Almost as soon as covid-19 began to spread across the U.S., science deniers began to call the deadly virus a hoax.
“Stop the panic,” Steve Milloy, a policy director at coal company Murray Energy and member of Trump’s presidential transition team, tweeted.
If these remarks sound eerily familiar, maybe it’s because this is exactly the same rhetoric used to deny the realities of the climate crisis, spouted by exactly the same people. Both Morgan and Milloy have made careers from climate science denial and the defence of the fossil fuel industry.
And it’s not just those two. A new investigation from environmental publication DeSmog shows the massive overlap between the climate science denial machine and the covid-19 pandemic denial machine. And they’re following the exact same playbook they’ve used to try to discredit climate science.
“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,” the project executive summary says. “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.”
Some of that misinformation has been crafted to foster doubt about government responses to the pandemic. Some fossil fuel industry-backed climate deniers are now claiming that the pandemic is a plot by “globalist elites” like Bill Gates and George Soros to alternately force vaccines or function as a “world population cull.”
Other schemes use misinformation to exploit people’s fear. Organisations that previously argued that plastic bag bans were hysterical overreaches by the climate movement, for instance, are now misrepresenting scientific studies to advocate for an end plastic bag bans to stop the spread of coronavirus. Many of those same organisations like the Manhattan Institute and Heartland Institute have also received fossil fuel company money.
It may be tempting write these instances off as a couple of harmless cranks, but there’s evidence that these denial campaigns are having some influence. Some states are already rolling back regulations on plastic ban use. And even more scarily, science deniers are successfully getting people to organise against their own best interests.
“The stuff that was the most insidious and dangerous to us were the attempts by the anti-science climate deniers to suggest that this [pandemic] wasn’t a big deal and that it wasn’t dangerous, that people should ignore government and science and just go on about their freedom and liberty,” Brendan DeMelle, DeSmog’s executive director, told Earther. “And that just seemed really dangerous.”
For instance, those wild protests where right-wingers are demanding an end to social distancing measures? Turns out they were promoted by a network of conservative think tanks backed by fossil fuel billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Mercer family. Those same billionaires funded Tea Party protests a decade ago to push an an agenda of deregulation.
“It’s really crazy to see people out there actually protesting against lockdowns,” said DeMelle. “Those people have been duped into thinking that this isn’t really a threat to their health, which it most certainly is. That’s evidence of misinformation at work.”
Though ordinary people are buying it, that misinformation serves to protect the interests of the industries who are pushing it. Like environmental regulations, government action to contain the pandemic has seriously threatened the fossil fuel industry’s business model in an unprecedented way by dramatically decreasing demand for their products. The American fossil fuel industry was already struggling before the pandemic, and the coronavirus has magnified the intense economic pressures working against it.
Rather than take this opportunity to start winding down extraction, they’ve gone after health science to try and preserve what they can. From tobacco and acid rain to the climate change and now the coronavirus pandemic, the same actors have drawn from their anti-science playbook to defend corporate interests at the expense of human health.
“Their tactics, can be deployed in all kinds of ways whenever they see a threat, and that threat in this case comes from the fact that people… need to lean into science and government to solve this crisis,” said DeMalle. “We need cooperation and we need everyone to follow the guidance that the scientists and medical community give us…anything that contradicts that is a danger.”