It is a safe bet to say that all progressive readers have some familiarity with conspiracy theories about weather modification. These theories, that range from “chemtrails” to the HAARP project, propose that sinister government and corporate forces are altering local weather and the whole globe´s climate with purposes that range from warfare to climate change mitigation. The most extreme version of these theories holds that all of climate science is a fraud, including the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that the bizarre and extreme weather observed all over the earth in recent years is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels but by weather modification technologies invented and used by an evil cabal of scientists and shady figures bent on world domination- an image straight out of an Austin Powers film. These theories, which are increasingly popular, play into right-wing anti-environmental themes. In a 2013 column, Canadian scientist and outspoken environmental activist David Suzuki likened belief in “chemtrails” to climate change denial:
“I don’t have space to get into the absurdities of belief in a plot that would require worldwide collusion between governments, scientists and airline company executives and pilots to amass and spray unimaginable amounts of chemicals from altitudes of 10,000 metres or more. I’m a scientist, so I look at credible science — and there is none for the existence of chemtrails. They’re condensation trails, formed when hot, humid air from jet exhaust mixes with colder low-vapour-pressure air… Why do so many people accept a theory for which there is no scientific evidence while rejecting a serious and potentially catastrophic phenomenon that can be easily observed and for which overwhelming evidence has been building for decades?”
After publishing the column, Suzuki received a barrage of verbal abuse and ridicule from “chemtrails” believers. The tone of these attacks is startlingly similar to the vitriol and invective that he has received in the past from anti-environmental campaigners. (I believe I myself will be targeted by these believers once they finish reading this article.)
As an activist and researcher, I myself began researching HAARP (the High-Frequency Advanced Auroral Research Project) in the mid-1990s. According to its Wikipedia entry, it is:
“an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).… its purpose is to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. The HAARP program operates a major sub-arctic facility, named the HAARP Research Station, on an Air Force-owned site near Gakona, Alaska.
The most prominent instrument at the HAARP Station is the Ionospheric Research Instrument (IRI), a high-power radio frequency transmitter facility operating in the high frequency (HF) band. The IRI is used to temporarily excite a limited area of the Ionosphere. Other instruments, such as a VHFand a UHF radar, a fluxgate magnetometer, a digisonde (an ionospheric sounding device), and an induction magnetometer, are used to study the physical processes that occur in the excited region.”
The second paragraph is what really worried me. It seemed to me, and to many North American activists, as a dangerous and irresponsible act of global vandalism to shoot high-powered electromagnetic waves into the ionosphere “to see what happens”- and the U.S. military’s involvement in this venture was definitely not reassuring. However, after years of consulting sources and reading differing viewpoints, I was not able to find any credible evidence that HAARP was causing extreme weather events or earthquakes, as the believers claim. Furthermore, the advocates of this conspiracy theory consistently tend to mix it with other even more outlandish pseudo-scientific claims, and with right-wing rants about climate change and climate science being an environmentalist “hoax”. Some anti-HAARP campaigners even claim that environmentalism is a sinister United Nations plot to subjugate the United States and impose a socialist world government (!). Ditto about “chemtrails”.
Conspiracy theories about “chemtrails” and HAARP may be pure bunk, but weather modification is real. Its advocates call it geoengineering.
In February 2015 the U.S. National Academies of Science released a two-volume report on geoengineering that calls for increased investment in this field in order to counter climate change. According to its executive summary:
“Climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and adaptation efforts aimed at reducing the negative consequences of climate change. However, as our planet enters a period of changing climate never before experienced in recorded human history, interest is growing in the potential for deliberate intervention in the climate system to counter climate change. This study assesses the potential impacts, benefits, and costs of two different proposed classes of climate intervention: (1) carbon dioxide removal and (2) albedo modification (reflecting sunlight). Carbon dioxide removal strategies address a key driver of climate change, but research is needed to fully assess if any of these technologies could be appropriate for large-scale deployment. Albedo modification strategies could rapidly cool the planet’s surface but pose environmental and other risks that are not well understood and therefore should not be deployed at climate-altering scales; more research is needed to determine if albedo modification approaches could be viable in the future.”
The NAS report adds that:
“Discussions of geoengineering are often controversial because of the societal, economic, and ethical implications. Those dimensions are critically important, but a first requirement to support informed discussions and decisions is a sound scientific understanding of the proposed techniques, including what they are, how they would work, the expected risks, and the possible consequences (intended and unintended). In particular, there is a need for improved understanding of the physical potential and technical feasibility of geoengineering approaches, as well as an evaluation of the potential consequences of various techniques on other aspects of the Earth system, including ecosystems on land and in the oceans.”
One of the study’s funders was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Rutgers University climate scientist Alan Robock has publicly expressed concern about the CIA’s interest in weather modification technologies. Robock claims that on January 19 2011 two men who claimed to be working as consultants for the CIA, Roger Lueken and Michael Canes, asked him “If another country were trying to control our climate, would we be able to detect it?” In Robock’s words:
“I told them that I thought we could, because if a cloud in the stratosphere were created (the most commonly proposed method of control) that was thick enough, large enough, and long-lasting enough to change the amount of energy reaching Earth, we could certainly see it with the same ground-based and satellite instruments we use to measure stratospheric clouds from volcanic eruptions. If, on the other hand, low clouds were being brightened over the ocean (another suggested means of cooling the climate), we could see telltale patterns in the tops of the clouds with satellite photos. And it would also be easy to observe aeroplanes or ships injecting gases or particles into the atmosphere. At the same time, I wondered whether they also wanted to know if others would know about it, if the CIA was controlling the world’s climate. Given that the CIA is a major sponsor of the recently released US National Academy of Sciences reports on geoengineering (which they have renamed “climate intervention”), the question arises as to the possible interest of the CIA in global climate control.” (Boldface added)
Not surprisingly, the U.S. military has also pondered the wartime uses of this bundle of novel technologies. In 1996 the Pentagon released a report titled “Weather as a force multiplier”. To quote from its executive summary:
“In 2025, US aerospace forces can “own the weather” by capitalizing on emerging technologies and focusing development of those technologies to war-fighting applications. Such a capability offers the war fighter tools to shape the battlespace in ways never before possible. It provides opportunities to impact operations across the full spectrum of conflict and is pertinent to all possible futures. The purpose of this paper is to outline a strategy for the use of a future weather-modification system to achieve military objectives rather than to provide a detailed technical road map… A high-risk, high-reward endeavor, weather-modification offers a dilemma not unlike the splitting of the atom. While some segments of society will always be reluctant to examine controversial issues such as weather-modification, the tremendous military capabilities that could result from this field are ignored at our own peril. From enhancing friendly operations or disrupting those of the enemy via small-scale tailoring of natural weather patterns to complete dominance of global communications and counterspace control, weather-modification offers the war fighter a wide-range of possible options to defeat or coerce an adversary.” (Boldface added)
Independently of its use by entities such as the CIA and the Pentagon, a number of voices from the scientific community and civil society warn that geoengineering is a bad idea altogether, not only because of potentially disastrous and irreversible consequences for the earth’s ecosystems but also because it can end up being used as a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is the only real solution to climate change
“Technofixes—technical solutions to social problems—are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions” decries Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Australia. “So here is the essential problem that the council scientists do not confront: Does anyone really believe that while warming is suppressed with a sulfate aerosol shield a revolution will occur in our attitudes and political systems? No. Yet every scientist… is convinced that if albedo modification is implemented and not followed by a program of global emission reductions, then we are almost certainly finished. Sulfate spraying without a change in the political system would make the situation worse.”
“Presenting geoengineering as something to use only if necessary is at the heart of its proponents’ argumentation; trying to justify the investment of public and private funds on very high risk technologies”, warns Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC Group, in a column published in the Mexican daily La Jornada. “In any case, it is not directed at changing the causes of climate change, it only deals with the symptoms: attempting to lower the temperature by blocking solar radiation or removing carbon from the atmosphere after it has already been emitted.”
Ribeiro adds that if geoengineering is permitted “it will be a juicy business for investors, because by continuing to emit greenhouse gases, global warming will continue, and the sale of technologies to palliate the consequences would have no end, generating perpetual dependence on whoever controls them… It makes no sense to talk about an experimental stage of geoengineering, given that because of its scale and duration, experimentation equals implementation, putting at risk many countries (which surely will not even know that this could be the cause of their problems) and entire ecosystems.”
In order to provide reliable and accurate information as well as critical perspectives on geoengineering, the ETC Group teamed up with Biofuelwatch to set up Geoengineering Monitor. “Our goal is to serve as a resource for people around the world who are opposing climate geoengineering and fighting to address the root causes of climate change instead”, says its web page.
It is a most timely initiative. In order to have an intelligent debate on climate change and geoengineering it is necessary to separate the conspiracy theories from the hard facts.
Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist. He has a Master’s degree in Social Ecology from Goddard College. He is also a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program and a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology. His blog is at: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/. He recently started a new Tumblr blog titled The World According to Carmelo: http://carmeloruiz.tumblr.com/. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz. He currently lives in Quito, Ecuador.