Part of the Series Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
A study published in Nature Climate Change recently found that, in early April, daily global carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 17 percent compared to the 2019 mean levels. Because of shelter-in-place rules and businesses being closed, people have been driving and flying less, leading to lower emissions.
Shortly after emissions started dropping in March, the climate community was careful to apply nuance to the emissions reduction discussion: Less carbon dioxide emissions, while good, should not be celebrated when caused by a global pandemic. In other words, while this time may show us the extent that people can come together in action, the ends don’t justify the means — the means here being a global financial crisis and hundreds of thousands of people dead. As climate scientist Carl-Friedrich Schleussner said in Carbon Brief, “The narrative that the economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus is ‘good’ for the climate is dangerously misleading and could undermine support for climate action.”
Though the climate community quickly dismissed this narrative, the right wing latched onto the idea that progressives were celebrating COVID-19 for its environmental benefits. Quickly, commentators on the right asserted that the world as it is under the pandemic is the world that climate advocates want under policies like the Green New Deal. The British libertarian web magazine Spiked wrote that “Covid-19 is a frightening dress rehearsal of the climate agenda.” Spiked is, incidentally, funded by the Koch foundation. Meanwhile, figures like Alex Epstein, who wrote a book entitled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and whose organization Center for Industrial Progress has ties to the coal industry, have said that the recession caused by the pandemic is a preview of the Green New Deal.
This argument is incorrect in many ways, the least of which being that the temporary emissions reduction isn’t nearly enough: The UN has said that emissions need to drop by 7.5 percent each year. That drop needs to be permanent.
“[Right-wingers] are grasping at straws. And they’re actually trying to spin a couple pieces of straw into silk,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “I don’t see anybody in the climate community actually making that argument” that coronavirus is a good thing.
Yet for climate deniers and delayers, a straw man argument is often enough. “It’s totally in character with the entire [denier] community to make shit up and try to pin it on their opponents,” says Leiserowitz. They just need to sow enough confusion that their benefactors — usually the fossil fuel industry — can thrive under deregulation and the status quo.
Commentators on the right asserted that the world as it is under the pandemic is the world that climate advocates want under policies like the Green New Deal.
So, while these are unprecedented times, this line of attack on the climate community already has a long history. Linking the global pandemic with an imaginary environmental agenda is just part of a quiet but consistent decades-long strategy to attack climate policy. This particular argument strives to equate any climate action with suffering — or, as the reactionary right might put it, a loss of “freedom” or “liberty.”
This narrative has taken many forms over the years; the idea that climate regulation kills jobs was a prominent one for several decades. Now, as the progressive left and climate action have gained ideological ground, the right has had to adapt and warp its arguments accordingly. The new argument, it seems, is that climate regulation kills not just jobs but the entire economy, as conservative pundits and politicians argued in early 2019 when the Green New Deal became popularized.
A particular fear that deniers like to stoke — one that they also play upon in their pandemic and climate regulation fear mongering — is that people’s everyday lives will change drastically when we actually start to address the climate crisis. Consider the rhetoric of extremist “reopen” protesters and the bizarre conservative claim that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) wanted to take away people’s burgers.
The irony is that many climate policies are built to be as non-disruptive as possible. “The kinds of changes that we’re going to make in our lives — some of them, we’re not even going to notice,” says Leiserowitz. Light switches will still work, people will still be free to roam outside, meat will still be available to eat; in many ways, without the most oppressive effects of climate change, life will be better.
But deniers take advantage of the fact that climate communicators haven’t quite articulated the vast amounts of life-improving changes that climate action will bring and fill in the gaps with conspiratorial scare tactics.
“The thing that intrigued us [at DeSmogBlog] about the overlap between COVID misinformation and climate denial is that we couldn’t have one without the other,” says Brendan DeMelle, executive director of DeSmogBlog. DeSmogBlog has been documenting the overlap between those who deny or downplay the effects the coronavirus and known climate deniers. The overlap is vast, with climate denialist figures such as Alex Jones and Charlie Kirk and organizations such as the Heartland Institute, The Daily Caller, The Federalist and PragerU participating in various COVID-19 denial tactics.
“This echo chamber [on the right] is rapidly spreading misinformation through The Daily Caller and through all kinds of outlets that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this strategy of undermining public trust in science and government leadership,” says DeMelle. Part of the efficacy of the radical right’s propaganda is that it politicizes and smears institutional authorities like scientists and journalists in order to push its counterfactual agenda.
One effective way to combat the narrative that environmentalists want to destroy freedom and liberty is “to paint the positive and inspiring picture of transitioning from polluting energy sources to clean energy,” says John Cook, a climate and cognitive science researcher at George Mason University, over email to Truthout.
After all, mitigating the climate crisis, living free of harmful air that chokes out entire communities, leaving behind the fear that rising sea levels will displace entire countries and casting off our dread of what an entirely new category of hurricane will bring — that would be true freedom.
Sharon Zhang is a development fellow at Truthout.