Michael Mann is no stranger to the war against climate science. A climatologist at Pennsylvania State University who is currently studying the impact of climate change on extreme weather events, Mann is best known for the “hockey stick graph,” which he and his colleagues published in a 1998 scientific paper. The data visualization—featured prominently in former vice president Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth—illustrates the precipitous rise in global temperatures since the dawn of the industrial era.
The graph also helped make the researcher a target of attacks by climate change deniers. Mann’s e-mails were stolen, and he was investigated by government bodies and received death threats in a years-long campaign he says was orchestrated by fossil fuel companies and their allies to discredit his work. Those experiences compelled him to “enter the fray” and “speak out about the very real implications of our research,” he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2014.
Although it is too soon to declare victory, Mann cautions, the initial war of disinformation against climate science is now essentially over. The scientific evidence has become impossible to dispute in light of the dramatic increases in extreme weather events, megafires and polar melting in recent years, he says.
The deniers have not given up the battle, however. They have merely changed their tactics, Mann contends in his book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. He spoke with Scientific American about the book and why he believes that the world is finally getting ready to move more aggressively on the climate crisis.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You argue that the climate change deniers are going extinct and being replaced by a new group that you call “the inactivists.” Who are the inactivists?
The plutocrats who are tied to the fossil fuel industry are engaging in a new climate war—this time to prevent meaningful action. Over the past few years, you’ve seen a lot of conservative groups pulling their money out of the climate-change-denial industry and putting it instead into efforts by ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative lobbying group], for example, to fund legislative efforts blocking clean-energy policies.
The book details the way these fossil fuel interests are working to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for taking action on climate. How are they doing that?
I use whole bunch of “D” words to describe this: deflection, delay, division, despair mongering, doomism. To start with, there is an effort to deflect attention away from systemic solutions. They are trying to convince people that climate change is not the result of their corporate policies but of our own individual actions. I mean BP [a multinational oil and gas company headquartered in London] was instrumental in the whole idea of a carbon footprint. They introduced the carbon footprint calculator to help get people to think of this as an individual-responsibility issue.
You mean if people believe that their lifestyle choices are to blame for climate change, they won’t pressure big energy companies to cut their production of fossil fuels or support the development of cleaner alternatives?
That’s the idea. One of the best examples of this sort of deflection campaign is the gun lobby’s motto “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
So that concept has morphed into “Fossil fuels don’t cause climate change, people do”?
Exactly. If you can get people arguing over these individual lifestyle choices, then you are creating division over questions such as “Are you vegan or not?” “Do you fly?” So it’s a twofer—you deflect attention away from the need for real policy change, and you get infighting within the climate movement so that climate advocates are not speaking with one coherent voice.
You’re not suggesting that people shouldn’t change their behavior, are you?
We should definitely try to be the best stewards of the planet that we can be. It saves us money, makes us healthier and sets a good example for others. But let’s not allow that to be used as a crutch for the failure to demand larger policy interventions to tackle this problem. Voluntary efforts alone are not going to achieve the kind of reductions we need. We need powerful financial incentives—policies such as subsidies for renewables and effective carbon pricing schemes.
One of your “D” words is division. Can you give some concrete examples of how the fossil fuel industry has been working to create divisions within the environmental community?
An e-mail sent to journalists in 2020 by CRC Advisors [a PR firm that represents industry players and others] contained talking points that appeared to attempt to sow racial division within the climate movement. The e-mail suggested that the Green New Deal—supported by white environmentalists—would hurt minority communities. It is an attempt to drive a wedge right down the center of the progressive movement—between social activists and climate activists.
Another case involves Michael Moore’s recent documentary Planet of the Humans, which contains a laundry list of deceptive facts and bad arguments against renewable energy. An industry advocacy group known as the American Energy Alliance spent thousands of dollars promoting this film. Conservative foundations and media outlets all came out of the woodwork to support the film.
You say that fossil fuel interests are not just fighting against renewable energy. They are also pushing the idea that it is too late—that climate change cannot be stopped, and it is pointless to try to do so at this stage.
Conservative media are promoting people such as Guy McPherson, who says that we have 10 years left before exponential climate change literally extinguishes life on Earth and that we should somehow find a way to cope with our imminent demise. I call it “climate doom porn.” It’s very popular, it really sells magazines, but it’s incredibly disabling. If you believe that we have no agency, then why take any action? I’m not saying that fossil fuel companies are funding people like McPherson; I have no evidence of that. But when you look at who is actually pushing this message, it’s the conservative media networks that air his interviews.
Some of your scientist colleagues criticize you for asserting that there is a “war” being waged against climate policy. How do you respond?
I respond that the easiest way to lose a war is to deny that you are in one. This is not a war that we choose to be in. But powerful interests have engineered the most well-funded and elaborate public relations campaign in the history of Earth to block progress on climate. We need to recognize that these are not actors who are going to play nice with us. They are not engaged in a good faith conversation based on facts and logical arguments.
After detailing the systematic efforts to block action on climate in the book, you say that you are optimistic. What makes you hopeful?
We’re not going to get a Green New Deal, not from this Congress. But we might get a climate bill that involves market mechanisms, as well as incentives. President-elect Joe Biden is pretty pragmatic on this. He’s appointed John Kerry [as special presidential envoy for climate], who is capable of pulling that off. I think we’re headed toward some kind of market approach to dealing with climate.
You write that young activists inspire you. How so?
I don’t always quote the Bible, but when I do, I say, “And a child shall lead them.” The young have really moved the needle. For too long, we have allowed this issue to be framed entirely as one of science or economics or policy and politics. But more than anything else, it’s about ethics, our obligation not to destroy this planet for future generations. People of good will are finally demanding action. I think it’s because our children have come out and demanded it of the adults of the world.
Editor’s Note (1/14/21): This article was edited after posting to correct certain assertions about Planet of the Humans and Guy McPherson.