Trump’s parallel messages on coronavirus and climate

By Scott Waldman | 03/06/2020 06:49 AM EST

President Trump attending a coronavirus briefing this week at the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center. His administration's rhetoric on the disease often mirrors its approach to climate change.

President Trump attending a coronavirus briefing this week at the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center. His administration's rhetoric on the disease often mirrors its approach to climate change. Francis S. Collins/Twitter

The Trump administration has downplayed the coronavirus in a way that’s similar to its dismissal of climate science, experts say. But the strategy could be less effective this time given the virus’s immediate effect on human lives and the financial sector.

Parallels abound between the two calamities and how the administration has responded.

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence stood on a podium in the White House and tried to reassure an anxious nation that the administration had the coronavirus threat under control. "We’ll continue to follow the facts, the experts and the science," he told reporters.


That’s not the first time Pence has uttered such a phrase. In June, Pence said something similar about climate change in a CNN interview with host Jake Tapper, as he refused to answer a question on whether President Trump — who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax" — and his administration would treat climate change as a national security threat.

"We’ll always follow the science on that in this administration," Pence said, declining to answer whether the White House would treat the rising sea levels, droughts and flooding caused by climate change as a threat to Americans. The administration has buried climate science reports at multiple agencies, cut funding for climate research and worked to reduce the role of scientific research in climate mitigation policies.

If there is a familiar echo in the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, observers say, it’s the tendency to misrepresent the science as it’s done with climate research. The administration has treated its coronavirus response more like a messaging challenge than a public health response — with Trump distorting reality into his preferred version.

Even as scientists have repeatedly said that a vaccine would take about 18 months to develop, Trump has said one would be available sooner. Meanwhile, as the coronavirus spreads nationally — killing a growing number of Americans — Trump has said, "It’s not that severe."

But if Trump is trying to run the climate denial playbook against a looming public health threat, where risk is minimized and feelings replace science, it won’t work, argued John Cook, a cognitive scientist and climate communication researcher at George Mason University.

"It’s all the same techniques that we see in climate denial, and science denial in general, downplaying the severity of the problem; contradicting experts; and just relying on circumstantial, anecdotal evidence rather than actual scientific evidence," said Cook, who has spent years researching climate disinformation.

Much as he has misrepresented climate science for years, Trump has ignored public health experts.

In 2018, Trump used his own feelings to dismiss the findings of the National Climate Assessment, which is based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, by saying, "I don’t believe it."

On Wednesday, Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he had a "hunch" that the World Health Organization’s estimated mortality rate of 3.4% was a "false number." He added, without evidence, that the number is "way under 1%."

"I think the 3.4% is really a false number," he said. "Now, this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because people will have this, and it’s very mild."

Trump’s own public health officials have estimated a mortality rate of 2% or higher. As of yesterday evening, 11 Americans had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 120 have been infected. Worldwide, more than 80,000 people have been infected and 3,000 have died.

Even some of Trump’s staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill have grown tired of his inability to accurately reflect the science around the coronavirus as well as climate change.

"I listen to the scientists when it comes to the numbers, and I would encourage the president if he’s going to report things to make sure the science is behind what he’s saying," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters yesterday.

In July, Graham said Trump "should admit climate change is real."

Trump also has attacked aides for being too "alarmist" in their outreach about the public health threats of COVID-19, The New York Times has reported. In January, at the World Economic Forum annual meeting, Trump dismissed those worried about climate change as "alarmists."

At a rally in North Carolina last week, Trump called the coronavirus a "hoax" — the same language he’s used to describe climate change for years.

After facing significant criticism, he walked it back the next day at a coronavirus press conference in the White House, stating that the Democrats’ criticism of his handling of the potential pandemic was the hoax, not the virus itself.

Trump has convinced some of his followers that climate change is a hoax, so they’re naturally leaning into any suggestion that coronavirus fears are overblown, as well, said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University and co-author of "Merchants of Doubt," which traced the history of climate and tobacco denialism.

Trump’s response to the coronavirus illustrates the dangers of encouraging a rejection of science, she said. Vulnerable people have been trained to dismiss factual information around science at the very moment it could hurt them.

"If you’ve been persuaded that climate change is a hoax, then why not think that coronavirus is just a hoax, too, especially because if you buy into the storyline that the Democrats are out to get this administration?" she said. "Either way, the bottom line is, people get hurt; if you deny a real threat and you fail to act in the response to that threat, people get hurt."

On the coronavirus, Trump said it would be gone by the end of April because "the heat generally speaking kills this kind of virus," even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated the weather’s effect on the virus is not yet clear. Trump also has said that the United States "will essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner," when the CDC has said it will take 18 months to two years for a vaccine.

Just as the threat of COVID-19 began to emerge late last month, Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, gave a series of television interviews downplaying the severity of the disease — using language similar to his previous dismissal of climate threats.

"People should not overreact, that’s an important thing," he told reporters in the White House last month. "It’s sometimes a hard case to make, in the middle of one of these crises, which is part psychology and part fact, but I just don’t think anybody ought to panic right now."

Those comments echo the way Kudlow talks about climate change, including in October 2018, when he downplayed an alarming United Nations report showing that the world was running out of time to head off some of the worst effects of climate change.

"I don’t think we should panic," he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. "I don’t think there’s a, you know, imminent catastrophe coming, but I think we should look at this in a levelheaded and analytical way."

Part of the problem is that the administration — at least at its highest levels — seems intent on crafting a political narrative that projects the image that everything it is doing is effective, said Oreskes, the Harvard professor. That has stymied the release of valuable health information the public needs to stay safe.

"This administration seems functionally incapable of viewing information through any lens except how it affects their own political prospects, and once you get in the habit of being dismissive of factual information, it becomes almost impossible to break that habit," she said. "Their response is to want to control the messaging in a political way rather than really embracing good-quality scientific information, and the implications of this are pretty staggering."