Climate change has evolved its own universe, complete with leading characters, heroes, villains, critics, trolls, bots, character assassins, misinformation, misdirection and backroom plots. It is a world largely unknown to most readers, who probably think of it as an argument among scientists. Michael Mann, arguably at the center of the vortex, tries to explain it in The New Climate War.
The hockey stick guy
Mann and his co-authors published the paper showing carbon pollution as a hockey stick, rising sharply after centuries of trivial growth. The name stuck and made their finding famous, and infamous. Attacks began soon after, and have continued — for nearly 25 years now. Mann has a thick skin and deals with it all in its turn. He is fighting the good fight — the one with the data, the sciences and the resolve.
Green New Deal?
He tackles the naysayers head on. When hears the Green New Deal will cost too much, the answer is inaction will cost far more. He wants everyone to know real progress is being made, doom can be avoided, and sitting on the sidelines is tantamount to criminal negligence.
The Disinformation Ploy
He is constantly correcting misinformation, as trolls, bots, and conservative politicians are forever pulling a figure out of context and using it to damn the entire issue. Or worse, an incorrect or fraudulent figure. From temperature rise to sea levels, from carbon in the atmosphere to carbon in the oceans, the constant flow of false claims makes scientists in general look bad. It takes total vigilance to get back to a level playing field. Mann says the models have proven reliable, the predictions are coming true, and action is required, right now.
Unfortunately, the Russians make their living selling oil and gas. And they are the troll and bot experts, dishing out disinformation to divide and confuse. Between them and American Big Oil, the war with climate science will continue, and it’s a dirty war.
It all started with Carl Sagan
As a child, Mann was inspired by the telegenic Carl Sagan and his Cosmos TV series. He has taken that passion and media-savvy onto his own back, and is constantly on the front lines, battling the climate change deniers, doomsayers and inactivists. He knows all the players, their strengths and weaknesses, their pluses and minuses. A lot of the book is his own reviews of their performances on the global stage. This alone is worth the price of admission, as most of the names, while possibly familiar, are largely unknowns to most readers. Their value or lack thereof is instructive. Readers can now know who to trust and why, at long last. If readers want to know more about Bjorn Lomborg and David Wallace-Wells, and how they present their “findings”, this is the place to look.
Every drama needs a villain
The evil villain in this play is the fossil fuel industry, taking its tactics from the tobacco story. “It includes an array of powerful Ds: disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay, despair-mongering, and doomism” he says. And like tobacco, oil’s war chest is bottomless.
It is consciously delaying the inevitable, even as its own scientists and executives acknowledge Big Oil’s responsibility for the climate mess. It influences lawmakers to stave off the alternatives: electric Teslas have been banned in several states at the behest of the fossil fuel industry. It has also promulgated the rumors that wind turbines cause cancer, lower property values and even UFO crashes. Anything to slow the inevitable shrinking of the problem — Big Oil itself.
Deflection works — for a while
My own favorite Big Oil tactic is deflection. In deflection campaigns, spokespeople — and bots — claim the industry is not to blame. It is customers who are to blame. It is redolent of the 1920s tactic of guns don’t kill people; people kill people. With the climate, it’s a choice, a lifestyle, a negligence, a luxury. Pick your reason, it is not the fault of the industry. Until and unless everyone in the world changes their way of life, the oil industry doesn’t want to hear about it. This of course has the marvelous effect of generating conflict and promoting finger-pointing, behavior-shaming, virtue-signaling, and purity tests.
The new class: inactivists
One of the results is a new class of players, the inactivists. These are people so upset with what they read from the industry, they withdraw to the sidelines, taking them out of the battle. This is different from the doomists, who claim it is too late so we might as well burn all the carbon we want. The inactivists have sidelined themselves because of the deflection (it is their own fault), and the misinformation (is there any truth to any of it?). Mann seeks to reactivate them with a dose of truth and a positive outcome to cling to.
He explores the arguments around carbon taxes and the fake argument about the Gilets Jaunes in France protesting against theirs. He is also concerned that the left in the USA is coming out against carbon taxes, sometimes adding that America needs a complete banning of fossil fuels, period. Carbon taxes play no role in that scenario.
Mann cites Alex Steffen coining the phrase “predatory delay” by the oil industry, as they seek to extend their revenue stream as long as possible and without further taxes. That the left has bought into this argument is quite stunning. Personally, I still like the quote from Jeff Mulgan (2013): “Communism collapsed because it didn’t let prices tell the economic truth, and capitalism will collapse because it didn’t let prices tell the ecological truth.” As Mann says, the Paris Accord sees a carbon tax at about $2 per ton, but it would take $75 a ton to achieve the Paris commitments. That’s the extent of the free ride Big Oil has had on the back of the global economy.
Rightwing media to the rescue
Big Oil has the right wing media in its hip pocket. Mann asks: “What’s the real reason that Germany’s solar industry is doing so much better than the solar industry in the United States? Simple: It doesn’t have Fox News, the rest of the Murdoch media, the Koch brothers, and fossil fuel interests all joining forces to destroy it.”
Geoengineering — NO
He debunks, for the nth time, geoengineering, in which entrepreneurs want to deploy planet-scale engineering experiments to deflect sunlight and otherwise cool the Earth. Not only will they not work, they are also impossibly expensive and no one has any idea what the unintended consequences will be. Further screwing around with the ecological balance is not the answer. Stopping the use of fossil fuels is the real answer. Worse still, geoengineering can be weaponized, making it into a whole new problem.
A Conclusion of worthy accomplishments!
Blissfully, Mann’s Conclusion is different from all the other bland and pointless concluding climate change chapters I have reviewed in the past 20 years. Typically, they devote a paragraph to various pilot projects that are climate-friendly, and then express hope that more of these experiments will take place and eventually be rolled out as real options. But that’s all to come — later.
This Conclusion is far more positive. And real. Mann shows how the fossil fuel complex is suffering at the hands of students and finally, of Wall Street. Students have been pressuring their universities to disinvest from fossil fuel firm shares, and the movement is not merely successful, but spreading. Mann says it is over a thousand schools now.
Greta Thunberg and the whole generation of teens who follow her are an existential threat to the biggest industry in the world — fossil fuels. It has said so publicly. They will do anything to discredit her, down to criticizing the boat she took to New York to avoid a flight — because the plastic hull wasn’t recyclable. Clearly, she’s got Big Oil is on the run.
Meanwhile, Wall Street is withholding funding of fossil fuel projects because it is keenly aware of the “transition risk” as more and more energy projects are of the renewable kind. Exxon Mobil was removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average because its future prospects won’t help the Dow advance any more.
He also sees staunch Republican deniers coming around. They see the inevitability of action, and are at long last willing to buck the party stalwarts and vote in favor. This has a lot to do with public acceptance, which Mann sees as potentially jumping into a solid majority as more and more catastrophic weather events pile up. Even some of the right wing climate change denying “think tanks” are suffering from withdrawal of support, right down to pathetic attendance at their conferences.
Wind & Solar bigger than coal
Wind and solar power now account for 250 gigawatts of energy, some 20% of US output, as coal is clearly on its way out in the USA. Even without the levels of subsidies seen elsewhere in the world, renewables have a more than firm footing in the economy.
Lessons from the pandemic
He also thinks there are lessons being drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic. The deniers have proven to be totally incorrect, while the models and scientists have proven to be reliable. Maybe Americans will actually listen to their climate scientists, too. Mann likens it to the massive increase in support for gay marriage, which happened in a truly remarkable short period. He hopes it can happen again.
I don’t mind saying I have never felt so good about a climate change book before reading The New Climate War.
But let me end with a quote from Mann’s inspiration, Carl Sagan (1996): “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
This guy got it. And so does Michael Mann.
(The New Climate War, Michael Mann, January 2021)