Conspiracy theories like chemtrails ‘harm research into technology tackling climate change’ says University of Cambridge expert
Funding for research on new technologies that may help reduce the impact of climate change is being impacted by online conspiracy theories, a Cambridge study has revealed.
Researchers have analysed more than 800,000 tweets and found that negative emotions expressed about geoengineering – the idea that the climate can be altered using technology – can easily fall into conspiracy.
The conspiracy theory with the most impact is that trails of condensation from planes actually contain chemicals put there by the government to kill the population, control them or control the weather.
A research paper, led by Dr Ramit Debnath, who is the inaugural Cambridge Zero fellow at the University of Cambridge, analysed tweets 2009 and 2021 tagged with #geoengineering. They used a combination of natural language processing, deep learning and network analysis to explore how public emotions, perceptions and attitudes have changed over a 13-year period.
The researchers found that there is a large amount of ‘spillover’ between geoengineering and conspiracy theories, especially around ‘chemtrails’, a conspiracy theory dating back to the 1990s. The paper said up to 40 per cent of Americans believe this theory of chemtrails to be ‘‘somewhat true’’, which has influenced social attitudes about climate policy, and geoengineering. And researchers discovered that people believing this theory were also likely to discuss other conspiracy theories online in what they termed “spill over”.
Dr Debnath will be part of a panel at the Cambridge Festival discussing climate misinformation. The festival, organised by the University of Cambridge and supported by the Cmabridge Independent, features hundreds of events between March 17 and April 2.
“The chemtrail conspiracy theory is particularly popular among conspiracy theorists based in the United States, and our analysis found that tweets about chemtrails are the common link between geoengineering and conspiracies,” said Dr Debnath.
“Most of these tweets are sent by American users, but they spill over across regional and national boundaries.”
He told the Cambridge Independent: “People believe it’s the government’s or a billionaire’s plan to kill or to poison the population at large because it’s a way of controlling the rising population. So that’s at the core of this ‘chemtrails’ conspiracy, but what we also see is it connects with the broader conspiracies, like anti-vax [the Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories] and other highly politically polarising conspiracies as well.
“So it creates a massive network effect around these beliefs which tends to engage a lot more conspiracy theorists.”
Genuine scientific research into climate engineering technologies, in particular solar radiation management - such as space-based shields, stratospheric aerosols, cirrus cloud thinning and marine cloud brightening - is under threat because of the controversy.
Dr Debnath said: “A key figure that emerges repeatedly in these conspiracy theories is [Microsoft co-founder turned billionaire philanthropist] Bill Gates, due to his connection with funding some of the solar geoengineering projects with Harvard University and his foundation funding vaccine work at different stages. That has been a centre of conspiracies since around 2016 onwards. There’s an idea that billionaires are trying to dim the sun, so it’s called Project Dimming the Sun in conspiracy language. I think that’s a background reason why these conspiracy theories are actually interconnected with each other.
“One of the key projects in solar geoengineering was Scopex. That had a huge funding consortium of which one part was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It got cancelled in 2021 because of huge public protests.”
He explained that people did have genuine concerns about the effects of the project but that conspiracy theories meant it was now difficult to find in this area of science.
He said: “The very apparent danger is that these conspiracy theories actually reframe the entire context of the conversation. So our intention was to look at why it is so hard to do research around these terms. And the consequence is these theories tend to harm the research because funders become very sceptical.”
The study “Conspiracy spillovers and geoengineering”, published in iScience, used 814,924 English-language tweets containing #geoengineering globally over 13 years (2009–2021) to explore public emotions, perceptions, and attitudes towards solar radiation management. They found that specific conspiracy theories influence public reactions toward geoengineering, especially regarding ‘‘chemtrails”, but that these were linked to other conspiracies - with people believing in multiple theories - such as QAnon, 5G tracking and weather control.
Now Dr Debnath and his co-researchers are hoping for a public and “transparent” discussion about new technologies that could mitigate climate change.
The researchers conclude in their paper: “There are opportunities to slow the spread of misinformation and conspiracy spillovers by moderating online toxicity on such topics, enabling greater online engagement with verified content, trustworthiness in climate action.”
The paper can be read at https://www.cell.com/iscience/fulltext/S2589-0042(23)00243-2
Dr Debnath will be speaking at Climate Change: From Despair to Action, at the Cambridge Festival, on March 30 at 7.30pm, at Babbage Lecture Theatre, (Through the Pembroke Archway), New Museums Site Downing Street, CB2 3RS.
You can book tickets for festival events at festival.cam.ac.uk.