Doubting Science – Let’s Differentiate Between Climate Change and Covid-19 Science

Blake Hudson
Samuel T. Dell Professor of Law
University of Florida College of Law

There are many links between climate change and the global coronavirus pandemic. The most obvious is the effect of economic slowdowns on greenhouse gas emissions. The economy grinding to a halt earlier this year starkly demonstrated the continued coupling of economic growth and higher CO2 emissions. While CO2 emissions dropped precipitously during the lockdown, and 2020 emissions are expected to be 4-7% lower relative to 2019, the pandemic has failed to make even a dent in the global year-to-year growth of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Climate change scientists also share a common—if unfortunate—bond with Covid-19 scientists: namely, the politicization of their work and attacks on the integrity of the science that they undertake. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe stated, “Climate scientists were probably the least surprised people in the world when the response to the coronavirus became politically polarized. Because that’s what we’ve been living through for 30 years.”

Pandemic science deniers are using the same “playbook” as climate change deniers to attempt to undermine the credibility of scientific research, as “[p]oliticians have questioned the findings of government scientists; [and] conspiracy theorists have muddied the public’s understanding of the threat.” Some pandemic-deniers have dubbed the coronavirus “climate change 2.0.” Just a few months ago the President declared that the coronavirus will just “go away”—which, of course, has not happened and will not happen no matter how many times he pushes that narrative. In the same way, a few days ago, when confronted by an official highlighting the role of climate change in contributing to the record-setting western fire season, the President said “it will get cooler…you just watch.”

The administration’s policies have put these off-the-cuff sentiments into policy practice. Soon after taking office, the Trump administration removed climate change information from virtually all federal government websites. The CDC has been accused of doing the same with coronavirus data. The administration has also refused to allow key scientific officials to testify before Congress on both climate and Covid.

Unfortunately, these policy actions illuminate another connection between climate change and the pandemic—the consequences of delaying action on each are dire. Taking action just one week earlier on Covid-19 could have resulted in 36,000 fewer American deaths. Similarly, more delay on climate action can lead to the climatic epidemiological equivalent of a runaway pandemic as the earth’s climate system potentially crosses a number of tipping points from which it will be unable to recover within any meaningful time period.

One question posed in discourse on Covid and climate has been “Will the Covid-19 pandemic change people’s attitudes and trust towards climate change science?” When I have seen this question posed in one form or another the implication has always been that perhaps people will see both the effects of Covid, and the scientific response to it, and more readily listen to scientists on other important scientific issues, like climate change. But I have been concerned all along that the pandemic will push people (at least those on the margins) in the opposite direction.

Before the pandemic there seemed to (finally) be some inertia on climate action in public discourse—the topic was in the news more often and more people were at least seeming to recognize that we are experiencing its effects in the present. The administration’s abandonment of climate science and policy also caused other levels of government, such as at the state and local levels, to begin filling the void with a greater sense of urgency. And private actors also seemed to be taking the threat of climate change more seriously. But the pandemic threatens to derail what (slow) progress has been made. Particularly since initial projections of the pandemic’s potential effects—used to justify economically damaging lockdowns that some argue have done more harm than good—proved to be gross overestimates. In late March an article in the New York Times highlighted models predicting that we would have anywhere between 14 million and 128 million total infections by the late October 2020 (we are approaching 7 million at the time of this writing) and potentially 1.3 million dead (we stand at nearly 202,000 at the time of this writing). To be fair, the article did note that these estimates “offer a false precision, for we don’t understand Covid-19 well enough to model it exactly.” Yet, detractors have latched on to such data extrapolations as examples of why early policy responses were an overreaction. This has given fodder to those who would say “the science is uncertain and is untrustworthy.” As a result, people are emboldened in their view that the hubbub over pandemic is all an overreaction. I personally have encountered many individuals who highlight early overestimations of projected deaths or what they view as a lack of integrity in how deaths are counted on death certificates as proof that the science is untrustworthy. There are even those I have encountered who have had the virus without life threatening symptoms and who are further convinced that “it’s no big deal.” These perspectives are likely to embolden those already inclined to believe that needed responses to climate change will be an overreaction based upon “uncertain” science.

Yet there is a key difference between climate and Covid science. Climate science has been studied, honed, and sharpened for at least 100 years. Climate is completely unlike a novel virus that just hit the scene. It is no wonder that early models and projections of Covid impacts were orders of magnitude off. It presented a completely new set of scientific questions that had not been studied. We are literally learning about this new viral threat on the fly. That is a difficult scientific endeavor by any measure, and when you are dealing with an immediate threat of life and death (not knowing whether the virus will kill millions) you can understand why worst case projections are relied upon at the outset. While the modeling of all potential future climate impacts also yields uncertainty, we have a far clearer picture of the causes and behaviors—that is, the “pathology”—of the climate system. Particularly since climate models can be constructed from more than a century’s worth of past recorded data, they can more accurately estimate the range of outcomes the future may hold.

Recall my previous article about how Exxon’s own scientists—thirty-eight years ago, in 1982accurately projected our current climatic conditions (as seen in the figures below):

The planet just crossed over the 415 ppm threshold of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere for the first time in human history—indeed, for the first time in 2-3 million years.  This is almost exactly the concentration of carbon dioxide that Exxon projected would be in the atmosphere in 2020 given rates of fossil fuel production and consumption (Exxon’s internal report can be viewed here; see also Figure 1, below). Exxon also correctly projected that earth’s temperature would rise between 0.8 and 1.2° C as a result, and it has.”

Exxon’s scientists further projected that the background atmospheric conditions that would occur naturally relative to conditions that were man-made would begin to diverge around the year 2000, demonstrating the current warming trend is due almost solely to humanity’s use of fossil fuels (as seen in the next image).

Ultimately, climate projections made decades ago have proved reliable, and have been verified and refined time and time again by thousands of scientists around the globe. Does that mean that all climate models of future impacts are 100% accurate? Of course not. As has been noted time and again “all models are wrong,” at least to some degree. But a century’s worth of data on climate provides a much more stable footing for trusting its scientific foundations than does the footing on which a novel virus rests. Those engaged in public discourse on the relative value of scientific findings in these two fields should recognize this distinction and make clear to people that what is good for the Covid goose is not good for the climate gander. The virus and climate change are completely distinct scientific phenomena, studied over dramatically distinct timelines. Some science is more mature and tested than other science and “science” is not a homogenous concept. Let’s not let climate science be undermined by treating it as such when referring to parts of the electorate as “anti-science.” Doing so risks turning climate into another runaway pandemic—but one for which there will be no convenient vaccine.

– Blake Hudson

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