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The harms of denialism — from the climate crisis to COVID-19

Reviewing the global ramifications of misinformation and delayed action
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

Becoming a scientist is a gruelling journey. After high school, it can take four years to get a bachelor’s degree and at least five more years to obtain a PhD. On the flipside, it can take mere seconds for a net surfer to insult the hard work of experts with those credentials.

Sound familiar? It should. The dismissal of evidence is at odds with the scientific community and its call to fight the climate crisis. Unsurprisingly, such opposition has also arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I see many similarities between the reactions and responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis. They paint a pretty grim picture of our future, but there are lessons to be learned in the hopes of a better future.

Individuals and the scientific institution 

First, why are both the climate crisis and COVID-19 characterized by denial in the first place? 

Science as an institution isn’t perfect, and COVID-19 has allowed us to see that. On March 8, while leading the American federal pandemic response, Dr. Anthony Fauci argued that the possible drawbacks of mask-wearing were greater than the preventative benefits. Weeks later, he reversed his statement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen misinformed ‘alternative’ facts gain traction. Some of these ‘alternative’ facts suggest that COVID-19 is a mere flu while others undermine the pandemic’s health risks. Plenty of research exists to falsify these ‘facts,’ but I am appalled by how easily it was all dismissed. Why?

What climate and COVID-19 denialists ignore is that corrective turnarounds like Fauci’s are not discrediting the science, but are rather expected and necessary. Although the scientific community strives to ensure accuracy and promote accessibility of information, it is clear that more can be done to strengthen the public’s trust in science. 

Climate science faces similar mistrust. While powerful interests lead this opposition, climate denial may also make sense to those who don’t believe in climate science.

That said, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to shed light on these attitudes and where they come from. I personally hope that the pandemic has provided sufficient experience to set new objectives for augmenting scientific literacy, emphasizing the rigour of scientific methods and why they work, at all levels of education. I’ve seen this in my own educational experiences, but the actions of many show that we have a long way to go.

Governments and globalization

By nature of democracy, even a group of misinformed individuals can drive misinformed decision-making. An understanding of globalization — the increasing economic connectedness of the world’s nations —  is necessary when addressing both the climate crisis and the pandemic.

When COVID-19 first emerged, governments — and even myself, regretfully — viewed it chiefly as a Chinese concern, localized to one part of the world. But viruses can travel whether or not we view them as a threat, and travel they did, into our homes, schools, and workplaces.  

More upsetting to me than the Ontario case numbers themselves — over 255,000 confirmed cases and more than 5,700 deaths to date — is the fact that there was ample warning, with the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020. Ontario’s response followed almost two months later. 

Many elements are shared between governments’ responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis, so this disappointing response came as no surprise to me. Characteristic to both is a lack of urgency in responding to global crises with long-term consequences, even when there is overwhelming scientific evidence that should motivate action.

However, the worldwide transmission of COVID-19 was not the only way globalization has amplified the pandemic’s effects. Very few items are currently produced solely in Canada; therefore, as the pandemic struck down the economies of other countries, we suffered too. We saw shortages in food, medical equipment, and personal protective equipment, among other items. 

It is clear how dependent Canada is on the international economy. This is a warning of what economic consequences the climate crisis could have for us as well.

There is one fundamental difference between the pandemic and the climate crisis. Canada, logically, could’ve done little to prevent COVID-19 from having economic effects in other countries, and thus spilling over into our own. 

However, having one of the lowest scores in the “Climate Change Performance Index,” Canada has a great degree of power to mitigate the climate crisis in collaboration with other countries. I have reason to believe that hope still remains for the climate.

Average global temperatures remain on track to increase by around three degrees Celsius, suggesting that the world’s climate-polluting nations are still not doing enough to combat the climate crisis. We might not see that easily from our Canadian vantage point because the low-income regions of the world disproportionately bear the greatest costs of the climate crisis. 

However, just as COVID-19 didn’t remain localized to China for long, I don’t expect the social and economic ramifications of the climate crisis to remain localized in the world’s most marginalized regions either. There’s bound to be some spillover.

Now, we have COVID-19 as a textbook example of the consequences of ignoring globalization, and how doing so can bring the consequences of seemingly-distant catastrophes to our doorstep. We can also see the consequences of misunderstanding and ignoring scientific information. The lessons are on the table, but whether or not we learn from them is in everybody’s hands.