Decades of Science Denial Related to Climate Change Has Led to Denial of the Coronavirus Pandemic

After the fossil fuel industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars undermining climate science, it’s easy to see how epidemiology came next.

Apr 8, 2020
Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for Covid-19 in set-up tents before they enter the main emergency department area at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx on March 24. Credit: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for Covid-19 in set-up tents before they enter the main emergency department area at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx on March 24. Credit: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

American science denialism, deployed for years against climate change and, most recently, the coronavirus, can be traced back to the early 1950s during the fight over smog in Los Angeles.  

When a Cal-Tech biochemist fingered nitrogen oxide emissions and uncombusted hydrocarbons from automobiles and refineries as the cause of the thick smog that often blanketed the city, the American Petroleum Institute counter-attacked by highlighting the alleged uncertainty of his science. The tactic was a test run for the fossil fuel industry's assault 40 years later on climate science. 

Decades of climate denial now appear to have paved the way for denial of Covid-19 by many on the right, according to experts on climate politics. After the fossil fuel industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking climate scientists and accentuating the supposed uncertainty of climate science, it isn't hard to understand how that happened. 

President Trump, who denies climate change, has brushed off Covid-19's seriousness until recently by relying on many of the same arguments he uses to dismiss global warming, such as ignoring government scientists or blaming China.   

Climate deniers have long attacked climate scientists, and Covid-19 deniers recently launched a smear campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in part because he corrected the President's inaccurate statements about the pandemic.

The radio host and staunch Trump supporter Bill Mitchell offered a glimpse of how some conservatives see the pandemic as part of a continuum of dubious science when he tweeted that the novel coronavirus is "a minor infection" and the worries about it were  "climate change 2.0." 

"It's this sense of deja vu. This is what climate denialism looked like," said Jerry Taylor, president of the bipartisan, pro-climate action think tank Niskanen Center and himself a former skeptic of climate science. "The peril here is the reality of what's about to follow. You can't gaslight it. You're not going to be able to deny the reality of the deaths. That will be the wages of dismissing what the technocratic and scientific elites have been telling us for months."

An Echo Chamber of Denial

After he was hired by the City of Los Angeles, Arie Haagen-Smit, a Cal-Tech scientist specializing in airborne microscopic chemicals, quickly figured out that the city's smog came from burning oil. Industry executives immediately hired their own scientists to attack his work. When those scientists came back and said Haagen-Smit was right, the industry hired new ones to sow doubt and home in on small uncertainties that remained.

By 1956, when Haagen-Smit's conclusion had been confirmed by others, oil industry executives pivoted and employed a new tactic: they blamed the auto industry for tailpipe emissions. 

Cal-Tech scientist Arie Haagen-Smit's findings about the connection between smog and burning oil were attacked by industry leaders aiming to discredit him. Credit: California Institute of Technology Archives

Cal-Tech scientist Arie Haagen-Smit's findings about the connection between smog and burning oil were attacked by industry leaders aiming to discredit him. Credit: California Institute of Technology Archives

Throughout the fight, the oil industry's use of science denial provided a preview of what was to come in the 1980s, as the fight to deny climate change began. "Through it all," Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Law, told InsideClimate News in a 2016 interview, "you see the creation of an echo chamber of doubt that takes the small unknowns and uncertainties and magnifies it until all we have is unknowns, when in fact the actual science isn't that way at all."

Exxon was told unambiguously in 1977 by James Black, its own senior scientist, that burning fossil fuels would warm the planet and endanger humanity. His warning was echoed publicly 11 years later, when NASA's James Hansen sounded the alarm about climate change in landmark congressional testimony. 

Exxon and the API responded by dusting off the uncertainty playbook and pivoting to a new narrative throughout the 1990s that focused on all that remained unknown about climate change. Exxon helped set up the pro-industry Global Climate Coalition and the Global Climate Science Team to sow doubt and assert that it wasn't even clear that climate change was occurring. 

The coalition disbanded, its work completed, after the administration of George W. Bush, scion of a Texas oil family, rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The industry also recommended its own contrarian scientists to review the administration's submissions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

The oil industry's ties to the administration were revealed in 2005 when a whistleblower disclosed that Philip Cooney, a former API lobbyist working in the White House, had been rewriting government research papers to create doubt about climate change. He left the administration and went to work for ExxonMobil. 

Between 2003 and 2010, 91 climate denialist groups received more than half a billion dollars. They recreated the echo chamber from the long-ago war on smog, increasing its size and upping the volume enough to shape the narrative on climate change for Congress, the media and the American public.

Under pressure from shareholders, Exxon promised to stop funding climate deniers in 2007. But by then, climate change denialism had become a force so extreme in its attacks on mainstream science that even giant oil companies had become suspect. In 2012, the Heartland Institute, one of the country's leading climate denialist organizations, launched a billboard comparing those who believed in climate change to the Unabomber, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. The backlash was severe.

But by 2017, Heartland's chief executive, Joseph Bast, was a guest at the White House when Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. "We are winning in the global warming war," Bast said in an email to supporters.

A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than 30 percent of Americans understood that the vast majority of climate scientists and peer-reviewed studies support the conclusion that climate change is a human created threat. 

Polls Reveal a Partisan Divide over Climate Change and Covid-19

Today, there's an overlap between communities that have played down the coronavirus pandemic and those that deny man-made climate change. Concern about global warming has risen in recent years in the United States, but conservatives, especially older Republicans, remain holdouts. 

Similar disparities between Republicans and Democrats have emerged in recent polling on the coronavirus pandemic. A survey released March 26 by the Pew Research Center showed that while 78 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of total respondents said the pandemic was a major threat to public health, only 52 percent of Republicans said it was. Surveys earlier in March by Quinnipiac College and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago also indicated that majorities of Republicans doubted the seriousness of the pandemic. And while older Americans have been generally more worried about the virus, older Republicans weren't for weeks, even as the pandemic spread.  

In the most recent polling, partisan differences remain: The Associated Press-NORC Center survey released this week showed that 35 percent of Republicans are extremely worried or very worried about being infected by the coronavirus, compared to 61 percent of Democrats.

These partisan disparities also surface in the way states and territories have reacted to the Center for Disease Control's recommendations on social distancing as the best means to limit the spread of the virus. Those that have been most diligent about implementing social distancing are largely Democratic strongholds, and those most lax have been red states, according to a Covid-19 social distancing scoreboard created by Unacast, a technology company that studies human mobility. 

Alabama had been among states doing the least to establish social distancing, according to the Unacast scorecard, a resistance that continued until early April, when Gov. Kay Ivey announced a stay-at-home order to take effect on April 4. The virus has now spread throughout the state, with 2,229 cases and 48 deaths reported by the state Department of Public Health on Wednesday.  

Ashley Lucier is a 30-year-old middle school English teacher who lives with her husband and two young boys in Prattville, Alabama. Lucier's small family and close friends have taken the pandemic seriously and are staying home, she said. But some co-workers think, "'This is a hoax,' and that people are trying to make Trump look bad. They think this will all blow over and we'll be back to work soon," Lucier said.

Lucier's parents, both Republicans, live about 10 minutes away in Montgomery. As Lucier began to lock down in her own home, her mother, Cheryl, 59, was still going out to eat with friends and to church, until the restaurants and churches closed. She was taken aback when her daughter refused to send the grandchildren over to visit, Lucier said. Now, her mother's views on the pandemic have started to shift toward greater worry and caution. But Lucier's father, Anthony, 62, remains less concerned about the pandemic and less convinced of the recommendations of public health. He asked that his family's surname be withheld because he said he feared retaliation over his climate views.

"If Trump doesn't worry about it," Lucier said, "then my parents don't worry about it."

Ashley Lucier and her father, Anthony. Photo courtesy of Ashley Lucier

Ashley Lucier and her father, Anthony. Photo courtesy of Ashley Lucier

Affable and with an easy laugh, Anthony calls himself a conservative Republican and jokingly describes his liberal daughter, and only child, as a "leftist guerilla jungle fighter." A Fox News fan, he refers to Covid-19 as "the flu," echoing the president. The novel coronavirus is not like the seasonal flu, and its mortality rate is 10 times higher. Anthony also thinks global warming is a hoax and considers the urgent narrative about the pandemic as "climate change 2.0."

"It does feel like that because so many things are thrown in people's faces that are absolutely not true, that you think the next thing down the line is a hoax," Anthony said. "There's so much that's based on nothing, that when the wolf does come along to your door, everyone is surprised."

Anthony acknowledges that the virus could be a real threat, a "wolf." But his small manufacturing firm is open, and he still goes to work. Anthony thinks that people can do little to avoid catching such a contagious illness, so the social distancing and the lengthy lockdowns he has heard of but not seen yet in Alabama feel like overkill. 

"We can do this for a certain amount of time before it becomes more of a problem than the flu itself and does serious economic damage," Anthony said, repeating objections Trump voiced last week to widespread social distancing. "People gotta keep on working, they gotta keep on making things, gotta keep on living."

Like Anthony, a plurality of Republicans in the recent Pew poll—nearly 4 in 10—said they felt the country was overreacting to the pandemic. Pluralities of Democrats and others said they thought Americans were not taking the threat seriously enough

"My father still shrugs most of it off as a media bias or an overreaction of the public, even when I tell him the information is from reputable sources," Lucier said. "I don't know if it will really hit him unless someone close to us gets seriously sick."

That person who could get seriously sick is Lucier herself. Always outdoorsy and healthy, Lucier developed a blood clot in her lungs as a complication of donating a kidney in July 2018. She is on an inhaler and blood thinner for the clots. Her lung function is greatly reduced, and when she had the flu last year, Lucier landed in the hospital. Her parents say they understand she's at risk now, Lucier said, but given how they lead their lives still, she isn't convinced.

Continuing ambivalence about social distancing will only prolong the crisis, said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy. "When you have a big segment of the population that's dismissive about social distancing, you will have spread and you'll keep overloading the hospital system," Goldman said. "The longer there are mixed messages, the longer people don't take it seriously, the worse it will get."

Will Covid-19 Deaths Lead Skeptics to Rethink Views on Climate Change?

Why don't many Americans like Lucier's parents take the pandemic seriously, even when it poses a risk to loved ones? Beyond the nearly 30 years of climate denial that have given conservatives the arguments and social acceptance to dismiss scientific expertise, some of the resistance is driven by "solution aversion," said Taylor of the Niskanen Center. If people think the remedies to a problem will be painful or require sacrifice, they're more reluctant to accept the reality of the threat. With both climate change and Covid-19, skeptics think they will have to surrender economic prosperity, so they dismiss the looming risks.

Conservatives have also been encouraged to doubt the objectivity of scientists, Taylor said. Ideological champions on the right such as Rush Limbaugh have described scientists as part of a liberal cabal to deceive the American people on issues like climate change. 

In 2009, thousands of hacked emails from climate scientists were leaked, in a scandal known as Climategate. Climate deniers seized upon excerpts from the emails to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about global warming before international negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple reviews of the scientists' emails exonerated them of tampering with data, but to deniers, Climategate remains proof of the dishonesty of climate researchers. 

"There's a hostility toward the messengers," Taylor said. "Technocratic elites and scientists are for the most part Democrats, and that's one thing the Republican base knows really well. They're not trustworthy. They're not part of the tribe. And Republicans have been hearing for 30 years that they have an agenda they want to advance."

Michael Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University, said that feeling part of a bigger community, such as a political party or movement, can become "more important than accepting the truth."  

Opening people's eyes to that truth isn't a matter of pointing more often to science because that's already an impediment, he said. A more useful approach to changing minds might be to acknowledge that the resistance people offer is reasonable to them, if not completely sound to others, Nelson said. 

Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists agreed. "One of the things we've learned from communicating climate science is that if you communicate something that triggers someone's worldview, it makes them more resistant to the science," she said. "We saw the same triggering of political worldviews with the coronavirus because the primary messengers like the president and his allies were denying it. And you didn't see as many scientific experts who should have been leading the messaging at the beginning of the pandemic."

As the death toll from the pandemic climbs, conservatives are likely to set aside their continued skepticism of science, including the facts underpinning climate change, Taylor said. "The distrust of expertise and the medical profession will wither away," he said, "because we'll see the consequences of that distrust."

But Goldman is less optimistic that the impact of Covid-19 can lead doubters to reconsider anything other than Covid-19. 

"I'm skeptical that this situation is enough to change people's minds on climate change," she said. "There will never be an event that you can point to and say that it's climate. You won't have a 'gotcha moment' as you would with this virus because you have a more definite link to deaths when you have a virus. If coronavirus changes people's science denial ways here, I wouldn't put money on it changing their views on other scientific issues."

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