Michael E. Mann: "The fossil fuel companies have not given up; they turned to other tactics."
"Let me boil it down to just two words: urgency and agency. Yes, there is the urgency for massive climate action now. But the agency is that it's not too late for us to act."
Michael E Mann is one of the world's most influential climate scientists. The distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State is known for the hockey stick graphs and as a defender of climate science while being targeted by climate change deniers. He's also the writer of the excellent book The New Climate War. He joined me this week in The Planet podcast. The excerpt of the interview is in this newsletter.
To listen to the full 46-minutes interview, including questions from listeners at Callin, you can listen to the podcast here.
The New Climate War
For decades, you have been fighting a well-funded disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel companies. Your book is about the New Climate War. Did you and other scientists win the first one?
The old Climate War was an effort of polluters, the fossil fuel companies, and conservative groups representing their interests to discredit the basic science and the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change. This war has essentially been won; we've reached the point where it just isn't credible anymore to deny that it's happening and deny that we can see the impacts because we're seeing them play out almost in real-time.
But that doesn't mean that the fossil fuel industry has given up; they've turned to other tactics, which I detail in The New Climate War, in their effort to keep us addicted to fossil fuels. Because in the end, they don't care about the reason. They don't care about the path we take; they just care about the destination. So they want us disengaged, and they want us to remain reliant on fossil fuels. And so they lead us to deny that the problem exists or deflect our attention away from meaningful solutions, divide us, and get us fighting with each other; they want to make sure that we don't represent a United Front.
They try to convince us that it's just about individual lifestyle choices so that we don't demand policy action and systemic changes. Or they can get us to believe that it's too late to do anything about the problem, which, ironically, potentially leads us to the same place of disengagement.
So these are the tactics that we are now facing. And that's really what the book is about: helping people recognize these tactics and recognize how to push back on them because we can feel we are so close now to finally seeing the action that we worked for so hard and so long. But there are still these obstacles in our way. And we need to recognize those obstacles so we can finally act in a manner consistent with the challenge we face.
Do shorter showers help?
But are there behavioral changes we should take as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint? Like taking shorter showers or going on a biking holiday instead of flying to Tahiti? And I believe that you are, like me, a vegetarian?
I don't eat meat, but I guess I'm a pescetarian. So I'm not all the way to vegetarian yet. But indeed, I find that I'm happier, feel better, and feel healthier. So there are all of these things that we can do that decrease our environmental impact or our carbon footprint. They make us feel better, save us money, and set a good example for other people.
So, of course, we should do all these things. But what we have to guard against is this argument that if we do these things, that solves the problem. And that that's all we need to do. Because that indeed does play into the agenda of polluters who would love to have us so focused on our individual carbon footprint that we fail to notice theirs. Seventy percent of our carbon emissions come from just one hundred polluters. And so, while we should do all these things that we can do to decrease our environmental impact, we also have to make sure that we hold polluters accountable. And we should also hold our policymakers or politicians accountable for acting on our behalf rather than acting in the interests of a small number of polluting interests.
In your book, you also mention the tactics used by the tobacco industry, or for instance, the gun lobby that promotes the line that "guns don't kill people, but people kill people." You also mentioned a "crying Indian" campaign?
If you grew up in the States in the 1970s, you remember this ad that profoundly impacted us. This tearful, Native American was canoeing down this river that's been polluted by all these strewn bottles and can liter, and it felt empowering. It felt like, yes, we need to clean up our environment. But it turns out it was a PR campaign that was hatched on Madison Avenue by Coca-Cola and the beverage industry. They wanted to convince us that we didn't need bottle bills. We didn't need systemic solutions. So they made it all about us to further their interests. Because the bottom line is that acting in a systemic way, a bottle bill, these regulations would solve this problem at its source, but it would cost them profits. And thanks to their very effective deflection campaign, we have one of our other great global environmental crises today: the plastic pollution crisis, thanks to the clever and effective use of a deflection campaign by the industry. We have to recognize they're doing that right now on carbon emissions and climate.
“The truth is bad enough”
On Twitter, I see examples of people who have given up all hope to stop climate change. They believe we have passed tipping points that make our future on this planet doomed anyway. They refer, for instance, to the methane escaping the thawing permafrost areas. I suppose that approach is not very motivating to take climate action?
I like to say that the truth is bad enough; we don't need to exaggerate. And you're absolutely right; you see a lot of this on social media, and some of this is authentic; a fair amount of these are good-hearted people, people who ironically would otherwise be on the front lines and demanding action. But they've been led astray by pretty clever manipulation.
The people at the very top of this are not innocent. There are bad actors who want to convince us that it's too late because of simply the physical response of the climate system, as you alluded to this idea of runaway feedbacks. But that's not supported by science. There's no science that supports the idea that we are committed to some sort of runaway warming. The science pretty clearly now indicates that how much warming we get is a function of how much carbon we burn. And the flip side of that is if we bring our carbon emissions to zero, the warming, at least of the surface of our planet, stabilizes very quickly.
Now there might be some longer timescale responses. And we worry about this; the destabilization of ice sheets, for example. But we basically stop the warming of the planet if we stop polluting the atmosphere with carbon. It's so important to recognize that. What has happened here is that the forces of inaction, I call them the "inactivists" in the book, have actually tried to convince many climate advocates that it is too late, either because of this idea of runaway warming methane and feedback loops.
But the science doesn't support the idea that we're close to any sort of runaway methane sort of bomb response to the climate system. So only if we warm the planet enough, if we do nothing, then yes, we start to enter into that realm. But we're not anywhere close to it now. So if we act now, that's not going to happen.
The other part of their approach is convincing us that our politics are so broken that there's no way that we can achieve meaningful action. And we see this in the wake of the COP 26 Glasgow Summit. You saw well-known climate change deniers like Marc Morano quoting out of context some climate advocates. That made it sound like the entire process had collapsed, that it's unsalvageable, and that there is no reason to even continue with these multilateral negotiations. And indeed, the fossil fuel industry would love nothing more than for us to give up on any possibility of climate action. And we see that some of that messaging was weaponized, in this case, by the forces of inaction.
There are other examples that I talked about in the book. Online, there are bad state actors. Russia, for example, has promoted climate change denial; they want to monetize all of those fossil fuels that are buried beneath Russian soil. And they have worked for years, using Black Ops social media campaigns to influence American politics, European politics, and Canadian politics in a way that stymies meaningful climate action. And we know that they have armies of bots and trolls that pollute the social media space and are intended to take in well-meaning bystanders. These people would otherwise be on the frontlines, but they convinced them it's too late to do anything and that there's no possibility of meaningful policy action. They want these people on the sidelines rather than on the frontlines.
An issue that came up several times in recent podcasts was nuclear energy. I remember once speaking with Jim Hanson about it, and he said that we don't have the luxury to pick and choose; we all want solar and wind, but we might have to go down that nuclear road as well. So is nuclear safe enough, and is it economically efficient enough, or should we go for renewables like wind and solar and become much more efficient?
I respect Jim greatly, and I also respect the point of view of Jim and all other people who think that nuclear is an important option in addressing the climate crisis. But I am not convinced it is. And I go through that in some detail in the book in the New Climate War. Renewable energy is cheaper, and nuclear comes with risks like radiation, nuclear proliferation, and conflict. It is also really expensive, and it requires huge government subsidies to be viable. So if you're a free-market conservative, it doesn't make sense for you to be arguing for nuclear energy because it's not viable in the market against cheaper sources of energy.
One of the arguments has been that we just can't scale up renewable energy fast enough. And then there are storage issues, the sun isn't always shining, and the wind isn't always blowing. A lot of that has been solved. We now have significant new technology for energy storage with smart grid technology. We have the tools now to solve this problem with renewable energy. I am convinced that that's the case. There are experts in this field who've made a compelling argument that that's the case, like Mark Jacobson of Stanford. And so there is a cheaper solution, and it comes with less risk.
The only obstacle here isn't technological at this point; it's political. We just need policies that speed up this transition that's already underway from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy. We can do it. I'm convinced that we can, and we don't have to follow this riskier path of nuclear or geoengineering or some of these other technologies that can supposedly save us.
Don’t look up
We discussed geoengineering, Bill Gates, and his investments in that technology, which brought us to the Netflix movie Don't look up. And I then asked: when you were looking at the film, did you recognize anybody in particular?
The Netflix folks gave us a link to watch it at home before the film actually went live. It's been an honor to help publicize the movie. I really appreciate the work that Adam McKay, the director, has done. I'm a big fan of him and his work and Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. So we watched this film; it's just my 16-year-old daughter, my wife, and me on our home theater here down in the basement. And my daughter says: the scientist guy, I think he's you, look at his mannerisms. And I was sort of just joking about it. I do know Leo DiCaprio, we've interacted quite a bit in the past, and then in an interview, he actually name-checked me. He mentioned my name as the scientist who had sort of inspired in part that character. I would hasten to point out that I don't think he's accusing me of some of the more negative attributes of their marriage, infidelity, and other things. But just sort of the pressures that you're under, and the frustration of being a scientist who understands the depth of this problem and encounters a not entirely willing public when it comes to the messaging around it.
“Urgency and agency”
Most people listening to The Planet podcast, or reading The Planet newsletter, are already concerned or alarmed about climate change; they accept the basic science and are worried. So what is the key message you would like to give to the listeners of this podcast?
I would boil it down to two words: urgency and agency, both together. Urgency without agency leads us towards frustration, disengagement, and disillusion. So yes, it is urgent; we have to bring our carbon emissions down dramatically by 50% within this decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. So we need massive action now. But the agency is that it's not too late to do it; there is a path forward.
So we have to recognize as bad as things might seem, they could get a whole lot worse if we fail to act. And it's not too late for us to act; it's still possible for us to create a better future for our children and grandchildren. So let's not be taken in by the various tactics of the inactivists, which include, among them, convincing you that it's too late to do anything. It's not.
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Tuesday, February 8th, at 11 am ET (that is 17:00 in most of Europe, 16:00 in the UK): Vanessa Champion, editor of the Journal of Biophilic Design joins the show. We will talk about natural living, environmental messaging, better ways of designing cities and houses, photography, and current environmental issues.
You can listen/join here.
Thursday, February 10th, at 3 pm ET, Alister Doyle (author of The Great Melt) and I will do our weekly wrap up of the news on environment, nature, science, climate, and anything else that we believe you may find interesting.
You can listen to last Thursday’s podcast here.
And on February 10th, you can listen/join here.
Friday, February 11th, at 2 pm ET, Steven Ramage will join The Planet podcast. He leads external relations at the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and works with earth scientists, geospatial practitioners, policy developers & decision makers to address environmental & societal challenges we face today & tomorrow.
You can listen/join here.
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