Written by Nicole Conlan

This month will mark the anniversary of Colorado’s first lockdown to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, and while effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 are a distant light at the end of the tunnel, we’re still struggling with many of the same social divisions that characterized the start of the crisis. From refusal to wear masks to fear-mongering about vaccine safety, the nationwide pandemic response has been tainted by a treatment of science that could be characterized as mistrustful at best and antagonistic at worst. 

These attitudes towards science and public policy weren’t born of the pandemic, however. Like so much of our modern lives, they’ve been fueled by oil. In fact, the decades-long coordinated effort by fossil fuel companies to protect their profits by undermining confidence in science has become the modern playbook for COVID denialism. Now that we have a narrow window for getting this thing under control, it’s more important than ever to understand how and why this happened, so we can counter its effects during the vaccine rollout.

Fossil-Fuel Industry & Doubt About Climate Science

The fossil fuel industry started chipping away at science’s reputation in the mid-20th century, when a scientist at CalTech discovered that Los Angeles’ poor air quality – so bad at points that you couldn’t see to the end of the block and tires were rotting off of street-parked cars – was caused by gasoline combustion. The American Petroleum Institute immediately developed a strategy that it would use for the next 40 years against environmentalists: sowing doubt about climate science whenever and wherever it could. 

They intentionally misused the word “theory,” to confuse the public about the scientific process and make scientists look unsure. Internal documents showed that they were well aware of man-made climate change, but they made statements to the public that denied those findings. They’ve repeatedly distorted data to obscure the human impacts of climate change. They hired experts who agreed with them and ignored the tens of thousands who didn’t.  An attorney from the Center for International Environmental Law called it “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.”

Climate-Change Deniers Are COVID Deniers 

In 2020, these doubts echoed loud and clear when it came to the impending COVID-19 pandemic. As health experts changed their stance on mask-wearing as a normal consequence of scientific developments and supply chain issues, COVID deniers spun it as scientific flip-flopping and uncertainty. Reports showed that the President was well aware of the dangers of COVID as early as January, while publicly denying that reality. COVID deniers have distorted data about the disease’s mortality rate to obscure its devastating impacts, just like they did with climate change. President Trump also hired experts who agreed with him, ignoring the consensus of most other scientists.

In fact, the same people responsible for sowing doubt about climate change are the ones sowing doubt about COVID. One report indicates that at least 70 of the most vocal COVID deniers are also the worst culprits of spreading climate misinformation, including members of the anti-climate Heartland Institute. Sometimes these people even connect the dots for us. Before ultra-conservative conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter Bill Mitchell was suspended from Twitter, he tweeted that COVID is “climate change 2.0.”

How Denial Affects Legislation 

Undermining climate science enabled fossil-fuel companies and the politicians who received their donations to decimate essential physical and legislative infrastructure that should have been in place to protect people. The Reagan administration made huge cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency as part of his anti-regulation crusade, and in 2018, Trump’s elimination of Obama-era funding and requirements for inspections led to the disastrous BP oil spill

This same budgetary and regulatory ham-stringing has endangered Americans since the beginning of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, the President disbanded the federal pandemic response team. As one of his first actions as President in 2017, he made massive cuts to science and medical funding, including to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. 

And the federal response to both these crises is to shove responsibility onto the states. As a former administration official told Vanity Fair:

“The system…is very heavily designed around a relatively short duration, very geographically specific incidents, things like hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes and tsunamis,” the former administration official told me. The refrain is, “locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.” And the thinking goes, when a locality gets overwhelmed—say a hurricane or a tornado hits—it goes to its state; if that state gets overwhelmed it will go to neighboring states for assistance, mutual aid; and when that system is exhausted, the federal government steps in with additional resources.

This strategy is only debatably effective for discrete natural disasters, but when it comes to things like airborne particles – of carbon or coronavirus – it’s inadequate to the point of embarrassment. The path to deregulation was paved by fossil-fuel companies and allowed the pandemic to hit America harder than almost any other country.

Profit Over Public Health (And Planet Health) 

Of course, at the heart of all of this was money. Fossil-fuel companies used public ignorance as an opportunity to make huge profits. At the beginning of the pandemic, our own leaders chose to use insider information about the disease to enrich themselves. Government officials have also used the economy as an argument against fighting the danger of both climate change and COVID. And despite the fact that many if not most economists agree that early and strong action against the pandemic and climate change is less expensive, climate deniers are now using the pandemic as an argument against climate action. Climate antagonist and Koch associate Alex Epstein has called the pandemic recession a “preview of the Green New Deal,” adding that “our biggest ally in the fight against coronavirus is the fossil fuel industry.” As usual, fossil-fuel interests are using the current moment not as an opportunity to right their wrongs, but to double down on pollution.

What You Can Do About It

After decades of eroding trust in science, Americans must now reap the doubt that fossil-fuel companies sowed. However, there are things we can do to stem the problem. Researchers have noted that despite their disproportionate representation, both on TV and in governmental decision-making, COVID and climate deniers only make up about 10% of the population. According to one communications expert, “the solution lies not in persuading those already steeped in science denial, but in inoculating the other 90 percent of the public from scientific disinformation.” That means it’s worth it to correct scientific misinformation when you see it

Research shows that even if it has no impact on the person making the argument, it’s hugely important for the audience – if a false scientific claim is countered immediately, it “meaningfully reduces the negative influence of denialist claims.” Importantly, this research was conducted specifically with claims about climate change and vaccine efficacy. With many Americans still skeptical of COVID vaccines, it’s essential to counter misinformation to enable widespread vaccination before resistant variants emerge. Similarly, as the new administration takes an aggressive stance on climate, we must work to counter misinformation that will stand in the way of these policies, and indeed, encourage popular support for even more environmental policy. For resources on the best ways to counter science deniers, click here or here.

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