Untangling Fact From Fiction in the Public’s Perception of Solar Geoengineering

May 07, 2024

Note: This is the second article in our series on solar geoengineering communications. Read the introductory article in this series.

In recent years, worldwide crises have increasingly revealed the real-world consequences and dangers of misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories, which cloud reality and influence public opinion on science. Evidence and fact-based arguments seem to hold less merit in this world, and there are dangers to ineffective, contextless, and deficient communications that can complicate, distract, and even damage science integrity. 

Even if solar geoengineering can be carefully researched and judiciously governed, its uncertainty and potential consequences are enough to create a controversial public image. But this image isn’t helped when action is perceived to be under a veil of secrecy. Recent research and deployment activity has occurred with critical information about plans, geography, finances, and other details kept under wraps. The lack of community engagement and public discussion has left a vital knowledge gap. For the general public, this creates a cavity that threatens to be filled with rampant misinformation and conspiracy. 

The Role of Media in Telling the Story

Although solar geoengineering has been in the climate research and policy circles for the last twenty years, it is still being introduced into the mainstream. We’re seeing a huge increase in coverage about the field in news media, witnessing debates on social media, and even watching and reading as the film and book industries take on fictionalized versions of a geoengineered world. Let’s take a look at a few examples. 

As the field earns more news coverage, news outlets have created clickable headlines by focusing on the controversy. Some recent headlines framed solar geoengineering as “dire,” with “unknown risks” that may open “Pandora’s box,” while others have urged us to give it a chance and even wonder if it can save the world (or be a colossal disaster). None of these headlines – and often even the associated articles – tell the whole story. Still, they provide the general reading public with a mental frame of reference – that geoengineering is controversial, that it’s worthy of an uproar, and that it may even be too dangerous to discuss in an open forum. 

Meanwhile, social media discussions about solar geoengineering have spilled into conspiracies for several years. Research from 2017 reflected a nationally representative poll that showed that 10% of Americans believe in chemtrails, regardless of political affiliation. It noted that 60% of geoengineering discourse from the decade prior contained conspiratorial views. Recent research confirms that these conspiratorial views have persisted, as The University of Cambridge found that there is a large amount of spillover between geoengineering and conspiracy theories, with their research suggesting that “negative emotions associated with geoengineering have a contagion effect, transcending regional boundaries and engaging with wider conspiracies.” The authors found that these theories are especially prevalent in the United States but spill over across national and regional borders – importantly, these conspiracies tend to influence national debates in the U.S., UK, India, and Sweden. 

While social media engages a specific portion of an interested audience, the general public receives information through seemingly innocuous and sometimes more pleasurable means of communication. “Cli-fi” books and movies have introduced the concept of solar geoengineering to the public imagination and the cultural zeitgeist – with mixed results. The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson portrays India’s reaction to a heatwave with efforts to suffuse the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide particles in defiance of the strict UN protocols. In Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson, it’s an oil-industry billionaire who hatches a plan to blast gigatons of sulfur into the stratosphere – and in doing so, becomes the target of terrorists aiming to stop him. The movies Geostorm and Snowpiercer both portray the apocalyptic side effects of solar geoengineering in a way that only catastrophe movies can. 

Often, these examples of media – particularly the film versions – are less based in scientific accuracy yet more emotionally charged. But it is this type of media that reaches the masses, and can even be a motivating factor for those they reach – for example, the audiobook version of Termination Shock inspired the problematic founding of Make Sunsets. 

What are the potential results of media storytelling in the public imagination? In a recent large-scale, cross-cultural study on solar geoengineering, researchers found that the more people thought that solar radiation management (SRM) would have a negative impact on humans and nature, the less they accepted it. Though the study suggests a “conditional, reluctant acceptance of SRM among the public,” it indicates a delicate public perception that may be influenced and easily swayed by controversy and conspiracy.

When Conspiracy Collides With Reality 

When legitimate concerns over research tend to get subsumed and melded together with conspiracies, and then filtered down through the lens of politics and social norms, misinformation inevitably collides with reality. Last month, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill banning the release of airborne chemicals, which will go into effect on July 1 if signed by Tennessee’s governor. Though lawmakers discussed chemtrails during the bill’s debate, the bill itself doesn’t mention chemtrails explicitly. The bill forbids “intentional injection, release, or dispersion” of chemicals into the air. Instead of using “solar geoengineering,” it broadly prohibits “affecting temperature, weather, or the intensity of the sunlight.” These types of bills blur the line between mostly accurate representation of solar geoengineering while misunderstanding and misrepresenting the state of the science and what’s going on at the moment. 

Though this bill is the first to pass any legislature in the United States, lawmakers in several other states, such as Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, have introduced similar bills. Groups dedicated to spreading this misinformation have set their sights on this legislation, and several witnesses have testified in favor of similar laws in other states. As lawmakers attempt to sort through fact and fiction, we’re witnessing the public debate of a widely believed conspiracy theory and the mocking responses from those on the other side – one lawmaker in Tennessee even proposed an amendment to protect “yetis, or Bigfoot or Sasquatch” from the conspiracy. 

Strategies for Combating Misinformation

It’s not easy for science communications to contend with public perception in the face of such overwhelming fake news. To combat misinformation and quell controversy, honest and transparent educational efforts lead with the current state of the research and expected outcomes while being transparent about the pitfalls and potential risks and benefits. But this is just the first step to ensuring that the general public has trust in science, and more is needed to establish trust with a public inundated with misinformation. 

How can we combat this misinformation? There’s nothing easy about this, but we can start with a few simple steps: 

  1. Foster clear, consistent, and – most importantly – unbiased communication: Clear and consistent science communication can help build a shared understanding among different countries, cultures, and stakeholders. 
  1. Promote public engagement and informed decision-making: Transparent and accessible communication of the scientific evidence, research processes and outcomes, and ongoing debates can help build public trust in the scientific community. It also encourages informed decision-making, which is crucial for addressing global challenges. 
  1. Learn from other sectors: Careful science communication can help separate scientific facts from political agendas, ensuring that discussions are grounded in evidence-based reasoning and promoting a more constructive dialogue across diverse perspectives. Our next blog in this series will dig into this more specifically. 
  1. Understand community-specific needs: Each community has its own perceptions, concerns, and needs. Working with trusted voices in the community, including civil society, academia, and journalists, hold listening sessions to address questions and concerns head-on.  
  1. Proactively address concerns and ethical considerations: Solar geoengineering raises significant ethical concerns and potential risks that need to be addressed transparently and responsibly. Careful science communication can clarify the potential benefits, risks, and uncertainties associated with these techniques, facilitating informed public discourse. Leading with empathy is an important element here, recognizing that stakeholders are seeking to understand overwhelming or confusing issues. 
  1. Engage with journalists as an unbiased resource: As the media is on the front lines of climate-related communications to a broad audience, media engagement and capacity building are fundamental pieces to solar geoengineering communications. DSG aims to share accurate and unbiased information with journalists and to be a resource for fact-checking and clarifying without influencing or lobbying. 

As the world continues to grapple with complexities, discussions and decisions surrounding solar geoengineering must be guided by integrity, inclusivity, and a commitment to justice. Without sharing accurate and unbiased educational resources, misinformation may continue to propagate as the narrative is built around this topic. These risks worsen if information and communications appear confusing, disorganized, or externally influenced by politics or economic interests. By prioritizing transparent and responsible science communication, the global community can navigate the complex issues surrounding solar geoengineering more effectively, fostering informed debates, building public trust, and facilitating international cooperation in addressing the challenges of climate change.