MSNBC broadcast a recent segment this week titled, “Follow the Money: Fracking Billionaires Funding Anti-Renewable Energy Propaganda Cartoons.”
In it, they describe how the Wilks brothers “started a fracking company that they sold for over a billion dollars a little more than a decade ago.” The profits from that fracking megamonstrosity now fund PragerU, a right wing organization that is promoting substantive climate disinformation. And, while other groups like the Koch brothers are renowned for financing campaigns against climate or environmental regulations that might get in the way of their huge fossil fuel profits, MSNBC seems particularly incensed about the Wilks brothers.
While we at CleanTechnica have already looked into some background about PragerU in a previous article as well as Mike Huckabee’s publication company that targets kids with climate disinformation, PragerU’s insidious efforts to falsely inform young students have resurfaced in the media, and, so, we’ve decided to continue our own investigation.
Two texts — the body of videos from the fracking billionaires and the MSNBC online segment — are interesting artifacts about climate messaging, propaganda, and meaning-making. Secondary textuality — a Guardian expose, a Mother Jones debunking — and tertiary textuality — readers’ comments — make this a messy and fascinating mélange that speaks to what’s at stake as the fossil fuel industry experiences an existential crisis.
Let’s check out some of the most interesting parts of the whole shebang, shall we?
We”ll start with the falsely named PragerU (there is no university affiliation with the organization) animations, which are meant to be instructional technology that guide students toward a keener understanding of the natural world and their place in it.
In one clip from a PragerU animated video, a child utters, “I just hear that solar and wind are the way to save the planet.” A male with white lab coat, bushy mustache, and round glasses responds, “Unfortunately, many of the people who talk about how great they are for the environment give misleading information and leave out very important facts… For starters, even when the sun shines bright, and windmills spin fast, wind and solar just aren’t powerful enough to power the modern world. The energy from them isn’t robust enough.”
The video is logically constructed, which makes it really, really scary. It sets up an “if, then” argument, a hypothetical syllogism, that acknowledges climate claims (“how great they are for the environment”) but immediately refutes them (“give misleading information and leave out important facts”). The “important facts” that the fracking billionaires want kids to know are in themselves disinformation pretending to illuminate disinformation. Blatant and dangerous disinformation sets up convoluted opinions framed as truths and contests scientifically-proven evidence.
Partial truths are deceiving yet persuasive. Yes, it’s correct that current renewable energy cannot power the entire world. However, solar and wind are leading the rapid expansion of the new global energy economy, and, according to the IEA, the world will have enough solar PV manufacturing capacity in 2030 to comfortably meet the level of annual demand envisaged in the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. To fail to acknowledge the exponential growth of such upcoming renewable energy capacity is to deny children a vision and hope for their future lives.
And, duh, the renewable under discussion is not “windmills,” it is “wind turbines.” Using an anachronistic term calls to mind Dutch wooden shoes on small community inlets rather than the root word “turbo” and its associations with technology and power. For example, Rampion offshore wind turbines comprise an 80m tall tower, a nacelle for the generation equipment, a hub, and 3- 55m long blades. When vertical, the tip of the turbine blade reaches 140m. In total the rotor diameter is 112m. The image of power and US renewable capacity is one that the fracking billionaires don’t want to inspire.
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit says the videos will rebalance schools that have been “hijacked by the left.” In actuality, cloaked as innocuous and benevolent rhetoric, the videos have great potential to harm children. As Bill McKibben offers in a September 12 Substack editorial, “We are truly in the midst of the climate battle now, all around the world, with new developments daily in the ongoing fight between activists who want to speed up the transition to clean energy and the fossil fuel industry that wants to slow it down.”
MSNBC describes this type of video as “conservative style propaganda styled as educational material for children.” The implications are that “climate change is no big deal, that renewable energy does not really work, and otherwise peddles misinformation and bunks science about the very real climate crisis.” The videos, MSNBC reiterates in its segment conclusion, were made possible by a pair of fracking billionaires who “have poured more than $8 million into Pragar’s coffers over the last decade.”
The Guardian jumped in on the PragerU disinformation, noting, “PragerU’s influence in pushing false narratives about climate change and other far-right shibboleths.” Tax records indicate that the rightwing media outlet”has become a fundraising Goliath, raking in close to $200m from 2018 to 2022 with big checks from top conservative donors.”
Comments in reaction to the MSNBC segment run the spectrum from amazement to agreement.
Many critiqued the fracking billionaires, who have professed, “Our rights come from the creator.” The divine intervention to which the Wilks constantly refer seems incredulous to one reader, asking,”Oh yeah? And where do interstate highways come from?”
Another called out the fracking billionaires who “won’t put in the work to transition their cash cow from old ways to new ways.”
Someone asked, “But, but…I thought conservatives believed in the “free market?”
Insightfully, one comment suggested that the Wilks “know what will sell with his donors and he gives them exactly what they want.”
Turning it back to the children, another person outlined how “these guys must have bought the big tobacco playbook. They’ll be fine, though, because they’re rich…and old. They won’t have to suffer the consequences of their blind greed, but our children will.”
The Wilks now own ProFrac, which purports to “lead with honesty and act with integrity.”
UNICEF argues that the “disinformation ecosystem can only be adequately addressed through a multi-pronged approach by a range of stakeholders that cooperate globally to protect children.”
In 2009 the writers of the BBC political satire The Thick of It coined the term, “omnishambles,” meaning “a situation, especially in politics, in which poor judgment results in disorder or chaos with potentially disastrous consequences.” These videos are the epitome of omnishambles. MSNBC concluded itss segment by stating, “Dan and Ferris Wilks: remember these names.”
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