The organisers of a controversial petition against the use of lockdowns to tackle COVID-19 have used similar methods in the past to spread misinformation about other health and environmental risks, including climate change.

The Great Barrington Declaration has been heavily promoted around the world by campaigners and commentators who oppose more severe restrictions to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Some of the Declaration’s promoters have complained bitterly that it is not being taken more seriously by the public and policymakers, while neglecting to mention that it was organised by a free market lobby group rather than a medical institution – the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) orchestrated the Great Barrington Declaration earlier this month and launched a website to collect signatures of support.

While most of the focus has been on the credentials of the signatories, rather less attention has been paid to the track record of the AIER on health and environmental risks. The AIER has spread unreliable information about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. In September, it published a bizarre rant by its ‘Senior Resident Fellow’, George Gilder, who declared that the “Covid-19 crisis was already essentially over” by late April, based on a clearly inaccurate article that suggested “the spread of the coronavirus declines to almost zero after 70 days—no matter where it strikes, and no matter what measures governments impose to try to thwart it”.

Mr Gilder also railed against “a vandalistic lockdown of the economy”, which he claimed had been prompted by “an egregious statistical horror story of millions of projected deaths, suffused with incense and lugubrious accents from Imperial College of London to Harvard School of Public Health”.

The Declaration similarly denounces current lockdown practices for “producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health”, and instead calls for COVID-19 to be tackled by allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread within the population to build up herd immunity, while “adopting measures to protect the vulnerable”.

The Declaration’s website offers anyone the opportunity to “sign the declaration”, and as of 16 October claims to have attracted the signatures of 538,630 “concerned citizens”, 10,669 “medical and public health scientists”, and 29.551 “medical practitioners”.

Many medical experts have criticised the Declaration, highlighting the difficulty of identifying and isolating those who are most likely to suffer serious disease, and the lack of certainty over whether those who have been infected by the virus gain effective immunity.

Nevertheless, the Declaration has received widespread media coverage, and while some journalists have highlighted the inclusion of bogus signatories, few reports have mentioned the AIER’s long history of spreading unscientific misinformation.

The AIER’s vision is “a world in which societies are organized according to the principles of pure freedom—in which the role of government is sharply confined to the provision of public goods and individuals can flourish within a truly free market and a free society”. Its revenue was just over US$4 million in 2019, mostly from investments, and it has net assets of almost US$109 million.

Like many other lobby groups preaching free market fundamentalism, it is ideologically opposed to limits on businesses, and seeks to advance its campaigns against regulations by downplaying and denying the scientific evidence for a range of health and environmental risks.

In July, the AIER published an article that put forward a whole litany of false claims about environmental and health problems, under the headline The Sordid History of Scam Science.

It disputed the evidence that human activities were responsible for destroying the ozone layer, wrongly stating that “scientists have not shown that the ‘hole’ was primarily man-made or that it caused any ill effects on humans or any ecological systems”. And it stated that climate change has failed to make tropical cyclones stronger, even though a major study published in May showed that this was not true.

The AIER’s denial of the causes and potential consequences of climate change is a longstanding feature of its lobbying. Its website still hosts a copy of its Economic Education Bulletin from July 2001, with the title A Climate of Opinion: The Kyoto Protocols and Atmospheric Science, in which it rejected the scientific basis for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which aimed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly by rich countries.

The Bulletin was published a few months after the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. The Assessment had also found that “projected climate changes during the 21st century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in Earth systems resulting in impacts at continental and global scales”.

But the Bulletin rejected these findings and instead highlighted a petition which stated: “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

The AIER’s Bulletin suggested that the petition had been signed by “more than 19,000 scientists, engineers, and scientifically savvy citizens”. But it neglected to mention that the so-called ‘Global Warming Petition Project’ was co-organised by an ideological bedfellow, the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, with money raised by its Access to Energy newsletter, which was distributed under the motto “Pro-Science, Pro-technology, Pro-Free Enterprise”.

Like the AIER’s Declaration, the so-called Oregon Petition has been dismissed by scientific experts and mocked for its fake signatories, including one of the Spice Girls and fictional doctors from the television show M*A*S*H.

Given the AIER’s track record of pushing unscientific denial of health and environmental risks, it is not surprising that supporters of the Great Barrington Declaration try to gloss over its origins.

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