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Climate Deniers Are Making Memes About The Coronavirus To Argue Against Urgent Climate Action

Right wing media figures and groups are using the wall-to-wall coverage of COVID-19 to claim there was never any need for urgent climate action.

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One of the most popular posts in the last month by Australian right-wing Facebook page "Aussie Stuff for Aussies" is about teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and the coronavirus.

It's a meme that uses a picture of Thunberg at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit overlaid with the text "Fuck the Corona Virus .. We're meant to die from climate change". It's been shared more than 6,700 times since it was posted on March 11.

Of course, Thunberg didn't actually say that. In late March she said the world needs to take on both the pandemic and climate change simultaneously.

But the post is one of many examples of an emerging argument from right-wing groups: that the all-encompassing focus on COVID-19 right now proves that the argument for urgent climate action was, in fact, a sham.

And even though emissions have fallen around the world during the pandemic, the fact remains that the world's climate is being drastically altered by our actions, and the devastating effects of climate change aren't going to stop while the coronavirus plays out.

It is of course true that people are paying significantly less attention to climate change now than they were in December and January, before the coronavirus became a global pandemic and when out-of-control bushfires were tearing through large parts of Australia.

Mentions of climate change in the top homepage positions of Australian news websites peaked during the bushfires — which were exacerbated by climate change — and have precipitously dropped since then, according to media monitoring company Streem. Meanwhile, stories about the coronavirus have far outgrown climate change.

The trend was also reflected in radio and television mentions.

As this dramatic shift in attention — also reflected in data from Google Trends and social media analytics site CrowdTangle — has occurred, various right wing groups and media outlets have used the coronavirus to either downplay or outright deny climate change.

Early on, both climate change and the coronavirus were labelled as causing unnecessary fear. One of Australia's most popular radio hosts, Alan Jones, called the coronavirus the "health version of global warming" in one of his many comments downplaying the deadly virus. Conservative talk show host and founder of online media company PragerU, Dennis Prager, criticised fears about the virus and climate change, saying "we go from hysteria to hysteria".

Some have cited wall-to-wall coverage of the virus as proof that climate change no longer matters.

On March 17, Sky News Australia host Chris Kenny claimed activists had lost interest in the cause. “They said the planet was facing destruction, they said this was the most important threat any of us had ever faced or ever will," he said on his show. "Now suddenly it’s not a crisis and not an emergency."

Sky News host Chris Kenny says earlier this month “climate change crusaders” were “frothing at the mouth … (and) demanding urgent action” over climate change action however now seemingly it’s “not an emergency” any longer. https://t.co/T97jbPf3p4

His fellow News Corp employee, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, agreed, opening his March 22 article with: "The coronavirus has sure killed one thing — the great global warming scare."

On social media, posts by right wing pages and accounts making the same point are regularly shared by thousands.

A number of the memes are about Thunberg specifically.

One post from The Quiet Australian Facebook page saying the coronavirus "fixed" climate change was shared 1,300 times.

And this Office meme from conservative group Young America's Foundation was shared nearly 1,000 times. "The silence from the Left on the supposed 'existential threat' is deafening," it read.

A popular variation of the meme lampooning the idea of a carbon tax-like measure to "magically end coronavirus" was shared 15,000 times from the Being Libertarian Facebook page alone, as well as from other pages focused on opposing the environmental movement.

The use of coronavirus to downplay the need for climate action has now entered Australia's political debate. Advocacy group Advance Australia, which bills itself as a grassroots organisation for the right, used the argument in a March 26 media release criticising the Australian Greens.

"When all you’re good for is trying to whip mainstream Australians into a collective panic over global warming and collective outrage about asylum seekers what do you do when a real emergency presents?" the release read.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott used the same rhetoric to justify building new coal-fired power plants. "It’s all very well worrying about potential dangers a few decades hence, but what if we can’t cope with a real danger now?" he wrote. "It’s all very well worrying about the environment of the future, but what if we can’t keep alive the people living in it now?"

The economic and climate justice director for left wing advocacy group GetUp!, Ed Miller, told BuzzFeed News he had noticed the shift in attention from climate change to the coronavirus.

"We cannot lose sight of the climate crisis, the long-term recovery effort must be one that ensures the health of our people and the planet," he said in an email.

Australian environmental not-for-profit Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said her organisation had changed advocacy tactics in the coronavirus outbreak. She said a silver lining could be how climate change advocates learn from the world's response to the pandemic.

"It shows that we can mobilise for a crisis but we don't want to. We could pull out all stops to take drastic action, but let's be more measured about it and take our time by acting earlier," McKenzie told BuzzFeed News. "The sooner we act, the better."