I was chatting with a friend the other day whose parents have refused to get the covid-19 vaccine. No amount of news articles, cajoling, carrots, or sticks could convince them otherwise.
My friend noted any direct appeal led their parents to dig in their heels. And any mainstream source of information was rebutted with a response to “do your own research.” Doing your “own research” can lead to any number of avenues, few of which are actually true.
The gamut of covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories is manifold. Depending on your source, it can cause autism, connect you to 5G networks, make you magnetic, cause infertility, or just be generally useless since the virus itself is, of course, fake. There isn’t a shred of truth or research to back up any of this—in fact, all are easily disproven. But then that’s the whole game here.
The anti-covid-19 vaccine movement is following the same exact playbook of the climate denial movement. Unfortunately, that also means there are no easy solutions, and we could face a pandemic with a tail that runs much longer than it needs to as a result.
More than 51% of American adults were fully vaccinated between January and the start of June, a rate of about 10% per month. That rate has slowed to just 3.1% per month over June and July. And it comes as the Delta variant of covid-19, a much more transmissible form of the coronavirus, spreads across the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control prepared to recommend some vaccinated people put masks back on because of it.
The best protection against it is vaccination. Numerous lines of research have shown that while the more transmissible variant can break through the various vaccines’ defenses, the risk of death and serious illness remains low. The majority of those dying and hospitalized by the coronavirus—Delta variant or otherwise—are not fully vaccinated.
States where vaccine penetration is even lower than the U.S. average—nearly all of which are Republican-leaning—are seeing rising covid-19 case numbers and hospital admissions. Resistance to the vaccine means we are missing our best shot at stopping the spread of Delta in the U.S. The country has a glut of vaccines (which, I should note, is its own problem) and a glut of misinformation, a combination that could prove disastrous.
You need only look at climate denial to see the outcome. While there are some differences between the two forms of denial—climate denial was funded heavily by polluting industries and treated as legitimate by the media, to take just two examples—the mechanisms and endpoints are likely to be the same.
Climate denial relied on incoherent and often contradictory arguments. Having attended a climate denial conference a few years ago, I got to hear many of them just bouncing from conference room to conference room. The flavors of climate denial range from outright, well, denial (it’s just the sun! Volcanoes! Water vapor!) to climate change is good, actually, (carbon dioxide is plant food! Bigger crabs!) to climate change is a government conspiracy (grant money for scientists! Agenda 21!) to we’ll be fine (how bad could it be??!).
These are all crank arguments easily swatted away if you know the deal. But if you don’t, they offer a sort of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style approach to justifying your end goal of not changing the status quo.
“The doubt mongers have a much easier job than scientists because they don’t have to prove anything,” Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard who authored a definitive book on climate denial called Merchants of Doubt, told the McGill Reporter in 2020. “All they have to do is raise a little doubt. … We’ve seen that with climate change, as well, and we are seeing it with covid-19, with people who took the early mixed messages about masks as an excuse to say, ‘The government doesn’t even really know anyway, so I’m not going to bother wearing a mask because it’s irritating and annoying.’”
The same has held true as we’ve moved into the vaccination phase of the pandemic in the U.S. and other developed countries, with anti-vaxxers glomming onto issues such as the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots causing rare instances of blood clots to spin it into all sorts of, to put it bluntly, wild shit. Crank studies such as one recently retracted paper that misrepresented data to falsely show widespread covid-19 vaccine deaths further muddy the waters. If you read sites like, say, Gizmodo, you’ll see these pieces of news properly contextualized.
If you do your “research” on Facebook or YouTube—which is basically just an excuse to ignore mainstream news—you’ll likely encounter hucksters and an algorithm that will send you further down the rabbit hole. This leads to reinforcing a belief system and creating a “me against the world” mentality, which is exactly the issue my friend is running up against with his parents. But we, of course, live in a society. And the choices individuals are making to not get vaccinated or fight against climate action have consequences.
A paper published earlier this year analyzing the intersection of climate change and covid-19 vaccine denial found that the latter “condensed into a single year the ideological mechanics and consequences that have been unfolding across many decades in climate denial. The vastly accelerated time scale and the availability of unambiguously measurable consequences—illness and death—can serve as an illustration and warning of the consequences that may arise from climate denial in the future.”
The acceleration is a warning, but I’d also argue climate denial is actually the alarm we should be listening to when it comes to the anti-vax movement. Climate denial is now treated less seriously by the media and its adherents have shrunk over the past decade, hitting a record low recently. But the belief system still exists, and it still, unfortunately, plays an outsize role in setting the agenda for addressing the crisis at hand of carbon pollution unraveling the planetary systems that sustain us.
With the anti-vax movement persisting even as we stare down a new surge in the virus, it’s also likely a sign it won’t go away despite the prospect of death. Instead, we can expect it to persist for years to come. And just like climate denial, it could endanger us all. In the climate’s case, we’ve waited until the eleventh hour to cut emissions. The threats we face already from apocalyptic wildfires to deadly heatwaves and floods are on clear display, and will only get worse the longer we delay. In the case of covid-19, it could mean more infections and deaths, more risk of mutations that breakthrough vaccines more efficiently, and worse quality of life for everyone.