An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; AFP; DPA; Factcheck Vlaanderen; Factual; Faktisk; Källkritikbyran; Knack; TjekDet
Wind turbines, a symbol of climate sustainability and one of the main renewable sources of energy, are being linked to serious environmental harm by a growing disinformation narrative. Especially in northern European countries, wind farms have been recently targeted by numerous false claims that their presence is harmful to wild animals, as well as that they cause pollution and environmental contamination. The number of these unfounded claims appears to be growing in the last few months and this narrative is gaining traction, sometimes exploiting very emotional false stories or leveraging on the alleged harmful effects of the presence of wind farms.
False narrative #01: Wind farms are deadly to animals
Reindeer, cows, dolphins, and other marine mammals are suffering because of wind turbines, according to some false stories. Although these animals are even more threatened than others by the severe effects of climate change, several claims – verified as false by independent fact-checking organizations in Europe – suggest that they are being harmed by less polluting technologies and energy sources.
A particularly striking mis-disinformation case involved reindeer. In Germany, a letter published in a local newspaper, and then circulated on various social media platforms (including in a Dutch translation), falsely claimed that wind farms in Norway cause deformities in newborn reindeer, sometimes leading to abortion, because of the “low-frequency waves” emitted by their turbines. According to several experts, the claim is unfounded. The story tapped into environmental and animal welfare concerns, by exploiting the public perception around reindeer – often seen as symbols of natural wilderness – and some current events about them, fabricating a direct link between wind energy and harm to wildlife.
In November 2023, in Denmark, a popular Facebook post alleged that dolphins and other echolocation-using marine animals were beaching themselves because of vibrations from offshore wind turbines, although this has been excluded by scientists. In recent months, very similar baseless claims about whales going «crazy» because of windmills were made by former U.S. president Donald Trump.
In Sweden, other false claims (the latest dating back to August) suggested that there is a connection between the presence of wind farms and high levels of PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”) in livestock. It all came from an episode in Denmark in the fall of 2022, when it was discovered that 180 cows grazing on coastal meadows had levels of PFAS in their bodies too high to be sold as food. A Swedish newspaper claimed that the high levels came from wind farms west of Denmark, saying that PFAS were a component of the paints used to cover the blades of wind turbines. Although both authorities and researchers denied that the substances found in the cows could have come from the wind turbines, the claims spread on social media and entered the political debate. A member of the Swedish Parliament raised the issue in a written question to the Minister for Climate and the Environment.
False narrative #02: Wind farms pollute the environment and/or damage communities
In addition to the alleged harm to animals, other false stories about the release of contaminants into the environment by turbines also continue to cast a shadow over the environmental integrity and impact of wind farms. In Norway, for example, it has been falsely claimed that some dismantled wind turbines in Sweden weighed two tons less than when they were installed. According to this false story, which is very similar to another one circulated in 2022 in the Netherlands, this difference in weight is due to the loss of tons of microplastics, thus heavily polluting the surrounding environment. But in fact, even if they can release microplastics because of their functioning, these would be around 200 grams per year, which would be equivalent to roughly two kilos in ten years. Those unfounded claims exaggerate the pollution from wind turbines by about a thousand times.
In some cases, the alleged toxicity of wind farms is blamed not on their components, but on their maintenance. In the case of frost, for example, it has been alleged that authorities use chemical agents to de-ice them. This false story has recently circulated in Germany and Sweden, and it is consistent with an emerging disinformation narrative that has used the arrival of the cold season and lower temperatures to spread unfounded messages about climate change and technologies to combat it.
From a broader point of view, in recent years wind energy and its structures have also been targeted by various other false content, sometimes with a conspiratorial bent. For example, in 2022 they have been blamed for causing droughts, while last summer it has been claimed that some European countries were going to expropriate citizens’ private property to make room for wind turbines. Moreover, wildfires in the Greek region of Rhodes were falsely described as intentionally started to make way for wind farms, thus potentially spreading social alarm and instigating anger.
Disinformation on climate-change developments: the New Denial
Disinformation on the climate crisis is changing. 2023 has been the hottest year on record, with several natural catastrophes (droughts, floods, wildfires) occurring all over the world. Therefore classical climate denialism, although still present and widespread, may now be less effective in its purpose, because of the more evident consequences of human activities on climate. For this reason, another kind of denialism is emerging: “New Denial”, as recent research has called it. As highlighted also in various EDMO fact-checking briefs, it seems that new false narratives on climate issues are increasingly targeting laws, institutions or activists, as well as countermeasures (such as more widespread use of electric vehicles, renewable energy sources, etc.) aimed at countering the crisis, in order to spread confusion on the issue and undermine support for climate action while the transition to more sustainable sources of energy appears more urgent than ever.
In this context, wind farms are probably an easy target. They have been a subject of debate, even among environmentalists, due to some concerns about the aesthetic impact on landscapes but also more tangible environmental issues. For instance, there have been discussions about the potential impact of wind turbines on bird migration routes and local ecosystems. These concerns are based on a scientific approach and aim to tackle specific issues related to the use of renewable energy sources. But they have been twisted and exploited by disinformers to spread misleading messages, fearmongering and campaigns of false news aimed at polarizing political debates.
«People are divided these days and this is one of the issues that defines their identity. If you are against progressive green-left liberal political views you will be susceptible to claims and images that make fun of or bash green technology or perhaps climate activists» says Åsa Larsson, journalist and fact-checker at Källkritikbyran, a Swedish fact-checking organization. «There are a lot of political messages that use memes and easily chewed information nuggets, that sometimes are wrong or don’t show the whole picture». And because of the energy shortage due to a lower import of Russian gas, says Larsson, «the discussion about what kind of electrical power is best was intensified after Russia invaded Ukraine and it played a big role in the Swedish elections». The same could happen in the campaign for the upcoming European Parliament elections, with a high risk that mis-/disinformation will pollute the debate on this and other crucial issues.
Enzo Panizio, journalist at Pagella Politica/Facta News and EDMO
Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica/Facta News and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities
Photo: Flickr, Steve