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There’s a Bit of Truth To Some Climate Conspiracy Theories. But That Doesn’t Make Them Right

5 minute read

Having systematically colonized the ranks of government, academia, and media—including malleable-minded climate writers like yours truly—the dark legions of the World Economic Forum (WEF) have reportedly gotten around to their real work: employing their techno-fascist designs on traffic patterns in Oxford, U.K.

Or that’s what some people on the internet are saying, anyway. A viral climate conspiracy theory is saying that a new plan by Oxford’s government to use cameras and fines to limit through-traffic in the congested city center and reduce automobile pollution is actually part of a scheme by global elite new-world-order types to enforce so-called “climate lockdowns,” keeping people confined indoors in the name of climate action. It’s far from the only climate conspiracy that’s been making headway online lately. The odd part, though, is that there seems to be a grain of truth to the hoopla, depending on how you look at things. It’s less that the conspiracists have gotten any of their facts straight—they don’t do so well in that department—than that they’re putting their finger on the weirdness of this moment in the climate fight, and the strange, new, often disquieting aspects of some of the efforts meant to address it.

British commentator Brendan O’Neill argued as much in his column in Spiked, a libertarian-leaning online journal. “No, it isn’t the handiwork of the WEF and it isn’t part of a global plot to imprison us in our homes,” he wrote, “but erecting cameras to spy on car-users and fining those who drive to certain parts of their own city, all with the intention of pressuring us to walk instead, is a breed of lockdown.”

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Oxford isn’t actually fining people for leaving their neighborhoods—it’s just trying to get them to avoid driving through the city’s crowded central thoroughfares. But it’s true that the environmentalists are actually trying to change (gasp!) the way people are moving around, and they do have designs on people’s cars: they’d like there to be fewer of them so that the city will have space for a functioning bus network. Can you call that a “lockdown”? It seems more than a bit hyperbolic to me, but you could say it’s just semantics.

The “chemtrails” people have been coming off less loony, too. Such adherents have long been pointing cameras at vapor trails left by passing jetliners and opining about supposed efforts by oligarchs to change the weather by deliberately spraying chemicals from thousands of commercial jets. When a storm happens to blow in after a few jets pass by (jets are always passing by) they have a field day.

Read more: Inside a Controversial Startup’s Risky Attempt to Control Our Climate

Of course, no such plot is occurring—but a recent slew of geoengineering news would suggest the basic sense of the concern isn’t that far off. Namely, both the U.S. government and influential billionaires have been toying with research to cool the planet with so-called “atmospheric aerosol injection” in the face of runaway climate change—proposals that a portion of the public often sees as confirming long-running chemtrails conspiracy theories, according to research out this week in iScience. In February, Hungarian-American billionaire and frequent conspiracist punching bag George Soros seemed to add fuel to the fire, declaring his support for plans to try to brighten clouds over the Arctic in order to deflect the sun.

It’s true that governments and individuals really are trying out some weird stuff these days, a weirdness which, I feel, mainstream commentators often struggle to grapple with and express. No, companies billing lab-grown meat as an environmentally-conscious option aren’t trying to give you cancer as the conspiracists have recently started to claim in response to a Bloomberg article from last month, but it’s not hard to see why people are getting freaked out about it—no one’s been asked to swallow food out of a test tube before, but suddenly that seems like the road we’re going down.

What’s substantively wrong with the conspiracy theories, though, is that the chain of causality with which they explain the traffic cameras and sulfur spraying experiments is exactly backwards. In the conspiracists’ world, everything was fine and dandy, and then some strange people came along and tried to change stuff for who knows what end. That makes things seem really sinister. But the situation in the real world isn’t great—we’re on a runaway emissions train toward a future no one quite understands, but those people knowledgeable on the matter agree is likely to be terrible. Good ideas or bad, climate shenanigans like camera-based driving schemes and billionaire solar geoengineering proposals aren’t coming out of some Bond villain lair. They’re just people trying something, anything, to get us back to normal.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com