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In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year, marking a turning point in the decades-long transformation of the media ecosystem we live in. It is a transformation which, I’ll argue below, has serious implications for climate engineering research and governance.
But, you might say: climate engineering researchers have been dealing with antipathy for years, most notably from the community of people who believe that a hostile actor is spraying chemicals from aircraft, forming “chemtrails” in the sky. What’s so new?
I’ve been thinking about this since I did an interview with Dane Wigington of Geoengineering Watch. Dane is one of the most influential figures in chemtrail circles. He can also claim much broader impact. Information-seekers who type in “geoengineering” will find geoengineeringwatch.org on the front page of Google results. Ordering of search results does influence people. These results reflect two facets of our new media ecology: (1) in this media ecosystem, a small number of people can claim a large part of the discursive sphere, and (2) news is narrowcast rather than broadcast, with polarization growing from repeated exposure to similar sources.
Three things make the potential political role of “chemtrailers” today quite different than in the pre-Trump era:
Sites like Geoengineering Watch are read by people concerned with chemtrails (a phenomenon with no clear motivation). They now use the language of SRM science, and, consequently, now have a clear motivation behind their worries. On the Geoengineering Watch site, the rationale for the alleged geoengineering is, actually, the real motivation behind research on SRM – that global warming is out of control. This makes it all the more credible for information-seekers who happen upon these sites. People are making lines in the sky for mind control or to poison us? Wacky. People are creating a sunshade to hide the truth of global warming? It at least has a plausible rationale.
While retaining the character of its chemtrail antecedents, this concern over control of the skies has morphed into an emergent movement against geoengineering. This thesis deserves more elaboration than a blog post, and it would be interesting to hear from social movement scholars on the issue — but it seems to meet some of the basic criteria: dense networks, conflictual relations with opponents, training on how to attract supporters or win influence, the use of both protest and legal strategies to challenge power-holders. The movement encompasses groups like Geoengineering Awareness Group Canada, or the yearly Global March Against Geoengineering. These groups represent something quite different from of the position of environmental groups taking anti-geoengineering positions like the ETC group, who ground their critique in a broader conversation about which climate solutions are workable and just.
There is something to be gained from treating this as a movement, springing from the concerns of other movements. The discussions on Geoengineering Watch illustrate how this new anti-geoengineering platform, grounded on the premise of existing and ongoing climate manipulation, relates to broader hostilities towards experts and concerns about class inequality (“They look themselves in the mirror and see themselves as the upper well-educated “scientists”, far above all below them” … “The Zillionnaires who are richer than imaginable want the entire world to operate on an algorithm”). We can expect these underlying tensions around inequality to grow under the current administration, thus potentially attracting new people to an anti-geoengineering movement. It’s possible that forming an opinion on geoengineering becomes not an impersonal assessment of a technology, but an identity position.
We have now seen plenty of case studies evidencing (1) how fake news spreads, and (2) how this can affect political life. Consider that radio host Alex Jones of the site Infowars, who has discussed chemtrails for years, has helped Trump’s rise. Communication professor Jonathan Albright studied the spread of fake news through what he calls the “micro-propaganda machine”: “an influence network that can tailor people’s opinions, emotional reactions, and create “viral” sharing episodes around what should be serious or contemplative issues.” Albright found that much traffic going into Infowars was from direct links, with the top source being Gmail. Why does this matter? Well, it’s not people clicking through from Facebook; rather “micro-targeting” is pushing articles from these sites onto Facebook. He hypothesizes that this is a signal of an effort by micro-targeters. The spread of fake news is disconcerting enough, but as Albright writes, that’s only half the story: “The other half is the corresponding tracking network that works to capture all responses, sentiment, and personal information generated from the perpetual outrage.” This information enables data collection and behavioral modeling firms like Cambridge Analytica to target individuals and send them personalized political messages — attempting to not just predict, but change their behavior. (Cambridge Analytica was employed by the Leave campaign during Brexit, has Steven Bannon on its board, just poached the CTO of the RNC, and hopes to win government contracts with the Trump administration; you can read science fiction scenarios of the implications of approaches like theirs.) Other analysts argue that targeting by firms like Cambridge Analytica did not actually impact the election; rather, they are selling big-data snake oil in the form of fantasies of social engineering and control to gain investors and further contracts. But the implications for the future evolution of technologies that can spread hyper-biased or false information — combined with firms who have data to conduct psychological targeting of voters — are real. Whether a topic like climate engineering is dragged into this realm by advocates or detractors, it will have a poor effect on public deliberation.
An environment where “fake news” created and spread isn’t even the worst of it: in the United States, we now have an administration which actively promotes falsehoods. This feeds the fire for people concerned about government disinformation, again potentially exacerbating the situation.
Even more concerning, the problem is not just with the quality of information promoted, but the tone — the US populace has now elected an Internet bully, empowering troll culture (at the expense of civil deliberation). The tone of confrontation and hostility, with public and personal attacks on individuals doing their jobs, might inhibit public discourse just as much as misleading content would. Under these conditions, how can we have an informed civil discourse on a topic that deeply needs public engagement, trust in decision-makers and science, and accountability?
What’s an academic community to do?
These are long-term problems of science / information literacy and mental health that can’t be addressed by just one community.
Maybe “fake news” is a blip as we adjust to the information age; the equivalent of a toddler acting out, before the age matures, and before we’ve constructed systems of education and media consumption that are appropriate for the Information Age and the Anthropocene. Or maybe it’s here to stay — in which case, rational discourse about and democratic governance of these technologies seems elusive
Right now, it certainly would be worth studying how people seek out information about geoengineering, and how the information sources they find inform their opinions.
Among climate engineering researchers, it’s often thought that people with these beliefs about climate engineering aren’t interested in science, or in truth, or in reality. To the contrary, they are actually very interested in all of these, and refer constantly to science, facts, and observations (see the interview). But they don’t hold all science to being good or honest. For example, one author on the anti-geoengineering blog “Bye Bye Blue Sky” notes research on the consolidation of academic publishing by five or six corporations, quoting a Nobel Laureate who calls the peer review system “corrupt.” Real issues with the production of scientific knowledge are observed and magnified. Moreover, the types of evidence that anti-geoengineering see as convincing differs from what we see as convincing. Visual evidence is very important; direct experience is very important.
And cosmology is even more important. Just because the idea that some entities are currently geoengineering / spraying is ridiculous (to practicing scientists), we should keep in mind the underlying issues these people are concerned with still have merit. Many of these people are concerned about the ways in which our society is ill. Many of them are probably dealing with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues — both on an individual level, and on a societal level. What is happening to the biosphere can rightfully produce some collective trauma: anyone paying attention to both the extinction of species and the failure of leaders to deal with or properly acknowledge this crisis should be both outraged and sad. As long as there are not open, recognized official or mainstream fora in which to work through the unraveling tragedy, movements like this one — or anti-vaccination, or skepticism about EMF, or Morgellons nano-fibers, or other arenas where technology and environment intersect — will probably continue to bubble up. Consider these comments from three Geoengineering Watch readers:
“i have begun to feel … that i am feeling the anguish of the earth and all of us creatures…”
“Meanwhile, So-Cal is having its rain stolen by the weather pirates. Or are they vulture capitalists? I watched heavy, toxic spraying until noon, wafting out to blanket what started out an above-normal, spring-like morning. Told the wife she wouldn’t need her jacket as she left, the sun already felt hot on the skin. Yet just like that, the temp had crestfallen, and white dandruff snowflakes were covering my smartphone screen as I sat out to watch the sky. … I know I’m breathing this crap in. But so are my dogs, the trees, the birds, all the precious mammals of the earth. … I’m mad. I’m sad. I watch/listen to the news in French and German because my own country’s media has become soft-porn peddlers, spinning lies about Syria and Iran to foment war, never mentioning the peaceful protests in Romania and the dire refugee crisis in inconvenient places like Africa and Southeast Asia.”
“Lately I notice more and more that I am experiencing spontaneous rivers of emotion for our beloved Earth, for non-human creatures large and small, for children, for my cat, innocent and insulated as he is from the cares of this world about which his owner is so distraught. Even the little round-tail squirrels that live down in holes in the desert dirt out in my back 40 have become, to me, creatures deserving of my tenderest regard and admiration. They are so………..as they are. Living in timeless suchness, absolute thusness; living expressions of an unbroken ancestry that predates even the Hohokam peoples who grew squash and beans and corn for thousands of years upon the very dirt my house now sits on.…. What are the chances we could help heal this whole world if only, IF ONLY we could get world leaders and generals and geoengineers out on a dance floor together to dance a new kind of consciousness into being?”
I am not saying that it’s worth spending time to change the minds of these people about the science of climate engineering. But we do need to recognize them as a potentially political force, given this media ecology and political climate. I do think it would be smart to proceed with communication about research and governance in a way that acknowledges some of their underlying concerns: about inequality of income and opportunity, about extinction and separation from nature. We must set the frame of geoengineering so that it can acknowledge and not occlude the human and non-human pain of these times. This will likely go contrary to the specialization and narrow foci that define our academic comfort zones.
I also wonder if the morphing of the concern from chemtrails to geoengineering against climate change could present an opportunity for better communication: at least there is a sliver of common ground from which to understand the problem. The focus, perhaps even obsession, with scientific truth is also common ground. I’m curious what my colleagues think. Do we continue to ignore the fringes — even though fringe Internet culture has proven that it can shape our reality in terrifying ways? Or do we do something pro-active? If so, what is appropriate? What do we have energy for? In what ways is this actually a new reality: and in what ways are we so concerned about it being a new reality that we drown ourselves in think-pieces and fail to see the ways in which much is the same? What are the risks of continuing to anticipate climate engineering research and governance as though multilateral, civil society informed discourse is as possible and prevalent as it seemed in, say, 1995 or 2000? What are the risks of trying to communicate about our work as though we live in the media ecology of 2005? Do we update to the current reality, or continue to hold up an ideal model of discourse and hope that the world adjusts to our ideals?
Holly Jean Buck is Faculty Fellow with the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, and a PhD candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Her research interests include agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture, energy landscapes, land use change, new media, and science and technology studies. With regards to climate engineering, she has written on humanitarian and development approaches to geoengineering, gender considerations, and media representations of geoengineering.