Ep 18: Michael Mann on the new climate war

Dr. Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State , with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).

Dr. Mann was a Lead Author on the “Observed Climate Variability and Change” chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001 and was organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science in 2003. The IPCC was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore.

In 2009, cyberterrorists hacked East Anglia, stole emails, then misrepresented the content and sought to sow doubt about climate science. Have you ever learned who was behind that attack? 

Dr. Mann notes that we may never know who exactly carried out the attack, but what is known does provide some important indications: 

“We know that there were servers in Russia and Saudi Arabia… we know that WikiLeaks was involved in hosting the stolen emails… Here we have stolen emails, WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, used to try to hijack an important political event. In this case, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, but you could be forgiven for thinking we might have been talking about the 2016 Presidential election, because it was the exact same m.o., and some of the same players were involved.” 

In your book, The New Climate War, you talk about agency and urgency, but also new kinds of disinformation. 

“We’ve reached the point now where people can see the impacts of climate change playing out in real time, in their everyday lives, in their newspaper headlines, on our television screens. You can’t deny that it’s happening anymore. So the agents of inaction, they haven’t given up, but they’ve shifted tactics.” 

They have shifted from attacking science itself to spreading disinformation in hopes of delaying action or deflecting responsibility. Dr. Mann cites the threat of “doom-mongering and despair-mongering,” which he says “if the forces of inaction can convince us it’s too late to actually do anything about the problem, ironically that leads us down the same path of inaction as outright denial.” 

“The reason I wrote the book; you alluded to this pairing of urgency and agency that I like to use. There is urgency in acting, and we have to act now, but there is agency; we do still have time to act. That’s really important… we need to remain engaged.” 

Our public space has become polluted with the misconception that all thoughts, no matter how random, hapless or baseless, are somehow equal, and so if a thought is inconvenient, you can just dismiss it. Do you feel that people are being denied access to reality, they’re being told not to aim for the best possible world, and ultimately they’re being robbed of their personal sovereignty? 

Dr. Mann notes that for a long time “There was a tendency by media outlets to entertain false balance… you had to have a climate change skeptic up there with a mainstream climate scientist… as if there are two equal sides, to a matter, to a proposition which is ultimately based on data and logic and reason.” 

Now, he worries that “what was sort of a localized cancer when it came to the public discourse over climate change has now metastasized to our entire body politic.” An example he cites is the politically motivated discrediting of public health scientists and COVID safety measures.

What is most alarming might well be that “We could see how deadly that anti-science was in real time. We could measure the toll of that science denial in human lives that have now reached a half million or so here in the United States alone. That toll was directly measurable, and yet people were still resistant to what the science had to say.”

To get back on track, we will need to restore science to its rightful place in the reasoned, responsible shaping of our shared future. 

You’ve said “It may be banking and finance, rather than national governments, that precipitate a climate action tipping point.” Can you talk more about that? 

Consider Transition Risk: “If we decide that we have to leave most of these fossil fuels in the ground, because the effect of extracting them and burning them is deemed simply too dangerous and too costly to allow, well that makes fossil fuel companies really bad investments, because they have to leave most of their assets stranded.” 

Then there is Fiduciary Responsibility: “If you destroy the planet that your client lives on, and you destroy the future of the planet for the children and grandchildren of your client, that’s not living up to your fiduciary responsibility.” This is leading fund managers to start looking at moving away from fossil fuels and related infrastructure. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, who will host the climate negotiations later this year, said to the United Nations Security Council that climate impacts are becoming so extreme that they will undermine human development, peace and security, and in his words ‘send shockwaves of instability around the world’. Can we actually begin to tie scientific data into financial data systems, into the decision-making processes of governments, so that they’re carefully examining whether investments are going to build resilience or whether they’re going to undermine resilience, and by doing that begin to favor the things that are actually grounded in reality, the practices that are actually better? 

”Absolutely,” responds Dr. Mann. “Not only do I think it’s possible; I think that the new administration, the Biden administration is seeking to do that with the executive actions they announced a month ago. For one thing, seeing climate policy now as not just something to be confined to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, but seeing climate policy now as something that must be integrated into every single sector of society, every single department and agency, including the Treasury Department.” 

Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Michael Mann will include an examination of the difference that carbon pricing can make in our politics and our future.