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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone April 20, 2023

Video of former CIA director is not proof that government is spraying sky with chemicals

If Your Time is short

  • Former CIA Director John Brennan did not say that the government is spraying toxic chemicals into the air.

  • Brennan spoke in 2016 at the Council on Foreign Relations about stratospheric aerosol injection, a proposed method of geoengineering that could mitigate the effects of global warming. It involves spraying particles, such as sulfur dioxide, into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. The technology is not currently in use.

  • Congress last year directed the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy to prepare a five-year research plan assessing the risks and hazards of climate interventions, known as geoengineering. The research would not involve releasing materials into the atmosphere, a spokesperson for the office said.

The conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is intentionally spraying toxic chemicals into the air has persisted for nearly two decades.

The baseless claims often refer to so-called "chemtrails" and say that the condensation trails behind airplanes are part of an atmospheric spraying program meant to depopulate the world.

A new, related claim says the government has admitted to the spraying, citing a video of former CIA Director John Brennan.

A man in a video shared April 14 on Facebook said he was following up on a previous post about "the sprays that they’re putting in the air." Those sprays are "designed to stunt the growth of your crops" and "to keep you lethargic, to keep your brain not functioning properly."

He said video footage shows Brennan "telling you exactly what the government is doing."

The man showed a clip from Brennan’s 2016 speech on global security threats at the Council on Foreign Relations. Brennan talked about stratospheric aerosol injection, one method of solar geoengineering that he said could help reverse global warming.

The Facebook video’s narrator then said, "The cat is out of the bag right? … Our own government is acknowledging that they’re spraying the skies."

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

But Brennan did not say the government is spraying the sky with toxic chemicals. He discussed the benefits and downside of one possible climate intervention that has not ever been and is not currently in use. During the speech, Brennan acknowledged, "As promising as it may be, moving forward on (stratospheric aerosol injection) would also raise a number of challenges for our government and for the international community."

What is stratospheric aerosol injection?

Stratospheric aerosol injection is a proposal for cooling the climate by injecting small particles, or aerosols, into the atmosphere about 10 miles above the Earth’s surface, said Chris Field, a Stanford University professor and director of the university’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

The theory is that the particles would reflect sunlight back into space, reducing global warming. The particles could be sulfur dioxide or calcium carbonate, Field said. Both are naturally occurring chemical compounds. 

"The evidence that this could cool the climate is strong, based on observations of past volcanic eruptions, our basic understanding of atmospheric chemistry and physics, and lab experiments," said Field, who chaired a 2021 National Academies of Science report on solar geoengineering research. "There are still many unknowns, reflecting limited experimentation."

Nature’s version of stratospheric aerosol injection is a strong volcanic eruption that injects dust particles and gas, such as sulfur dioxide, into the stratosphere, said Kevin Trenberth, a National Center of Atmospheric Research distinguished scholar. 

In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines resulted in about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, according to a fact sheet from the United States Geological Survey. That caused global temperatures to drop by about 1 degree Fahrenheit for two years, from 1991 to 1993.

Featured Fact-check

Is the government spraying the skies now?

The U.S. government isn’t currently using stratospheric aerosol injection, Field said.

"In the U.S., there are no research teams exploring this technology" with experiments outside laboratories, Field said. "The U.S. government does not have a coordinated research program on (stratospheric aerosol injection)." 

There have been a few attempts by private researchers to disperse sunlight-reflecting particles outside of labs. 

A 2021 geoengineering experiment in Sweden by Harvard researchers was called off amid opposition from environmentalists. That experiment also has been the subject of false claims

Last year, Make Sunsets, a private company, released weather balloons in Baja California, hoping to emit a small amount of sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere. The company didn’t track the balloons, but the Mexican government subsequently issued a ban on solar engineering experiments. Private researchers in the United Kingdom tried a similar small-scale venture last fall designed to test equipment, but results haven’t been published, according to MIT Technology Review.

Legislation signed in 2022 directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and relevant federal agencies to draft a five-year research plan for solar radiation modification research, which could include stratospheric aerosol injection, a spokesperson for the agency said.  

The report will not be new research, the spokesperson said, but will highlight knowledge gaps and priority research areas to advance understanding of the field.

The spokesperson said the U.S. government is engaged in a limited subset of research in this field, which includes modeling and laboratory research. No federal research activities involve field testing, deployment, outdoor experimentation or releases of materials into the atmosphere, he said.

Climate experts appear divided on this form of climate intervention because of possible unintended consequences. But many agree it’s a subject worth researching.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claims that video footage of Brennan proves that "our own government is acknowledging that they’re spraying the skies" with toxic chemicals.

In the 2016 footage, Brennan talked about stratospheric aerosol injection, one of several proposed climate interventions. It was not in use then and Brennan did not say it was. It is not in use now, either. 

We rate the claim False.

RELATED: Joe Biden’s climate plan backs public transit and telecommuting, but doesn’t say ‘stay home’

RELATED: Human activity causes climate change? Yes, but from greenhouses gases, not weather modification 

RELATED: Claim that U.S. government is spraying ‘toxic brew of chemicals’ from airplanes is a conspiracy 

RELATED: See more fact-checks about climate change

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 14, 2023

Council on Foreign Relations, "John Brennan on Transnational Threats to Global Security," June 29, 2016

Email interview, Chris Field, Stanford University professor and director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, April 17, 2023

Email interview, Kevin Trenberth,  distinguished scholar at the National Center of Atmospheric Research, April 17, 2023

Emailed statement from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesperson, April 18, 2023

Kevin Trenberth and Aiguo Dai, Geophysical Research Letters,
"Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering," 2007

U.S. Geological Survey, "The cataclysmic 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines

117th Congress, "H.R.2617 - Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023

CNBC, "White House is pushing ahead research to cool Earth by reflecting back sunlight," Oct. 18, 2022

National Academies Press, "Reflecting sunlight: Recommendations for solar geoengineering research and research governance," 2021 

CNN, "This controversial climate solution could be exactly what the planet needs. Or it could be a colossal disaster," Feb. 12, 2023

Time, "A Controversial technology is creating an unprecedented rift among climate scientists," March 17, 2023

Nature, "Climate experts’ views on geoengineering depend on their beliefs about climate change impacts," 2019

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "Potential for perceived failure of stratospheric aerosol injection deployment," Sept. 27, 2022

White House, "Request for input to a five-year plan for research on climate intervention

Government of Mexico, "Experimentation with solar geoengineering will not be allowed in Mexico," Jan. 13, 2023

Reuters, "How two weather balloons led Mexico to ban solar geoengineering," March 27, 2023

The Verge, "Mexico bans solar geoengineering experiments after startup’s field tests," Jan. 18, 2023

The New York Times, "Test flight for sunlight-blocking research is canceled," April 2, 2021

MIT Technology Review, "Researchers launched a solar geoengineering test flight in the UK last fall," March 1, 2023

American Meteorological Society, "Climate intervention

American Geophysical Union, "Position statement on climate intervention

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Video of former CIA director is not proof that government is spraying sky with chemicals

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