What can decades of research on climate change denial tell us about fighting COVID-19? The world is currently faced with two crises—one immediate, one existential: a global pandemic and global climate change. Solving both problems will require intensive political action backed by public support, yet both suffer from a vocal minority that actively refute scientific consensus.
Exit polls from the 2020 presidential election show that almost a third of all voters fail to see climate change as a serious problem. At the same time, COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe, spread by political and personal inaction.
While the consequences of climate change denial will be most severely felt a few decades from now (though the storm that froze Texas in early February shows that climate impacts are not that far off), the refusal to trust science in the COVID-19 pandemic leads to immediate, countable, visible loss of life and economic security. The decades of research surrounding climate change denial may provide insight into the social psychology and politics behind denial and inaction during COVID-19—a problem plagued with many similar policy challenges.
Trends in Climate Denialism
A study by McCright and Dunlap found that those most likely to deny climate change in the U.S. are conservative white males. The authors conclude that this phenomena may be the result of system justification: when a current system is working well for a person and is aligned with their worldview, they work to maintain the status quo. This pattern was also observed in a study in Norway which found that 63% of conservative white males denied climate change—a much higher percentage than all other groups included (Krange et al., 2018). Acceptance of climate change would necessitate the acceptance of mitigation strategies that change the current system. Those who currently benefit greatly from the status quo may be more inclined to reject a problem’s validity to maintain their comfortable positions in society.
Denial of climate change may also result from the tendency to protect group identity. If your church, political party, or group of friends sides a specific way on the climate change “debate,” it’s of benefit to you to challenge notions that are counter to the group’s beliefs, regardless of the problem’s grounding in science. To be clear, the debate on whether climate change is occurring and caused by human activity is not among scientists: a 97% majority in the scientific literature supports the evidence that climate change is indeed happening and anthropogenic in origin.
While there may be some groups that deny climate change to preserve social identity, others including politicians and a select few scientists, are influenced by a more active player: the fossil fuel industry. Climate change has been the victim of a targeted, well-funded disinformation campaign fueled by the very industry most directly culpable for climate change, notably, oil companies. The main goal of disinformation efforts surrounding climate change has been to plant seeds of doubt about the scientific evidence while acting as seemingly concerned proponents of “sound science.” In many ways these efforts have paid off, especially in the U.S.
Efforts to publicize the few researchers who question climate change science and fund politicians who are keen on deregulation has impacted the U.S. public discussion on climate change. In a recent study analyzing conversations about climate change on twitter in four English-speaking countries, tweets in the U.S. were found to focus more on the legitimacy of climate change as a problem as opposed to potential causes, impacts, or solutions compared to tweets in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia (Jang and Hart, 2015). Today, polarization remains in popular news media and social media networks.
Climate change deniers differ in their media consumption from those who believe in climate change, favoring Fox news and other conservative outlets (Krishna, 2021). Denialists are further encouraged through social media “echo chambers” that function to add credibility to the denial of scientific evidence supporting climate change.
The dismissal of the severity of the pandemic is also fueled by misinformation. Conspiracy theories and conflicting messages from the scientific community and politicians have further exacerbated the problem. Yet even in the face of misinformation, governments across the world have been able to rapidly enact regulatory policies – not so much the case in the context of climate change.
Politically, the nation is still divided on climate change. Exit polls show that of the 30% of voters in the presidential election who did not think climate change was a serious problem, 84% of them voted for Trump. We see a similar divide in the case of COVID-19, where 81% of Democrats valued the pandemic as a key issue when casting their vote for president compared to Republican’s 15%.
Outright denial of the scientific evidence aside, it may be that those who fail to understand the gravity of these two collective action problems just don’t think the problem applies to them.
It’s Not My Problem: Risk and Timing
People are more likely to act on a problem when they perceive it as a personal threat. For both climate change and COVID-19, people are bad at understanding the actual risk posed to themselves and society. While a majority of people do believe that climate change is a problem that should be addressed, the problem is often still seen as far-off—a problem for other people. This tendency, called “spatial optimism,” was observed across multiple countries, even those more vulnerable to the more immediate impacts of climate change (Tvinnereim et al., 2020).
COVID-19 is also plagued with an over-confident public in our country—even now as the U.S. leads the world in coronavirus infection rates. A study conducted in March and April 2020 found that across age groups and pre-existing conditions, people in the U.S. severely underestimated their risk of dying of Sars-CoV2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, if people thought they were less likely to die of the virus, they were also less likely to follow “health-protective” behaviors like mask wearing and social distancing.
While both crises have problems with inadequate personal risk assessment, climate change and COVID-19 differ considerably in several ways, scale and timing being key factors. COVID-19 poses an immediate, personal threat to every individual. It has stalled the global economy and forced governments to work to restore society back to normal as fast as possible. While it is a problem of a global scale, relative to climate change, it has fewer causes requiring solutions.
To solve the COVID-19 crisis, we hunker down until the new vaccine is distributed to enough people that (hopefully) we can all get back to our daily lives. It is a blip in the timeline in comparison to climate change, which will require sustained structural change. However, solutions to structural inequities that have exacerbated the pandemic in non-white communities are still needed.
Distrust in Science is Justified for Many
Racial minorities, Indigenous communities, and those living in poverty bear the brunt of COVID-19 and soon, climate change. With such inequities in place, trust in science and government begins to play a large role settling on solutions. In cases like climate change and COVID-19, science becomes politicized and distrust in certain communities is fueled by a history of mistreatment by scientists and politicians alike.
Current research is looking into the role of trust in enacting COVID-19 policies, highlighting inequities in the pandemic. Higher rates of COVID-19 are seen in Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous communities compared to non-Hispanic white populations. Black and Indigenous Americans show high skepticism for the new coronavirus vaccines, founded in the systemic abuse they’ve endured in the U.S. healthcare system.
To decrease denialism and increase acceptance of the required mitigation policies for both problems, special attention should be paid to those most negatively impacted by enacted policies and structural inequities. Policy solutions for both climate change and COVID-19 require “just transitions.”
Lessons from Crisis
Why COVID-19 has fostered such sweeping political intervention may be a function of the immediacy of the threat, industry cooperation, and the immediate accountability of politicians for lack of action. Climate change however, is a problem that can be pushed off to the next administration or the next generation.
Climate change can teach us why collective action problems—those that disrupt the current system, ask for personal sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, and require large-scale structural changes away from “business as usual” emissions activity—lead to denial of problems and science.
In fact, it may be that each crisis has a lesson to be learned from the other. When dealing with a “slow burn” problem like climate change, we may be able to learn from COVID-19 to enact faster policy intervention, perhaps by framing the problem to decrease spatial optimism or to emphasize the personal benefits of climate change mitigation. For COVID-19, we can take lessons from climate change denial to understand the biggest roadblocks for tackling collective action problems.
Climate change is around to stay and global pandemics are predicted to become a more frequent part of our future. A better understanding of science denial in both situations may give us the necessary information to better communicate and inspire action in an increasingly unstable world.
At Currents, we do our best to link to open source research and publicly accessible articles. For some sources cited in this piece, open access versions could not be found. The citations for these studies are listed below. Please contact our Editor-in-Chief if you would like to view a PDF of any of the following cited studies:
Jang, S.M. and Hart, P.S. (2015). Polarized frames on “climate change” and “global warming” across countries and states: Evidence from Twitter big data. Global Environmental Change, 32, 11–17. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.02.010
Krange, O., Kaltenborn, B. P., and Hultman, M. (2018). Cool dudes in Norway: Climate change denial among conservative Norwegian men. Environmental Sociology, 5(1), 1-11. doi: 10.1080/23251042.2018.1488516
Krishna, A. (2021). Understanding the differences between climate change deniers and believers’ knowledge, media use, and trust in related information sources. Public Relations Review, 47, 101986. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2020.101986
Tvinnereim, E., Lægreid, O.M., Liu, X., Shaw, D., Borick, C., and Lachapelle, E. (2020). Climate change risk perceptions and the problem of scale: evidence from cross-national survey experiments. Environmental Politics, 29, 1178–1198. doi: 10.1080/09644016.2019.1708538