The ‘vile’ abuse of Eamon Ryan has chilling effect on climate action

Climate denial content has increased, undermining climate solutions and casting doubt on climate science

Eamon Ryan spoke about online attacks not just impacting him or his party, but 'poisoning the well of public thinking about our agenda'. Photograph: Evan Treacy/PA Wire

When Eamon Ryan this week announced his intention to step down as Green Party leader and TD, he spoke openly about the “relentless” and co-ordinated attacks he and his party receive, particularly online. He mentioned “vile” statements about his recently deceased father and noted how the “level of invective has only increased”, especially in the past year.

The past year has felt particularly bruising to those working or aspiring to work as politicians. The local and European elections felt especially nasty for candidates, with researchers documenting at least 36 incidents of “politically motivated violence, intimidation, harassment or threats”. These included separate physical assaults on the husband of Independent councillor Tania Doyle and the Green Party’s Janet Horner who were attacked while putting up election posters.

It also included at least 11 instances of serious online abuse. One example is the doxxing of Limerick mayoral candidate Daniel Butler, where his address was posted on TikTok along with threats to smash his windows and harm his family, including his two young children. These documented incidents are likely just the tip of the iceberg, as other candidates have not made the abuse they experienced public.

Ironically, Ryan’s resignation was met almost instantly with several social media posts from Ryanair taking aim at him and his colleagues – posts that Joe Duffy described as “nasty”. One depicted the Minister wearing a “dunce” hat.


The airline and the Department of Transport that Ryan leads have been locked in a policy battle for some time, with the airline objecting to measures it feels might curtail its business, but that the department believes are necessary to meet our climate obligations.

Minutes before these tweets were sent out, Ryan spoke about online attacks not just impacting him or his party, but “poisoning the well of public thinking about our agenda”. Here Ryan hits on something that is often lost in discussions on online harassment of public figures – that personal attacks can be intended to influence public policy, and to discredit, undermine or silence policy advocates.

Nobel Peace Laureate Maria Ressa has spoken about the impact of co-ordinated online influence operations intended to undermine her work as a journalist pursuing accountability in the Philippines. She rejects the assumption that “if you don’t like something, if a lie is told about you, you just don’t like something, mute it. If it’s a lie that is tearing down your credibility, does muting it help?” Online platforms, she argues, have “enabled an environment where my government has been able to file 10 arrest warrants against me in less than two years”.

The use of disinformation campaigns targeting climate action and climate-oriented politicians is well documented. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognised this in 2022, noting that “misinformation about climate science... has sowed uncertainty, and impeded [the public’s] recognition of risk”. This, they say, is “delaying urgent adaptation planning and implementation”.

Decades of investment have produced climate policies that work; taxes and laws aimed at mitigating climate change to efficiently reduce carbon emissions. But governments struggle with public acceptance, needing enough buy-in to proceed with implementation. Politicians can be reluctant to act if they perceive risks of public resistance, or social unrest.

And disinformation campaigns directly target this public acceptance. A meta-analysis in nature found that the two most important determinants of public acceptance of climate policies were perceived fairness and effectiveness. This weakness has become the focus of climate disinformation campaigns.

Research by the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition found that climate denial content has increased, though it increasingly takes the form of “new denial” – narratives that undermine climate solutions and cast doubt on climate science. As one researcher notes, “now that the majority of people recognise old climate denial as counterfactual and discredited, climate deniers have cynically concluded that the only way to derail climate action is to tell people the solutions don’t work”. Fossil fuel interests have spent millions on public disinformation campaigns, including around the annual UN Cop climate conference, and targeting poorer countries with conspiracy theories about being forced into lockdowns and insect diets.

CAAD has also noted an “alarming mobilisation to violence” against those associated with climate change work, including Spanish meteorologists who reported on extreme spring weather and then faced threats and accusations that they were “murderers”.

While the goal of harassment might be political, the attacks are often very personal. Much of this effort goes into discrediting people. An online monitoring project I was involved with for the 2019 European election had to have a whole category for “anti-Greta” content, targeting the then 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. Researchers identified five distinct streams of content designed to attack and discredit Thunberg, including diagrams mapping the features of her face to suggest she has an intellectual disability.

Stirring up public hatred and animosity against public figures is a dangerous game. It dehumanises people for doing their jobs. Eight years ago, British MP Jo Cox was walking past the library in Birstall, West Yorkshire, when a man approached her, shot her twice in the head, once in the chest, and then stabbed her 15 times. The murder was carried out by a white supremacist who believed that liberal politicians were the cause of the world’s problems, and saw Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two young children, as “a traitor” to white people. That happened a week out from the Brexit referendum, in the heat of that toxic political debate.

It is also dangerous because we need brave leadership to tackle the kinds of existential threats we face, including implementing the difficult changes needed to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change in Ireland and around the world. Relentless abuse takes its toll. It makes the necessary debates about trade-offs, who pays what price and how we distribute the costs fairly, more difficult amid a cacophony of noise. And it makes it less likely that the talented, experienced and principled people we want as our public representatives feel that running for election is worth the personal toll.

Robust political debate is necessary for democracy, but relentless attacks on political representatives and their families not only risk the wellbeing of individual politicians but also the integrity of our democratic processes and the effectiveness of our policies. Online platforms, media commentators, political colleagues and businesses need to do more to build a political environment where ideas can be debated on their merits without descent into personal attacks.

Liz Carolan works on democracy and technology issues, and writes at