Shifting the blame for climate change and global warming from man-made carbon dioxide emissions to the ‘spraying of poisonous chemicals by civilian aircraft’ is a criminal way of dodging responsibility for the challenges now facing our planet.

Awash with mild hysteria, the chemtrails conspiracy has arisen out of fears that technology is turning its gaze to climate modification for profit rather than as a last-ditch effort to save the planet.

How much attention should we be paying to the gist of these concerns?

Air traffic is ever on the increase. NASA has openly acknowledged the blanket effect of ordinary aircraft exhaust trapping warmth in the atmosphere, equal to one per cent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the air.

In the US alone, over 5,000 aircraft may be airborne at any one time, generating a mesh of condensation trails (contrails) that waft across the skies toward Europe with hot spots over the North Atlantic and central Europe.

During the past few years, both policy makers and academics have been paying more attention to the concept of direct large-scale intervention in the global climate, known as geo-engineering, as Plan B should radical emissions cuts fail to curtail the warming.

Technical discussions on feasibility and potential impacts have been taking place while the realm of social sciences busies itself examining the politics and ethics of aspirations to control the climate.

As noted by chemtrail narratives researcher Rose Cairns from the University of Sussex, a marginal discussion around deliberate climate modification is under way. It is largely online, in internet forums and message boards, where the term ‘chemtrails’ is used (often interchangeably with the term geo-engineering) to forward the belief that contrails left by aircraft provide evidence for a secret programme of large-scale climate modification with devastating ecological and health consequences worldwide.

The conspiracy theory, whipped up by the popular suggestion that secretly spiked exhaust from aircraft is behind severe weather events in the US, went viral. Anyone who attempted to clear up the confusion became a conspirator, and a target.

My article in this column debunking the chemtrail myth (‘Up in the clouds with chemtrails’, July 20) was met by apprehension by a small, if distant, section of readers over the reliability of certain websites quoted.

Following the article’s publication, an appeal to “stop posting essays full of lies” in this column was made by a woman from Tennessee with a proclivity for computer games and a devout interest in alien abductions.

A Vietnam veteran from Florida (intent on exposing “the deliberate explosive demolition” of the Twin Towers in 2001) also wrote in to The Sunday Times of Malta, dismissing the contrails science website referenced in the article as “pseudo-science”.

CO2 mitigation seems the most effective way to prevent climate change

In his comments, dedicated ‘Chemmie’ and songwriter (Ballad of the Chemtrail Cowboy) Harold Saive cherry-picked from what pilot and webmaster Mick West, a chemtrail sceptic since 2007, wrote as a heading for his home page: ‘The science and pseudoscience of contrails and chemtrails’

Meanwhile, websites offering a witches’ brew of often self-contradictory rants about chemtrails, secret government plots, UFOs and ‘evil’ Disney movies are to be viewed from a safe distance, with a large pinch of salt.

The chemtrail conspiracy has been categorised as “a belief in a powerful, evil and clandestine group that aspires to global hegemony; dupes and agents who extend the group’s influence around the world… and a valiant but embattled group that urgently needs to help stave off catastrophe”. (Daniel Pipes, 1997)

Politically, the chemtrail discourse resonates across traditionally left-wing concerns (social injustice, corporate power and the environment) and other anxieties expressed in belief in the New World Order, which are more right-wing positions (climate scepticism and fears about limits to individual freedoms).

In ‘Climates of suspicion’, a paper published last April, researcher Rose Cairns from the University of Sussex maintains that to ignore or dismiss the chemtrail lobby outright as pathological or paranoid is to ignore potentially revealing insights about the emerging politics of geo-engineering.

Science academies around the world as well as some climate activists have called for more research into geo-engineering techniques, such as reflecting sunlight from space, adding vast quantities of lime or iron filings to the oceans, pumping deep, cold nutrient-rich waters to the surface of oceans and irrigating vast areas of desert to grow trees. Each method has been shown to potentially reduce temperature on a planetary scale.

But German researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, modelled these five potential methods and concluded that geo-engineering could add chaos to complex and not fully understood weather systems. Even when applied on a massive scale, the most that could be expected is a temperature drop of about eight per cent. The potential side effects could be disastrous, say the scientists, writing in Nature Communications.

Reflecting the sun’s rays into space would alter rainfall patterns, and reforesting the deserts could change wind patterns and reduce tree growth in other regions.

In addition, say the scientists, two of the five methods considered could not be safely stopped. If solar radiation management or ocean upwelling is discontinued then rapid warming occurs.

Each of the five climate engineering methods considered has advantages and disadvantages but individually they are all limited, say the scientists:

“If CO₂ emissions remain high, the climate engineering methods should not be solely counted on to prevent warming. Our results suggest that CO₂ mitigation seems the most effective way to prevent climate change.”

“Climate engineering does not appear to be an alternative option, although it could be possibly used to complement mitigation,” say the authors of the report, who did not look at the ethical, economic, legal, political or technological feasibility of the five methods.

If politicians were looking for an easy way out, this isn’t it. Matt Watson, a lecturer in geophysical natural hazards at Bristol University’s school of Earth Sciences, comments: “The paper sounds a timely warning about the abject stupidity of relying upon climate engineering solutions when reducing our reliance on carbon-based energy systems is the only sensible option.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report clearly indicates that with every decision we make to value the economy more highly than the environment we make climate engineering more likely. Scientists in the field believe more research is vital “to prevent misinformation and poor decision making”.

Yet very few serious researchers are strongly in favour of deployment:

“Most would see it as a tragedy were we to actually get to the point where deployment of global climate-altering technology was deemed necessary.

“More rigourous studies of proposed climate engineering methods are needed,” says Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, UK.

All these discussions point to the urgent need to ramp up approaches to climate change that increase mitigation and adaptation efforts while introducing governance for geo-engineering.

www.metabunk.org (search Belfort Group)

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