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COVID Denial's Second Act: Climate Change Denial
With the pandemic emergency declared officially over, public health opponents have found a new target for their conspiracy theories.
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When smoke from Canadian wildfires turned skies a hazy orange along the U.S. eastern seaboard in June, America’s right-wing talking heads got to work not only downplaying the health risks posed by the smog, but denying that the hazardous conditions had anything to do with human-driven climate change.
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Among them was Jeffrey Tucker, the founder of the Brownstone Institute, who posted a fake dialogue on Twitter—now X—hinting that the crisis was merely a tool for social control.
“‘Next it will be climate change. You watch,’” Tucker tweeted. "'‘Nah, that's ridiculous.’ six months later ‘Mask up, stay at home, cancel everything including Broadway shows and outdoor sports due to wild fire smoke overtaking the [United States]!!!!’ ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘Climate change.’"
A longtime right-wing political operative, Tucker founded his shadowy nonprofit in May 2021—with significant financial backing—to combat governmental COVID-19 mitigation measures intended to save lives amid the worst public health crisis in a century. Like many big money-funded right-wing groups, Brownstone has been a major source of COVID misinformation, including anti-vaccine propaganda. But with the pandemic emergency declared officially over by the Biden administration, Tucker and his organization have broadened their focus, engaging in the discourse surrounding climate change with increasing frequency.
In July, for example, Tucker published a commentary in The Epoch Times, a right-wing conspiracy newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Falun Gong movement, titled, “Climate Change is the New COVID.” In it, Tucker asserted that “the whole of mainstream press has shifted completely to climate change panic from COVID-19 panic.”
“Everything qualifies as evidence of a new crisis—smoke in the air, rain on the ground, sun in the sky, sand in the wind, you name it,” Tucker wrote. “They're trying to paint a picture of an earth and atmosphere that are crumbling because of our way of life. It’s all happening right on schedule.”
According to Tucker, the pandemic had served as a testing ground for creeping green authoritarianism, and “they” now had “the COVID-19 template in place for lockdowns, travel restrictions, consumption limits, restrictionism, face coverings, essential and nonessential distinctions, media tools for tracking and tracing the danger, public service announcements made for your own good, and the forever urge to stay home and stay safe.”
The piece echoed an earlier Brownstone commentary from February titled, “COVID Emergency, Climate Emergency: Same Thing,” which warned that the “‘COVID-19 emergency’…has unfortunately set a new and troubling authoritarian precedent that cannot be ignored.” It further suggested that a declared climate emergency “would be far-reaching, with potentially dramatic effects on the economy and society.”
Tucker and Brownstone are not alone in their new focus. Prominent COVID contrarians and public health opponents have found themselves in a somewhat difficult position since the official end of the pandemic even though COVID continues to circulate. Having gotten the return to normalcy they wanted, free from new government regulations on businesses and expanded social assistance programs, they face a dilemma: What to do now?
For many, the answer has been peddling climate skepticism.
As the consequences of human-driven climate change become increasingly undeniable and the warnings from the global scientific community more dire, calls for drastic government action to address the crisis are growing louder. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity has nearly run out of time to limit global warming to the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, which would mitigate some of its worst effects.
Opposing the calls for climate action are powerful monied interests and a long-established, well-funded media and dark money ecosystem. Some of the most vocal opponents of COVID mitigation efforts have been wading into the new market, applying the same anti-science narratives that worked so well to grow their audiences and sow confusion about the virus, which killed over a million Americans and left millions more suffering long-haul symptoms.
“A Broad-Based Attack”
The bridge from COVID denial to climate denial is a short one given the significant overlap between the two worlds. DeSmog even kept a running list of groups and individuals with a history of promoting climate change denial who had moved over to COVID minimization and conspiracy theories amid the pandemic.
Not only are many of the individuals and groups promoting both COVID and climate denial the same—along with funders like billionaire industrialist Charles Koch—so too is the playbook.
The strategy to delay or prevent government action amid a public health crisis is simple: Undermine the science.
In the 1980s, for companies like Exxon, that meant “emphasize the uncertainty” in order to downplay the risks of burning fossil fuels. To that end, they amplified credentialed voices who, while not necessarily experts in climate science, were willing to buck the consensus and create the illusion of an academic divide. These tactics, and indeed some of the experts, were borrowed from the tobacco industry, which faced a similar battle amid growing public awareness of the health risks associated with smoking.
Another key to undermining science is politicization. Right-wing groups allied with the fossil fuel industry—like the CATO Institute—tended to be right-wing and worked for decades to associate the mainstream acceptance of human-driven climate change with left-wing ideology.
With COVID, many of those same organizations hewed closely to this battle plan to fight pandemic interventions. To emphasize uncertainty and create the appearance of a scientific divide, right-wing groups like the American Institute for Economic Research and Brownstone recruited and amplified contrarian scientists, many of whom lacked actual expertise in key fields like epidemiology, pediatric medicine, and mental health, but spoke out against public health efforts like business and school closures and mandates. Stanford University health economist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, for example, a fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution, became go-to experts on all things COVID for public health opponents despite the fact that he has a limited background in epidemiology and actual medical practice.
In addition to the usual tactics, opponents of COVID mitigation measures leaned hard into conspiracy theories centering around the loss of liberty. A Brownstone headline from June attributable to the group itself declared, “CISA Was Behind the Attempt to Control Your Thoughts, Speech, and Life.” The piece opened with the line: “Keeping up with the corruption of the Covid regime feels like drinking from a firehose.”
Even so, however, conspiracy theories are nothing new in the fight against public health.
“Anytime government raises its voice above the level of the smallest amount of social maintenance…announces a mission that would bring people together to solve a major problem—this is the type of ideological illogical response that's in the air,” explained Dan Zegart, an investigative journalist who has been covering the fossil fuel and tobacco industries for years. “And where did it come from? It certainly didn't start with COVID denial.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, a renowned vaccine scientist who has frequently found himself the target of online attacks by right-wing operatives, anti-vaxxers, and COVID conspiracy theorists, noted to Important Context that “the attacks on COVID science and scientists during the pandemic do bear some resemblance to earlier attacks on climate science and scientists.”
Hotez, who developed a patent-free COVID jab for use in poor and developing nations and wrote a book called “The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science,” explained that while writing the book, he “would sometimes discuss with climate scientists the similarities so we could compare notes, but the bottom line is that science in America is experiencing a broad-based attack.”
“Plants Love CO2”
Unsurprisingly, many COVID contrarians—both those affiliated with right-wing groups and those unaffiliated—flow freely between COVID and climate denial.
One prominent example is Dr. Simon Goddek, a Ph.D. biotechnologist, far-right conspiracy theorist, and Brownstone Institute 2023 fellow.
Goddek, who identifies as “anti-woke,” has promoted race science and vaccine skepticism, targeted journalists for harassment, and suggested that “transgenderism” is part of a Marxist “depopulation agenda.” But his first love is fulminating over pandemic mitigation efforts.
He has called COVID “the plandemic” and made vague suggestions about a giant, nefarious plot surrounding the crisis. Goddek amassed a sizable online following as a vaccine skeptic as well, pushing quack alternatives to the jabs like ivermectin and vitamin D. Coincidentally, he is also the CEO of a supplements company called Sunfluencer, which primarily sells vitamin D products. The company’s website was set up in July 2020, according to ICANN.
Dr. Robert Morris, a physician and epidemiologist who has advised multiple federal agencies, told Important Context that “the large randomized trials consistently show no benefit from vitamin D.”
“There is absolutely no compelling evidence to support the notion that COVID corresponds to a vitamin D deficiency,” Morris told Important Context.
Recently, Goddek’s social media has been littered with musings about climate change and suggestions that the existential crisis is a conspiracy—and that the pandemic was a ploy designed to acclimate the population for coming tyranny.
“This psy-op was designed to condition the global population to what is yet to come: 15-minute cities, climate lockdowns, and carbon credit scores,” Goddek tweeted on Tuesday, sharing an article from The Daily Mail rehashing an old debate over what counts as a COVID death.
Similar to his posture on COVID, Goddek denies the well-documented harms of fossil fuel consumption. In July, for example, he had two viral tweets promoting the idea that higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were actually a good thing for the planet despite dire warnings from the global scientific community that greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver of climate change. Research indicates that steep emissions cuts are required to prevent catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
In one tweet, Goddek posted an unsourced image purporting to show that the Earth is in a “CO2 famine,” borrowing language from the CO2 Coalition, a dark money group previously headed by a former CEO of the American Petroleum Institute that was one of 40 organizations to sign a letter thanking President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.
“This is why #ZeroCarbon is a bad idea,” he wrote. “It’s a dangerous cult.”
In his other viral tweet, Goddek argued that more carbon would mean more trees.
“Did you know that plants love CO2 so much, farmers pump it into greenhouses?” he claimed. “Higher atmospheric CO2 levels would also benefit reforestation by enhancing plant growth and creating more resilient microclimates. It's time to rethink the narrative that CO2 is bad for our planet.”
“More of It, Please”
Another COVID contrarian dabbling in climate denial is Justin Hart. An executive consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies and presidential campaigns, Hart founded the website RationalGround.com, dedicated to opposing public health measures, including testing and masking. He has also contributed to Brownstone. The site is currently down for maintenance.
With climate change, Hart has been mocking the dire warnings of the global scientific community and perceived hypocrisy of political leaders who express concern about the crisis. In a post from March, for example, Hart filmed himself in a San Diego rainstorm, sneering at the idea that climate change would fuel droughts along the west coast.
“Climate change,” he chuckled. “More of it, please!”
Accompanying the video was a message to his audience: “They predicted climate change would create an ‘unending drought’ here in California and the ‘end of snow.’ 600+ inches of snow in Tahoe and this is San Diego today. By their logic - I suppose we solved climate change! Or is only ‘normal’ weather the proof?!”
Hart has also suggested that the government was using climate change as an excuse to cement greater social control. In September, for example, he shared a video of White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy discussing climate messaging and the need for tech companies to crack down on disinformation.
“Oh look. Govt censorship has moved from Covid to Climate Change - just like we said it would,” he wrote.
The idea that the government is coercing big technology companies to censor truth tellers has been a central narrative for COVID contrarians, as well as much of the political right. A group of prominent misinformation-spreading doctors, backed by a Koch-funded litigation outfit, have been embroiled in a lawsuit against the Biden administration over its alleged role in social media platforms removing their content.
In response to an email inquiry by Important Context about his views on climate change, Hart responded that that “BIG issue with Covid and Climate Change activism” is that “it supposes that a scientific assessment presents an axiomatic solution.”
“Novel pathogen? Shut down the world,” Hart wrote. “Nevermind the burden on kids or the 70% of cancers that go undiagnosed or the impact on life and death that come from loss of a job. Cow flatulence causing CO2 emissions? Just engineer a serum from the Lone Star tic [sic] and people will hate meat!”
Bites from the lone star tick have been linked to alpha-gal syndrome, which causes intolerance to a protein found in red meat and other products. This link has been the subject of conspiracy theories, but Hart clarified he was not espousing one.
“Wealth Requires Energy”
Independent writer Alex Berenson, who has the dubious distinction of being dubbed “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” in The Atlantic, has also dipped his toes into climate contrarianism.
Previously known for his writing against legal cannabis and work on Elon Musk’s Twitter Files dumps, Berenson emerged in the pandemic as a loud voice opposing public health measures and COVID vaccines. He was even briefly banned from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation but sued his way back onto the platform. Since March 2020, he has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, the Internet Archive reveals.
Increasingly, however, Berenson has used his reach to cast doubt on the seriousness of climate change—though he claims he is not a climate denier. Last month, for example, he tweeted, “As climate change hysteria reaches a new level of screeching (1-in-1000 this, world's hottest that), remember that weather-related deaths have PLUNGED since 1970.”
“The wealthier the world becomes, the easier managing climate change will be,” Berenson wrote. “And wealth requires energy. Period.”
Berenson’s tweet included a graph from a report by the World Meteorological Association. He did not include the preceding and following charts, which showed that the number of weather-related disasters have increased 345 percent since the 1970s and that the economic cost of dealing with weather-related disasters has increased by 687 percent.
While weather-related deaths have declined overall, heat-related deaths in the U.S. have been increasing since the 90s. Moreover, there are other dire indicators of climate change, including the migration of people, the spread of diseases, and a rapid decline in biodiversity, which research suggests could lead to ecosystems totally collapsing.
In June, Berenson remarked on another observable indicator of climate change without concern: the anomalous rise of the North Atlantic sea surface temperature.
“Covid is well and truly behind us and the virus hysterics have - as it was foretold in the Book of Pandemia - gone back to climate change, their first love,” he tweeted in the context of the temperature rise. “ALT: Where’s your mask, babe?”
In response to our media inquiry, Berenson took to X to accuse us of bad faith and publicly decline to comment. His tweet was met with support from a number of right-wing and climate change denying accounts.
“How Does This Happen?”
Meanwhile, YouTube comedian Jimmy Dore, who rose to prominence in online left-wing circles during the 2016 election due to his affiliation with The Young Turks YouTube channel and vocal support of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has also adopted an increasingly contrarian posture toward climate activism and policy efforts after tumbling down a conspiracy rabbit hole with COVID.
Dore’s journey began after Joe Biden won the 2020 election. The comedian began attacking Sanders and left-wing Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom he branded as frauds for not sufficiently opposing the new administration. This new posture brought him increasingly into alignment with the political right, and it was not long before he was opposing COVID mitigation efforts and pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Dore claims to have suffered a lasting injury from the COVID vaccine, but former friends of his have said publicly that he merely had a persistent stiff neck lasting a few weeks—an uncommon but documented temporary side effect of vaccination.
The comedian has aligned himself with the Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial document published by a libertarian think tank calling on governments to reject broad public health measures like lockdowns and instead embrace infection as a path to herd immunity. He has embraced fellow vaccine skeptics like tech millionaire Steve Kirsch, Dr. Robert Malone, and Robert Kennedy Jr.
These days, Dore rages about Pfizer, Bill Gates, the “Big Pharma narrative,” the pseudoscientific “mass formation psychosis,” former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s alleged suppression of quack treatments like ivermectin, and cabals of global elites, namely the Bilderberg Group and George Soros.
Once a vocal supporter of climate activism, Dore has become increasingly critical of climate activists like Greta Thunberg and green energy policies, which he suggests are part of a larger conspiracy by elites. Last month, for example, Dore announced that he was “DONE listening to the establishment when it comes to fighting Climate Change cuz they’re only using it to oppress & control.” Weeks earlier, he had amplified a tweet with a screenshot from a viral video suggesting Canada’s wildfires all began at the same time—possibly as a result of a coordinated attack. The video has since been debunked by multiple fact-checkers. Dore’s tweet included the hashtag #ClimateScam.
“How does this happen?” the comedian had asked his audience.
Dore has also promoted “Great Reset” conspiracy theories, which were pushed by a number of right-wing dark money groups that oppose government action to address both climate change and COVID. The phrase “Great Reset” used by then-Prince Charles to describe the sudden drop in industrial activity and travel, which led to a decline in greenhouse gas emissions early on in the pandemic. The conspiracy theorists claim that there is a nefarious plot by global elites to use the pandemic and climate change to restructure society and take away freedoms.
In a video from Jan. 25, Dore called COVID a “plandemic” and said it was the “stirrup-holder for a great reset.”
“World Economic Forum founder and spot-on James Bond villain impersonator Klaus Schwab has plans for you – all of us, in fact,” reads the description for the video. “Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have provided an excellent opportunity to institute a ‘Great Reset.’”
Speaking to Important Context, David Gorski, an MD, PhD, and the editor of the popular Science-Based Medicine blog, called the journey from COVID to climate denialism “inevitable.”
“All science denialism is based on conspiracy theories,” Gorski said. “So it was inevitable that COVID minimizers and deniers would ultimately be attracted not just to more general anti-vaccine conspiracy theories but to to climate science denialism as well, particularly given how much COVID denial, just like climate science denial, tends to be a phenomenon associated with right wing political beliefs.”
“No Need to Panic”
Going the other direction from climate change skepticism to COVID skepticism is Steve Milloy, founder of the website JunkScience.com.
A veteran of both the tobacco and coal industries, Milloy has a long record of downplaying public health concerns. In June, Fox News featured him on a segment about the Canadian wildfire smoke blanketing the east coast in which he insisted that there were no adverse health effects to worry about from smoke inhalation. In the past, Milloy has made similar claims about PFAS, which are known as “forever chemicals” and have been linked to a number of health problems in humans.
Although Milloy has acknowledged that COVID is a real crisis, throughout the pandemic he has been a vocal critic of efforts to control the spread of the virus—particularly business closures. In fact, he has called such efforts “idiocy” and downplayed the seriousness of the virus. As the deadly omicron variant was emerging, which would eventually kill more Americans than its predecessor, the delta variant, Milloy said there was “no need to panic or impose more worse-than-the-disease lockdowns and mandates.”
Milloy now appeals to the paranoia surrounding COVID mitigation measures in his fight against climate action. In recent months, he has been warning that COVID lockdowns were only the beginning; that climate lockdowns are coming in the future.
“At least the COVID lockdowns ended,” he tweeted in March. “The climate ones will not.”