“Murderers.” “Criminals.” “We are watching you.”
These are just a handful of the threats and abuse sent to meteorologists at AEMET, Spain’s national weather agency, in recent months. They come via social media, its website, letters, phone calls – even in the form of graffiti sprayed across one of its buildings.
Abuse and harassment “have always happened” against the agency’s scientists, Estrella Gutiérrez-Marco, spokesperson for AEMET, told CNN.
The abuse got so bad that in April, AEMET posted a video on Twitter calling for an end to the harassment, and asking for respect. Even the government intervened. Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for the ecological transition, posted on Twitter in support of the agency: “Lying, giving wings to conspiracy and fear, insulting … It is time to say enough.”
The harassment of meteorologists by conspiracy theorists and climate deniers is not a phenomenon confined to Spain.
National weather services, meteorologists and climate communicators in countries from the US to Australia say they’re experiencing an increase in threats and abuse, often around accusations they are overstating, lying about or even controlling the weather.
In Spain’s case, much of the trolling revolves around the rehashing of an old conspiracy theory: so-called “chemtrails.”
Under many of the agency’s Twitter posts, especially those that refer to more extreme weather, users have posted images of blue skies, crisscrossed with wispy, white trails. They falsely claim the trails contain a cocktail of chemicals to artificially manipulate the weather – keeping rain away and causing climate change.
It’s a theory roundly rejected by scientists.
Airplanes do release vapor trails called contrails, short for condensation trails, which form when water vapor condenses into ice crystals around the small particles emitted by jet engines.
But scientists have been clear: There is no evidence “chemtrails” exist.
‘One of the hardest experiences’
In April, meteorologist Isabel Moreno wrote a tweet saying “rain skips Spain,” with an image of a band of rain stretching across Europe but missing Spain almost entirely. She was completely unprepared for the response.
“It was one of the hardest experiences in social media in my life,” said Moreno, who appears on the Spanish TV channel RTVE. “I received HUNDREDS of responses to an (apparently) inoffensive tweet,” she told CNN in an email.
Many accused her of covering up weather manipulation.
While there were plenty of supportive messages, too, it was scary, Moreno said. “I have never seen either that amount of responses nor that level of aggression.” It took days for her to be able to go onto Twitter again without feeling anxious or stressed.
This phenomenon may be particularly pronounced in Spain, but it spreads much wider.
In France, meteorologists have been accused of exaggerating the country’s drought and heat.
Météo France, the French national meteorological service, said the agency’s communications are “the object of more and more repeated attacks,” a Météo France spokesman told CNN.
Climate misinformation on social media is particularly widespread, he said. It “seems to be on the rise, both in terms of the number of attacks directed against scientific publications but also the increasingly aggressive tone of the insults.”
In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology has been bombarded with criticism of its reporting of temperature records, with claims they have been inflated to make climate change seem worse. A spokeswoman for BOM called these claims inaccurate. “The Bureau transparently reports on and provides access to its very large climate data records,” she said.
“As scientists communicated this information, they were accused of instigating a nanny state hysteria,” Liz Bentley, the chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, told CNN.
The Met Office was even accused of changing the color palette of its maps to make them look more dramatic. “We hadn’t, it was just really hot,” Oliver Claydon, a communications officer at the Met Office, told CNN.
US meteorologists and climate communicators have not escaped the barrage of abuse and conspiracies.
“Whenever I posted about global topics, like the yearly temperature report, the comments section would be filled with political jabs and conspiracy theories,” said Elisa Raffa, a broadcast meteorologist with Queen City News, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As a woman in the media, she more often receives comments about her appearance than the science she’s communicating, she told CNN.
Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, said she’s seen a ramp up of abuse lately.
“I receive almost daily verbal declarations of my ignorance and climate alarmism,” she told CNN.
An erosion of trust
Some disinformation experts draw a straight line from the conspiracies that flourished during the Covid pandemic – when experts faced a slew of abuse – to the uptick in climate conspiracies.
People need “trending” topics on which to hang these theories, said Alexandre López-Borrull, a lecturer in the Information and Communication Sciences Department at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain.
As Covid-19 fades from the headlines, climate change has become a strong rallying point. There’s been a big increase in “insults directed at all organizations related to the weather,” he told CNN.
“It’s a logical evolution of the broader trend around pushback on institutions, and the erosion of trust,” said Jennie King, the head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank focused on disinformation and extremism.