One of the most enjoyable books on my 2021 reading list to date has been climatologist, Prof Michael Mann’s latest volume, ‘The New Climate War – The Fight To Take Back Our Planet’. I’ve long been a fan of his courageous defence of climate science in the teeth of relentless political and media hostility in the US over the last two decades. I conducted a Skype interview with him in 2014 for a magazine article (the full one-hour recording is available here).
It was a real pleasure to join him for a pint of Guinness (remember pubs?) in Dublin more recently, when he was in town to present a lecture in TCD. While many scientists have been cowed into silence by the constant intimidation, the bully boys messed with the wrong man when targeting the Penn State climatologist.
He has been a fierce defender of the scientific process and the right of scientists to speak openly and honestly about their work. Along the way, Mann has had to weather eight years of the George W Bush regime’s assault on science and another four as Trump and his acolytes set about destroying our fundamental ability to trust in expertise of any kind.
This review was published in The Irish Times in late February.
THERE ARE many stand-out moments in climatologist, Michael Mann’s new book, but perhaps the most salient is a chart reproduced from a 1982 internal Exxon document.
With uncanny accuracy, the oil company’s own scientists four decades ago were able to predict the likely levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a key greenhouse gas by 2020, as well as its extremely dangerous impact on global temperatures.
What happened next is what the author describes, with some justification, as “the most immoral act in the history of human civilization.”
Rather than raising the alarm, the fossil fuel industry sought instead to protect its profits by spreading disinformation, including funding vicious personalised attacks on individual scientists.
One of their targets was climatologist, Michael Mann. In 1999, Mann and colleagues published the now iconic ‘hockey stick’ graph, which showed how global temperatures had been cooling slowly in recent centuries, only to rise sharply as CO2 levels soared.
While most scientists are professionally diffident and avoid public controversy, the Penn State University professor is a Mann of war. “They thought I was easy prey,” he notes gleefully. While his earlier 2012 book charts in vivid detail how powerful vested interests harassed and threatened him and other colleagues in a vain attempt to silence them, Mann’s latest volume brings the story forward.
The premise for his new book is that while overt climate denial is largely a lost cause, it has instead shape-shifted. The same largely right-wing vested interests are still very much at play, Mann argues, only this time they have cunningly co-opted many of the arguments and anxieties of progressives to stymie and delay effective climate action.
This is what he calls the new front in the ongoing climate wars, being waged by those he labels the climate inactivists. Mann’s alliterative toolkit for inactivists includes disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay and doomism.
Watching the covid pandemic unfold was, he writes, “like watching a time lapse of the climate crisis.” Crucially, in both cases, albeit on different time scales, “the slower we are to act, the higher the cost.”
One of the most insidious shifts in climate messaging is to push all the onus onto individual actions. This effectively lets the real culprits – multinational corporations – clean off the hook. “Is behaviour-shaming the modern opiate of the climate- anxiety-stricken masses? And are the inactivists the pushers?,” Mann asks provocatively. It was, he adds, the energy firm BP that first promoted the concept of the ‘personal carbon footprint’.
Last year, it emerged that a fossil fuel interests were behind a PR campaign in the US trying to drive a racial wedge between Black Lives Matters protestors and climate activists. Mann advises readers not to let themselves “get dragged into divisive spats with those who are on the same side as you.”
Given his own pugilistic style, Mann adds: “I constantly have to remind myself of the very advice I’m giving you right now”. He also articulates the frustration felt by some scientists that they are being unfairly judged. “Many ostensible climate advocates would gladly throw us (scientists) under the bus because we’re not living our lives as off-the-grid vegan hermits.”
In war, there are casualties, including the innocent. While Mann rightly blasts delayers and cynical ‘eco-modernists’ such as Bill Gates, Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger, some of his volleys inflict collateral damage on good faith climate allies such as George Monbiot and Prof Kevin Anderson.
Unusually, Twitter provides much of the book’s source material (Mann is a prolific user of the platform). This may explain the robust nature of many of the exchanges, especially among people supposedly on the same side of the climate argument.
Mann reserves his special scorn for defeatism. “Doomism today arguably poses a greater threat to climate action than outright denial.” That is probably a stretch. While cognisant that climate change poses grave risks to civilisation, he adds: “there is no cliff that we fall off at 1.5 or 2ºC of warming.” A better analogy, he argues, is that “we’re walking into a minefield, and the further we go, the greater the risk.”
The minefield metaphor chimes well with his war framing, but I did not find it entirely reassuring. After all, you may also be unlucky and step straight onto a mine – an outcome every bit as hazardous as tumbling off a cliff.
But his point remains valid: for as long as there is the slightest chance of avoiding an irreversible climate calamity, simply giving up is as morally indefensible as climate denial, delay or deflection. Mann’s conditional climate optimism is inspired in part by the youth climate movement. He is also adamant that the entire fossil fuel sector can be quite quickly replaced by renewables. Many energy experts might demur.
‘The New Climate Wars’ is a punchy, provocative, informed, sometimes idiosyncratic but also deeply personal take on the crisis, by a respected voice in the climate science and communications field.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator