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Covid, Climate and Denial

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

John Cook has spent the past decade studying the psychology of climate denialists and the past few months trying to understand their ideological cousins: people who scoff at the coronavirus.

Mr. Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and founder of the Skeptical Science, a website that debunks common arguments by climate change deniers, said the parallels between the two groups are striking. In both cases, he said, being confronted with technical facts appears to have little effect.

“Ideology is a big predictor of people’s attitudes about climate change, but tribalism is even more so,” he said. “Ultimately humans are social animals. If my tribe believes that climate change is a hoax, I’m much more likely to believe that. And that’s definitely also at play with Covid.”

That means, on both issues, leadership is crucial to changing attitudes and conquering denial.

That doesn’t appear to be happening, for now, at least. President Trump has long dismissed climate change as a hoax and worked to roll back environmental regulations. And, rather than urge people to take coronavirus seriously after being infected himself, Mr. Trump removed his mask as soon as he returned to the White House on Monday night and infuriated medical experts by telling supporters “don’t be afraid” of Covid-19.

A recent Cornell University study found Mr. Trump was one of the leading sources of coronavirus misinformation in the early months of the pandemic.

The White House has said Mr. Trump takes the health of his staff and the American public seriously and incorporates Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and best practices for limiting exposure to the coronavirus.

Mr. Cook noted that when it comes to climate change, however, fewer than 10 percent of Americans are outright dismissive of the science. About 12 percent of the public are also “not at all” concerned about coronavirus.

This means, he said, the solution lies not in persuading those already steeped in science denial, but in inoculating the other 90 percent of the public from scientific disinformation.

He likened the challenge to eradicating polio — an incurable disease that was all but eliminated in the United States through vaccinations. In the case of climate and Covid, he said, that means using facts and research, combined with vivid analogies, to explain the techniques used to mislead the public.

For example, Mr. Cook said, reminding people that a cold snap disproves climate change about as much as being full after a big meal disproves the existence of global hunger.

“The power of those analogies is that it takes what can be abstract and roots it in everyday life experience,” he said.

Still, Mr. Cook said, cues from political leaders remain one of the biggest drivers of public opinion. “It would take something big to change the dismissiveness,” he said. “It would take Republican leadership and the president to come out and lead them.”


Credit…Robbie Lawrence for The New York Times

We’ve talked about the importance of recycling and reusing clothes in the NYT climate newsletter before, but a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine offered a refreshing twist on the idea: Reduce waste and get the most out of secondhand clothing by using a tailor.

The writer, Rachel Connolly, grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s. By the time she was a teenager the sectarian violence there had mostly ended, but the trendy shops she and her twin sister dreamed of were slow to arrive. There were, however, plenty of good secondhand stores.

“My tailoring habit followed from there,” Ms. Connolly wrote. “I see it as a rare form of genuine choice in an economy that offers nothing but an ever-expanding mass of predetermined options — none of which are ever quite right.”

Getting clothes this way takes time, patience and luck. But the payoff can be big, on more than one level: It restores your sense of the time or labor that goes into making clothes. And, when asked where you got that amazing outfit, you get to say you sourced it secondhand and had it altered. “I learned that this is the most satisfying response to be able to give to that question, because desirable objects appear even more so when they cannot be duplicated.”

Ms. Connolly has been thrift shopping and using a tailor ever since those teenage years in Belfast. “When you start to think of clothes as things that can be altered,” she wrote, “the way you see them changes.”

You can read the full essay here.

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