A vocal set of conservative critics in the United States have upped their attacks recently on the data modeling behind the novel coronavirus response, and they claim—despite scientific evidence to the contrary—that the flaws also prove the limits of climate change forecasts.
The group, which includes federal lawmakers, climate science deniers and conservative pundits with close White House connections, has even called for congressional hearings into the coronavirus modeling.
That's in spite of assurances from public health officials that better-than-expected U.S. death estimates for COVID-19 are because millions of Americans responded to pleas for social distancing. The most-used model now forecasts 60,000 U.S. deaths rather than 100,000 or more.
"After #COVID-19 crisis passes, could we have a good faith discussion about the uses and abuses of 'modeling' to predict the future?" Senator John Cornyn (R–TX) tweeted. "Everything from public health, to economic to climate predictions. It isn't the scientific method, folks."
Last week, Republicans on the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee requested hearings into the models used by the government to craft the coronavirus response. The lead signatory on a letter demanding those hearings was Representative Chip Roy (R–TX), who previously has called for a "vigorous assessment" of climate science. The group, which includes a number of conservative climate critics, said it wants to probe the "assumptions behind these models."
"At a time when both the lives and livelihoods of Americans are at risk, we certainly must ensure we are not making decisions based upon potentially flawed or misrepresentative information," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D–NY). "Congress needs to perform its Constitutional oversight duty surrounding modeling information related to the coronavirus response efforts, which the agencies and departments of the Federal Government that Congress funds have used to justify placing extraordinary burdens upon the American people."
Health experts say the models worked the way they were supposed to—by providing a glimpse into a dire future that was partially averted because of collective action.
In other words, a massive societal transformation based on the modeling of future conditions helped stave off a catastrophe and saved American lives, said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.
That's something climate modelers have long argued.
Without scientific models, lawmakers and the White House would be throwing darts to guess future conditions, Bernstein said.
"Any insinuation that scientists distorted their models into scaring people and wrecking our economy is not only wrongheaded, it smacks of an ulterior motive for even raising it," Bernstein said. "There's no evidence that scientists have done anything to models that have suggested we would have been far worse off having not done stuff to keep ourselves safe, and I would say the same about climate models."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who helps lead President Donald Trump's coronavirus response team, and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has repeatedly explained why the models have shifting numbers.
"Models are as good as the assumptions you put into them, and as we get more data, then you put it in and that might change," he said at a recent press briefing.
Those seeking to compare COVID-19 to climate modeling are actually using a high bar, observers say. A peer-reviewed analysis of 50 years of climate models published last year in Geophysical Research Letters found they "were generally quite accurate in predicting global warming in the years after publication" and a useful way of forecasting climate conditions.
"Models are absolutely fundamental to doing any kind of science, and so people that rag on models without being specific about what it is they are even talking about are just really betraying that they don't understand how science works," said climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, an author of that paper and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Nonetheless, conservative pundits, who are not trained as climate scientists, have repurposed the coronavirus modeling to attack climate projections in recent days.
"It seems like the computer models for the corona virus pandemic are about as accurate as the computer models that have failed so miserably on global warming," tweeted Patrick Moore, the chairman of the CO2 Coalition, which claims the world needs to burn more fossil fuels to help the planet and has connections to the Trump White House. "Proves you can't predict a chaotic, multi-factor, non-linear future."
The CO2 Coalition was founded by William Happer, who served on the National Security Council at the White House and unsuccessfully tried to launch a hostile review of climate science.
Others predicted blowback if the coronavirus pandemic isn't incredibly deadly.
"I cannot even begin to describe the public backlash that will occur if #Corinavirus [sic] kills fewer Americans this year than the flu," wrote Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative author who was pardoned by Trump after a felony conviction of making illegal campaign contributions. "For starters, the medical establishment will look like even bigger fools than the #ClimateChange establishment."
On Monday, Laura Ingraham, who has used her close relationship with Trump to press untested drug cocktails as coronavirus treatments, attacked the models on her Fox News show. A chyron at the bottom of the screen read, "Faulty covid models causing panic." She said the government has now figured out that "these fancy COVID-19 models were wrong" and that her personal team of statisticians and medical professionals who predicted as much were correct.
"This is a lot of money that we're spending on a response that was based, again, on faulty numbers," she said.
Dismissing critics who don't understand or who misrepresent models will be important as states look for the best ways to reopen around the country, health experts say.
The last few weeks are proof that modeling works, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Without their guidance, more people would have died, more economic harm would have occurred and greater health care cost burdens would have been placed on the system, he said.
"The models become even more important now because we're going to need to know when we should adjust our reopening," he said. "We're going to need these models to help us know, as some kind of early warning, when we should stop and pause or pull back a little bit, because if we don't, what will happen is we will get too far down the line and things will get much worse before they get better."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net