COVID-19 outbreak and climate change: Coping with an existential crisis and its deniers | Opinion

By Milton W. Cole

President Barack Obama and many politicians have called climate change an “existential crisis”, a view that I share. During the last few months, another such crisis has arisen, due to the coronavirus. One might guess that the outbreak is less controversial than climate change, but that is not the case; there remain prominent coronavirus  “deniers.”

A common element in these two crises is the polarization of public opinion. For example, an NPR-PBS-Marist poll reported  that in early February about 70 percent of both Democrats and Republicans regarded COVID-19 as a “real threat”.

Surprisingly, by mid-March only 40 percent of Republicans held that view, while 75 percent of Democrats held it. Thus, the polarization increased over time. Meanwhile, the consensus in the medical community is that COVID-19 represents an unprecedented crisis, with more deaths projected to occur than resulted from the Spanish Flu of 1918 (about 700,000 in the US alone).

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A similar polarization involves climate change. A Pew poll found that 85 percent of Democrats believe that human activities are a “primary cause of global warming”, while only 48 percent of Republicans hold that view. Isn’t this striking difference mystifying, given that the scientific community has reached a well-established consensus that, indeed, our activities contribute significantly to climate change?

These comparisons reveal that the voters within the two parties hold very different preconceptions about science.

These differences are exacerbated by “confirmation bias”, the tendency of folks to choose information sources compatible with their prejudices: people who watch Fox News are much more conservative than those who watch MSNBC, so that these groups’ different prejudices are reinforced by their choices of information sources.

These prejudices about general views of science have been investigated. A recent survey found that among individuals with a high degree of scientific knowledge, 40 percent of Republicans argued that science “can be used to produce any conclusion that the researcher wants”, while only 14 percent of knowledgeable Democrats share this cynical view; the remaining 86 percent of these Democrats believe that “the scientific method produces accurate results”.

As a scientist, I am both puzzled and distressed by this skepticism among Republicans.

The crashing economy and worldwide health catastrophe will doubtless force us all to reckon with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, what can we do about climate change?

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Individual actions can be helpful, including efficient use of food and energy, with a focus on actions leading to reduced emission of greenhouse gases. However, the most important actions must be taken by governments: encouraging energy efficiency and the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, the principal source of climate change.

In agreement with many prominent environmental economists (from both parties), I believe that arguably the most promising policy involves “carbon fee and dividend”.

The “fee” is paid by companies whose products produce greenhouse gases.

The “dividend” from these fees are then distributed equally to everyone in our country. Greenhouse gas production will definitely decrease as a result of this policy, which is incorporated in proposed legislation HR763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. The passage of this bill will represent one significant step toward mitigating climate change.

Milton W. Cole is distinguished professor of physics emeritus, at Penn State University, and the co-author (with Angela Lueking and David Goodstein) of The Science of Earth, Climate and Energy (World Scientific, 2018)