A measure for depth of water stands upright in a dried up landscape that was formerly a lake

A water level meter in the middle of the dried-up Kondor Lake near Kerekegyhaza, Hungary, 21 July 2022. Conspiracy theorists contend the drought is the result of previous weather-manipulation experiments devised to prevent hailstorms from ruining crops. Photo by Marton Monus/Reuters


Beware climate populism

The most ardent deniers of anthropogenic climate change today will become the climate conspiracy theorists of tomorrow

by Ákos Szegőfi + BIO

A water level meter in the middle of the dried-up Kondor Lake near Kerekegyhaza, Hungary, 21 July 2022. Conspiracy theorists contend the drought is the result of previous weather-manipulation experiments devised to prevent hailstorms from ruining crops. Photo by Marton Monus/Reuters

The climate crisis is turning more severe with every passing year, and we are coming close to a point where it would no longer be possible to ignore or deny its existence. Sea levels rise, weather conditions become ever more extreme, oscillating between drought and torrent. Crops die en masse, reducing access to goods and increasing prices in many places. Somewhere down the line in this collective awakening, we can expect the rapid emergence of actors who are more interested in blaming others for the climate emergency than actually providing solutions; culprits could be immigrants, Jews, disliked minorities, old enemies – the usual suspects or new targets, yet to emerge.

Already we can see early signs of a shift from denial to blame in what one could call climate populism – an approach to the problem and the politics operating with slogans but without solutions, with blame but without taking responsibility – a direct descendant of the populisms we know of today. To make an even sharper prediction: the climate populists of the near future might just turn out to be the same politicians and pundits that today fashion themselves as the most ardent deniers of anthropogenic climate change.

Climate-related conspiracy theories are not new. In fact, human history is awash with instances of people attributing agency and intentionality to the weather. There have been gods and all sorts of supernatural beings that were, at one point or another, imagined responsible for dramatic weather conditions. The list is long. There is Zeus, the Greek god of thunder; the feathered serpent Kukulkan, the Mayan god of the wind; and Raijin, the Japanese god of thunderstorms. Many Egyptian gods, especially the earliest ones, had something to do with weather conditions, and were worshipped so they would bring a harvest of plenty.

But one could say that humans have left behind these characters long ago. ‘Modern’ people would rely on weather reports instead of praying to some deity for rain. They would use weather manipulation systems instead of ritual animal sacrifices. Furthermore, beliefs in deities that control the weather cannot really be called conspiracy theories in the first place. But, as it turns out, while our technology advanced at an incredible speed, our mind’s propensity to imagine intentions behind dramatic outcomes did not. When things turn bad, human populations react in ways that are predictable – including in politics.

The tragic wildfires in Maui, Hawaii of 2023 were followed by a deluge of conspiracy theories and disinformation. These range from the use of weather manipulation systems to space lasers – the list is weird, and quite long. A narrative repeatedly debunked by half a dozen high-profile news outlets claimed that weather manipulation systems would be used to force people into ‘smart cities’, where everything is solar powered, people are vegetarian, and governance is given to an AI (ahem, where do I sign up?) Others cited the use of obscure military space technology created and deployed by some ‘global elite’ (aka, Jews) to generate natural disasters artificially. In fact, it seems that some people are just as likely to attribute agency and intentionality to weather changes and natural disasters as our ancestors did, thousands of years in the past.

All in all, conspiracy theories following the weather disasters of the summer were as natural as the growth of new mushrooms. And, much like the mushrooms, the narratives are interconnected. Their inner logic is in many ways incoherent. But they seem to be in an agreement about the presence of malevolent human intentions behind bad happenings. Unsurprisingly, in the conspiracist reading, every disaster has been directly caused by shady and powerful actors. It can be argued that we don’t have much evidence showing that these theories are believed by many. Conspiracy theorists are often very loud and salient on social media, but this does not necessarily mean that there are many of them. According to the sociologist Chris Bail, social media functions more like a prism that empowers status-seeking extremists. That is, these networks magnify fringe opinions and make them feel more prominent than they actually are. In the near future, the theories may become prominent, in fact. Climate-related conspiracy theories offer people something precious: a feeling of control, and justification for not changing their lifestyles in the face of a warming world.

If an outcome is really bad, then people prefer to think it must have been someone’s fault

As the cultural evolutionist Olivier Morin pointed out in 2015, one of the best predictors of audience success of tales is that they have already spread with success in the past. Old narratives are updated to meet the requirements of contemporary historical environments. The common motifs in conspiracy theories – such as the malevolent and powerful outgroup, the intentional wrongdoing, the scheming behind the curtains coupled with a profound distrust for official sources of information – have been attractive elements in stories for millennia. Topics change, and this time the focus will likely be the climate crisis; but they will all make their re-appearance in the conspiracy theories of the future, as well.

When it comes to conspiracy theories, scientific literature is rife with competing explanations as to why they thrive among us. The tenet I’m invoking here, ‘agenticity’, follows along with the ideas of the science historian Michael Shermer, who’s written extensively on conspiracy theory in science and beyond. Take the Maui disaster, where people found patterns in noisy data, and attributed agency and intentionality to these patterns. The tendency to find meaning in random noise becomes even more pronounced when it comes to information about bad happenings. If we lose the sciencey language, the observation is simply that if an outcome is really bad, then people prefer to think it must have been someone’s – or some group’s – fault.

If climate change is slowly turning the planet into an oven, then this must have been the outcome of our enemies’ intentional wrongdoing. If there are no coincidences in the world, then everything, including catastrophic events, can be controlled. It is only a matter of power and prowess.

Strengthening this hypothesis is the finding that humans in general find it hard to bear with uncertainty and ambiguity. Conspiracist thinking is on an extreme end of a spectrum of causal thinking about the world. On the other extreme end, people would consistently believe that everything is chance, and nothing can be controlled through intentional actions. Just like conspiracist thinking seems to be maladaptive at first sight, this other extreme would then be a recipe of not taking action, even in situations when something could actually be done. This rather depressive mental predisposition was named learned helplessness by the psychologist Martin Seligman. Conspiracy theories have an appeal precisely because they promise, at least on the surface, to completely eradicate uncertainty and chance from the interpretation of events. They make everything look controllable by making everything appear controlled.

Conspiracy theories are not just amusing or compelling explanations that float around in space. Close-knit social groups, where members actively construct meaning and goals for themselves, are sometimes formed around conspiracy narratives. Inside a community of believers, members encourage, reward and pay attention to each other. This has been apparent in the case of QAnon, an omniconspiracy movement in which believers together participate in a conspiratorial treasure hunt, fuelled by the epic background story of saving kidnapped children. QAnon community membership skyrocketed during COVID-19, and it is speculated that this growth was at least partly due to quarantining and the social isolation it brought along.

As the philosopher Dan Williams noted, believing in a conspiracy theory – or in any other questionable belief – may occasionally be socially adaptive, in a sense that it allows the believer to participate in rewarding group activities, and consequently avoid the pain of loneliness and exclusion. Showing public conformity with group beliefs is a standard requirement of belonging, a sign of loyalty. While conformity is not exactly genuine believing, opinion may change over time during repeated exposure to beliefs. Adherence to group narratives is also dependent on emotional and social investments in a community, like friendships and love affairs. It should come as no surprise that parallels have been drawn between conspiracist thinking and religious beliefs.

Promoting a conspiracy theory also helps the promotor. The most straightforward benefit, of course, is money. Conspiracy theorists on YouTube may make revenue through advertising or by selling merchandise. The most well-known example of this is Alex Jones’s Infowars website, which generated an estimated $165 million in a three-year period, mostly by selling supplements and prepping gear for viewers who became convinced that society was going to collapse.

There are other, non-monetary perks for communicators, too. The messenger of bad news is often perceived to be more competent, according to an experimental study carried out by Pascal Boyer and Nora Parren. It is easy to see how communicators, suggesting that they possess ‘secret knowledge’ or ‘insider information’ – like the anonymous government official ‘Q’ in QAnon, who claims to hold Q-level clearance to classified information – may find it easier to boost their reputation as experts in the eyes of explanation-hungry audiences. Under specific circumstances, building this kind of reputation may pay off in politics, too: boys who cry wolf are sometimes elected as mayors of the town. To a more limited extent, followers are also granted the same benefit. In possession of ‘insider information’, they may act and feel superior towards the ‘sheeple’, those who don’t believe in their ideas. It is no wonder that users holding extremely fringe beliefs tend to be more active on social media: they use platforms for identity protection, and to evangelise.

In the drought of 2022, landowners became convinced that the system was to blame for the absence of rain

Given all this, what should we expect to see when the worst ecological catastrophe of the planet becomes an undeniable reality, when the most devastating impacts of climate change come home to roost? Beyond Maui, we’re already seeing the theories emerge.

My favourite overlooked case comes from Hungary. This small, central-eastern European country experienced previously unseen, heavy droughts in the summer of 2022. Crops had been destroyed over 1.3 million hectares – one-third of the land available for full cultivation. The country had to import large quantities of corn, an unprecedented transaction in modern Hungarian history.

A few years prior, the country had installed a weather manipulation system capable of managing ice and protecting crops from hailstorms. It is colloquially referred to as ‘Jéger’. The system consists of approximately 1,000 ground generators that release silver-iodide into to the lower layers of the atmosphere, preventing the formation of large pieces of ice in clouds. As the historic drought of 2022 turned more severe with every passing week, several landowners became convinced that the system and its operators were to blame for the absence of rain. Conspiracy theories either suggested that generators ‘split’ the clouds in half, preventing their maturation into proper rainclouds, or that they ‘forced’ the rain to fall earlier, so water never reached the crops.

The logical incompatibility of these two explanations is not unusual. Conspiracy theories, even if about the same topic, are often in disagreement about the how. What is important, is that they are in agreement on the why. And the answer to that, of course, is because a powerful someone intentionally caused something bad. By virtue of believing this, an ecological catastrophe suddenly becomes controllable. The wrongdoer can be stopped. The drought can be ended.

The Jéger narrative quickly found its referential basis, establishing connections with other conspiracy ideas, including the HAARP-conspiracy theory from abroad. The acronym stands for High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a University of Alaska initiative, with the goal of studying the ionosphere – the part of the atmosphere where northern lights are observable. The scientists working in HAARP definitely didn’t see it coming in the 1990s when some people – including influential politicians – propagated a rumour about the global elite (again, the Jews) deciding that the planet was overpopulated, thus initiating the HAARP-system to starve everyone to death.

In 2022, some people thought the same or similar forces were at play. And, despite efforts to debunk the conspiracy theory at organised roundtable discussions with farmers, and despite multiple factchecks published in different segments of the media, the Hungarian Jéger system had to be partially deactivated. The operators received death threats. Members of the Hungarian Chamber of Agriculture (NAK) were accused of working for the CIA. Desperate farmers nearly lynched a Jéger worker, the president of the NAK claimed in an interview.

The invocation of HAARP highlights another interesting aspect of conspiracy theories, namely, that they raise more questions than they answer. Why would the operators of the Jéger system want to cause a drought in their own country? To provide an explanation for the motivations of the wrongdoers, other conspiracy narratives are included, in this case – as well as in many other Western cases – the one about Jewish world domination. An individual engaged in one conspiracy theory becomes inclined to engage with more, as there are many open questions that remain. This marks the beginning of a long journey down the rabbit hole.

Once this particular type of causal thinking is learned, it may influence the interpretation of other events, up to the point where all social information from the outside world is organised into fearful conspiracies. Psychological science found that one of the best predictors of a person believing in any given conspiracy theory is that they already believe in another one.

So far, looking to a conspiracy theory to explain the weather has remained a fringe occurrence. But in the future, as the impact of climate change becomes more disruptive, you might see a more mainstream, definable political movement emerge, in which politicians and pundits exploit worries about the climate emergency for political and economic gain.

Climate populism – the political stance that is imagined surfing on the back of climate-related conspiracy theories – would have a number of features in common with populism as studied by researchers today. Just like other populisms, we cannot expect it to form a coherent ideology or worldview – apart from the usual trope of pitting ‘the people’ against the malevolent ‘elite’. The goal of the climate populist will be to seize power in democratic elections by playing on the populace’s worries regarding their rapidly changing natural environments as well as their changing lifestyles. The climate populist would achieve this without providing two essential elements that all good, climate-focused political movements should feature: long-term solutions and responsibility-taking. What the climate populist would seek to do instead is to provide justification for voters so they do not feel pressured to change their usual lifestyles and consumer choices.

The conspiracy theories of the future would certainly make use of two recent developments: artificial intelligence and gamification. Large language models (LLMs) spared from moral-alignment training could be used to generate conspiracy theories and to fabricate evidence. Other AI systems can create believable, fake online personas that attempt to provide a sense of public support for the false narratives written by the LLMs.

Indeed, QAnon’s most dangerous feature was that it married conspiracy theories with gamification. Potential believers are no longer just consumers of narratives. They are given an opportunity to actively shape the narrative structure, akin to an alternate reality game (ARG). ARGs are transmedia narratives, in which players collectively solve problems using clues that the writers of the game – sometimes called puppet-masters – have written, in order to develop an intriguing storyline. They are known for boosting engagement, occasionally causing a form of addiction in which gamers tend to fuse real life with the game, as the ARG expert Jane McGonigal explains. Gamification transforms conspiracy theories into a more immersive, videogame-like experience, in which the game has the potential to step out from the digital world into the real one.

The political forces that are the most ardent climate change deniers will be the climate populists of tomorrow

In the case of QAnon, the game began online, where players encountered cryptic messages called ‘Q-drops’ from the anonymous source Q, and interpreted these with likeminded friends. Some people have written articles and even books deciphering Q’s messages, driving an interactive treasure hunt as plotted as Indiana Jones.

Conspiracy theories are going to be just one tool in the ugly little toolbox of the climate populist. Traditionalist and essentialist tropes may call for ‘protecting our ancient ways of life’ and ‘sticking to the heritage of our forefathers’ – conveniently forgetting that it was partly the heritage of our forefathers that brought about climate change. Populist movements are often incapable of forming long-term alliances with each other, but there will be exceptions. One likely area of cooperation is exclusionary action against climate refugees. On this topic, climate populists would suddenly discover their mutual interests and display them as collective identities.

I consider Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro, known for his rhetoric of blaming Indigenous people for fires causing deforestation in the Amazon and an outspoken climate-change denier, to be a pioneer of climate populism, although I doubt that he would take due credit. In a speech delivered remotely for the United Nations General Assembly in 2020, Bolsonaro blamed Indigenous tribes for instigating catastrophic fires in the Amazon rainforest. Experts have debunked his claims, pointing out that deforestation is to blame – a direct outcome of Bolsonaro’s environmental policies, which emboldened land speculators to log and burn vast areas. In return, Bolsonaro answered by citing suspicious details – for instance, that fires always break out at the same side of the forest, where ‘peasants and Indians burn their fields’. The benefits of his narrative are evident. It justifies not doing something difficult – changing the economy – while also justifying discrimination against minorities. It lifts responsibility and identifies a target. The narrative takes the shape of a conspiracy theory: an ignorant outgroup destroying our beautiful national heritage.

It’s easy to see how the narrative structure of conspiracy theories can be similar from one to the next. But I predict that even the sources of conspiracy theories will stay the same. The political forces that are right now the most ardent deniers of anthropogenic climate change will turn out to be the climate populists of tomorrow. At first this might sound like a paradox. How could a political force or actor that claimed the climate crisis does not exist put forward, the next day, a narrative that the Jews caused the climate crisis? This sounds a bit too dystopian, too 1984. Surely, voters in functioning democratic societies would detect the discrepancy between incompatible claims. They would voice their concerns. If inconsistencies remain, their support would be withdrawn.

Sadly, this is not always our experience with extremist political messaging. For concerned believers of conspiracy theories, group belonging might be more important than narrative consistency. It could also be that the logical inconsistencies are not perceived at all. This is not because conspiracy believers are stupid, uneducated or incapable of logical thinking. It is because the narrative still contains the critical motifs, from the hated outgroup to the malevolent intent and all the rest. The story would still offer the same psychological (and material) benefits. What happens, from the perspective of the believers, is that they ‘uncover’ a more ‘complete’ picture of the ‘truth’. This new ‘truth’ would, unsurprisingly, still fit with the worldview that is characterised by outgroups scheming to destroy traditional culture. It may sound weird, but conspiracy-communicators could remain capable of increasing their own reputation by using conspiracist narratives, even if the conspiracy they advocate is in logical disagreement with what they have advocated yesterday.

Transposing what we know about conspiracy theories on to predictions of the climate crisis, a curious picture begins to form with unmistakable human irony. In the case of anthropogenic climate change, there is an actual agent behind the disastrous happenings: us. This much is very unusual. For once, there is someone directly responsible. We should not be searching far and wide for enemies to point at. And perhaps we are not so malevolent as the all-powerful agents in the conspiracist imagination. Most of us are more ignorant than evil – although our ignorance, short-sightedness and passivity may as well be considered evil, as the moral philosopher Peter Singer has argued in his seminal essay ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ (1972).

Looking in the mirror is difficult, not only because we may feel discomfort from what we see but because of the expectations we may perceive when looking at ourselves. Imagine a political campaign focused on how we personally need to make our lives more uncomfortable to minimise the sum total discomfort that all humanity experiences. This is a career-ending slogan for even the most popular candidate. Collective responsibility is a hard sell in politics. Blaming some other group for the wreckage is much easier, and it may yield short-term benefits – and long-term catastrophe. It may allow us, the citizens, to not take responsibility, to keep on doing what we have been doing so far. It allows us to say: others need to change, but definitely not us. This will be the fundamental appeal of climate populism. This is the future of conspiracy theories.