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Climates of suspicion: 'Chemtrail' conspiracy narratives and the international politics of geoengineering

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Abstract

Concurrent with growing academic and policy interest in ‘geoengineering’ the global climate in response to climate change, a more marginal discourse postulating the existence of a climate control conspiracy is also proliferating on the Internet. Here, the term ‘chemtrails’ is used interchangeably with the term geoengineering to describe the belief that the persistent contrails left by aeroplanes provide evidence that a secret programme of large-scale weather and climate modification is ongoing. Despite recent calls for greater appreciation of the diverse ways in which people conceive of and relate to ideas of climate control, and widespread acknowledgement of the importance of democratic public engagement in governance of geoengineering, the chemtrail conspiracy narrative has received very little attention in academic work to date. This paper builds on work highlighting the instability of the distinction between ‘paranoid’ and ‘normal’ views, and examines the chemtrail conspiracy narrative as a discourse rather than a pathology (either psychological or sociological). The analysis finds that while some elements of the chemtrail narrative do not lend themselves to democratic processes of deliberation, and potential for engagement with more mainstream discourse appears to be low, nevertheless certain elements of the discourse (such as the moral outrage at the idea of powerful elites controlling the climate, or the importance of emotional and spiritual connections to weather and climate) highlight concerns of relevance to mainstream geoengineering debates. Furthermore, the pervasive suspicion that characterises the narrative and its reminder of the key role that trust plays in knowledge creation and the justification of beliefs, signals what is likely to be a perennial issue in the emerging international politics of geoengineering.
Climates of suspicion: ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy
narratives and the international politics
of geoengineering
ROSE CAIRNS
SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SL
E-mail: r.cairns@sussex.ac.uk
This paper was accepted for publication in August 2014
Concurrent with growing academic and policy interest in ‘geoengineering’ the global climate in
response to climate change, a more marginal discourse postulating the existence of a climate control
conspiracy is also proliferating on the Internet. Here, the term ‘chemtrails’ is used interchangeably
with the term geoengineering to describe the belief that the persistent contrails left by aeroplanes
provide evidence that a secret programme of large-scale weather and climate modification is
ongoing. Despite recent calls for greater appreciation of the diverse ways in which people conceive
of and relate to ideas of climate control, and widespread acknowledgement of the importance of
democratic public engagement in governance of geoengineering, the chemtrail conspiracy narrative
has received very little attention in academic work to date. This paper builds on work highlighting
the instability of the distinction between ‘paranoid’ and ‘normal’ views, and examines the chemtrail
conspiracy narrative as a discourse rather than a pathology (either psychological or sociological).
The analysis finds that while some elements of the chemtrail narrative do not lend themselves to
democratic processes of deliberation, and potential for engagement with more mainstream
discourse appears to be low, nevertheless certain elements of the discourse (such as the moral
outrage at the idea of powerful elites controlling the climate, or the importance of emotional and
spiritual connections to weather and climate) highlight concerns of relevance to mainstream
geoengineering debates. Furthermore, the pervasive suspicion that characterises the narrative and its
reminder of the key role that trust plays in knowledge creation and the justification of beliefs, signals
what is likely to be a perennial issue in the emerging international politics of geoengineering.
KEY WORDS: geoengineering, climate change, public engagement, discourse analysis,
conspiracy, chemtrails
Introduction
Recent years have witnessed a rapid growth in the
attention being paid in both academic (Belter
and Seidel 2013) and policy circles (House of
Commons 2010; IPCC 2013) to the concept of direct
large-scale intervention in the global climate, or
geoengineering. In addition to an increasing amount of
technical literature addressing the potential impacts
and feasibility of the various techniques being
discussed under this label, there is a growing social
scientific literature examining the emergent politics
and ethics of aspirations to global climate control
(Gardiner et al. 2010; Hulme 2012; Humphreys 2011),
and subjecting to critical scrutiny the discourses and
practices of this emergent area (Bellamy et al. 2013;
Cairns and Stirling 2014; Macnaghten and Szerszynski
2013; Nerlich and Jaspal 2012; Porter and Hulme
2013; Sikka 2012). In particular, the issue of public
engagement with geoengineering research and
decisionmaking has been cited as being of crucial
importance for democratic governance in this domain
(Corner et al. 2011; Macnaghten and Owen 2011;
Macnaghten and Szerszynski 2013; Owen et al. 2012;
Pidgeon et al. 2012), and a body of critical scholarship
has sought to explore the ways in which dominant
framings of the issue might act to constrain or close
down genuine public participation in decisionmak-
ing around geoengineering (Bellamy et al. 2012).
Academic and policy discourse around geoen-
gineering is often at pains to stress that geoengineering
technologies are hypothetical, that their development
is currently at an ‘upstream’ moment (Corner et al.
2011), to be used ‘in case of emergency’ (Markusson
et al. 2013) or as a ‘plan B’ (Jamieson 2013) should
radical emissions cuts fail.
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The Geographical Journal, 2014, doi: 10.1111/geoj.12116
The information, practices and views in this article are those of the author(s) and do not
necessarily reflect the opinion of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
© 2014 Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).
Running concurrently with these developments in
mainstream academic and political discourse around
the term geoengineering, and yet conspicuous by its
absence in academic discussions to date, another
public discussion around deliberate climate
modification is taking place, largely online in internet
forums and message boards. Here, the term
‘chemtrails’ is used (often interchangeably with the
term geoengineering) to describe the belief that the
persistent contrails left by aeroplanes provide evidence
that a secret programme of large-scale weather
and climate modification is ongoing, and is having
devastating ecological and health consequences
worldwide. While this belief is marginal, it is not
insignificant: a Google search of the term ‘chemtrails’
returns over 2.6 million hits, and a study by Mercer
et al. (2011) found that 2.6% of a sample of 3105
people in the US, Canada and the UK believed entirely
in the existence of a conspiracy involving chemtrails
(and around 14% believed in the conspiracy to some
extent). Chemtrail activists frequently attend events
and conferences on geoengineering, and indeed many
academics working in this area have been subjected to
threats and verbal abuse for their alleged role in the
conspiracy (Keith 2013). There is thus widespread
awareness among academics of the existence of these
views, and yet, to date, there has been very little
engagement with these ideas: the topic has only
received a passing mention in academic publications
(Brewer 2007; Buck 2010; Fleming 2010; Sweeney
2014), and those examining discourses around
geoengineering have, to date, focused on unpicking
the discourses of the more powerful actors (Sikka
2012), or examining mainstream media framings
(Porter and Hulme 2013; Scholte et al. 2013), rather
than these marginal claims.
Where it has been recognised, the chemtrail view
has been dismissed as an unfounded conspiracy
theory (Rayner 2008; Smith 2013), ‘for the gullible’
(Brewer 2007), and most engagement to date has
taken the form of attempts to ‘debunk’ the belief (e.g.
Contrail Science 2011; Metabunk 2014). Given that it
has been argued that ‘[e]ffective and just decision
making on geoengineering will require a greater
appreciation of the diverse ways in which people
conceive of and relate to the idea of climate control’
(Porter and Hulme 2013), the invisibility of the
chemtrail conspiracy in social scientific work on
geoengineering is striking. It is perhaps indicative of a
collective drawing of boundaries within academia
around what is considered to be the rational political
sphere, with the label of ‘conspiracy theorist’ being
used to constitute chemtrail believers as a
‘pathological political other . . . beyond the pale of
political discourse’ (Fenster 1999, 18). However,
understanding the emerging politics of geoen-
gineering, and taking seriously claims regarding the
importance of public participation, requires an
understanding of the whole discursive landscape
around ideas of global climate control – including
marginal ideas such as those held by chemtrail
activists. Ignoring or dismissing these discourses out of
hand as pathological or paranoid is to ignore
potentially revealing insights about the emerging
politics of geoengineering.
This article aims to enrich the academic discourse
around ideas of climate control, through redressing the
apparent invisibility of the chemtrail theory in current
discussions of geoengineering. In so doing, the work
presented here also contributes to a growing academic
interest in the analysis of conspiratorial narratives
(Birchall 2006; Dean 2000; Fenster 1999; Jones 2012;
Marcus 1999), and responds to recent calls for
geographers to use the critical interrogation of the
discourses of conspiracy as a means to ‘de-centre the
geo-political gaze away from elite and official versions
of global space, in order to consider alternative ways
of knowing’ (Jones 2012, 46). Rather than framing
belief in chemtrails as pathology or fantasy, and
(hypothetical, future) geoengineering as reality, both
terms are understood here as discursive phenomena,
the ‘bounds of which are continually being negotiated’
(Cairns and Stirling 2014). Analysing the chemtrail
conspiracy narrative as a knowledge producing
discourse (Birchall 2006; Jones 2009), and drawing out
some of the parallel logics and themes that animate
both the chemtrail narrative and broader discourses of
climate change and geoengineering, allows an
exploration of the boundaries of official knowledge,
and the relationship between what is considered
legitimate ‘geoengineering’ knowledge and illegi-
timate ‘chemtrail’ knowledge. Analysing the chemtrail
narrative in this way also resonates with concerns
within geography and other critical social science
disciplines about how to encounter, articulate and
represent difference without drawing it within one’s
own categorical schema as an aberration (Dixon 2009)
or dismissing it as ‘superstitious nonsense’ (MacKian
2011).
The following section situates the paper within the
context of academic debates around conspiracy
narratives, in particular a trend away from attempts to
fix the epistemological characteristics of ‘conspiracy
theory’ as a stable object, toward understanding of
conspiracy narratives as political discourse, best
explored ‘from the point of view of the believers’
(Hellinger 2003, 208).
Conceptualising conspiracy
Thinking conspiratorially about power is neither
new (Hofstadter 1964) nor confined to a particular
geographical location (West and Sanders 2003).
Accusations of conspiracy have long been powerful
tools for gaining or consolidating political power: the
claimed existence of a global Jewish conspiracy, for
example, was an important part of Nazi propaganda
during WWII (Pipes 1997), and claims of communist
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conspiracy in the US abounded during the Cold War,
resulting in the excesses of the McCarthyist witch
hunts (Goldberg 2001). However, concurrent with the
rise of the internet (Soukup 2008), recent years have
seen a proliferation of theories of conspiracy,
questioning official versions of events, and offering
counter-narratives around topics as diverse as the
events of 9/11, the existence of AIDS, the deaths of JFK
and Princess Diana or, in the case presented here,
programmes of climate modification. Although these
kinds of conspiratorial accounts are sometimes
characterised as a ‘fringe’ concern (Pipes 1997, 178),
the proliferation of conspiracy theorising in recent
years has led some observers to describe
contemporary society in terms of a ‘conspiracy
culture’ (Knight 2000; Locke 2009), and to argue that
conspiratorial forms of reasoning can now be
considered ‘mainstream’ (Fenster 1999). Diverse
attempts to account for the contemporary ubiquity of
conspiratorial explanations have been proffered, from
sociological accounts that view conspiracy theorising
as a response to ‘unsettling and dislocating’
experiences of social upheaval and transformation
(Marcus 1999; Oushakine 2009); or an attempt to
map the overwhelmingly complex social landscape
of postmodernity (Mason 2002); to those that
characterise conspiracy theories as indicative of the
opaqueness of the dominant power structures in a
given society (Pelkmans and Machold 2011, 71), or as
a form of ‘moral reasoning that accounts for suffering
by attributing blame’ (Locke 2009, 567). Others have
examined belief in conspiracy as a psychological
phenomenon (Lewandowsky et al. 2013; Wood et al.
2012), arguing at one extreme that the growth in
conspiracy theorising is best characterised as
‘individual hysterias connecting with modern social
movements to produce psychological epidemics’
(Showalter 1998, 3).
Notwithstanding increasing amounts of academic
attention, the precise nature of ‘conspiracy theory’ as
an object of study has proved to be extremely ‘slippery’
and difficult to define. Some have attempted to
characterise conspiracy theory as a form of ‘deviant’
knowledge, illustrating certain epistemological flaws
or deficiencies (Bayat 2006; Keeley 1999). For
example, Keeley makes the claim that it is possible to
distinguish epistemologically a class of explanations
he refers to as ‘unwarranted conspiracy theories’, ‘from
those theories which deserve our assent’ (Keeley 1999,
111). Others have drawn parallels between conspiracy
theories and the characteristics of a ‘degenerating
research program’, in which new layers of conspiracy
are constantly required in order to rationalise each new
piece of disconfirming evidence. This has shifted the
focus away from the apparent epistemic failures of the
theories, and onto the apparent ‘cognitive failures’ of
the individuals who hold these theories to be true
despite any amount of evidence to the contrary (Clarke
2002).
However, conspiracy theory cannot be understood
as false by definition, given the re-occurrence
throughout history of plenty of examples of demon-
strably real conspiracies (Wood et al. 2012). Given
that conspiracies evidently can and do occur, the
identification of persistent epistemological differences
between conspiracy theories and other theories
becomes in effect impossible, and distinguishing
between a political analysis that is neither ‘paranoid’
nor ‘naive’ is recognised as challenging (Coady 2006).
Awareness of the indeterminate epistemological
characteristics of ‘conspiracy theory’, as well as the
potential of the term to be used pejoratively as a
means of ‘discrediting and stifling counter narratives’
(Bayat 2006, 5), has prompted various authors to
problematise the term (Bayat 2006; Bratich 2002;
Jones 2012). According to Pelkmans and Machold
(2011), the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has more to do
with the relationship of the claim in question to fields
of power, than the content of the claim itself. As these
authors point out, theories of conspiracy postulated by
the powerful (such as the suggestion of the existence
of a programme of weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq as justification for the US-led invasion of 2003)
are never, even when demonstrably false, labelled as
conspiracy theories. They stress that truth and untruth
are produced in asymmetric fields of power and argue
that ‘assessments of conspiracy theories should focus
not on the epistemological qualities of these theories
but on their interactions with the socio-political fields
through which they travel’ (Pelkmans and Machold
2011, 66).
Some anthropologists have drawn attention to the
‘sense-making’ effects of conspiracy theories (Sanders
and West 2003), and argued that these beliefs are
revealing of people’s ‘life worlds and consciousness’,
as well as highlighting ‘profound suspicions about
how power operates in a globalizing world’ (Niehaus
and Jonsson 2006, 183). However, when the beliefs in
question are held by people closer to home, such
‘hermeneutic generosity’ (Niehaus and Jonsson 2006,
183) is sometimes less forthcoming, and ‘it is
apparently easier to conclude that those who live in
societies where the scientific paradigm constitutes a
predominant interpretive schema “ought to know
better” (Sanders and West 2003, 14). Perhaps as a
result, conspiracy has something of an ‘unwelcome
place’ in social science (Hellinger 2003, 206), and
responses to conspiracy claims within social science
are often characterised by what Birchall terms
‘contamination anxiety’, resulting either in attempts to
discredit conspiracy theory by ‘debunking’ point by
point, or ‘trying to explain them away by the very
logic that founds the position from which one speaks’
(Birchall 2002, 245). The anxiety generated by
conspiracy narratives, is, she argues, indicative of a
broader anxiety around epistemology and the public
sphere, particularly ‘over the way in which know-
ledges are circulated and established outside or on the
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margins of the traditional site for knowledge
production, the academy’ (Birchall 2006, 68).
In attempting to pin down ‘conspiracy theory’,
various authors have drawn attention to the unstable
boundary between the ‘paranoid’ and the ‘normal’,
and illustrated that conspiratorial logics and fears (as
well as real conspiracies) are ‘detectable and manifest
in different ways and with different intensities across a
wide spectrum of situations’ (Marcus 1999, 2).
Without denying the extremist or fundamentalist
tendencies of some conspiracy beliefs, this has seen a
move away from the characterisation of conspiracy
theory as pathology, and towards an understanding of
conspiratorial narratives as being ‘a “reasonable”
component of rational and commonsensical thought
and experience in certain contexts’ (Marcus 1999, 2).
Thus, various authors have highlighted that con-
spiratorial fears and suspicions are not a wholly
irrational or ‘paranoid’ response to the increasingly
secretive nature of government actions ‘behind closed
doors’ (Jones 2009, 362), or the ‘subcultural
atmospheres and assumptions of elites’ (Marcus 1999,
3) According to some, the convergence of rapid
technological developments with increasing levels of
surveillance and secrecy (Bratich 2006), as high-
lighted for example, by revelations of the former NSA
employee Edward Snowden in 2013 (Guardian 2013),
have effectively called a ‘suspicious public into being’
(Dean 2004, 371) and brought certain forms of
conspiratorial reasoning away from the margins.
Simultaneously, insights from social and political
sciences have called into question idealised accounts
of government and organisational decisionmaking,
drawing attention instead to the increasingly
distributed, networked nature of governance (Hajer
1997; Sorensen and Torfing 2005), and the ways in
which the exercise of incumbent power involves a
diverse range of actors and informal as well as formal
processes. This suggests that incumbent political
agency is often exercised in necessarily more opaque
or ‘covert’ ways than popularly represented and, in
this sense, conspiracy (as covert joint coordination
of agency), rather than an exception, might be
understood to be – in certain respects – a norm. Seen
in this light, the tacitly selective marginalising of
conspiratorial accounts only in particular contexts
seems particularly worthy of academic attention.
Others have pointed to the ways in which even the
conceptual rhetorics of social theory themselves have
a ‘paranoid potential’ (Locke 2009). As Robinson
argues, ‘the whole point of theory, of social science, is
to uncover the forces and processes at work in the
social universe which lie beneath – indeed episte-
mologically speaking, out of the range of – sensory
perception’ (Robinson 1996, 5, cited in Hellinger
2003, 205). Similarly, conspiracy theorists are also ‘in
the business of uncovering forces and processes lying
just beyond sensory perception’ (Hellinger 2003;
Locke 2009). Latour similarly highlights the appeal by
both social theorists and conspiracy theorists to
powerful hidden agents acting ‘consistently, conti-
nuously, relentlessly’. As he points out:
Of course, we, in the academy like to use more elevated
causes – society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power,
fields of forces, empires, capitalism – while conspiracists
like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with
dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in
the structure of the explanation.
Latour (2004, 229)
In line with an interest in the examination of
subaltern, or counter, narratives, some authors have
argued that conspiracy theories have the potential to
be empowering under certain circumstances to ‘serve
popular resistance and empowerment’ (Hellinger
2003, 205), or to act as ‘counter-knowledges’ that
resonate with the lived experiences of margina-
lised groups (Fiske 1996). However, others have
characterised conspiracy theories as distracting from
‘real politics’, fulfilling much the same function that
Marx attributed to religion (Wheen 2004), through
‘promoting a cynical abandonment of profound
political realities that merely reaffirms the dominant
order . . . and substitute fears of all powerful
conspiratorial groups for political activism and hope’
(Fenster 1999, 219). Conspiratorial accounts can be
found across the left/right political spectrum and, as
even a cursory examination of the extreme and racist
content of some anti-semitic conspiracy beliefs (e.g.
Jew Watch 2014) will testify, are often far from
progressive (Flint 2004). Recognising the politically
problematic, reactionary, racist and offensive nature
of some conspiracy theories, while accepting that
others may be true, or have the potential to challenge
power, raises the question of whether it is possible to
distinguish between ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’
conspiracy theories. According to Pelkmans and
Machold:
the element that seems to provide the best indication for
assessing this issue is the slippage from distrust to disgust.
That is to say, suspicion of conspiracy theorizing seems
particularly warranted when the theories serve to seal the
boundaries around an imagined community, or when
they are overwhelmingly used as a means to scapegoat
targeted groups.
Pelkmans and Machold (2011, 72)
However, part of the problem, according to Birchall,
with making pronouncements on the ‘import, role, or
function in the world’ of popular knowledges such as
conspiracy theory, is that they oscillate between the
serious and ironic or playful, and are constantly
shifting (Birchall 2006, 23). While the political
implications of conspiracy theorising are thus far
from clear cut, the self-reinforcing nature of the
4Climates of suspicion
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© 2014 Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
marginalisation of those who hold these beliefs has
long been recognised. As Hofstadter observed fifty
years ago:
the situation becomes worse when the representatives of
a particular social interest . . . are shut out of the political
process. Having no access to political bargaining or the
making of decisions, they find their original conception
that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully
confirmed.
Hofstadter (1964, 86)
Methodology
Situated within a broadly interpretive research
framework, the analysis presented here builds on the
Foucauldian approach to the analysis of marginal texts
and informal or popular knowledges as outlined by
Birchall (2006, 11).The chemtrail conspiracy narrative
is here analysed as a knowledge-producing discourse
(Anderson 1996; Birchall 2006; Jones 2012). In this
context, discourse is taken to be ‘a shared way of
apprehending the world. Embedded in language it
enables those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of
information and put them together into coherent
stories or accounts’ (Dryzek 1997, 9). In contrast
with previous survey-based work (Mercer et al. 2011)
that has attempted to show the prevalence of a belief
in chemtrails among a subset of the population
without describing those views in detail, this paper
is focused on a qualitative examination of the
content and form of the discourse but makes
no claim about the prevalence of these views. The
analysis presented here does not seek to address the
truth or falsity of the individual claims that constitute
the discourse, an endeavour which would be
problematic in any case from an interpretive
perspective in which such judgement is ‘dependent
on the respective discursive context’ (Methmann et al.
2013, 6). Likewise, the label of ‘conspiracy theory’ is
not conceptualised as a stable object, but rather as a
powerful way in which certain forms of knowledge
are discredited (sometimes with good reason, other
times less so). Neither does the analysis treat these
beliefs as symptomatic of other (unseen) social
structures or forces. Rather, the aim is to ‘reveal the
infrastructure of [the] discourse, which generates
the meaning of social and natural phenomena’
(Methmann et al. 2013, 6), and to examine the way
the chemtrail narrative articulates (or not) with other
discourses around the climate and climate
manipulation. This allows an exploration of the shared
dynamics and logics that shape both chemtrail
knowledge and other discourses of climate change
and climate control, and facilitates the asking of
questions about the possible political implications
of this discourse for the international politics of
geoengineering.
As the chemtrail narrative is largely an internet-
based phenomenon, the analysis presented here is
confined to sources on the internet. The difficulties
posed by analysing internet texts, given that the
internet is in constant flux, are well recognised
(Gerstenfeld et al. 2003), and a purposive sampling
strategy was necessary to select texts for analysis. The
search terms ‘chemtrails’ and ‘geoengineering AND
chemtrails’ were used to locate websites pertaining to
the conspiracy using the search engine Google. From
this search strategy, 20 websites containing content
referring to a belief in a conspiracy involving
chemtrails were selected for more detailed analysis
(see Table 1). Given the extensive (and expanding)
volume of material on these sites, a selection strategy
for the analysis of particular pages was devised. Based
on a preliminary exploration of their content and
style, a number of thematic categories were deve-
loped in order to guide subsequent selection of pages
for analysis and ensure that a broad range of content
was included. These were pages pertaining to
definitions and characterisations of chemtrails and
geoengineering (including purpose); history of the
phenomenon; data and evidence; ecological and
health impacts; personal stories; and activism/self-
protection strategies. Not all sites covered all of these
themes but, where these were present, selected pages
from each of these categories were added to the
corpus for analysis. A total of 72 texts formed the final
corpus for analysis. Texts were (necessarily) diverse
and informal, reflecting the forms of communication
on the internet around this topic. Items analysed
ranged from more traditionally formatted articles and
blog posts, to transcripts of videos, flyers for the
public, personal histories/biographies, newsletters,
Table 1 Chemtrail conspiracy websites analysed
www.geoengineeringwatch.org
www.globalskywatch.com
www.coalitionagainstgeoengineering.org
www.globalmarchagainstchemtrailsandgeoengineering.com
http://chemtrailsnorthnz.wordpress.com
www.chemtrailsprojectuk.com
www.look-up.org.uk
www.chemtrails911.com
www.chemtrailcentral.com
www.uk-skywatch.co.uk
http://aircrap.org
www.carnicominstitute.org
http://chemtruth.ning.com
http://educate-yourself.org/ct
http://strangehaze.freeservers.com
http://chemtrailsplanet.net
http://www.zengardner.com/covert-geoengineering-insanity
-true-source-climate-change
http://www.skyderalert.com
http://beforeitsnews.com/chemtrails
http://www.stopsprayingcalifornia.com
Climates of suspicion 5
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FAQ pages, and comments on forums or following an
article. The software Nvivo (QSR International Pty Ltd
2012) was used to aid analysis: web pages were
imported and their content was thematically coded
through an inductive process whereby themes were
identified from the texts themselves. Bratich’s (2002)
thematic questions to ask of conspiracy narratives
(namely, the narrative composition; community and
interests; authorisation procedures; location; prescri-
ptions and instrumentalisation) served as a heuristic to
guide analysis.
The nature of the object under study, and the
medium of the web [what Escobar (1993) has referred
to as ‘Cyberia’] is necessarily nebulous, and
constantly changing, thus it is impossible to claim that
the sites and individual pages analysed here are
‘representative’ of the population of texts on the
internet. Indeed one of the characteristics of conspi-
ratorial accounts on the internet is the vast amount of
information associated with these: what Dean has
characterised as ‘bottomless vats of information,
endless paths of evidence’ (Dean 2000, 1). However
the aim of this paper is not to attempt to fix ‘the
definitive chemtrail narrative’, which in any case is,
like other discourses, ‘radically unstable’ (Methmann
et al. 2013, 7), but to begin to delineate salient
dimensions of the narrative in order to draw out ways
in which it articulates with other discourses around
climate change and climate control.
With regard to the geographical scope of the
websites analysed, although it is not always possible
to ascertain in which country the individuals or
organisations responsible for the website content are
located, of the 20 websites analysed, it was possible to
establish a geographical link for 16. Of these, 12
appear to have originated in the US.
The findings from the analysis are presented below
in three thematic sections. The first deals with the
narrative composition, the content of the chemtrail
belief, its history, form, and style. The second
examines chemtrail knowledge, the ambivalent place
of science and scientific vocabulary in the discourse,
the ways in which chemtrail knowledge is contested/
debunked, and the role of that trust plays in these
processes. The final section deals with political action
on chemtrails, in particular exploring notions of
heroic agency among chemtrail believers, and their
parallels in mainstream geoengineering and climate
change discourse.
A crime like no other’
The chemtrail conspiracy falls into the category that
Pipes has labelled ‘world conspiracies’ (as opposed to
petty or operational conspiracies); that is, a belief in:
a powerful, evil and clandestine group that aspires to
global hegemony; dupes and agents who extent the
group’s influence around the world so it is on the verge of
succeeding; and a valiant but embattled group that
urgently needs to help stave off catastrophe.
Pipes (1997, 21–2)
Chemtrail believers have labelled chemtrails as ‘the
largest crime against humanity in human history’
(Global Skywatch 2014c); ‘the biggest issue –
literally “above” all others and “affecting” all others’
(Chemtrails Project UK 2014); and ‘a crime against the
populace like no other’ (GeoEngineering Watch
2014a).
The chemtrail conspiracy narrative can be traced
back to the late 1990s, with one of the earliest
references being an article published online in 1999
in which it is claimed that: ‘Contrails spread by fleets
of jet aircraft in elaborate cross-hatched patterns are
sparking speculation and making people sick across
the United States’ (Thomas 1999). While certain
elements of the narrative are fixed, namely the belief
that the persistent trails left by aeroplanes are being
deliberately sprayed and are not simply contrails,
other elements, such as what exactly is in the trails –
for example, aluminium, barium, pathogens, or even
desiccated blood (Stop Spraying California 2014),
who is spraying these things, and to what end – are
more fluid and open to diverse interpretations. Profit
motivations feature in various guises, from reference
to, inter alia, futures markets, agricultural corpo-
rations, and ‘big oil’:
The most obvious and benign reason is to control the
weather. Predicting the weather is big business and
people make big money on the futures markets from
doing so.
Look-up! (2014b)
The growing evidence repeatedly confirms that aircraft
are spraying dirty aerosols to warm the climate in polar
regions for drilling access by BIG OIL as faux National
Security’.
Chemtrails Planet (2014)
. . . it’s more than a coincidence that genetically-
modified aluminium-resistant seeds have been developed
by Monsanto . . . the environment is being poisoned
deliberately to enable corporations to make money and
gain more control over the world’s food supply.
Northland New Zealand Chemtrails Watch (2014)
. . . to induce bioengineered disease organisms in order
to reap staggering profits for the pharmaceutical cartels.
Educate-Yourself (2014)
Population control is another recurrent theme:
They are altering the weather and sunlight to cause a
seemingly ‘natural’ global famine to depopulate human
beings to numbers of their choosing. They are committing
perpetrated democide, depopulating exactly as they said
6Climates of suspicion
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they would do, and they are using ‘global warming’ as
their cover story for mass murder.
GeoEngineering Watch (2014g)
Likewise, the idea that countries may gain a military
advantage through controlling the weather and
manipulating the atmosphere is a common theme. As
one prominent chemtrail activist put it:
people ask, why would they want to control the weather?
Why wouldn’t they? It’s what they do. The weather is the
most destructive weapon they could control.
GeoEngineering Watch (2014b)
Frequent reference is made to the historical asso-
ciation of weather modification and the military
as outlined by historians such as Fleming
(2010) and Hamblin (2013), and sites such as
geoengineeringwatch.org make reference to historical
attempts at hurricane modification, such as Project
Stormfury, and the use of cloud seeding during the
Vietnam war (GeoEngineering Watch 2014h).
The partial and fragmented nature of the chemtrail
plot resonates with Dean’s characterisation that most
conspiracy narratives ‘fail to delineate any conspiracy
at all’, but simply ‘counter conventional narratives
with suspicions and allegations that, more often than
not, resist coherent emplotment’ (Dean 2002, 92),
suggesting the possibilities of malevolent elite plays of
power, and linking facts, speculations and questions.
This, she argues, illustrates that rather than attempting
to map the totality of the social world, ‘conspiracy’s
insinuations disrupt the presumption that there is a
coherent, knowable reality that could be mapped’ (p.
93). However, while the narrative may be fragmented
and incomplete, it is also the case that it incorporates
a seemingly ever expanding subset of topics. Thus,
according to one site, the chemtrail conspiracy is to
blame for drought in Africa, forest fires, bee decline,
fisheries collapse, increases in Alzheimer’s and
autism, extreme weather events, reduction of arctic
sea ice, and species extinctions, among other ills
(GeoEngineering Watch 2014b).
Keeley has highlighted the process by which many
conspiracy beliefs rely on scepticism in an
increasingly large number of people and institutions
in order to maintain the belief. It is through this
process that some forms of conspiracy belief begin to
‘undermine the grounds for believing in anything’
(Keeley 1999, 123). The escalation of scepticism
required to maintain the belief in the chemtrail
conspiracy is apparent in the following quote:
The national airspace of each and every country across
the planet is very closely monitored. Getting huge
airliners aloft in order to heavily spray the skies is not only
very expensive, it must require the foreknowledge and
explicit approval of an assortment of federal and state
agencies . . . As a matter of fact, because of the many new
laws concerning the control of airspace in the post 9/11
era, both Homeland Security and the Patriot Act have
made it even more difficult for any and all flights over the
nation to meet very specific and stringent criteria. In view
of these very strict and onerous protocols necessary for
fight approval, it is all the more obvious that there are
many in government who are directly participating in this
relentless chemical assault.
GeoEngineering Watch (2014a)
The chemtrail narrative is perhaps best chara-
cterised as a constantly shifting ideoscape (cf.
Appadurai 1996), with popular websites such as
geoengineeringwatch.org, or coalitionagainstgeoen
gineering.org regularly updated with new sources of
information, videos, photos, articles, discussion posts
etc. The constant production of new ‘evidence’
largely in the form of photographs or results of
rainwater and soil tests, requires chemtrail activists
to be vigilant in order to ‘keep up’:
Each of us needs to be aware and awake. We need to
examine and re-examine data day in and day out so that
we can keep up with changes and not lock into
perceptions and conclusions.
GeoEngineering Watch (2014f)
The shifting, ever-expanding nature of the textual
sources associated with the chemtrail narrative chimes
with Soukup’s characterisation of 9/11 conspiracy
websites as being constituted by ‘perpetually open
(hyper)text and with an infinite number of possible
versions of digital images, sounds, videos, etc
(bricolage)’ . . . which offer ‘an endless loop of
signification for the web browser’ (Soukup 2008, 19).
While Soukup identifies a pleasurable dimension for
the individual partaking in this endless process of
uncovering ‘the truth’ about 9/11, the chemtrail
narrative by contrast – with its central message that
each and every individual is ‘under attack’ – is
(understandably) associated with expressions of a high
level of fear, anxiety, sadness and anger, as the
following comments on the Coalition Against Geo-
Engineering site illustrate:
I get so angry. I really take it personal, When I see them
making big X’s in the sky. That means Bulls eye. I am so
frustrated when I think of the beautiful tree’s, The wild
animals, Insects, People & little children, That don’t even
have a chance of a good start at life.
I am crying right now. Haven’t done that but 2 times in my
adult life. This is the third. SOMEONE tell me what to do
to actually do something about this!!! I will do
ANYTHING that could possibly have an effect.
there it was . . . the damn jet flying overhead, right over
the house, plain as day, leaving that disgusting white line
behind it. It is so depressing. Day or night, it doesn’t
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matter. They have their agenda to destroy our beautiful
mother earth, and all living things. Breaks my heart.
I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone exterminate me or my
kids without giving them a fight the size of world war III
. . . I’m ready to fight, who is with me?
Coalition Against Geo-Engineering (2011)
Some compare coming to terms with the existence
of chemtrails as similar to experiencing the five stages
of grief (Global Skywatch 2014b), while one site offers
readers advice on ‘coping with the knowledge’, which
is described as an overwhelming and emotional
experience, akin to a person finding out that their
‘spouse had not only been having an affair for the last
20 years, but that they had been slowly poisoning
them too’ (Look-up! 2014a).
While the degree of emotional trauma apparent
among believers in the existence of a chemtrail
conspiracy can appear extreme, when the discourse is
situated in the context of contemporary climate
discourse more broadly, it appears less anomalous.
For example, Hulme has suggested that we are living
in a ‘climate of fear about our future climate’. As he
points out: ‘[t]he language of the public discourse
around global warming routinely uses a repertoire
which includes words such as “catastrophe”, “terror”,
“danger”, “extinction” and “collapse” ’ (Hulme 2008,
5). The chemtrail narrative could thus be read as one
manifestation of this wider cultural climate of fear.
Fenster (1999, 137) has argued that the key or
pivotal point in a conspiracy narrative is what he terms
the moment of ‘totalizing conversion’ whereby the
individual’s world is reinterpreted once and for all.
While others have questioned the centrality of this
moment of conversion (e.g. Dean 2000), within the
chemtrail narrative at least, the idea of an awakening
is prominent. For example, one activist describes the
moment and its importance thus:
We always need to remember that first moment of
awakening, that first beautiful moment where we burst
out and said: I’m awake, these are all lies. I can see the
tyranny around me, and I’ve had enough of it. Hold that
awareness, hold that awakening, and nothing can stop us.
Whyte (2012)
Personal stories of awakening, often linked to stories
about the experience of health impacts attributed to
chemtrails, feature prominently within the narrative.
The emotional content of these stories and the
discourse more broadly reveals the fundamental
importance of deep personal connections to weather
and climate. For example, Clifford Carnicom addres-
sed the ‘Consciousness beyond Chemtrails’ Confe-
rence in August 2011 as follows:
This world is not an act of chance.That blue has meaning
to all of us, in a very deep and a profound and spiritual
way ultimately. And when that blue was taken away as it
is here I recognise, at least from my heart, I know when
something’s wrong. And I know what my responsibility
and obligation is.
Carnicom (2012)
These kinds of emotional connections to climate
are rarely foregrounded in mainstream discussions
of geoengineering, instead they are often treated
dismissively as of little consequence. For example,
prominent geoengineering advocate Lee Lane typified
this attitude in his claim that under stratospheric
aerosol injection:
Skies may appear to be somewhat whiter, and there
would be an increase in acid precipitation from aerosol
injections, but this is unlikely to be of more than local
import.
Lane (2013, 132)
‘We have no trust in you’
Understanding the dynamics of chemtrail knowledge,
and particularly how it articulates or not with other
more ‘mainstream’ understandings, requires a brief
exploration of the discursive overlap between the
terms geoengineering and chemtrails. The increasing
academic (Belter and Seidel 2013) and mainstream
media (Porter and Hulme 2013) usage of the term
geoengineering has been widely noted, and the
discourses around geoengineering have been
subjected to critical scrutiny by a number of authors
(Bellamy et al. 2012; Cairns and Stirling 2014;
Markusson et al. 2013; Nerlich and Jaspal 2012; Sikka
2012). While researchers working on topics associated
with geoengineering are quick to distance themselves
from those who believe in the chemtrail phenomenon,
conversely those in the chemtrail community have
identified in the growing body of literature on
geoengineering, what they consider to be solid
evidence to illustrate that programmes of aerosol
spraying are ongoing, and there is evidence that many
actors are keen to associate themselves with the
epistemic authority of ‘hard science’ associated with
the term geoengineering. The relationship between the
two terms, and the desirability of using one or other, is
the subject of ongoing debate within the chemtrail
community. Some actors suggest that chemtrails is a
‘laymans term for geoengineering’ (GeoEngineering
Watch 2014b), others view chemtrails as ‘a
weaponized version of geoengineering’ (Chemtrails
Planet 2014)’, or suggest that geoengineering is simply
a more recent term to describe chemtrails:
A world-wide program is underway to control the
weather since the mid-90s. It is being done without your
consent. It is called GEOENGINEERING or SRM (Solar
Radiation Management) and originally: chemtrailing.
Aircrap (2013)
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Geoengineeringwatch.org urges people to stick to the
term geoengineering to avoid being dismissed as
conspiracy theorists when approaching new people to
talk about spraying programmes:
First of all, semantics are extremely important in regard to
the introduction of geoengineering. The geoengineering
term is related to hard science, the ‘chemtrails’ term has
no such verifiable basis but rather leads anyone that
Googles the term straight to ‘conspiracy theory’ and
‘hoax’ definitions. Use the terms ‘climate engineering’
and ‘geoengineering’.
GeoEngineering Watch (2014d)
Similarly some actors are arguing for abandonment of
the term chemtrails, for example:
Andrew Bridgman, the head of the Southern California
Office of the Agriculture Defense Coalition, like
Carnicom, hastily shuns the use of the term chemtrail. ‘It’s
an antiquated label for geo-engineering, which is about
weather modification’ he asserts, adding that it is
important to use the same terminology as academics,
politicians and the media, in order to be effective in
engaging them.
Northland New Zealand Chemtrails Watch (2014)
The desire, as reflected in these latter comments, of
chemtrail activists to be associated with the epistemic
authority of science is one aspect of an interesting
ambivalence towards science within the chemtrail
discourse. On the one hand, appeals to science:
scientific evidence, data, proof, laboratory test results,
and the opinions of ‘experts’, are all crucial to
establishing the legitimacy of the chemtrail pheno-
menon, and in this sense the discourse mirrors the
legitimation strategies of more official knowledges – a
fact that has been observed for other popular
knowledges (Birchall 2006, 19). On the other hand, it
is scientists who are highly implicated in the current
state of affairs, and critique is levelled at ‘the scientific
worldview’, the ‘pharmaceutical approach’, and the
‘narrow minded PhD’s’ who have according to one
site ‘wrecked the world’ (GeoEngineering Watch
2014c):
What the chemtrail ‘pharmaceutical approach’ really
represents is the utter failure of many of the existing
scientific paradigms and technological applications in
use around the world today. That modern science feels
compelled to lay down blankets of toxic chemicals
around the globe 24/7 is a glaring testimony to its
ignorance (Chemtrails are toxic), arrogance (Chemtrails
can’t fix the problem) and powerlessness (Let’s do
anything we can, even it makes the problem much
worse).
The Health Coach (2013)
It is notable that, apart from the belief that these
programmes are already occurring, these charges are
not dissimilar to critiques of the possibility of a
‘technological fix’ for climate change (Lovbrand et al.
2009), and charges of scientific hubris levelled at
aspirations to climate control, from within more
mainstream academic critique of solar geoengine-
ering (Hamilton 2013). Likewise the notion that
chemtrails constitute an ‘essentially dangerous and
reckless experiment’ (Cosmic Convergence 2013a),
and the metaphorical reference to humanity being
‘lab rats’ (GeoEngineering Watch 2014f), both
common elements of the chemtrail discourse,
resonate with concerns raised in public engagement
exercises around the concept of stratospheric aerosol
geoengineering (e.g. Macnaghten and Szerszynski
2013).
One common approach to encountering the
chemtrail conspiracy is illustrated by the proliferation
of ‘debunking’ sites that attempt to disprove individual
claims. Willman has characterised these exchanges as
a ‘hegemonic struggle between the conspiratorial
camp and the defenders of common sense over the
status of social reality’ (Willman 2002, 21). Willman
maintains that both the conspiratorial view of the
primary importance of human agency, and the
debunking view of the importance of contingency, are
ideological visions of historical causality, ‘social
fantasy’ rather than representations of reality. More
importantly here, the strategy of ‘debunking’ arguably
misses the point that such beliefs reflect not so much
a lack of science as a lack of trust. Keeley has argued
that conspiracy beliefs:
throw into doubt the various institutions that have been
set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so,
they reveal just how large a role trust-in both institutions
and individuals-plays in the justification of our beliefs.
Keeley (1999, 121)
A recent exchange between an audience member (a
believer in chemtrails) and David Keith (a prominent
geoengineering advocate) at a recent debate on
geoengineering at the University of Oxford is
revealing of the form of these dynamics:
[Audience member]: I think the issue is of one of
disbelief. I think that the majority of people who are
convinced about this subject cannot fathom how you
cannot be aware of it because to us it’s completely
obvious. So that’s where the conflict is. If, truly, you don’t
know about it then we can only have respect for you for
promoting research into it, however . . .
[David Keith]: . . . The thing that I’m actually advocating
has nothing to do with the thing you’re talking about.
[Audience member]: But it’s a question of trust isn’t it?
[. . .] we see what’s going on at the moment, which is
definitely not benign, and so therefore we have no trust in
you. And we believe that what you’re trying to do is an
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exercise in subterfuge. You are trying to soften the blow so
that when you have to admit what’s going on, we will
then go, oh great okay, no worries, we know you did it to
protect us. We don’t believe the story. So it’s a question of
trust.
Public debate ‘The case for and against geoengineering’
(2013)
With regard to the emerging international politics of
geoengineering, the issue of trust (often lacking in the
international political sphere; Kydd 2005) is likely to
be perennially problematic. The attribution of a given
weather or climate event to anthropogenic climate
change is already widely recognised as problematic
(cf. Pielke Jr 2010, chapter 7), but the drawing
of causal chains of attribution would become
increasingly complex (and open to suspicion) should
a programme of solar geoengineering go ahead. The
lack of trust and suspicion that characterises the
chemtrail belief arguably offers a window of insight
into the likely future sources of conflict and insecurity
around (in particular solar) geoengineering. Without
wishing to oversimplify the link between conspiracy
belief and violence (Bartlett and Miller 2010), the
recent attacks against polio vaccination workers in
Pakistan, as a result of a widespread belief that
vaccination programmes in the country are part of a
conspiracy to make male Muslim children sterile (BBC
2013), are a powerful illustration of the ways in which
an apparently marginal idea can take root in a given
context as a result of reflecting widely held
worldviews and experiences (in this case anti-
American sentiment and distrust of international
institutions after years of conflict), with violent and
destabilising consequences.
A last ditch effort to save this world’
Activism is an important component of the chemtrail
discourse, and takes various forms. One commonly
advocated form of action parallels mainstream
notions of ‘citizen science’, in which citizens are
urged to collect rainwater and snow for laboratory
analysis (GeoEngineering Watch 2014e). In line with
a noted rise in the availability of mobile and web-
based tools that facilitate the collection of
environmental information by the public (Malykhina
2013), one site offers a mobile app to help people
gather photographic evidence of chemtrails via their
mobile devices (Skyder ALERT 2014). Other activism
strategies range from more standard campaigning
tools (such as raising awareness through sharing
content online; organising a demonstration; putting
up stickers and signs; lobbying one’s MP), to
visualisation techniques and the ‘power of prayer’ to
rid the sky of chemtrails (Educate-Yourself 2014).
Taking some form of action is often framed as a duty
or responsibility of those who have ‘woken up’ to the
reality of the chemtrail conspiracy:
Every person who looks up to the sky and sees the horrific
cover up of chemtrails is surely responsible to do their
part.
Cosmic Convergence (2013b)
Exposing chemtrails is no longer a choice. It’s not even a
responsibility. It’s a desperate last-ditch effort to save this
world from a destruction unmatched in human history.
Global Skywatch (2014a)
Chemtrail activists are portrayed within this discourse
as a valiant group, fighting against the odds, and
suffering ridicule, in a nearly hopeless situation to
save the world from certain disaster. The particular
(heroic) understanding of individual agency within the
chemtrail narrative chimes with Harding and Stewart’s
reference to conspiratorial sensibilities being ‘fuelled
by dreams of a triumphant individual agency rising to
combat the hegemony of the knowledge industries’
(Harding and Stewart 2003, 270). Interestingly, a
parallel notion of heroic agency can be detected in
the more mainstream discourse around geoen-
gineering, in which the impending catastrophe in
question is a ‘climatic emergency’ (Markusson et al.
2013), and all that stands between humanity and
certain destruction are the actions, intellect and vision
of a group of scientists and engineers who put their
mind to finding technological solutions to the
problem of climate change. The emergency rhetoric
within both the chemtrail discourse and mainstream
geoengineering discourse, uses ideas such as ‘tipping
points’, ‘thresholds’ and ‘irreversibility’ as rallying
calls for action. For example, discussion of research
into geoengineering is sometimes situated within the
context of the possibility of ‘climate surprises’: ‘in
which the climate system crosses some threshold,
resulting in “large, abrupt, and unwelcome” changes
(NAS 2002, 1), and our current predicament becomes
even more alarming’ (Bodansky 2013, 540). Similar
language is echoed in the chemtrail discourse. One
site, for example, refers to chemtrails as ‘pushing the
planet beyond critical thresholds which just might
exceed dire points of no return’ (Cosmic Convergence
2013b).
The importance of individual action within the
chemtrail discourse also chimes with Paterson and
Stripple’s noting of an increasing focus on the
individual, and individual actions such as carbon
accounting within mainstream climate change
discourse, which (they argue) can be read as a form of
governmentality, representing a shift in the way that
subjects are being formed around climate change
(Paterson and Stripple 2013).
It has been argued that agency is conceptualised in
distinctive ways within many conspiracy narratives.
Anderson describes the conspiratorial view of agency
as being ‘about specific people or groups of people,
acting with purposes that are undisclosed or outside
accountability or even examination by others’
10 Climates of suspicion
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(Anderson 1996, 96). Within this picture there is little
room for blind social or economic forces, and chance
often only features in as far as this is how secret
information is understood to have become public.
This insight goes some way towards explaining the
association of the chemtrail belief with scepticism
about anthropogenic climate change (as being a result
of excessive carbon dioxide emissions). For example,
various sites refer to climate change as a ‘hoax’
(e.g. Global March Against Geoengineering and
Chemtrails 2014; Northland New Zealand Chemtrails
Watch 2014), and many suggest that ‘the climate
change to fear most is actually caused by chemtrails’
(Chemtrails Planet 2014). The events referred to as
‘Climategate’ (Koteyko et al. 2013) are frequently
referenced, and it is argued that dissenting scientific
views in the climate change debate have been
systematically silenced:
From the beginning there have been scientists who
disagreed with the theory that increases in greenhouse
gases are harmful, but everything has been done to
prevent their views from appearing in the IPCC Reports.
Global March Against Geoengineering and Chemtrails
(2014)
Clearly, the idea that collectively, without intent,
humanity has altered the climate in dangerous ways
does not fit within a conspiratorial understanding of
events and situations coming about as a result of
human agency. Within this context, then, the
association between climate scepticism and chemtrail
conspiracy makes sense. However, this association
also illustrates the difficulty with situating the
narrative along the traditional left/right political
spectrum. On one hand, the chemtrail discourse
chimes with concerns sometimes characterised as
more traditionally ‘left-wing’ (for example, concerns
with social injustice, corporate power and the
environment); on the other hand, anxieties about ‘big
government’ expressed in belief in the New World
Order, climate scepticism, fears about limits to
individual freedoms etc. chime with more ‘right-wing’
subject positions. Indeed it has been argued that ‘the
political spectrum anchored by Left and Right finds
itself in jeopardy . . . through the emergence of
conspiracy theories’ (Bratich 2002, 146), and the
frequent occurrence of politically ‘odd bedfellows’ on
conspiracy sites has been commented upon by
various authors (Gerstenfeld et al. 2003, 34).
The reference to ‘climategate’ within the chemtrail
discourse also serves as a pertinent reminder that
(rather than being the preserve of a fringe group of
conspiracy theorists) the realm of international
climate governance more broadly is itself shot through
with conspiratorial rhetoric and accusations on all
sides of the debate (Lahsen 1999): from the claim that
climate change is the ‘greatest hoax’ perpetrated on
the American people (Inhofe 2012) to the claim that a
small but powerful group of corporate-funded
scientists have purposefully confused the issue of
climate change (see e.g. Oreskes and Conway 2010).
Likewise, suspicions and fears of a conspiratorial
nature are detectable in more mainstream
geoengineering discourse, for example the reference
to the hypothetical but menacing figure of the ‘rogue
geoengineer’, sometimes even referred to as a
‘greenfinger’ character that has become a feature of
both mainstream media (Vidal 2013) and academic
geoengineering discourse (Bodansky 2011; Victor
2008). Social scientific critique also displays a
somewhat conspiratorial dimension, such as claims
that it has become:
blatantly clear that special interests, including private
corporations, conservative think tanks and scientists
affiliated with both have drawn on a variety of discursive
frames to limit, shape and mould the current debate
surrounding geoengineering . . . [in order to] force
closure on the climate change debate.
Sikka (2012, 173)
Conclusion
The foregoing analysis has sketched out the form of
the contemporary chemtrail conspiracy narrative, and
drawn out the ways in which similar logics, concerns
and fears animate both the chemtrail discourse and
wider discourses of fear about the climate (Hulme
2008), as well as more mainstream discourse around
the term geoengineering. In so doing, the analysis has
highlighted the unstable nature of the term
‘conspiracy theory’. Labelling the belief in chemtrails
as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is a powerful means of
discrediting the narrative as irrational and unfounded,
and may be a means of dismissing outright the
concerns central to the narrative. However, this
analysis suggests a number of ways in which the
chemtrail narrative may contain important insights
and implications for the emerging politics of
geoengineering that cannot be dismissed out of hand
as ‘paranoid’ or ‘pathological’. For example, the
importance of trust in the justification of beliefs is
underscored by the chemtrail belief, and signals what
is likely to be a perennial problem with any solar
geoengineering program in the international sphere,
where trust is often lacking. The chemtrail belief hints
at the probability that a program of solar
geoengineering would have destabilising regional
political effects, resonating with local political
realities and suspicions of global economic powers.
Likewise the moral outrage accompanying the
chemtrail belief, based on the revulsion at the idea of
powerful elites controlling the climate, is not
something that can be dismissed as ‘irrational’. This is
important to reflect upon, given the reality that
powerful actors are currently discussing manipulating
the global climate, and begs the question: is it
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necessarily more irrational to believe that the climate
is being controlled, than to believe that one can
control the climate? Likewise the powerful emotional
connections to weather and climate that are central to
the chemtrail narrative, foreground the personal or
spiritual dimension of discussion around climate
engineering that is rarely heard in more mainstream
discourse.
However, while elements of the chemtrail narrative
highlight important and sometimes neglected areas of
more mainstream geoengineering discourse, the
potential for engagement between believers in the
chemtrail narrative and others, through processes
of public engagement around the concept of
geoengineering, appears limited. It would appear that
the chemtrail narrative has crossed the line from
‘distrust to disgust’ (Pelkmans and Machold 2011),
whereby those allegedly involved in the conspiracy are
characterised as fundamentally evil, and unbelievers
are characterised as ‘mentally retarded, clinically blind
or paid liars’ (GeoEngineering Watch 2014b). This
makes meaningful engagement around this topic
particularly challenging, a point that was clearly
illustrated by a response to a working draft of this paper
published online, in which the present author was
maligned for her perceived role in covering up the
alleged conspiracy (see Disinformation Directory
2014). The association of the narrative with extreme
forms of climate scepticism would also appear to limit
the possibilities for critical engagement with other
strands of environmental discourse. Arguably the
chemtrail conspiracy narrative shares many of the traits
of organised scepticism, as identified by Stevenson and
Dryzek, and likewise, ‘cannot provide grist for
productive contestation, for at its heart is the
construction of opponents not as adversaries to be
respected, but as enemies to be defeated’ (Stevenson
and Dryzek 2012, 203).
Acknowledgements
This work was carried out as part of the Climate
Geoengineering Governance Research Project,
funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
(ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council
(AHRC), grant ES/J007730/1. The author would like to
thank two anonymous referees for their constructive
and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this
paper.
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... The aim of a discourse analysis based on this characterization of the term is then to understand the underlying discursive structure within which the social meaning is being constituted (Keller, 2011, Hajer, 1995. Only a few CE discourse analyses have so far explicitly employed this structural understanding of discourse (Matzner and Barben, 2018, Cairns, 2016, Uther, 2014, Boettcher, 2012, Anshelm and Hansson, 2014. My project contributes to this emerging pool of literature and expands it by linking the implications of discursive structures to CE governance development using the concept of governmentality (see section 3.4). ...
... The aim of a discourse analysis based on this characterization of the term is then to understand the underlying discursive structure within which social meaning is being constituted (Keller, 2011. Only a few CE discourse analyses have so far explicitly employed this structural understanding of discourse (Matzner and Barben, 2018, Cairns, 2016, Uther, 2014, Boettcher, 2012, Anshelm and Hansson, 2014. I aim to contribute to this emerging pool of literature, and to expand it by linking the implications of discursive structures to CE research governance development. ...
Thesis
Full-text available
In addition to mitigation and adaptation as strategies for governing climate futures, a third way of responding to climate change is now emerging: Intentional intervention into the global climate, often termed ‘climate engineering’ (CE). There is a growing awareness that formal governance of some types of CE is going to be needed in the coming years, and that informal governance is already being shaped by the discourses and practices of CE research and assessment. Increased attention is being paid to the types of scientific and societal discourses shaping the emergence of CE governance. Contributing to this literature, this thesis asks how the discursive construction of CE governance is taking place in science, industry, civil society, and politics. The project emphasises that, as discourse is the source code with which contested futures are written, ‘cracking the discursive code’ underpinning the CE governance debate can help critically anticipate the emergence of future governance practices and infrastructures. In this vein, the thesis peruses several interrelated aims: (1) Exploring a framework for shifting the analytical perspective on the role of discourse in (CE) governance development processes; (2) Anticipating and critically reflecting upon how given discursive structures may be making certain types of CE governance more/less thinkable and practicable, (3) emancipating those engaging in the CE governance debate to recognize and expand the bounds of the discursive structures they are reproducing, and (4) informing the design of participatory processes to further “open up” discursive diversity in CE governance development.
... chemtrails) s cieľom ovládať myslenie a správanie ľudí. Viacerí výskumníci a výskumníčky si všimli paralely medzi vierou v takéto tajné programy a rastúcou nedôverou ľudí voči elitám a spoločenským inštitúciám (Cairns, 2014;Bakalaki, 2016). Nedôvera voči štátu nie je samozrejme hlavným dôvodom odporu proti očkovaniu, ale vytvára preň mimoriadne priaznivý podklad. ...
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Ak chceme ostať zdraví, musíme každý deň urobiť mnoho malých rozhodnutí. Raz za čas musíme navyše správne vyriešiť aj vážnejšiu dilemu s ďalekosiahlejšími dôsledkami – napríklad voľbu vhodnej liečby, prijatie či odmietnutie intervencie, prípadne zmenu životného štýlu. Všetky takéto rozhodnutia si vyžadujú dôveryhodné informácie. Ako sa však rozhodujeme o tom, čo je dôveryhodná a čo je nedôveryhodná informácia? Hlavne v čase, v ktorom digitálne médiá od základov zmenili spôsoby tvorby, šírenia a prijímania informácií. Namiesto informácií z konkrétnych novín, časopisov či relácií od konkrétnych autorov a autoriek sa k nám väčšina správ dostáva bez kontextu, často nám ich vyberajú algoritmy rôznych digitálnych systémov. Dôsledkom je záplava informáciami, od dôveryhodných cez skreslené až po vyslovené dezinformácie. Táto publikácia sumarizuje sériu výskumov, ktoré sa snažili zistiť, ako pristupovať k tomuto zásadnému civilizačnému problému.
... Rámutathatnak azokra a kérdésekre, aggodalmakra, érzelmekre, amelyek a nyilvánosságban megfogalmazódnak a tudomány intézményrendszerével vagy az egyes tudományos információkkal kapcsolatban. Mivel ezek kifejezésére a laikusoknak sok esetben nincs megfelelő eszközük és csatornájuk, könnyen fogalmazódhatnak meg áltudományos és tudományellenes vagy összeesküvéses gondolatok, vagy könnyen bízhatnak meg ilyen elméletekben és azok terjesztőiben (Cairns 2014). Mindezek feltérképezése segítheti a tudománykommunikációs aktorokat, hogyan kontextualizálják az adott kommunikációt: melyek azok az információk, amelyek valóban relevánsak és hasznosak adott célközönség számára egy adott témát illetően. ...
... 4 The conspiracy theorists state that the existence of chemtrail can be proven by the presence of white traces in the sky that appear after an airplane passes. 5 They believe that the white trail contains toxic chemicals that are used for various purposes, such as controlling human population, controlling thoughts or spreading disease. 6 In this case, many believe that this chemtrail was deliberately used by the government to increase the number of people infected with COVID-19, especially the omicron type (B.1.1.529). ...
Article
In Indonesia, there is currently a hot discussion regarding chemtrails appearing in the skies in several cities. Many people attribute this to conspiracy theories, according to which these chemtrails cause the omicron-type of coronavirus disease 2019 (B.1.1.529). Through this paper, we hope that Indonesian citizens be able to think more positively and maintain their mental and physical health.
... In introducing the technologies to its subjects, such research also inevitably frames them. Such publics may be supportive, but research may also fuel geoengineering conspiracy thinking (Cairns, 2016). Similarly, stakeholder engagement exercises by researchers can serve to create stakeholder interests as much as they identify pre-existing ones (Turnhout et al., 2010), contributing to a process whereby policy-making regarding such novel issues reconfigures the polity (Hajer, 2003). ...
Article
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Research into solar geoengineering, far from being societally neutral, is already highly intertwined with its emerging politics. This review outlines ways in which research conditions or constructs solar geoengineering in diverse ways, including the forms of possible material technologies of solar geoengineering; the criteria and targets for their assessment; the scenarios in which they might be deployed; the publics which may support or oppose them; their political implications for other climate responses, and the international relations, governance mechanisms, and configurations of power that are presumed in order to regulate them. The review also examines proposals for governance of research, including suggested frameworks, principles, procedures, and institutions. It critically assesses these proposals, revealing their limitations given the context of the conditioning effects of current research. The review particularly highlights problems of the reproduction of Northern norms, instrumental approaches to public engagement, a weak embrace of precaution, and a persistent—but questionable—separation of research from deployment. It details complexities inherent in effective research governance which contribute to making the pursuit of solar geoengineering risky, controversial, and ethically contentious. In conclusion, it suggests a case for an explicit, reflexive research governance regime developed with international participation. It suggests that such a regime should encompass modeling and social science, as well as field experimentation, and must address not only technical and environmental, but also the emergent social and political, implications of research. This article is categorized under: Social Status of Climate Change Knowledge > Knowledge and Practice Policy and Governance > Multilevel and Transnational Climate Change Governance
Thesis
Ce travail met au jour, grâce à l’analyse qualitative du discours, les procédés discursifs par lesquels les discours scientifiques et experts sur l’ingénierie climatique (IC) cherchent à « faire monde ». Nous abordons la prolifération des discours sur l’IC dans les années 2000 par le biais de leur lien avec la notion d’Anthropocène, popularisée par le prix Nobel de chimie Paul Crutzen. L’analyse de ces discours révèle l’articulation de plusieurs thèmes récurrents : l’inefficacité des mesures politiques d’atténuation, le catastrophisme, le rôle accordé à l’humanité dans les récits de maîtrise du climat (et donc dans le futur), et enfin l’IC comme concrétisation de cette promesse de maîtrise. Dans un second temps, nous montrons, à travers deux exemples (celui d’un ingénieur-chercheur, David Keith, et celui d’un think tank, l’American Enterprise Institute), l’intrication, chez les acteurs prônant le recours à l’IC, du scientifique et du politique, de l’expertise et du militantisme. Le discours expert permet dès lors de construire un monde dans lequel se dessine un futur possible de maîtrise technologique du climat, vision dans laquelle les scientifiques et ingénieurs sont érigés au rang d'administrateurs de l'environnement global.
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The danger of the spread of science disinformation was demonstrated by the coronavirus pandemic. This created a complex crisis, affecting economic, social, and public health security, so disinformation can be perceived as a security threat. Understanding characteristics, communication, and mechanisms of disinformation are particularly important. In this paper, I will elaborate on the concept of disinformation society based on the information society and the dangers of science disinformation, mainly using the example of the disinformation wave that accompanied the coronavirus epidemic. I present the main responses to the problem, highlighting the role of science communication. I will emphasize the need to change attitudes in science communication practices and show how understanding science disinformation can help to do this.
Thesis
Progress within the field of radicalisation is evident. Yet while research increasingly adopts a quantitative approach to studying radicalisation processes, there is no sound empirical evidence base on the risk and protective factors for violent extremism and much research is not fit for practice. Day-to-day risk assessment and management of individuals deemed to be a potential risk to national security forms a core component of counter-terrorism. Each phase of counter-terrorism risk assessment and management requires state-of-the-art science for the identification of putative risk and protective factors, and to understand how such factors are functionally linked to violent extremism. This thesis provides a unique contribution to these research endeavours in several important ways. First, in order to explain why individuals radicalise, we have to turn our focus towards those risk factors and underlying mechanisms, which explain why and how certain individuals come to develop extremist propensities. Thus, this thesis’ main aim is to study risk and protective factors for the development of violent extremist propensities. Second, terrorism studies is over-reliant on secondary data. By conducting two unique large-scale nationally representative general population surveys, this thesis contributes towards establishing a robust empirical knowledge base. These are one of the first such surveys conducted within the field of violent extremism research. Third, radicalisation trajectories and engagement in violent extremism are characterised by complex constellations of risk as well as protective factors. Risk factors for one risk specification may not equally apply to others and the conditional and contextual nature of various factors need to be taken into consideration, which necessitates more complex analyses of patterns of relationships. This thesis draws on a range of structural equation models, conditional mediation models and interaction analyses, which allow for a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and complex configurations of various risk and protective factors. The analytical designs embedded throughout this thesis are some of the first to test such interactions in an empirical manner. Fourth, this thesis uses an integrative framework which examines not just risk but also protective factors for violent extremism and draws on a wide range of validated theories from different disciplines to strengthen the explanation of relationships between factors. By utilising models with several risk/protective factors, this thesis overcomes some of the 'problem of specificity', as it delivers plausible answers as to why the vast majority of individuals, who are experiencing particular conditions or grievances do not develop violent extremist intentions. Such research designs may be able to identify those factors that can inform prevention and intervention programs. Fifth, radicalisation is a complex and multifaceted process with diverse pathways and outcomes to it. This inherent complexity renders radicalisation, as a construct, difficult to operationalise. A key part of conducting quantitative research is the development of adequate and validated instruments. Thus, by developing and validating psychometrically sound instruments, this thesis contributes towards rigorous quantitative research on violent extremism. This thesis addresses these issues through a number of novel research designs. First, I conduct a systematic review and synthesise the existing evidence on quantitative risk and protective factors for different radicalisation outcomes. However, several gaps as well as conceptual and methodological issues are identified, which are addressed in the following chapters. Second, I conduct a German nationally representative survey on violent extremism, and I apply structural equation modeling to employ a conceptually integrated approach to studying the individual and environmental-level determinants of differential vulnerability to extremism. The findings demonstrate the profound effect of person-environment reciprocity and, thereby, highlight key individual, developmental and social mechanisms involved in the development of extremist propensities. Increasingly, we are witnessing a seeming convergence between belief in conspiracy theories and ideological extremes. However, there is a dearth of empirical research on the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and violent extremism. Therefore, third, this thesis conducts a unique quantitative analysis on this relationship and the findings highlight the contingent effects of risk and protective factors, which are defined as ‘interactive’ or ‘buffering’ protective factors. This has major implications in regard to prevention strategies of ‘at-risk’ populations. Fourth, based on a large-scale UK nationally representative survey, I develop and validate a novel psychometric tool to measure individuals’ misogynistic attitudes. Fifth, recent incidents have demonstrated that misogynistic beliefs can lead to acts of mass violence. This thesis provides the first survey-based study on the relationship between misogyny and violent extremism by examining the underlying mechanisms and contingent effects linking misogyny to (extremist) violence. Collectively, the dissertation’s results demonstrate that multiple factors likely contribute to individual pathways into violent extremism. No single risk or protective factor exists that can explain its genesis. This has significant implications for practice and policy. Preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programs must take account of the constellation of multiple factors that interact with (and sometimes enable or disable one another) rather than solely focusing upon single risk factors. These findings stress the need to implement evidenced based prevention and interventions programs, which have to address these risk factors early on, before they properly take hold and become so deeply ingrained that they are almost intractable. Therefore, increased focus of P/CVE interventions should be put on the indirect, long-term and life-course oriented protective factors.
Preprint
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This is an indexed collection and depiction of typologies and taxonomies of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news.
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Chapter
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