When images and video of the tragic blazes in Maui began to filter out across the internet, rumors also started to spread. Across Facebook, TikTok and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, commentators shared wild speculations that the fires, which have now taken the lives of more than 100 people, were the product of arson, a plot to clear the land for billionaires or, most bizarrely, space lasers.
It wasn't the first natural disaster to trigger such unfounded origin stories. As extreme weather from floods to wildfires have become more frequent around the world, social media has become an increasingly active hub for false narratives about the events' causes. In many cases the strange explanations avoid or try to disprove one of the most plausible links to these tragedies: climate change.
Researchers tracking social-media commentary are noticing a paradox. For some people, climate catastrophes are in fact evidence that climate change isn't real, says Peter Knight, a professor and expert in conspiracy theories at the University of Manchester.
"There is indeed a strand of climate change conspiracism that takes extreme weather events as 'evidence' of secret geoengineering weather research programs," he says. While experiments like cloud-seeding have been explored as part of research by countries including China, Australia and the U.S., "the conspiracy theories that current extreme weather events are the result of these programs are wide of the mark, and feed into the wider role of climate change denialism and 'delayism,'" he says.
There are a range of motives for someone to publish climate denying theories, but the impact these messages can have on the minds of the public could be dangerous - especially if it slows action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S. a poll from earlier this year showed about half of Americans believe climate change is mostly caused by human activity. Scientists say the world must drastically cut the amount of fossil fuels it burns, or else the planet will warm to levels that will not only ignite more extreme weather, but also make everyday life unbearable for billions of people.
Researchers from the international scientific project World Weather Attribution have already said this summer's extreme heat in the U.S. and southern Europe would have been "virtually impossible" without climate change.
While the spark that started the Maui fire is still under investigation, high winds and drought conditions are behind its spread and destructiveness.
Some of the posts about the Maui fires were definitely in "conspiratorial territory," says Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think tank which focuses on disinformation. While the commentators admit the fires are happening, they also theorize the blazes were "engineered by the pro-climate lobby in order to convince you that climate change exists, so that they can then implement their whole scale agenda to change society."
The ISD has tracked social-media commentary around three previous wildfires - in Australia in 2019, the U.S. in 2021 and in Canada earlier this year - to monitor how the discussions relate to climate change. It found a shift from a focus on claims of arson during the Australian wildfires to a broader conspiratorial narrative during the Canadian fires, linking them to other theories like the Great Reset (which suggests Covid-19 was a coordinated plot to reform the world) and 15-minute cities (which argues that communities designed to have everything within easy walking distance are part of a sinister plot to limit people's movements).
But what's drawing people towards climate denial? The psychological reasons for this are multiple, says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. "Research suggests that people are attracted to these narratives when one or more psychological needs are threatened," including the need to have clarity and certainty, the need to feel safe and in control, and the need to feel positive about groups you belong to, she says.
With climate change and its consequences, "people are facing a scenario that threatens these needs, and conspiracy theories offer a convenient alternative that might seem to address the threats," she says. "If climate scientists are fabricating data and the whole thing is a hoax, then there is no threat to worry about and nobody has to take responsibility or make any changes to their behavior."
In other words, denial is a form of self-preservation, says Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol. "People who are confronted with something incredibly scary often deny it," he says. "That is a protective mechanism that people engage in, probably unconsciously. Because it protects them from greater grief."