Duncan Enright never imagined he’d get death threats over a plan to reduce grinding city traffic.
But it is exactly what happened to the local politician in the UK, who found himself deluged with abusive messages on social media and by email over his involvement in a proposed traffic filtering trial run in the city of Oxford.
The plan, designed to reduce the use of snarled-up city roads during peak traffic times, would require residents to get permits to drive through the filters, enforced by cameras, on six key roads.
The accusations flung at Enright were wild and varied, and mostly from people with no connection to Oxford, he said. Many were from outside the UK.
They claimed he wanted to confine people to their neighborhoods and accused him of being part of a malign international plot to control people’s movement in the name of climate action.
“It was quite alarming,” Enright told CNN, “I haven’t really had anything like that before in my many years in local government.”
Enright had been swept into a conspiracy theory, fast gaining pace around the world, which has rebranded plans to cut traffic, reduce air pollution and increase walking and cycling in cities as “climate lockdowns.”
Oxford has become a flashpoint, in part, because its traffic filtering plan has been conflated with a separate proposal in the city to create “15-minute cities,” the main focus of the conspiracy theorists’ ire.
What are 15-minute cities?
The concept, however, is pretty simple: Everything you need should be within a roughly 15-minute walk or cycle from your home, from health care and education to grocery stores and green spaces.
The aim is to make cities more livable and connected, with less private car use – meaning cleaner air, greener streets and lower levels of planet-heating pollution. Around a fifth of the world’s human-caused, planet-warming pollution comes from transportation, and passenger cars make up more than 40% of this.
Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne University in France, is credited with first coining the term 15-minute cities, but the broad concept is not new.
“This idea takes inspiration from many urbanists, starting from Jane Jacobs, who in the last decades have been advocating for compact, lively, and therefore more walkable urban environments,” Alessia Calafiore, Lecturer in Urban Data Science and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh.
It has gained traction internationally. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo based her 2020 reelection campaign, in part, on a plan to create 15-minute cities. The city has banned cars from parts of the Seine, added hundreds of miles of cycling routes and created mini parks.
Even some US cities have taken up the idea. Portland introduced 20-minute neighborhoods more than a decade ago, while O’Fallon, Illinois, recently published a strategy to “grow from a typical suburban community to a community with everything you need within 15-minutes.”
Pandemic lockdowns helped boost the popularity of the concept, as people, confined to their neighborhoods, were forced to reevaluate their local area.
“We have become more aware of how important living in well-served areas is,” Calafiore said.
Yet now, the mere mention of 15-minute cities online will bring a slew of angry commentators.
“That planning has become the conspiracy theory of 2023, who’d have thought?” asked Alex Nurse, a lecturer in Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool, who was deluged with messages after his recent article about 15-minute cities in the Conversation.
“My inbox died,” he told CNN.
Birth of a conspiracy theory
So, how did this fairly mundane strategy become a flashpoint for a spiraling climate-related conspiracy theory?
For years, certain actors within the fossil fuel industry have been trying to whip up anger about climate action by rebranding it as “climate tyranny,” said Jennie King, head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank focused on disinformation and extremism.
Pre-2020, however, they struggled to get traction, she told CNN.
That changed with the pandemic.
A series of media articles arguing we should rebuild a post-Covid world that could maintain the drops in planet-warming pollution were seized upon to turbocharge a narrative claiming governments wanted to limit freedoms in the name of climate action.
The World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” initiative, billed as an effort to tackle inequality and climate crisis post-pandemic, fanned the flames.
The term “climate lockdown” started swirling around, pushed by right-wing think tanks and climate-skeptic media figures. From there it filtered down to more extreme conspiracy communities, King said, including QAnon-affiliated groups and anti-vaccine groups.
Fox News took it up, along with high-profile climate deniers.
Ordinary people were swept along, too. The pandemic left millions with genuine trauma and real concerns about government overreach, King said. “And that has been weaponized by a vast ecosystem of bad actors.”
Disinformation is opportunistic
The idea of 15-minute cities fits neatly into the “climate lockdown” conspiracy theory, partly because it is easy to spin that way.
“The conspiracy theorists are right that you can’t make a real city out of self-contained enclaves – those would just be villages,” Carlo Ratti, an architect, engineer, and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, told CNN.
But it misinterprets the idea, he said. It “gives people the freedom to live locally, but does not force them to do so.”
Yet “disinformation is opportunistic,” especially when it comes to climate, King said. Anything can become a lightning rod for manufactured controversy and when an issue starts to receive attention, a host of different actors “flood into the space,” she added.
In December, Canadian clinical psychologist and climate skeptic Jordan Peterson posted a tweet attacking 15-minute cities: “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea.”
In early February, UK politician Nick Fletcher raised the conspiracy in Parliament, calling 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept” and claimed they “will cost us our personal freedom.”
And last weekend, online theories spilled into real life protests, as thousands of people, many from outside the area, took to the streets of Oxford to protest the traffic filtering and 15-minute city proposals.
There are, of course, plenty of criticisms of 15-minute cities, including their potential to fracture cities, furthering existing inequalities between richer and poorer areas.
And Enright, in Oxfordshire, acknowledged local people have legitimate concerns about the traffic filtering plan. They will continue to consult, he said.
But this successful spinning of a huge conspiracy theory, by miscasting the intentions of 15-minute cities, has worrying long term implications for climate action, King said.
Governments, both local and national, may find it very hard to implement any policies that even touch on the climate crisis, she warned. “They are the most vulnerable at the moment to this enormous surge of hostility and public mobilization.”