Meet the Climate Science Deniers Who Downplayed COVID-19 Risks Read time: 9

By Sharon Kelly <> • Monday,
March 16, 2020 - 15:25

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared
that the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019
which causes the disease COVID-19, was officially a “public health
emergency of international concern.” At the time, there were cases
confirmed in 19 countries and deaths in China had reached 170.

The very next day, the American Council on Science and Health
<> (ACSH)
published an article
titled, “Coronavirus in the U.S.: How Bad Will It Be?”

“Is coronavirus worse than the flu?” it began. “No, not even close.”

“It already has spread from person-to-person in the U.S., but it probably
won't go far,” ACSH added. “And the American healthcare system is excellent
at dealing with this sort of problem.”

ACSH is one of several organizations promoting climate science denial that
are now spreading misinformation on the coronavirus, with potentially
deadly consequences.
American Council on Science and Health?

The ACSH presents itself to the public as a proponent of “peer-reviewed
mainstream science,” in the words of the organization’s mission. Their
experts have frequently been quoted in mainstream newspapers and magazines,
and they pen columns criticizing journalists who write critically about
companies like Monsanto
The group has received funding
from oil giants including ExxonMobil, as well as from the agribusiness,
chemical and tobacco industries to name a few.

When it comes to climate change, ACSH has published a steady stream
<> of articles downplaying climate
science and criticizing efforts to slow carbon emissions — even in the face
of a mountain <> of
peer-reviewed research on the climate crisis.

ACSH slammed
the medical journal The Lancet as “an ideologically driven outlet with a
very clear political agenda where being sensationalist and culturally woke
trumps evidence and reasonability” (after the Lancet published an article
titled “The carbon footprint”). The purported “pro-science” advocacy group
has labeled
Greta Thunberg’s activism “doomsday prophesying.” It has (falsely) suggested
that climate change is less of a concern because “more people die in winter
than in summer” (they don’t).

And that’s all just in the past nine months. The ACSH’s stance against
climate action dates back to at least 1997

When it comes to coronavirus, now a global pandemic, ACSH’s authors rushed
to judgment. They assured readers that there was little to worry about, and
put some of the same faulty thinking that underlies their stance on climate
change on display.

ACSH isn’t alone. Other organizations that have also engaged in climate
science denial made similar missteps on COVID-19, including prominent
organizations that fanned the flames of conspiracy theories or confidently
promoted complacency when circumstances required rapid action.

To be clear: No one should be faulted for failing to foresee precisely how
severe of a problem COVID-19 would prove to be. None of us has a crystal
ball and few, if any, expected this situation to unfold in this
particular way.

But these organizations published positions that not only wound up being
laden with false reassurances, but they did so based on claims that they
made confidently at the time that now appear to have been false
or misleading.
Defending Conspiracy Theorists

Take for example, the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI)
<> publications on

AEI fanned the flames of a conspiracy theory that claims COVID-19 was
developed for biological warfare.

AEI resident scholar Michael Rubin
<> published a piece
titled, “Was coronavirus a bioweapon? We don’t know, but history shows we
can’t trust China.”

The article defended Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas for his Fox News interview
the theory.

Roger Bate
an AEI visiting scholar, also penned a January 29 piece headlined, “The
media is driving the overreaction to the coronavirus.”

The piece argues against action on COVID-19, without citing any evidence
about the virus itself, but instead based on characterizations and
generalizations. “I’ve seen several news reports essentially implying that,
even if quarantining travelers or imposing travel bans to China are
overreactions to the risk of the coronavirus, this is ok because it’s
better to be safe than sorry,” he wrote
“Companies are so fearful of negative press that they seem to base much of
their own rhetoric on what the media and liberal elites demand. While some
of this is arguably harmless — note much of the hot air at Davos about
climate change — when it becomes corporate policy and is echoed by
government policy, it then has real consequences.”

“A contagion will happen at some point, and it’s important we recognize it
and react,” he added.

“Unless the coronavirus mutates into something far more dangerous,” he
concluded, “this isn’t it.”

To be sure, there was not a visible consensus on those views within AEI. That
same day, another AEI fellow published an article
calling the coronavirus a “big economic deal,” citing its impact on China’s
economy. And a three-paragraph AEI post
<> later labeled
claims that COVID-19 is a bioweapon “fake news.”

Those other pieces, however, do not undo any impacts from AEI publishing
claims that proved to be baseless.
Reading Comprehension

Other times, articles downplaying the risks from COVID-19, penned by
organizations that have adopted climate-science denying stances, present
arguments laced with logical fallacies.

In some cases, it’s not clear whether the authors understood the comments
they were critiquing.

Take, for instance, the Cato Institute
<>’s March 4, 2020 column on “COVID-19
Deaths and Incredible WHO Estimates.” That piece attacks a statement by the
WHO’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was quoted in
The New York Times as saying, “Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID‐19
cases have died

Cato’s column labeled that statistic “sensationalist nonsense.” The number
doesn’t take into account the fact that mild cases are more likely to go
unreported, Cato’s Alan Reynolds wrote.

That, of course, is exactly why Dr. Adhanom included the word “reported” in
his description of the statistic. There’s no ball being hidden here. And in
case readers missed that word and its importance, The Times’ report
included an explanation of that precise context. (“But the figure came
loaded with caveats,” The Times wrote. “Experts, including those at the WHO,
say that when more is known about the epidemic, the death rate will be
considerably lower.”)

One day later, President Trump took a similar tack to Cato’s, calling the
3.4 precent statistic “really a false number.”

“Now, this is just a hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot
of people that do this,” Trump added.

It’s not clear where exactly Trump picked up his impression — but then of
course, Trump has his own well-known stance
<> on climate science.
'Not Even Close'

The author of the ACSH piece claiming that coronavirus is “not even close”
to as bad as the flu was Dr. Alex Berezow — a PhD in microbiology,
according to his bio <>, not a
medical doctor. Berezow has been interviewed
about coronavirus precautions by the Wall Street Journal, New York
magazine, Insider, and Yahoo News.

Berezow doubled down on his claim that the flu is a worse threat than
coronavirus in a February 18 article
“Influenza is far deadlier than the Wuhan coronavirus, but few people worry
about it,” that article begins, referring to the virus with the Chinese
city initially at the center of the outbreak (a practice that's since been
viewed as stigmatizing and racist
amid a growing number
<> of cases
of stigma-motivated racial violence).

A few weeks later, Berezow changed his tune, offering readers assurances
that even if COVID-19 was far more deadly than the flu, there was still
little reason for alarm in an article calling media reports “unreliable”
and “sensationalism.”

“Even though the Wuhan coronavirus is currently thought to have a
case-fatality rate of 2 percent (which would make it 20 times deadlier
[than influenza]),” he wrote
“it’s unlikely that it will rack up a similar annual death toll because —
at least for the time being — it is not going to infect hundreds of
millions of people.”

A week later, on February 27, Berezow admitted he had changed his mind,
saying that the facts had changed and writing
“When COVID-19, aka the Wuhan coronavirus, first emerged, it seemed most
likely that the virus would fizzle out. But as the disease continues to
spread, that outcome now appears nearly impossible.”

But by mid-March, Berezow was back to arguing that, as he wrote
on March 11, “[f]or now, influenza remains the far bigger global public
health threat.”

In contrast, public health organizations like the WHO have sought to offer
information in ways that are both careful and candid. The Centers for
Disease Control’s (neglected) guidelines for public health communication call
messaging that’s consistent, accurate, and doesn’t withhold
important information.

There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty about what the coming days will
bring when it comes to this pandemic. But if we’re all going to make the
best decisions possible today, we’d be well-served to pay close attention
to medical science.

And when so much of the message that there’s nothing to worry about on
climate change comes from think tanks like Cato, AEI, and ACSH that made
unsupported and flawed calls on COVID-19, it’s worth taking a moment to
pause and think about that as well.

Because as monumental as the impacts of this pandemic are now, the science
tells us that if we fail to dramatically cut carbon and methane emissions, the
impacts of climate change
may be even more profound over the long run.
*Main image credit: Photo of Donald Trump by Laura Evangelisto. Coronavirus
image via C**DC.*