Climate Scientists Feel Your Pain, Dr. Fauci | Opinion

Those of us on the front lines of the climate wars know how it feels. For decades, we've been under assault by politicians and fossil fuel attack dogs because of the inconvenient nature of our science—science that demonstrates the reality of climate change.

I have received death threats, and endured a multitude of attacks from conservative media outlets, Republican congressmen and attorneys general, all because of the "Hockey Stick" graph my co-authors and I published more than two decades ago. The Hockey Stick demonstrated the devastating effect burning fossil fuels has on our planet—and therefore threatened those profiting off them. So they sought to discredit my science and me personally, while orchestrating a campaign of vilification against climate scientists like me.

Now, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, represents a threat to Donald Trump. Fauci's prescription (and that of the mainstream public health community)—continued social distancing to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic—is undeniably in the best public interest, and the economy cannot recover until the virus is under control. Yet Trump believes he needs results fast to win re-election, and so he is ignoring Fauci's advice and reopening the economy as the United States surpasses 5 million cases and 160,000 deaths.

It is sadly unsurprising that Fauci, too, has found himself at the receiving end of death threats. It's the logical conclusion of a concerted, months-long disinformation campaign by Trump supported by Republicans and conservative news organizations. As Steve Schmidt, former presidential campaign co-adviser for the late Senator John McCain, put it: "The injury done to America and the public good by Fox News and a bevy of personalities from Limbaugh to Ingraham...will be felt for many years in this country as we deal with the death and economic damage that didn't have to be."

Fox News and other right-wing media have resorted to orchestrated character attacks against Fauci, simply because he refused to act as a rubber stamp for Trump's most misguided coronavirus policy gambits. Media Matters described the phenomenon: "Despite his credibility established over decades as a public health official, right-wing media have begun to launch attacks against [him], blaming the medical expert for allegedly harming the economy and undermining President Donald Trump."

Central to the campaign to vilify our leading public health official during a pandemic has been Tucker Carlson. The Fox News host has used his nightly program to denounce Fauci as a "flawed" individual who is "maybe even more off-base than your average epidemiologist." Carlson complained that Fauci "has become one of the most powerful people in the world" and even claimed he could become a "dictator for the duration of this crisis." One is struck by the ironic mendacity of these accusations, given that they are true for Trump rather than Fauci.

We see other remarkable parallels between the right-wing coronavirus and climate change disinformation campaigns. Mirroring the "climategate" smear campaign of 2010, wherein fossil fuel interests and their abettors sought to discredit climate scientists by misrepresenting their words and phrases from stolen emails, the Trump administration went so far as to circulate an opposition research document cherry-picking and misrepresenting Fauci's past statements in an effort to discredit him as a scientist and as a messenger.

When it comes to the agenda of inactivism, we once again witness the transition from denial to false solutions, and then, eventually, to "it's good for us." That took decades with climate deniers, but with coronavirus it happened in a matter of weeks. As former CBS News anchor Dan Rather noted: "After years when we should have learned of the dangers of 'false equivalence,' it baffles me that we are seeing a framing that pits the health of our citizens against some vague notion of getting back to work." I noted, in turn, that it's "not unlike the false equivalence...that pits the health of our entire planet against some vague notion of economic prosperity."

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on June 30 in Washington, D.C. Al Drago-Pool/Getty

Those of us on the front lines of the climate battle recognize that the stakes are too high for us to submit to the politically motivated forces of inaction. As I wrote several years ago in The New York Times:

"There is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research. If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation—if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat."

It's clear that Fauci and other health professionals who continue to speak out, despite the attacks against them, recognize that as well. It is critical that they continue to fight back against the forces of disinformation. As I recently told CNN's Bill Weir, "If there is a silver lining, it is that the failure of the current administration to respond meaningfully to the pandemic lays bare the deadliness of ideologically motivated science denial. This applies to the even greater crisis of human-caused climate change and the need to treat it as the emergency it is."

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His forthcoming book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, is due out in January 2021.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.