolphins and whales. The latter – already under threat from humans – face increased perils as food and habitats shift in a warming ocean.

But oil and gas companies stand to lose billions if the offshore wind industry succeeds. Today, natural gas provides about 50% of New England’s power. Should the region replace oil and gas with renewable wind power, it would substantially decrease its carbon pollution. That would also thin the fat wallets of fossil fuel companies that currently power and heat homes and fuel cars. (It’s worth noting that the same companies have understood since as far back as 1954 that they were causing climate change – and spent millions denying responsibility and delaying climate action.)

With their record-high profits at risk, it’s no surprise that fossil fuel companies would invent monsters, railing against wind turbines like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Working through the same think tanks that helped them deny the scientific truth about climate change for decades, they have joined forces with a host of anti-renewable organizations. One includes the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, a network of groups that profess concern for the marine ecosystem. The Coalition was spearheaded by the Caesar Rodney Insitute’s David Stevenson, a former DuPont executive. As recently as 2019, the Caesar Rodney Institute received funding from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Energy Alliance.

Parroting Oil Industry Talking Points

According to the Brown University report, a diverse array of anti-wind organizations are “supported by well-funded, national organizations with ties to the fossil fuel industry and dark money.” They are part of an orchestrated effort to foment public opposition to offshore wind by leveraging groups like Green Oceans. While these groups may not receive funds directly from oil companies, they parrot oil industry talking points that undermine the transition to clean energy. Indeed, Brown’s Climate and Development Lab used Green Oceans as a case study of how anti-wind groups, unwittingly or not, have adopted the arguments of the fossil fuel industry. These local groups operate within information networks that “sensationalize” and magnify the dangers of offshore wind while failing to acknowledge the known and, by now, widely experienced hazards of burning fossil fuels.

“Ultimately, their obstruction delays the transition away from fossil fuels to the detriment of all of us,” says CLF’s Daly.  

Chris Wells, an associate professor and core faculty member with Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability who studies misinformation around climate change, agrees that the biggest repercussion of false information is inaction.

“What we’ve already seen is that misinformation on climate has weakened our resolve,” says Wells. “People believing lies is as big of a problem as people feeling a lot of uncertainty about what’s true. And so, our capacity for collective action on this problem has been systematically undermined.”

Navigating the Discourse of Climate Delay

Most people find it difficult to navigate a fog of disinformation – and that’s intentional. According to the Brown analysis, anti-wind groups use four broad rhetorical strategies. They emphasize the downsides of action on climate change, redirect responsibility for it, push non-transformative solutions, and, in the end, often endorse surrendering to climate change. In doing so, they offer up fake experts, cherry-pick facts, and adopt conspiracy theories.

Boston University’s Wells says fossil fuel companies add to the confusion by paying for print and online articles that mimic news content. These articles offer a veneer of credibility while intentionally misleading the public about the viability and scalability of renewable energy sources.

Misguided Outrage that Goes Viral

For those on to the fossil fuel industry’s game, the sound and fury around offshore wind can simply add more noise to our days. But in today’s social media-saturated world, false arguments buoyed by misguided outrage too often go viral, and plenty of people believe what they see and hear. Emotions get riled up even more by “grassroots” groups that intentionally pit two causes people care about – endangered whales and our warming climate – against each other. This is especially frustrating because important issues, including offshore wind and regional energy planning, need thoughtful consideration informed by science, not fear.

“The claims being made about the impacts on whales and ecosystems are not supported by the science,” affirms Roberts. “These claims are scary and have played on people’s fears… That’s why it’s important to remember {offshore wind} is a mature industry in Europe, which has 6,000 turbines. The world didn’t come to an end over there.”

CLF’s Daly agrees. “A lot of what people are hearing about offshore wind is rhetoric derived from the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t have the interests of New Englanders at heart.” CLF is committed to scaling up offshore wind in ways that don’t hurt marine life. Says Daly, “The reality is that with good science and careful planning, we can build offshore wind in a way that gets clean energy to grids quickly while also protecting our marine resources and the people who depend on them.”