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Dangerous parallels: Links worth noticing between COVID-19 and climate change

Like many, I have recently had more time on my hands. In case you were not yet tired of hearing about COVID-19, here is another opinion. In honor of the 50th Earth Day, this article applies some of the very hard lessons that this crisis has taught us to climate change, which will likely be another hallmark of the 21st Century. 

Before delving into the parallels between denying climate change and denying COVID-19, I first wish to develop the connection inherent to pandemics and climate change. Large volumes of research indicate that increased habitat loss, or decreased biodiversity in other words, renders us more vulnerable to pandemics. Biodiversity and Emerging Diseases, an academic report from The New York Academy of Sciences, summarizes well: “biodiversity appears to function as an important barrier (buffer), especially against disease-causing organisms…”. A 2017 report from the Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials goes further to suggest that “due to global warming the burden of vector-borne diseases… will increase in the coming years in the tropics and beyond.”  

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing habitat loss are key to preventing an increase in the frequency of pandemics. Causational analysis of COVID-19 is still underway, and no conclusions or implications about its definitive causes ought to be implied here; rather, this Viewpoint hopes to highlight the thematic trends between climate change and the current pandemic. 

On COVID-19 protests and climate denial

I wish to discuss my takeaways from a publicly-available webinar from Grist.org, a Seattle-based climate news organization that has covered climate change since 1999. The panel for this discussion includes two members of Grist, as well as George Mason University Professor John Cook, who specializes in the study of climate change and misinformation. In short, this webinar discussed the philosophical ways in which we can use one global crisis, and the denial thereof, to think about another. 

Cook identifies five primary techniques of denial: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picking, and conspiracy theories. Cook has found that these techniques have been applied to cast doubt on both issues and that in some cases, “it’s the same people.”  

Shannon Osaka of Grist describes both COVID-19 and climate change as relatively predictable scenarios; that is, they are not surprising, nor unparalleled. The climate crisis has been an obvious threat for some time now, and arguably, the best connection of this argument to COVID-19 is how early the Trump Administration was briefed on COVID-19 as a serious threat, as early as January, versus when the administration began taking legitimate action: March. Despite their strong scientific base, these issues are still unduly controversial.

One of the principal differences between climate change and COVID-19 is what Cook refers to as psychological distance. Osaka summarizes the difference as “Climate change means they might die, coronavirus means I might die.” I contend that until early-mid March, COVID-19 was still in the they category for many, especially President Trump. This explains many of the reprehensible attempts by the far-right to distance the U.S. from COVID-19, referring to the disease as “Kung Flu”, the “Chinese Virus”, and the like. In part due to this racist, naive attitude, the U.S. now has more than 843,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, a 600,000 case margin between us and our runner-up, Spain. 

I hope not to be too pessimistic, but rather to shed light on how dangerous dissociating with an issue can be. Our current emissions trajectory is set to send us well over emissions targets specified by The Green New Deal, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), The Paris Agreement, and other criteria. The climate crisis, like COVID-19, is only going to become harder to deny as it intensifies. Needless to say, we should not wait for that to happen. 

On COVID-19 protests and ulterior motives 

This past week has marked an increase in outspoken criticism of COVID-19 protection efforts. Protests to prematurely reopen the economy have gained significant attention. There are many criticisms of these protests that can be made in the realm of privilege and hubris, but I wish to highlight a specific subset of those categories: greed. 

One of the protests that took place Wednesday, April 15, was outside the Capitol of Michigan in Lansing, MI. Nothing more than a quick Google search indicates that the DeVos family, who Sen. Bernie Sanders speculated in 2017 has donated over $200 million to the Republican Party, was also the top funder of this protest. Per The Guardian, “The Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF), which said it was a co-host of the rally, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” PRWatch frames the information slightly differently: “From 2017-19, the Michigan Freedom Network (MFN) [political extension of MFF] has been almost entirely financed by members of the DeVos family, according to state campaign finance records… 98 percent of the MFN’s contribution revenue during that time.” 

Speculating is not an especially strong suit of mine, but I do have one question: if the DeVos family cared deeply enough about these protests to donate such large sums of money, where were they at the protest? Mind you this is strictly speculative, but their actions parallel motives of the fossil fuel industry. A different article from The Guardian makes the highly-corroborated claim that industry behemoth ExxonMobil has been well aware of climate change for at least four decades. Nonetheless, the industry has spent billions to hinder the path toward clear climate progress. 

Easily surpassing the DeVos family, The New York Times notes that the Koch brothers donated approximately $400 million in 2012 to help defeat Obama, and made large contributions to flip the Senate in 2014. I would argue that one of the most notorious examples of climate change denial in U.S. politics took place in February 2015, when Sen. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) brought a snowball onto the Senate Floor to disprove the warming climate. Unsurprisingly, The Guardian notes that Sen. Inhofe’s largest donor is Koch Industries. 

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