What Mask-Backlash Teaches Us About Climate Denialism

The intellectual and moral breakdown of society is making it impossible to solve problems

Jesse Harris
Aug 3, 2020 · 10 min read

n July 31, Adam Zaboroski entered a cigar shop in Bethlehem Pennsylvania without a mask. When he was confronted by the clerk, he became upset. Zaboroski pulled a handgun and shot at the clerk, though no one was injured. On August 1, police came to the home of Zaboroski, where he opened fire on the officers with an AK-47 before he was arrested.

Zaborowski was clearly not emotionally stable, but his story is one of many violent escalations that have come in response to mask mandates. A security guard at a Family Dollar store was killed in Flint after confronting a customer about wearing a mask. Two customers at a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan attacked an employee when they were asked to use face coverings. Incidents like this are rare, but they are indicative of a disturbing backlash to mask mandates.

Mask denialism is genuinely deranged.

Few respond as violently as Zaborowski, but there are a number of people with a strong aversion to face coverings. An endless stream of videos feature blow-ups in grocery stores and airplanes over mask policies. Walmart, Home Hardware, and Lowe’s are reportedly giving up on enforcing mask requirements to avoid confrontations with angry customers. It is difficult to believe where the mask debate has ended up, given that it wasn’t an issue 6 months ago.

Of course, the anti-mask hysteria has not been organic. President Trump has been downplaying all aspects of the COVID pandemic since the start. On masks, he expressed skepticism about wearing them himself as late as April, and only wore a mask in public for the first time in July. While Trump has been careful to not directly disparage mask wearing, he has been critical of mask mandates, and said that he will not consider a national mask policy. Right-wing influencers have been happy to follow Trump’s lead, which has led to the explosive fights over masks that we are seeing now.

The United States can be over-emphasized, creating the impression that mask hysteria is a uniquely American phenomenon. This is not the case. On August 1st, Germans participated in a “Day of Freedom” demonstration, which included large crowds of unmasked protesters. Canadians have also been protesting mask mandates. Brits seem reluctant to use masks according to YouGov, despite the U.K. having the most COVID deaths in Europe. Anti-mask insanity is globalized.

For those concerned about global warming, the parallels between COVID-skepticism and climate-skepticism are uncanny. Experts warn of a coming disaster, but are ignored. The situation is framed as a trade-off between the economy and the science, when in reality the economy is doomed if the crisis is not addressed. Solutions to the emergency have been systemically under-resourced. And so on.

There is a broader conversation to have on the links between climate and COVID denialism. The two beliefs are fruit of the same anti-intellectual tree, but fully excavating that subject is a larger project. For now, it is useful to focus on masks. A segment of environmental discourse makes it seem as if the gradual shift in public opinion would pave the way for widespread approval of green policies, or that the last climate skeptics would be irrelevant. An analysis of the mask-backlash movement shows that this view underestimates the challenges that face us in the coming years.

Aside: Folks with serious respiratory issues have legitimate reason to not wear masks. Criticism of mask skeptics is directed at those who are able to wear masks and don’t want to, rather than those who want to wear masks and are unable.

Good Science Isn’t Enough

Mask science is dirt simple. If you wear a face covering it will limit the movement of viral particles. Extremely intuitive! There is obviously more nuance, such as the different types of masks, the way they are worn, and the dynamic where masks protect others more than they protect the wearer. These are side notes. The core scientific theory behind masks is incredibly logical, and has been backed up by several high profile studies.

Mask denialists have developed their own rationale against the use of masks, though the explanations are… lacking. Dr. Mikovits, a controversial researcher and prominent COVID-skeptic, has claimed — with no apparent evidence — that coronavirus is “activated” by masks. Other conspiracists have said that mask wearing can lead to a build-up of exhaled carbon dioxide, causing people to pass out and die (there is no evidence of this). On July 29, Congressman Gohmert tested positive for COVID-19, and actually suggested that wearing a mask may have caused him to catch the virus.

Again, there is no evidence that this is true.

For those who accept a scientific worldview, there is a belief that clear evidence backed up by well-developed theories will eventually win over hearts and minds. Good science triumphs over bad in the marketplace of ideas. Mask-skeptics show that this is simply not true in practice. Good science just isn’t enough to change some people’s minds.

For those concerned about global warming, this lesson should be chilling. Climate science is much more complicated than the science of masks. Even a basic understanding of climate change requires knowledge about emissions, atmospheric science, and climatology. If the science of masks was not solid enough to be victorious in the marketplace of ideas, climate change has a very tough hill to climb. You still hear calls to better inform the public, or develop more compelling content to win over climate skeptics. “Perhaps once we package the information just right we can finally conquer climate denialism!” The battle over masks has shown that purely rational arguments are not enough.

Public Opinion Isn’t Enough

Following all the mask drama could give you the impression that mask-wearing is an evenly divided issue. Many topics in American society are essentially partisan questions, with 45-ish percent in favor, 45-ish percent against, and the remainder being undecided or neutral. 45% of Americans believe income taxes are too high and 48% believe they are about right (Gallup, 2019). 43% of Americans think the U.N. is doing a good job (Gallup, 2019). 43% of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about mail-in voting, while 49% are not very or not at all concerned (YouGov, 2020). On their face these are all disconnected questions, but given the layout of U.S. politics it is clear that opinions on these subjects are divided on partisan lines.

Masks do not fall in that category. According to Pew Research, 80% of people wear masks all or some of the time when they are in stores. Gallup found that 86% of people used a mask at some point in the last week. Even mask mandates are quite popular, with 79% of respondents being in favor of them according to Harvard CAPS/Harris. These levels of favorability are rare for anything in America’s polarized landscape. According to Pew, only 81% of Americans have a favorable view of apple pie, 76% have a favorable view of kittens, and 67% like baseball. Despite what it might look like, masks are incredibly popular.

The overwhelming agreement on masks is heartening, but it is also puzzling: why is there still a segment that is so mask-averse despite social pressure? And why does it feel like a larger group than it really is? This is a function of our media ecosystem. While most large media outlets have been careful to not amplify anti-mask rhetoric, the mere coverage of the debate creates the appearance that mask skepticism is a mainstream view. Mask-skeptics also tend to be very strong in their views, meaning they show up at town halls and post about the subject online.

Climate skeptics are a much larger segment of the population. According to a Gallup poll from April, only 68% of people think most scientists believe global warming is occurring, 64% believe global warming is caused by human activities, and 46% worry a great deal about global warming. YouGov found that only 69% of people thought that global warming was even partially responsible for summer heat waves. It is clear that the climate-skeptics are a substantial percent of the U.S. population.

Image for post
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Source: Gallup

Seeing how challenging it has been to implement mask mandates despite overwhelming public support, it is terrifying to think what the response will be to any sweeping climate policies. Even if environmentalists can push climate action from a 60–40 to an 80–20 issue, the backlash and resistance from the last 20% will be fierce. It is impossible to shame this last 20% out of their beliefs, as evidenced by the vocal minority of mask skeptics despite the volume of pro-mask messaging. Policymakers need to accept that a segment of the population may never believe in climate change, and will have to design legislation with that reality in mind.

It should also be remembered that wearing a mask is not an onerous demand compared to what must be done to avoid climate change.

No Such Thing as a “Small Ask”

Mandating that people wear masks in public spaces is an incredibly small ask for the vast majority of the population. Masks are provided for free in many locations. You don’t need to wear them at home or in your vehicle. No changes in taxes, modes of transit, or diets are required. Masks are somewhat uncomfortable, and they look a bit silly, but are otherwise not a noticeable burden.

Mask-skeptics seem to believe in a certain radical view on freedom and rights. Asking citizens to wear a mask infringes on one’s freedom, and is therefore not acceptable. This is both legally and philosophically absurd. Local and state governments are clearly allowed to create regulations on a wide range of topics, and legal precedent suggests that there is nothing unconstitutional about mask mandates. Claims that it is illegal to force customers to wear a mask are truly bizarre when businesses have been using “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies for decades.

While the legal objection to mask mandates is laughable, the ethical objection is more troubling. Essentially, these mask skeptics are arguing that any limitation of their individual liberties is immoral. It is tyrannical for the state to ask the populace to do literally anything to help others, even when the stakes are life and death. This view would be considered extreme in any philosophical tradition outside the die-hard libertarianism. Obviously, these folks have not come to their beliefs through a close reading of philosophical literature — after all, these are the same people who claim that masks activate COVID. Rather, these people have come to a quasi-religious belief that absolute rights are tied up with American nationalism, which has likely been cultivated with the help of right-wing media.

This brings to mind an important quote. It is a headline from a famous HuffPost article.

I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People — Kyla Chadwick

Masks are fundamentally about protecting others. If the primary function of a mask was to protect the wearer, then this entire drama would be moot. Believe COVID is a hoax? Fine, skip the mask and risk your own life.

Similar to masks, limiting greenhouse gas emissions is not about helping yourself, but rather helping the collective. There may be some personal benefits from climate-friendly consumer choices, but many people will be unhappy to changing their lifestyle to limit emissions. When the mere idea of “caring for other people” becomes controversial, it feels like the politics of climate change will be totally unworkable.

Notably, the benefits of masks are concentrated in your own social circle. It is your relatives, your neighbors, and employees at local businesses that gain the most from mask wearing. In other words, the benefits are targeted not at some distant and diffuse unknown other, but members of your own community. It should be easy to ask people to care about their own neighborhoods, but apparently even that is too much.

Rallying empathy to the cause of global warming will be much more difficult than encouraging mask wearing. According to a 2019 study in Nature, the region that will be hit the hardest by sea-level rise is south-east Asia, including India, China, Thailand, and Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh is already dealing with serious flooding. Africa is experiencing severe drought across the continent according to Oxfam. Those who will be most impacted by climate change will be very culturally and ethnically different than the affluent countries most responsible.

This has been perhaps the most depressing realization of the last few months. It is blatantly obvious that many people just don’t care. They don’t want a healthier community, or a more sustainable world. They just don’t want to be bothered. If people cannot be stirred to protect the vulnerable in their own social circle from a deadly disease, what chance is there that they will show generosity to those who live on the other side of the planet?

Uncomfortable Lessons

COVID-19 has been a difficult problem to solve as a society, but it is nothing compared to the challenge of climate change. Masks should have been easy. The science of masks is intuitive, the public opinion is overwhelming in favor, they are only a minor inconvenience, they are cheap, and they primarily help those closest to you. Despite all this, mask-skeptics have instigated a drawn-out fight that will likely continue for months if not years.

Mask and climate skepticism are built on both a failure of our shared epistemology and empathy. To think masks are dangerous requires one to abandon science and reason. Believing that mask mandates are unethical implies a strictly individualistic moral framework. These systems of knowledge and morality are essential to a functional society. Without them, there is no argument or logic to bridge the gaps within our community. It may seem hyperbolic to claim that a few kooks yelling about masks causing CO2 poisoning is indicative of a societal breakdown, but it is a sign of intellectual rot. If this decay spreads, it will be impossible to solve any large challenge.

This article isn’t about offering solutions, but it is also not about wallowing in despair. We must acknowledge the scope of the problems that face us, which includes recognizing the social unity we must achieve. COVID was a practice test, and we failed. Badly.

Environmentalists need to take the potential for climate backlash seriously. Current models have us on track for disastrous levels of warming. How will we create a sustainable economy when ~20% of the population takes a hard-line opposition? How do you build political will when the science is confusing? How do you explain that everyone should care about other people? To have any hope of solving the climate crisis we must find answers to these questions.

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Jesse Harris

Written by

Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Jesse Harris

Written by

Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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