COVID-19 and Climate Change

Saturday, April 4, 2020
Christine Folch, Assistant Professor Cultural Anthropology

Many have remarked on the striking parallels between COVID-19 and anthropogenic climate change, crises that: spill across national borders; require coordinated interventions between scientists, civil society, the private sector, government, and individuals; and are met with skepticism or outright denial from some leading voices and ordinary citizens on the political Right, including characterizations as hoax or sinister liberal conspiracy. The COVID-19 public health response benefits from, but also illustrates the limits of, research in climate change and science communication. Because science education is an enculturation process where certain kinds of knowledge are prized and certain types of expertise validated, tensions can arise when science is seen to be in competition with other kinds of data and authorities. We see this in both COVID-19 and anthropogenic climate change.

Researchers who study science communication around anthropogenic climate change have uncovered some surprising findings that have changed climate science messaging and offer insight on the reactions we have already seen to COVID-19—especially the denial or dismissal. Acceptance of anthropogenic climate change tracks less with educational attainment or understanding of scientific data than political ideology and affiliation. Part of the resistance to global warming is something called “solution aversion”—a motivated disbelief where people reject anthropogenic climate change not because they dismiss the science per se but because they pre-emptively reject what they imagine as the kinds of policies and economic changes that would be necessary to countervail global warming. Thus, the imagined economic and political solutions to global warming drive whether or not certain communities think the problem exists or is severe enough to warrant action. Faced with these challenges, climate change communication strategies have shifted to prioritize insiders as spokespeople and a focus on shared values rather than on solutions as a starting point to conversations. Perhaps we can also ask what the role of solution aversion has been in the COVID-19 responses.