Skip to content

Give Us This Doomsday

Climate conspiracies anticipated both right-wing denialism and the new end times

Matt Lauer announced on the January 11, 2000, broadcast of NBC’s The Today Show:

Sixty-degree weather in New York City just last week. Violent storms across Europe two weeks ago. And now the government says the 1990s were the hottest decade in a thousand years. It’s enough to make us all wonder what’s going on.

Joining Lauer on air that morning were Art Bell—the host of Coast to Coast AM and godfather of late-night paranoid radio—and Whitley Strieber—a ufologist and author, whose 1987 book Communion was a nonfiction account of his own alleged alien abduction. They were there to promote their coauthored new book, The Coming Global Superstorm. Billed as both “speculative fiction based on fact” and “documented reality” by its authors, the book predicted climate change would soon produce a catastrophic storm with civilization-destroying potential. Lauer pressed the authors, gesturing first toward Bell, “Not a meteorologist?” And then Strieber, “Not a meteorologist?” No, they were “informed amateurs,” Bell quipped. “Who are not climatologists,” Lauer clarified again.

Their lack of expertise aside, Bell and Strieber wanted their book to be a warning. Strieber deflected Lauer’s critiques, arguing that while “[maybe] this won’t happen . . . the point is that we need science to be able to tell us what’s going on right now” because of the clip at which they believed the winds were changing. As Bell said, “It should scare people!” (Coming Global Superstorm was adapted to film in 2004 in the mega-disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.) But in the year before their Today appearance, Bell had spent a lot of airtime signaling Y2K’s impending doom. With this new book, Lauer asked, did he not run the risk of “sounding like the radio host cried wolf?” After a beat, Bell responded:

We spent, worldwide, $250 billion on [preventing] Y2K, so it was an event that was warned about and was mitigated. I assume that you own a home, you probably pay insurance. When your house doesn’t catch on fire and burn down, do you feel like you have egg on your face when you pay the insurance premium?

Lauer laughed, concluding that he “better go out and pay [his] insurance on this one.”

Today, when you think of conspiracy theories and climate change, your first thought is likely of skeptical cranks sparring with scientists over the veracity of data about rising sea levels and surface air temperatures. Recent studies suggest that anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of respondents reject the scientific consensus that climate change is both real and the consequence of human actions. The common wisdom is that conspiratorial ideation and denialism go hand in hand and, moreover, are directly linked to the far right.

But a more idiosyncratic, even sinister, form of environmental awareness lurks in many conspiracy theories. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the conspiratorial zeitgeist teemed with ideas about anthropogenic climate change and so-called “Earth changes.” Across airwaves and early computer message boards there was a growing sense that something was going on. By the mid-1990s, Art Bell’s radio show, with between ten and fifteen million nightly listeners, was a flashpoint for all things conspiratorial. Of the many theories concerned with the climate, two of them typified the climatic conspiracy theorizing of the time.

On the one hand were fears that the American government was deliberately altering the climate. To win the Cold War, yes, but that victory expanded the state’s draconian power. The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), originally a joint initiative by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research in rural Alaska, was the catalyst for much speculation (and in the shadow of real experiments in militarized weather modification, speculation wasn’t necessarily so far-fetched). On the other hand, a Y2K-inflected, millenarian contingent believed that the world teetered on the precipice of biblical cataclysm. Present-day prophets tethered natural disasters to human folly, warning that humanity writ-large had lost the plot.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the conspiratorial zeitgeist teemed with ideas about anthropogenic climate change and so-called “Earth changes.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have documented, the American political establishment was contesting the legitimacy of climate change. In previous decades, the environment was largely a bipartisan issue; Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth report was a serious, if misguided, touchstone for ecologically curious policymakers. But with the Cold War’s end, climate policy was perceived less as a national issue worked out for the sake of the world, and instead as a world issue imposed upon nations. Without the Soviet Union, anxiety about socialism was directed at the U.S. state itself, intensifying criticisms of government overreach and further shifting the Republican’s party line. Fred Singer, a prominent scientist and fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s, played a key role in dismissing ozone depletions as “localized and temporary,” insisting that chlorofluorocarbons had nothing to do with the “natural [variations]” in Earth’s atmosphere. Singer and a handful of other scientists—referred to by George H.W. Bush as “my scientists”—repeatedly teamed with think tanks and private corporations to refute the scientific evidence in the mainstream while “merchandising doubt.” The fact was that their efforts were inseparable from the United States’ resistance to being bound by external treaties in a moment of unipolarity. Together, these so-called experts sowed the seeds of politicized denialism that are now coming to fruition.

Yet the conspiracies flowing from the halls of power did not always square with peoples’ experiences. Radio waves cast into the dead of the night carried a strange, collective political behavior. Theories of intentional weather modification and looming apocalypse pushed back on officially ordained consensus reality. They also reimagined what it meant to be a public: these ideas reflected the growing divide between the people and the state at the turn of the century and the alienation in which Americans learned to bowl alone (the titular emblem of Robert Putnam’s eulogy for the nation’s communal and democratic participation). The environment has always been political, just not always in ways that are legible today.

“I’m going to characterize [HAARP] in two different ways,” Nick Begich Jr. told Bell on a December 1, 1995, broadcast of Coast. “First, let’s talk about what the military says it is, and then let’s talk about what our research indicates that it is.” In a neat quadrant carved from the dense Alaskan woods, an array of wiry antennas sits atop a patch of concrete, surrounded by a weathered chain-link fence. A 1990 report by the Naval Research Laboratory laid out the installation’s basic purpose: to heat portions of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, prepping it for the military’s remote sensing and communications systems. In conspiratorial circles, HAARP is synonymous with weather and mind control, thanks to Begich’s 1995 book Angels Don’t Play This HAARP. Begich cites an NPR affiliate’s interview with a “technician/researcher” lamenting that they could “hardly find an expert who knows anything about [HAARP], because they’re all working for the government.” Begich was prone to smelling a rat behind government apparatuses. This one reeked.

Begich became a Coast mainstay. His father, Nicholas Begich Sr., had served as an Alaskan congressman until his untimely death in plane crash in 1972. (Also on the flight was Democratic representative Hale Boggs, who had previously served on the Warren Commission, and was then in Alaska campaigning for Begich’s reelection.) Begich Sr. had been instrumental in passing the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which did away with the state’s Indigenous land title system in favor of twelve for-profit “Alaska Native regional corporations,” paving the way for oil extraction and pipeline construction. His father’s legacy instilled in Begich Jr. that “‘making a difference’ was a way of life.” Now, his home state was wrapped up in military-industrial complex’s latest scheme: beyond hoovering up federal funding, he claimed that the HAARP facility provided cover for large-scale scientific experiments that threatened to compromise “who we are as Americans.” Perfectly vague, yet it struck a poignant register. While Begich’s theories about HAARP didn’t pan out, there were historical precedents for some of them. The U.S. government had been trying to weaponize the weather for decades.

On July 3, 1972, the front page of the New York Times announced that “Rainmaking Is Used As Weapon by U.S.” The story was the latest from Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist responsible for exposing the 1968 My Lai massacre and its associated cover-up. According to sources quoted by Hersh in a 1974 follow-up, the military had spent $3.6 million conducting an experimental, classified “cloud seeding program” since the mid-1960s to “slow the movement of North Vietnamese troops” along the Ho Chi Minh Trail with artificial storms. To officials, the project—dubbed “Operation Pop-Eye”—had been a success.

But Pop-Eye was just the tip of the iceberg. A week later, Hersh returned to the Times with a study by Dr. Gordon J. F. MacDonald, a prominent geophysicist who had served as the vice president of the national security policy nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses. MacDonald’s chilling study presented several “options available to those who would choose to tamper with nature,” among them: changing global temperatures by putting materials into orbit; triggering tidal waves with strategically placed and detonated explosives; and changing the “physical makeup of the atmosphere by creating . . . a ‘hole’ in the important ozone layer,” making life below impossible. Speaking before a 1975 congressional hearing on the international prohibition of weather modification as a weapon, MacDonald advised that “one can conduct covert operations using a new technology in a democracy without the knowledge of the people.”

This was foundational lore. As historian James Rodger Fleming writes in Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, Pop-Eye and its operational successor Operation Motorpool were appropriately deemed the “Watergate of weather warfare” in the spirit of the time. And their disclosure brought a longer running program to light, one that stretched back to the Cold War’s infancy. Before there was a “missile gap,” it seemed that there was a “weather gap.” Convinced that the Soviet Union was leaps and bounds ahead of them, the U.S. military establishment refused to be left in the dust.

In the late 1940s, Fleming recounts that General Electric was tasked with developing technology to harness the heavens under the auspices of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Irving Langmuir. It was Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt’s older brother, who was credited with discovering that silver iodide could be used to whip up precipitation. Before long, Kurt, who then wrote copy for GE, would appropriate the concept for his 1963 book Cat’s Cradle, which features “Ice-nine,” a fictional compound that freezes anything it touches, developed by Manhattan Project-affiliated scientists. And like their other creation, it could potentially destroy all life on Earth.

While the Senate began hearings debating the need for an international pact prohibiting the use of “environmental and geophysical modification” as weapons, anxieties about government weather control programs combined with a growing public awareness of climate change. Cooling panics were just downstream from the lurking threat of “nuclear winter,” as a drop in global temperatures became an observable trend and people began to suspect that atmospheric nuclear testing was changing the weather. In 1974, the U.S. National Science Board indicated that over the previous twenty to thirty years, temperatures had fallen worldwide, “irregularly at first but more sharply over the last decade.” In an op-ed for the Washington Post in 1975, journalist George F. Will sounded the alarm bells over a CIA report titled “Potential Implications of Trends in World Population, Food Production, and Climate.” Similarly, The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age appeared on the shelves in 1977 after a particularly harsh winter. With conclusions largely extrapolated from the same CIA reports Will wrote up in the Post, the book’s authors, “The Impact Team,” warned of an impending climate catastrophe. Though they intended to “inform the public of the true facts about a topic often clouded by fiction, superstition, and alarmist misrepresentation,” a review in Nature complained it “[led] the pack in clouding up further precisely what is intended to clear.”

Courting the apocalypse imagined a collaborative, collective entity where there was thought to be none—superficial divisions would fall away in the face of Mother Nature’s ecstatic end times.

Decades later, new Air Force documents dealing with weather weapons and mastery began circulating online. In 1993—the same year that construction began on HAARPa Canadian officer at the Air Force’s Air War College submitted a research report, ominously titled “Weather Modification: The Ultimate Weapon?” As if designed to set conspiracy theorists’ antennae abuzz, it concludes that “military weather modification is not a fantasy—it is a fact.” A 1996 paper announced that weather was a “force multiplier,” laying out a hypothetical course of action for how the military establishment might harness its power by 2025. “Imagine,” its first lines read, “that in 2025 the U.S. is fighting a rich, but now consolidated, politically powerful drug cartel in South America.” The weather would play a key role in deciding combat outcomes.

Was it so far beyond the realm of possibility to believe that HAARP might be something other than a research facility? Probably. But the idea that the climate was being altered in dangerous ways—and even deliberately—by human activity was clearly supported by the documentary record. And it was being concealed from the public by those in power at the same time a cabal of military-affiliated, high-level scientists were engaged in a longstanding effort to obscure the truth about global warming. To borrow from Bell, it did seem that there was a great “[experiment] on the U.S. civilian population, in fact, the world’s population” underway.

“Can you imagine ocean front property in Colorado?” theVirginian-Pilot asked in 1995. “How about the West Coast becoming the Isles of California and the Mississippi River turning into an inland seaway?” Between 1979 and 1982, Gordon-Michael Scallion began to make both predictions and maps. While employed as an electrical engineer, he suffered a medical emergency and shortly thereafter the visions began, “totally at random . . . [with] no warning.” Scallion saw a future where global warming, nuclear activity, and the abuse and misuse of technological concepts shifted the Earth’s poles, leading to massive flooding and the reformulation of the planet’s geography.

Appearing first on Dreamland, one of Coast’s sister shows, Scallion recounted the coming “Earth changes”—a phrase that he adapted from Edgar Cayce, who prefigured the New Age movement. His predictions included a series of powerful earthquakes that would fracture the West Coast and that “by 1997, if you were to take out your compass, you would find it pointing in a different direction.” Scallion claimed to have correctly forecasted the 1992 and 1994 California earthquakes; Hurricane Andrew in 1992; the Great Flood of 1993; and the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan. In a write-up of Notes from the Cosmos, Scallion’s self-published 1997 book, Newsweek declared that he was “hailed by some as a latter-day Nostradamus.”

Apocalypse, it seemed, was just around the corner. Scallion’s maps were made to be future histories, recounting disasters to an unborn generation that didn’t experience them firsthand. Scallion claimed in the introduction to his Future Map of the United States that he hoped to establish an “early warning system.” He continues, “Even in this eleventh hour time frame, consciousness can alter an event, modify the changes in an area, or at the very least, help prepare for what is to come.”

Doomsaying aside, an eccentric religious optimism ran throughout Scallion’s prophesies. Children born after 1998 would develop unusual intuitive abilities. By age two, many of them would have mastered multiple languages and, within a few years, they would become aware of their most recent past lives. Scallion mirrored the millenarian evangelizing of Y2K’s most fervent advocates, but he added a redemptive twist. “New vibrations” would lead to a greater, shared consciousness among the Earth’s many inhabitants; communication with animals would be common; new species of flowers, plants, and trees would replace modern pharmaceuticals; and a unified spiritual system, “The Oneness,” would coalesce around the “interrelatedness of all life.”

It was hard to argue with some of Scallion’s prognoses. Earthquakes, floods, and storms would continue to occur. Their increased frequency and intensity corresponded with, but, importantly, went beyond, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings. Although a 1992 IPCC report concluded that “the unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more,” their view shifted by 1995, when another widely cited report found that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” As a whole, Scallion’s theories bore out that climate change, in one form or another, was driving the planet to a tipping point.

They were also a reaction to modernity’s steadily increasing gait. “By the start of the 1890s,” the historian Jason Scott Smith writes, “time itself was perceived by many to be accelerating.” Bell warned of the “quickening,” a term he used to describe his belief that “every aspect of life in every part of our world is accelerating, changing, quickening.” Never mind truth, the feeling matters. Americans lived in the aftermath of the neoliberal offensive; the incessant flow of data and instant interface rendered every aspect of day-to-day life legible and saleable. As Bell droned on the radio, harmonizing with CB beeps, tuned-in truckers—infamous Coast-heads—might have noticed bigger container ports, and wider, busier highways. Perhaps, too, they caught the spike in home delivery and the resulting crash of small town and city shopping centers, along with the construction of massive animal husbandry facilities and logistical centers. Scallion’s rapture redirected anxieties away from dull, incremental suffering and toward decisive rupture. Describing the responsibility that accompanied his prophecies, Scallion told Bell on-air that,

When you start [seeing things on a planetary scale] . . . you want to do something. You have a vision and you’re seeing a trainwreck . . . Your first impulse is denial, that this is not going to happen . . . If you allow the event to happen, as my case was—I allowed several events to happen before I did anything—then you feel this deep remorse for not having taken some kind of an action.

The literary scholar Rob Nixon points out that less than a year after Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 declaration that “there is no such thing as society,” James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, stressed in an historic address the necessity of collective action to avert climate change. Courting the apocalypse imagined a collaborative, collective entity where there was thought to be none—superficial divisions would fall away in the face of Mother Nature’s ecstatic end times.

Neither Begich nor Scallion’s powerful emotional connections to the weather and climate faded away. The apocalypse is no longer a singular event but a part of our ideological substrate. HAARP has continued to stoke conspiracies. Early web users linked the facility to “chemtrails,” the lingering contrails left by airplanes. One announced: “[BIOWAR] LINES IN THE SKY IDENTIFIED.” William Thomas, who appeared on Coast in 1999, warned that “something huge is going on . . . What is definitely known and verifiable is that thousands, quite possibly tens of thousands of Americans . . . are becoming ill enough to seek medical attention after these flyovers.”

On January 9, 2012, unexplained noises boomed in the skies over Costa Rica, followed days later by similar reports from Malaysia. Though it seemed likely that the former was caused by a supersonic aircraft flying overhead and the latter a byproduct of palm oil processing machines at a nearby factory, across the internet some commentators offered up the Alaskan installation as an explanation. In 2013, a Navy reservist and military contractor carved the phrase “My ELF weapon” onto the stock of a shotgun with which he proceeded to open fire with at the Washington Navy Yard, killing twelve people. “ELF” in all likelihood referred to “extremely low frequencies,” a subset of the technology employed at HAARP. And two Georgia men—arrested as they prepared to leave for Alaska with a carful of assault weapons, “thousands of rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, radio communications equipment, and five thousand dollars in cash”—sought to break into the HAARP facility in 2016. They were arrested before they even left their home state.

Begich and Scallion refracted and reconfigured humanist concerns over the prospects of anthropogenic climate change in a kind of erroneous, pragmatic bargain, but they missed the mark. While nearly thirty years have passed since Coast’s heyday, the establishment has done little to assuage fears of an expiring planet. Successive presidential administrations have failed to take meaningful action on an increasingly dire situation. Culture warriors have doubled down across the political spectrum, narrowing the window for meaningful debate and participation. Geriatric former senators can claim that climate change is the “greatest hoax” perpetrated on the American people as corporate-funded special interest groups muddy the waters. There’s a stark contrast between the open destruction of the planet and the labyrinthine networks that conspiracy theorists seek to unearth. Narrativizing the problem obscures violent, extractive norms, rendering a systemic failing as the work of a handful of bad actors.

If only it were so simple. Conspiracy positions you as the protagonist, capable of cutting through the layers of deception. The upshot is that none of this can be dismissed as entirely “paranoid” or pathological. Conspiracy theories should be understood as the products of particular historical circumstances—as much a reflection of the present’s disorder as the climate crisis itself. Maybe, then, we might revitalize an actionable politics of suspicion. Doom need not only lead to mystification; conspiracism’s latent critiques suggest a path from apocalypse to revolution.