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Coronavirus doubters follow climate denial playbook

Posted on 14 April 2020 by dana1981

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

For the climate community, observing U.S. national political leaders’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic has been like watching the climate crisis unfold on fast-forward. Many – particularly on the political right – have progressed through the same five stages of science denial in the face of both threats.


For climate change, the denial process began decades ago. NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified to Congress in 1988 about the dangers posed by global warming; the fossil fuel industry formed the Global Climate Coalition the very next year to launch a campaign casting doubt on mainstream climate science. In November 1989, President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, climate denier John Sununu, sabotaged efforts to develop the first international climate change treaty. Exxon in particular spent the following decades and tens of millions of dollars funding a network of think tanks to propagate climate science denial. In a memo leaked in 2003, Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised G.O.P. politicians, “You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”


The same denial process has unfolded with coronavirus, but over a far more compressed time frame. In both crises, early warnings from scientific experts went unheeded and were often discouraged or suppressed. As a result, the American government began responding only after each threat’s impacts had become widespread and undeniable. At that point, due to the missed opportunity to prevent the outbreak of impacts, much of the response came in the form of damage control. America’s efforts to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus cases, like its efforts to bend the carbon emissions curve, were deployed too slowly.

The five stages of denial

In 2013, as the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was due to be released, the five stages of climate denial were on display in many conservative media outlets. Watching the reactions to the unfolding coronavirus crisis in early 2020 created a sense of déjà vu, as many leaders exhibited the same stages of denial. In fact, many of the same actors who deny the climate crisis also were (or still are) denying coronavirus threats. Some observers have remarked that the Venn diagram of coronavirus and climate deniers is nearly a circle.

Stage 1: Deny the problem exists. This is denial at its most basic, as there is no need to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. If the issue is a hoax, as the president repeatedly has asserted about both global warming and coronavirus, the status quo can be maintained. But denying a problem doesn’t change its physical or epidemiological properties, so in the face of real scientifically quantified threats, Stage 1 denial cannot last very long.

Stage 2: Deny responsibility. Upon accepting the threat posed by coronavirus outbreaks, numerous conservative politicians and pundits have tried to shift the blame to China, with many including the president labeling it “the Chinese virus,” echoed over 100 times on Fox News. Similarly, after accepting that climate change is happening, many have tried to blame it on natural cycles, or, if they accept humanity’s responsibility, to likewise blame it on China. But here again denial falls short; shifting blame does not slow a physical or viral crisis.

Stage 3: Downplay the threat. President Trump spent weeks downplaying the threat of coronavirus, early maintaining that it had only infected one person in America, that “one day like a miracle it will disappear,” that “within a couple of days [the number of infected Americans] is going to be down to close to zero,” and so on. Fox News and other conservative media outlets followed his lead in downplaying the risks. Similarly, Trump has said the climate “will change back,” and conservative media outlets have spent decades arguing that climate change is no big deal. Yet, as the devastation of coronavirus and climate change impacts has become a reality, doubters have been increasingly forced to move beyond Stage 3 denial.

Stage 4: Attack the solutions as too costly. Trump has claimed that coronavirus curve-flattening measures recommended by experts – like long-term social distancing – are too costly. He instead suggested preemptively loosening social distancing measures to reopen the national economy “sooner rather than later” (an approach Fox News has also championed), as well as various unproven drug treatments, with Fox News again following suit. A number of ideologues have argued that older Americans would rather die than cause the economic disruption associated with extended social distancing. Some partisan policymakers and pundits similarly oppose virtually all large-scale climate solutions as too expensive, instead proposing worthwhile but inadequate steps like simply planting trees or capturing carbon from power plants to inexplicably use for extracting yet more fossil fuels.

Stage 5: It’s too late. Some have proposed, once it became obvious that the coronavirus outbreak had become widespread, that governments should just maintain the status quo, try to build herd immunity, and cope with the consequences (such as overwhelmed health care systems that could result in millions of deaths). Climate justice essayist Mary Heglar coined the term “de-nihilist” to describe those who have similarly succumbed to the fear that it’s too late to stop climate change. Such attitudes only hamper efforts to constructively address both problems.

Coronavirus is a learning opportunity for climate change

Because American leadership proceeded through these stages of denial, it wasted valuable months that could have been spent preparing for and curbing the spread of coronavirus. For comparison, South Korea diagnosed its first case of COVID-19 on January 20 – the same day as the U.S. – but almost immediately launched an aggressive program of testing, tracing, and quarantining.

By March, South Korea was conducting over 10,000 coronavirus tests per day, and its new cases fell below 150 per day by mid-March. Despite a population six times larger, the U.S. had reached the threshold of 10,000 new tests per day only on March 16, and has consistently lagged in testing on a per capita basis. As testing in the U.S. finally began to catch up to the viral spread, the number of new coronavirus cases in America accelerated past 10,000 per day by March 23, reaching 580,000, by April 14 compared to 10,564 South Korean cases (222 deaths) as of that date.

After this late start, Trump has regularly argued that the U.S. “cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Those who oppose climate solutions similarly argue that making investments to bend the carbon emissions curve would be worse than the consequences of climate change – consequences that include increased food insecurity; intensified hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, and floods; and more species extinctions, violent conflicts, and death.

Both arguments run counter to expert advice, misunderstand the problem, and present a false choice. In reality, failing to make the necessary early investments to head off each threat will result in economy-crippling consequences, whether in the form of overwhelmed health care systems in the case of coronavirus or more deadly extreme weather events in the case of climate change.

Experts agree that to protect both the economy and public health, government responses must focus on flattening the coronavirus curve and making investments to rapidly curb carbon pollution. In fact, a new study on the 1918 flu pandemic found that measures like social distancing “not only lower mortality, they also mitigate the adverse economic consequences of a pandemic.” Nipping the problem quickly and aggressively yields the best outcome for both the economy and public health. Put simply, suffering and death are costly.

Observing the damage resulting from denial of both the coronavirus and climate crises raises the question, how did humans evolve this apparent psychological flaw? Physician-scientist Ajit Varki has hypothesized that comprehending one’s own mortality is a psychological evolutionary barrier for most species, because this realization would amplify the fear of death and thus “would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals.” Varki posits that humans may have overcome this barrier by developing denial as a coping mechanism, but that “If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise,” since denial now obstructs efforts to address threats like climate change and coronavirus.

As climate activist and author Bill McKibben put it, “You can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, you can’t compromise with them or spin them away … coronavirus is teaching us precisely this lesson about biology as well. Reality is real and sometimes it bites pretty hard.” Or, as Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said more bluntly, “Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival.”

But because of its compressed time frame, coronavirus has provided humanity an opportunity to learn this lesson and apply it to curbing the worst of the climate crisis. Contrary to Stage 5 denial, it’s not yet too late to avoid the most severe climate change impacts.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. So very, very true!

    It struck me immediately, as I noticed that it was the same old suspects, both local and world wide, that were ''skeptical'' of the virus.
    Same tactics, same desperate search for any ''expert'' that shared their opinion. Same exact type of denial, only forwarded at 1000X the speed. On the bright side, these science deniers have lost even more credibiliy now.
    Not that they had much to begin with.
    However, laypeople can now hopefully see that with ''virus denial'' failing miserably and dangerously in the face of reality, they might think twice about listening to those same ''skeptics'' with regards to climate change.

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  2. Another parallel: magical thinking about technological solutions:

    • Climate: "clean coal" and carbon capture, or similar "future technology" to justify more subsidies to fossil fuel interests.
    • Covid-19: Hydroxychloroquine.
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  3. Some of the same people sceptical of the virus and climate change appear to be  libertarians suspicious of the government. This libertarianism might be an evolutionary mechanism that protects us againt being captured and ordered around, but it conflicits with the fact that government brings considerable benefits.

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  4. And another parallel: Climate change sceptic: adaptation is the answer. Covid 19 sceptic, its just another seasonal flu to live with, herd immunity etc.

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  5. Don't mention evolution to libertarians, Nigel; they'll deny that too.

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  6. I've just started referring to all of this stuff simply as "science-denial", since that's what it is, regardless of the topic!

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  7. ...and now we have seen a rapid switch from "you are being an alarmist, there is no problem" to "you didn't warn us early enough"...

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  8. Bob @ 2 - those false solutions are included in Stage 4 in the article! 

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  9. nigelj @ 4 - yes that's basically "it's not that bad" Stage 3 denial.

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  10. Varki's hypothesis is fascinating. I've wondered myself whether we've been selected to conserve/express genes leading to magical thinking, as a compensatory mechanism for the "curse of imagination." 

    Knowing one's fate even before reaching reproductive age does seem a bit of a discouragement.

    Even so, our imaginations are a powerful tool for producing more of our species. 

    How to make it work? 

     Wiring to believe in happy bullshit seems quite plausible. 

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  11. The following is likely a precursor to the "stages of denial":

    The development of a liking for something that would have to be given up, be corrected, if the person pursued and accepted expanded awareness and improved understanding of the reality and unacceptability of what they developed a liking for.

    Some people develop powerful motivations to resist learning, to resist expanded awareness and improved understanding of how to be helpful rather than harmful. That can lead them to like denial of many things, and to like people who help them defend their desire to deny the reality of constantly improved awareness and understanding.

    I see it frequently as I try to correct incorrect claims that are forms of denial and are impediments to achieving any of the many corrections of harmful ultimately unsustainable impediments to achieving important objectives like the entire suite of the Sustainable Development Goals.

    One of the most twisted claims is that fossil fuels have to be profited from in order to help the poorest, or that the use of fossil fuels was the reason poverty was reduced. The related COVID-19 claim would be that the best way to help the most vulnerable is to keep the economy going full speed, because richer people help more with the development of vaccines and treatment.

    The reality is that the harm of keeping the economy going in harmful ways mainly benefits people who do not really need help and do not like the idea of losing some of their perception of status by being taxed to help less fortunate people. And the assistance that gets provided is limited compared to what is actually possible because being more helpful and less harmful is not as profitable or popular.

    A unique aspect of the fossil fuel poverty claim is that any benefits thought to have been achieved because of fossil fuel use will not survive into the future because of the reality that fossil fuel use is a harmful dead-end, burning non-renewable resources cannot be continued very far into the future.

    At least a vaccine for COVID-19 that some rich people, like Bill and Melinda Gates, help develop will be a lasting benefit. And it can be developed without people dying because health care systems are over-whelmed by a too-rapid rate of spread of COVID-19 through the population.

    Economic perceptions of loss are a common and powerful motivation for harmful denial, resistance to learning to be more helpful and less harmful.

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  12. I find this argumentation too reductionist. One can acknowledge the new COV, but see the reaction of the govs critical.

    For example it is highly questionable that the lockdown is actually a proper measure. Take the latest case-study of the Robert-Koch-Institut in Germany: It basically says that the ban on large events and the closure of schools was very effective (also advice on hygiene and voluntary limitation of contacts), but the following lockdown achieved very little in reducing the R-factor.

    I also see the actionism of the very rich with doubt. Many interest groups will use this crisis to further their gains (hedgefonds, techcorps).

    I think you should rather protect those at risk and allow the virus to infect the young, like the authorities in Sweden and and Japan do.

    In any case my point is that there is legitimate critique concerning the measures, which the MSM in - for example - germany brushes away as conspiracy theories.

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  13. The Robert-Kock-Institut case study mentioned by  darkmoon @12 is here (in German). I don't think the RKI draws the conclusion described by darkmoon @12. The finding is also a little less than straightforward requiring an assumed 'generation time' between infections. And the age profile of patients and differing levels of testing are also seen as a modelling difficulty.

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  14. Darkmoon @12,

    "For example it is highly questionable that the lockdown is actually a proper measure. Take the latest case-study of the Robert-Koch-Institut in Germany: It basically says that the ban on large events and the closure of schools was very effective (also advice on hygiene and voluntary limitation of contacts), but the following lockdown achieved very little in reducing the R-factor."

    New Zealand has had quite a severe lockdown going beyond just large events etc, and for  three weeks so far. Numbers of new infections have dropped dramatically since the lockdown, and nothing else really explains that trend by my observations.  So the lock down seems to have worked in terms of reducing infections and deaths. I'm not aware of any study on it.

    However we implemented a lock down early in the growth curve when it has the best chance of working unlike many other countries. It looks like if you leave it too late you need very long and severe  lockdowns that might not achieve as much because community spread has already happened widely, like in Italy perhaps.

    NZ is likely to lift its severe lockdown of one month shortly to a milder version. 

    "I think you should rather protect those at risk and allow the virus to infect the young, like the authorities in Sweden and and Japan do."

    Perhaps we could all agree protect those at risk. Until there is a vaccine there seems little else that can be done or which makes sense.

    Sweden has much less severe lock downs than elsewhere. However Sweden also has quite a high mortality rate of 10% (refer the John Hopkins data here). 

    However lockdowns have huge economic and social costs and health costs that have to be weighed against the virus. Quite a juggling act.

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  15. Forgot the John Hopkins link. Here it is.

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  16. Darkmoon @12, just adding to my comment at 14. 

    "I think you should rather protect those at risk and allow the virus to infect the young, like the authorities in Sweden and and Japan do."

    The difficulty is that with the virus rampant among younger people isolating the elderly has to be done to such a high level it becomes challenging. Sweden's very significant mortality rate is evidence of this.

    The great difficulty is finding an appropriate lockdown that controls the virus that doesn't also wreck the economy. However human lives are at stake and covid 19 is a serious virus with no vaccine in the near term. Of course there are uncertainties with everything we do in response to covid 19, but like with climate change "the precautionary principle" should apply.

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  17. A review of Wolfram's earlier book contains some relevant quotes about cranks, starting at the paragraph "[Some cranks] are brilliant and well-educated," and continuing nearly to the end of the review.

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