If there’s ever a Hall of Fame for climate scientists, Michael Mann will be among the first to be inducted. More than 20 years ago, Mann — now a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, as well the director of the university’s Earth Systems Science Center — co-authored a paper that proved that the 1990s had been the northern hemisphere’s warmest decade in the past 1,000 years. It was an ingenious bit of science, using tree rings, ice cores, and coral to measure past climates. But what really grabbed people’s attention was the graph included in the paper, which tracked the temperature over the last 1,000 years. It was a flat line that jumped up at the end – it looked just like a hockey stick. “The hockey stick,” as the chart became known, is perhaps the most famous graphic in the history of climate science. It showed, in a simple, easy-to-read picture that even a third-grader could understand, that climate change was real, and that it is happening fast.
The hockey stick (and the science behind it) made Mann public enemy number one for the fossil fuel industry. His integrity was questioned, he was attacked online, he was cast by the industry as an enemy of civilization. In 2009, hackers broke into a server in the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, stole the emails of climate scientists, then publicized fragments of them in an effort to cast doubt on the scientists’ findings. Mann’s emails were at the center of the controversy, which became known as “Climategate.” Mann, whose work was vindicated and who later wrote a book about the experience, became an expert in the fossil fuel industry’s attack strategies and disinformation campaigns.
As it turns out, Mann’s years of battling with industry thugs have given him a unique perspective on the climate war. Whereas many climate scientists are content to remain in their labs or alone on an ice sheet, Mann has been in the trenches, battling it out with climate deniers’ propagandists, the orcs of the carbon-fueled underworld. In his latest book (out January 12th), The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, he exposes the latest tactics by the fossil fuel industry to delay action on climate, but he also calls out the “inactivists” and purveyors of “climate doom porn” on the left who suggest that the fight for a habitable planet has already been lost.
We spoke on the day of the Georgia election runoff about his new book, what he has learned from the Covid pandemic, and the future of climate politics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So let’s start with the title of your book, which is The New Climate War. Tell me how the new climate war is different from the old climate war?
So the old climate war was this assault on the basic science of climate change by fossil fuel interests and those doing their bidding, because the inconvenient nature of climate change tells us that we need to get off the burning of fossil fuels, and that’s bad for some powerful vested interests, the fossil fuel industry in particular. And so there was this concerted effort to discredit the basic science of climate change, often by discrediting the scientists themselves. And I was one of those scientists on the front line dealing with those battles.
Well, the impacts of climate change, as you know, are no longer subtle. They’re playing out in real time and it’s just not credible to deny that it’s happening. And so those same vested interests, they haven’t given up, but they’ve turned to a whole new set of tactics in their effort to block the transition off fossil fuels. And that’s what I detail in The New Climate War, the various tactics that they’re using that include, first of all, dividing us, getting climate advocates fighting with each other so that we don’t present a unified voice, demanding change. [They are also] deflecting attention away from the needed systemic solutions or policy solutions to [focus instead on] individual behavior. “Oh, it’s just about us becoming vegans and not flying anymore.” Well, individual action is important, it’s part of the solution, but it’s not a substitute for the needed systemic changes, changes that the fossil fuel industry, frankly, doesn’t want to see happen. [Another tactic is] doom mongering, despair mongering. And this is something we see a lot of these days, this idea that it’s too late now to even do anything about climate change. And there are people of goodwill and good intentions who become caught up in this sort of doomest framing of the climate crisis. But it plays into the “inactivists,” as I call them, the forces of inaction, because whether it’s denial of the science or denial of the possibility of doing anything about the problem, it leads us down that same path of inaction.
One of the things that you detail in your book is that with the old climate war, it was pretty clear to see how the denial movement came out of the tobacco industry and a lot of the tactics that were used by them, and then the Koch brothers and some of the think tanks. It was a kind of organized effort. What you’re talking about in this book is a little bit different. It seems it’s not organized in the same way as the old climate war, right? I mean, you call out a lot of lefties, from the Sierra Club to journalists like David Wallace Wells for what you call “climate doom porn.”
Yeah, that’s right. I do. I call it as I see it, and most of my targets have been on the right side of the political spectrum, and continue to be, because that’s really where the primary obstacles have been found. But we are encountering some obstacles on the left side of the spectrum. And here, it is important to make a distinction. The folks that you mentioned aren’t bad actors. They’re well-intentioned, if misguided in certain respects. And to a large extent, they are sort of the victims of this disinformation campaign. There are progressives, for example, who have become opposed to certain measures, critical measures for combating climate change like carbon pricing. And it’s not because they’re working for the fossil fuel industry or sympathetic to the fossil fuel industry. It’s because the fossil fuel industry, their advocates, the think tanks that promote their messaging, the news networks that promote their agenda, have been so effective at manipulating public opinion, and ironically, actually weaponizing certain enclaves within the left to do their job for them.
If you can lead people to despair, if you can convince people that it’s too late to do anything, then they’re no longer advocates for the action that’s needed. And some of these bad actors have been very effective on social media, using bots and trolls to manipulate online discourse, getting us fighting over our individual choices.
You’re talking about things like flight shaming, people saying, “You take airplanes around, so you have no right to talk about climate change.”
Yeah, exactly. When you do that, you’re playing into this agenda. And they’re right, individual behavior is part of the solution. And we should all engage in those behaviors that we can that help out. And in many cases, there are no regrets. They save us money. They make us healthier. We feel better and set a great example for others, etc. But fossil fuel interests really fanned the flames of this movement, and people of good intentions have been taken in by it. And like I said before, they’ve been weaponized, because now they’re doing the work of the fossil fuel industry for them without even realizing it.
One of the interesting aspects of your book is the way that you focus, not surprisingly, but very clearly, on the problem with climate change is the burning of fossil fuels and the way to solve climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels. And it’s really not—
I learned that in Rocket Science 250 [laughs].
And it’s really not more complicated than that in a way, right? But, of course, there’s all kinds of complications within that statement. But you focus very clearly on the importance of putting a price on carbon. And that idea has sort of fallen out of the conversation in recent years with the rise of the Green New Deal and more and more activists articulating some version of “capitalism is the problem,” and that a carbon price is basically a kind of neoliberal scheme that will enrich Wall Street and inevitably be corrupted by politics. But you come out really strongly in support of the importance of putting a price on carbon. Can you talk about why?
Bad state actors, petro-state actors, fossil fuel interests have been very effective. Look, they don’t want a price on carbon. They might claim that they would be willing. ExxonMobil likes to say, “Oh, yeah, we would consider it” and even have a shadow price on carbon in their sort of planning documents. But no, they don’t want to see a serious price on carbon. It’ll eat into their profits. And so I think one of the great victories of the fossil fuel industry over the last few years has been the vilification of carbon pricing, not on the political right, but on the political left to a certain extent. And it’s based on some, what I consider to be, false premises to a large extent. Again, people of good will, people of good intentions, people on the left who really care about the environment.
If capitalism is the problem, then anything that buys into market economics is part of the problem. And carbon pricing is market economics. Although, I would point out that really all of the solutions that we’re talking about are market economics, when you’re talking about subsidies for renewable energy or any of the other sort of main climate mechanisms. Regulations are part of a well-managed market economy and they’re not inconsistent with market economics.
There is a larger conversation to be had about whether we can continue on this path of increasing resource extraction and consumption in a sustainable manner. And that conversation, I think, is going to unfold over decades. If we decide that we need to rethink the basic conceptual model for our modern economy, that’s something that’s not going to happen immediately. And yet, as we know, climate change is a problem that by some measure we’ve got to solve over the next several years. We can’t wait 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. We have to bring carbon emissions down dramatically. And so we don’t have time to solve all of the problems that plague us. And there are a lot of problems I would like to see us solve. And the Green New Deal takes a very expansive view about climate action as part of a larger social agenda. And I support much of that agenda, but I’m skeptical as to whether it will — I’ll just flat out say it: Nothing like a Green New Deal is going to pass this Congress over the next two years at least. But we might get a handful, maybe a half dozen or more Republicans, moderate Republicans, joining with Democrats to try to pass some sort of climate legislation. We actually see some of that in this stimulus bill that was passed by both houses of Congress. There’s money there for renewable energy, for certain programs that help in the climate transition. So I do think there’s an opportunity to make real progress here, but it’s not going to be a Green New Deal, at least in the next two years. [Ed note: This interview took place the morning of the Georgia runoff election, before the results were known.]
But ultimately, one of the critical tools we need to use is carbon pricing. It’s a critical demand-side climate measure, [it] reduces demand by leveling the playing field so that renewable energy can compete fairly against fossil fuel energy. And putting a price on carbon or tradable emissions, cap and trade like we saw with acid rain, and it worked, the Montreal Protocol. Look, these market mechanisms for solving environmental problems have worked, and they’re part of the solution. I’m not saying carbon pricing is the whole solution. It’s one of the tools in the toolbox. And we’re going to need to use every tool in the toolbox if we’re going to solve this problem.
So, we are at a tipping point on activism. We are at a tipping point politically. We have a new administration coming in. Biden, his climate plan is pretty impressive. And he’s brought in Gina McCarthy and John Kerry. And there’s this sense of him taking this seriously, right? What would your advice be to Biden for what to do out of the gate? What would you like to see?
Let me give some credit here to our friends who have promoted climate legislation, the Green New Deal advocates, because they’ve really helped shift the window of discourse, if you like, in a more progressive direction on climate. They created the space where now you do have some moderate conservatives saying, “Look, if we don’t support some sort of climate legislation, we’re going to get this heavy-handed Green New Deal that we really don’t want.” So even if we don’t get a Green New Deal, they’ve nonetheless done us a real service by helping move the conversation in the right direction. I want to make that clear.
Now, we are sort of potentially at the dawn of a new era where we have an incoming president, Joe Biden, who not only supports climate action, he campaigned on it. He was elected on it, which means he’s got a mandate and we’re seeing that play out. And again, pressure from the progressive left has played a really important role here. The squeaky wheel phenomenon. Biden probably wouldn’t have become nearly as bold a climate advocate if it weren’t for progressives demanding greater action. Already just with his Cabinet, with the approach he’s taking, where we’re no longer looking at climate as sort of a niche issue that’s confined to, say, the EPA or the Department of Energy. He’s integrating it into every single part of the Cabinet, every single agency. Let’s use the tools of the Treasury, for example, requiring companies to disclose climate risk and making federal funding contingent on that. Diplomacy, of course, critical. Appointing John Kerry as sort of the climate czar, the special envoy on climate internationally, and giving him a seat on the National Security Council, which communicates the fact that we now see climate risk as part of our defense strategy.
We’ve lost four years of action under Trump. You’re a person who understands the risks that we face from a science point of view as well as anyone. Let’s say we have two more years of basically not being able to get anything meaningful through Congress, fiddling around the edges, what are the consequences of that from the climate point of view, of two more years or four more years? I mean, this is really a race against time.
It is. Yeah. It’s a really important point. And we’ve lost four years. There’s no question about it. Fortunately, there was enough happening at the state level, states that support action, companies, cities, municipalities, that we did make some progress and we’ll come pretty close to our Paris commitments even without having any support from the president, the executive branch. But, you know, just meeting our Paris commitments, that’s not enough. Paris is a foot in the door. That’s all it is. We’ve got to do so much more. We need to ratchet up those commitments here in the United States and all the other countries of the world if we’re to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. And so we lost an opportunity when we needed to really be accelerating the transition. We lost a lot of ground. That means that we need to make up that lost ground over the next several years. And the Biden administration seems to be doing everything they can to help make that happen.
But again, without congressional support for climate action, there’s only so much that we can do. To the extent that we can continue to make climate change a voting issue, an issue over which candidates will be defeated if they refuse to support meaningful climate action, to the extent that we can do that, we can have a real role in shaping the discourse, making sure that climate change-denying or delaying politicians cannot get re-elected. So it does, in the end, come back to us as well. Policy change is only going to happen if we hold our politicians accountable using our voice. And that means voting. It means voting, but it means using every other means at our disposal to basically hold our policy makers accountable and make sure that they act on our behalf rather than on the behalf of the polluting interests who too often fund their campaigns.
In your book, you write about some of the lessons of Covid, about the importance of taking action early and not delaying, of trusting experts. But there’s also other lessons, too, that I’ve seen. The tolerance for loss, and the sort of tribal resistance to science and the loyalty to, in this case, Trump and his science denialism is pretty scary. And we’re also going to be poorer. A lot of people are really struggling, and so the notion of things like carbon taxes are going to be all the harder to push through. I just wanted to hear you talk a little bit about how you think Covid is going to shape the response to this in the coming months.
Yeah, great question. And part of it is sort of shaping the narrative and using favorable language. The other side is very good at doing that, manipulating language. And we have to make sure that we use effective messaging and language. You might not talk about a carbon tax. We talk about a fee and dividend that is returned to the people. That sounds pretty good. Citizens Climate Lobby, interestingly, is a coalition of both conservatives and progressives in favor of climate action. They’re sort of spearheading an effort to get conservatives on board with something like a fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing.
We have to make sure that climate action is not seen as onerous, it’s seen as something that is favorable. We can provide clean-energy jobs and clean up the environment and act to preserve the planet at the same time. That sounds pretty exciting. There’s overwhelming support among the public when you ask them, “Do you support clean energy, renewable energy?” So, often it comes down to how you frame this. You know, if we make it all sound like it’s about sacrifice, and this is part of why the other side, the inactivists, love this framing — “you’re going to have to give up your hamburgers. You’re going to have to give up your flight to see grandma during the holidays” — if they can make it about personal sacrifice, that’s a great way to sink any efforts to lead people toward supporting action. So we have to make sure that it’s not seen that way, that it’s win-win. We clean up the environment, we provide clean energy jobs. It’s good for everybody. That’s going to be the challenge.
And you’re right, there is so many lessons that we can take away from [Covid], some of them optimistic messages, some of them more pessimistic. You know, the fragility of modern human civilization, the fact that this microscopic virus can completely turn the world upside down speaks to the fragility of a planet that’s leveraged now by nearly 8 billion people. On a finite planet that has a finite amount of water and food and space. And we’re subject to all of these other challenges now. There is some reason to believe that pandemics like the current one that we’re facing may indeed at least be favored by the same destructive environmental policies, the destruction of rainforests, the fact that we’re forcing the exotic animal species into contact with human beings. So this is sort of a wake-up call. Again, is the glass half empty or half full? What messages do we take away from this?
I hope the message we take is “Yeah, there is this fragility and we need to find a way to live sustainably on this planet.” We need to have some deep conversations about how to do that. I think Covid-19 may open up the possibility for that sort of conversation about environmental sustainability, because as we alluded to earlier, climate change is just one axis in this multidimensional space that is environmental sustainability.
So Covid-19, it depends on what message we take away from it. It depends on how effective we are in shaping the narrative. The other side is going to use this as an opportunity to help reinforce their narrative: “Environmental action is bad. Look at this economic downturn. We need to do everything we can to reinvigorate the economy. And that means we need to deregulate.” We need to make sure that we use this framing to reinforce the real lessons that we should be taking away: the need to live sustainably on this planet, the importance of listening to the scientists. Science denial, it’s deadly. And maybe now we can really see that. Maybe the destructive impact of Covid-19 denialism has opened people’s eyes to the dangers that anti-science poses. We’ll get past the pandemic. A year or two down the road, it’ll be in our rearview mirror, but we will still be fully immersed in an even greater crisis, which is the climate crisis. And hopefully, having gone through this pandemic, this crisis will provide us an opportunity to think about how we solve this even larger crisis.