“Government should be doing little or next to nothing,” Richard Ebeling wrote in a post about COVID-19 republished on March 24 by the Heartland Institute. “The problem is a social and medical one, and not a political one.”
“I just think we're going to be fine. I think everything is going to be fine,” Heartland editorial director and research fellow Justin Haskins said about COVID-19 during a March 13 episode of the podcast In the Tank. “I really don't think this is going to be a problem even two to three months from now.”
On Dec. 31, 2019, “a pneumonia of unknown cause” was first reported to the World Health Organization’s China Country Office — and in the months following that report, the disease now known as COVID-19 spread to infect millions of people worldwide and seems well on its way to killing hundreds of thousands — while experts warn that the presumed death toll may be significantly higher than we yet know.
As the virus spread, so too did misinformation: baseless predictions that the disease would not cause significant harm, claims of miracle cures, and conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins. That misinformation was often circulated by white-collar professionals — including many who have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community. The overlap was so striking that it caught the attention of both former President Barack Obama and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in March.
Some of that misinformation on COVID-19 came straight from President Trump. But a river of faulty information on the coronavirus also flowed from think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who also have spurned climate science and sought to slow or stop action to respond to the climate crisis.
Some compared COVID-19 to the flu or other threats, suggesting that the flu was a larger threat and that action to slow the spread of the novel virus was an overreaction. As the toll from COVID-19 grew, others argued that the virus was the most important threat and that action to slow climate change was superfluous. Some circulated false or unproven cures and remedies while others touted the benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic (without regard for the health of those living in places where plastics and petrochemicals are produced — like Saint John the Baptist parish, Louisiana, which on April 16, had the highest per-person COVID-19 death rate in the U.S.)
Some attacked renewable energy, some the Green New Deal, and others the World Health Organization (WHO). Some framed efforts to “flatten the curve” of infections as infringements on liberty or simply unnecessary while others persisted in using terms that the WHO has warned can lead to dangerous stigma and discrimination. And some climate science deniers have circulated conspiracy theories, like claims that the virus was a foreign “bioweapon,” that it’s linked to “electrosmog” and 5G networks, or alleged that “the World Health Organization has carried out the greatest fraud perhaps in modern history.”
The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organizations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the center of our attention today.
Many of the operatives spreading COVID disinformation have influence because of the fossil fuel industry.
People like Steve Milloy and Patrick Michaels and organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), The Heartland and Manhattan Institutes gained influence in the early heyday of climate science denial when the fossil fuel industry made a broad and concerted effort to mislead the public about global warming.
We’re now seeing many of the same people and organizations utilize the tactics they honed in the 1990s to foment doubt about the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the organizations now spreading misinformation received funding from fossil fuel companies and/or trade groups for years or even decades, as DeSmog and others have previously documented (e.g. Reason Foundation, Independent Institute, Texas Public Policy Foundation, etc.)
COVID denial reveals the deadly threat that climate denial poses to all aspects of public health and science.
The American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 “Victory Memo” outlined a broad roadmap to erode public confidence in climate change that went well beyond just the science. Their strategy included plans to “identify, recruit and train” messengers who could “participate in media outreach” on “the climate change debate.” It called for the use of both individuals and third-party organizations to assist in the industry’s efforts to stir doubt about climate science.
To delay climate change-related regulation and policy-making, the oil and gas industry sought to mislead the public and Congress and create distrust of the media.
Decades ago, an industry report drafted by a Mobil executive concluded that theories that had been advanced by climate “contrarians” didn’t hold water, but the industry nonetheless funded their work on climate change, and now some of those same professionals are speaking out about COVID-19. In 1995, Lenny Bernstein, a Mobil executive, examined the work of climate “contrarians” in a draft report for the Global Climate Coalition (later published omitting that assessment). Bernstein’s draft concluded that “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” One of the arguments that the report draft specifically labeled “not convincing” was credited to Prof. Patrick Michaels, then based at the University of Virginia. In 2010, Michaels — at that point based at the Cato Institute — estimated in a CNN interview that perhaps 40% of his funding came from oil and gas companies.
In a March 9, 2020 article in the Washington Examiner, Michaels — now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — predicted that a proposed European Union law (one intended to slow climate change) would be far more damaging to the economy and to “environmental resilience” than COVID-19. “Make no mistake,” Michaels wrote. “The proposed EU climate law will reverse a lot more progress and a lot more economic and environmental resilience than any probable climate change or, for that matter, coronavirus.” (Another of the scientists whose work was discredited in the draft Global Climate Coalition report, Richard Lindzen, signed onto a March 23, 2020, open letter calling climate change a “non-problem” compared to COVID-19. “As a very first step, designated Green New Deal money must be redirected and invested in a significantly better global health system,” the letter argues. “The past 150 years also show that more CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the Earth and increasing the yields of crops. Why do world leaders ignore these hard facts? Why do world leaders do the opposite with their Green New Deal and lower the quality of life by forcing high-cost, dubious low-carbon energy technologies upon their citizens?”)
COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers.
These attempts to exploit a global pandemic to further the climate denial machine’s anti-science agenda will mean loss of life, and unnecessarily imperil frontline medical personnel by allowing the virus to spread further and more quickly.
Some climate deniers have pushed outright conspiracy theories on COVID-19: claiming, as Piers Corbyn did, that the pandemic is a “world population cull” backed by Bill Gates and George Soros; alleging, as a former member of British Parliament did, that COVID-19 is just a “big hoax”; or, like Alex Jones, seeking to profit directly off of COVID-19 through false marketing, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the New York Attorney General, both of which have warned Jones to desist from marketing a toothpaste he claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit claiming that COVID-19 “was prepared and stockpiled as a biological weapon to be used against China’s perceived enemies.” Principia Scientific International claimed that economies were about to be shut down because “the WHO Director caused a global coronavirus panic over a basic math error,” (referring to early World Health Organization fatality rate numbers). Steve Milloy tweeted out a link to a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Cornelia Griggs, who described working in a New York City hospital amid the pandemic, calling her a “Hysterical doc” and writing “Stop the panic.” (Less than a week later, Milloy tweeted that “#Coronavirus has given us the #GreenDream: —Deprivation — Destroyed economy — Police state”). On April 10 — at a time when over 92,000 deaths had been reported worldwide — Bjorn Lomborg wrote that “Significant data indicate corona is no worse than the common flu.” And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tweeted out a list of leading causes of death on March 10, writing “Likely at the very bottom, Coronavirus: 27.” Six weeks later, more than 14,400 people in New York City had died after contracting the virus.
Not only does their pandemic messaging undermine climate science deniers’ credibility, it also puts on display some of the faulty thinking that can be seen in their discussions of both topics — you see the same logical fallacies at play. There’s the rejection of basic modeling techniques (and early models on both COVID-19 and on climate have ultimately proved tragically accurate). There’s a failure to grasp the ways that an exponential problem can accelerate. There’s a willingness to make assertions that aren’t supported by evidence as well as a willingness to issue blanket assurances that things will be fine without taking into account the evidence. And there’s a reliance on ad hominem attacks and innuendo. These communications tactics used on both issues mirror each other.
The individuals and organizations responsible for spreading disinformation on climate science and COVID-19 will forever cement their reputations on the wrong side of history.
Climate change and the COVID pandemic are both crises.
Some climate science deniers argue that COVID-19 is the “real” crisis — but that’s another logical fallacy, because it’s entirely possible to be confronted with multiple crises at the same time. Some claim that we have to choose between action to fight COVID-19 and action to fight climate change — but that ignores policy options proposed by some advocates who have highlighted ways to respond to the urgencies of COVID-19 and the climate crisis simultaneously.
Some climate science deniers conflate the impacts of slashing carbon emissions through a managed transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles with the slashed emissions that resulted from the dramatic drop in travel caused by shelter-in-place orders — two very different ways to arrive at a similar point. “Brendan O’Neill, editor of Koch-funded website Spiked, argued that ‘this pandemic has shown us what life would be like if environmentalists got their way.’ In a column titled ‘COVID-19: a glimpse of the dystopia greens want us to live in,’ O’Neill claimed government responses to the virus represent a ‘warped dystopia’ that environmentalists like George Monbiot have been calling for,” DeSmog UK reported.
By taking a close look at where those who advocate inaction on climate change erred or misled their audience about the pandemic, it’s possible to learn a great deal — and not only about who has provided reliable information about COVID-19 and who has misled.
There are striking parallels between this pandemic and the climate crisis. The virus’ spread has proven capable of accelerating at an exponential rate.
Similarly, climate scientists have warned for decades that climate change can accelerate exponentially. That means that for both crises, the earlier action is taken, the more effective it is, and more cost efficient too.
The question facing each of us is whether we will listen to the counsel emerging from public health circles and climate scientists — or whether we allow their voices to be drowned out by those who argue for inaction.