Climatologist Michael E Mann: 'Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes'.
The author and eminent climate scientist on the deniers’ new tactics and why positive change feels closer than it has done in 20 years.
Michael E Mann is one of the world’s most influential climate scientists. He rose to prominence in 1999 as the co-author of the “hockey-stick graph”, which showed the sharp rise in global temperatures since the industrial age. This was the clearest evidence anyone had provided of the link between human emissions and global warming. This made him a target. He and other scientists have been subject to “climategate” email hacking, personal abuse and online trolling. In his new book, The New Climate War, he argues the tide may finally be turning in a hopeful direction.
You are a battle-scarred veteran of many climate campaigns. What’s new about the climate war?
For more than two decades I was in the crosshairs of climate change deniers, fossil fuel industry groups and those advocating for them – conservative politicians and media outlets. This was part of a larger effort to discredit the science of climate change that is arguably the most well-funded, most organised PR campaign in history. Now we finally have reached the point where it is not credible to deny climate change because people can see it playing out in real time in front of their eyes.
But the “inactivists”, as I call them, haven’t given up; they have simply shifted from hard denial to a new array of tactics that I describe in the book as the new climate war.
Who is the enemy in the new climate war?
It is fossil fuel interests, climate change deniers, conservative media tycoons, working together with petrostate actors like Saudi Arabia and Russia. I call this the coalition of the unwilling.
If you had to find a single face that represents both the old and new climate war it would be Rupert Murdoch. Climate change is an issue the Murdoch press has dissembled on for years. The disinformation was obvious last year, when they blamed arsonists for the devastating Australian bushfires. This was a horrible attempt to divert attention from the real cause, which was climate change. Murdoch was taken to task by his own son because of the immorality of his practices.
We also have to recognise the increasing roles of petrostate actors. Saudi Arabia has played an obstructionist role. Russia has perfected cyber warfare and used it to interfere in other countries and disrupt action on climate change. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has made a credible case about Russia’s efforts to hijack the 2016 presidential election and get Trump elected. Russia wanted to end US sanctions that stood in the way of a half-trillion-dollar deal between Rosneft and ExxonMobil. It worked. Who did Trump appoint as his first secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil.
Today Russia uses cyberware – bot armies and trolls – to get climate activists to fight one another and to seed arguments on social media. Russian trolls have attempted to undermine carbon pricing in Canada and Australia, and Russian fingerprints have been detected in the yellow-vest protests in France.
And WikiLeaks? Your book suggests they were involved?
I’m not an expert but there has been a lot of investigative journalism about the role they played in the 2016 election. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks helped Donald Trump get elected, and in doing that they did the bidding of Putin. Their fingerprints are also all over the climategate affair 10 years ago. UK investigators have evidence of Russian involvement in that too.
It’s an unlikely alliance.
Yes, it’s a remarkable irony. Who would think you would see a US republican president, a Russian president and Rupert Murdoch working together as part of the coalition of the unwilling, doing everything in their power to prevent action on the defining crisis of our time: climate change.
What is in it for Murdoch?
The Saudi royal family has been the second-highest shareholder in News Corporation [Murdoch’s company]. And apparently Murdoch and the Saudi family are close friends, so that is a potential motive.
You say the deniers are on the back foot and there are reasons to be hopeful. But we have seen false dawns in the past. Why is it different now?
Without doubt, this is the best chance in the 20 years since I have been in the climate arena. We have seen false complacency in the past. In 2007, after the IPCC shared the Nobel peace prize with Al Gore, there seemed to be this awakening in the media. that felt to many like a tipping point, though at the time I was very apprehensive. I knew the enemy wouldn’t give up and I expected a resurgence of the climate war. That’s exactly what we saw with the climategate campaign [the leaking of emails to try to tarnish scientists]. This is different. It feels different, it looks different, it smells different.
I am optimistic about a favourable shift in the political wind. The youth climate movement has galvanised attention and re-centred the debate on intergenerational ethics. We are seeing a tipping point in public consciousness. That bodes well. There is still a viable way forward to avoid climate catastrophe.
You can see from the talking points of inactivists that they are really in retreat. Republican pollsters like Frank Luntz have advised clients in the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who carry water for them that you can’t get away with denying climate change any more. It doesn’t pass the sniff test with the public. Instead they are looking at other things they can do.
Let’s dig into deniers’ tactics. One that you mention is deflection. What are the telltale signs?
Any time you are told a problem is your fault because you are not behaving responsibly, there is a good chance that you are being deflected from systemic solutions and policies. Blaming the individual is a tried and trusted playbook that we have seen in the past with other industries. In the 1970s, Coca Cola and the beverage industry did this very effectively to convince us we don’t need regulations on waste disposal. Because of that we now have a global plastic crisis. The same tactics are evident in the gun lobby’s motto, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, which is classic deflection. For a UK example look at BP, which gave us the world’s first individual carbon footprint calculator. Why did they do that? Because BP wanted us looking at our carbon footprint not theirs.
This leads to the second tactic – division. You argue people need to focus strategically on system change, but online bots are stirring up arguments over individual lifestyle choices. That said, you suggest there is too much emphasis on reducing meat, which is a relatively minor source of emissions compared with fossil fuels. Isn’t that likely to be divisive among vegetarians and vegans?
Of course lifestyle changes are necessary but they alone won’t get us where we need to be. They make us more healthy, save money and set a good example for others. But we can’t allow the forces of inaction to convince us these actions alone are the solution and that we don’t need systemic changes. If they can get us arguing with one another, and finger pointing and carbon shaming about lifestyle choices, that is extremely divisive and the community will no longer be effective in challenging vested interest and polluters.
I don’t eat meat. We get power from renewable energy. I have a plug-in hybrid vehicle. I do those things and encourage others to do them. but I don’t think it is helpful to shame people who are not as far along as you. Instead, let’s help everybody to move in that direction. That is what policy and system change is about: creating incentives so even those who don’t think about their environmental footprint are still led in that direction.
Another new front in the new climate war is what you call “doomism”. What do you mean by that?
Doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. Inactivists know that if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up.
What is so pernicious about this is that it seeks to weaponise environmental progressives who would otherwise be on the frontline demanding change. These are folk of good intentions and good will, but they become disillusioned or depressed and they fall into despair. But “too late” narratives are invariably based on a misunderstanding of science. Many of the prominent doomist narratives – [Jonathan] Franzen, David Wallace-Wells, the Deep Adaptation movement – can be traced back to a false notion that an Arctic methane bomb will cause runaway warming and extinguish all life on earth within 10 years. This is completely wrong. There is no science to support that.
Even without Arctic methane, there are plenty of solid reasons to be worried about the climate. Can’t a sense of doom also radicalise people and act as an antidote to complacency? Isn’t it a stage in understanding?
True. It is a natural emotional reaction. Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes. It can be enabling and empowering as long as you don’t get stuck there. It is up to others to help ensure that experience can be cathartic.
You also suggest that Greta Thunberg has sometimes been led astray.
I am very supportive of Greta. At one point in the book, I point out that even she has at times been a victim of some of this bad framing. But in terms of what she does, I am hugely supportive. Those I call out really are those who should know better. In particular, I tried to document mis-statements about the science. If the science objectively demonstrated it was too late to limit warming below catastrophic levels, that would be one thing and we scientists would be faithful to that. But science doesn’t say that.
Ten years ago, you and other climate scientists were accused of exaggerating the risks and now you are accused of underplaying the dangers. Sometimes it must seem that you cannot win.
It is frustrating to see scientists blamed. We also are told that we didn’t do a good enough job communicating the risks. People forget we were fighting the most well-funded, well-organised PR campaign in the history of human civilisation.
Another development in the “climate war” is the entry of new participants. Bill Gates is perhaps the most prominent. His new book, How to Prevent a Climate Disaster, offers a systems analyst approach to the problem, a kind of operating system upgrade for the planet. What do you make of his take?
I want to thank him for using his platform to raise awareness of the climate crisis. That said, I disagree with him quite sharply on the prescription. His view is overly technocratic and premised on an underestimate of the role that renewable energy can play in decarbonising our civilisation. If you understate that potential, you are forced to make other risky choices, such as geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration. Investment in those unproven options would crowd out investment in better solutions.
Gates writes that he doesn’t know the political solution to climate change. But the politics are the problem buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution and perhaps your solution might be taking us down the wrong path.
What are the prospects for political change with Joe Biden in the White House?
Breathtaking. Biden has surprised even the most ardent climate hawks in the boldness of his first 100 day agenda, which goes well beyond any previous president, including Obama when it comes to use of executive actions. He has incorporated climate policy into every single government agency and we have seen massive investments in renewable energy infrastructure, cuts in subsidies for fossil fuels, and the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. On the international front, the appointment of John Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris Accord, has telegraphed to the rest of the world that the US is back and ready to lead again. That is huge and puts pressure on intransigent state actors like [Australian prime minister] Scott Morrison, who has been a friend of the fossil fuel industry in Australia. Morrison has changed his rhetoric dramatically since Biden became president. I think that creates an opportunity like no other.
The book provides a long list of other reasons to be hopeful – rapid take-up of renewable energy, technology advances, financial sector action and more. Even so, the US, like other countries, is still far short of the second world war-level of mobilisation that you and others say is necessary to keep global heating to 1.5C. Have the prospects for that been helped or hindered by Covid?
I see a perfect storm of climate opportunity. Terrible as the pandemic has been, this tragedy can also provide lessons, particularly on the importance of listening to the word of science when facing risks. That could be from medical scientists advising us on the need for social distancing to reduce the chances of contagion, or it could be from climate scientists recommending we cut carbon emissions to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe. There is also awareness of the deadliness of anti-science, which can be measured in hundreds of thousands of lives in the US that were unnecessarily lost because a president refused to implement policies based on what health scientists were saying. Out of this crisis can come a collective reconsideration of our priorities. How to live sustainably on a finite planet with finite space, food and water. A year from now, memories and impacts of coronavirus will still feel painful, but the crisis itself will be in the rear-view mirror thanks to vaccines. What will loom larger will be the greater crisis we face – the climate crisis.