Ep 19: Michael Mann, Part 2 – on avoiding the costs of climate pollution

This is Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Michael Mann. We have condensed and summarized the discussion below, with some passages fully quoted. For the full interview, please listen.

Joe Robertson: Dr. Mann, we talked last time about damage and destabilization from climate change, that people are already having terrible experiences of extreme impacts. Can we begin to network science data to financial data, to make sure we’re making decisions grounded in reality?

Dr. Mann: When we produce carbon pollution, we’re doing real damage… It’s necessary to take that damage into account, when the government assesses the value or cost of a policy… they are likely to substantially increase that estimate of the social cost of carbon… so we favor actions that minimize carbon pollution and so we don’t continue to reward actions that continue to put carbon pollution into the atmosphere…

Executive actions alone aren’t going to be enough… We need a market signal; we need a price signal… We need climate legislation that will use market mechanisms like carbon pricing or provide explicit subsidies for renewable energy… What I’m hopeful of is that we will see one or more climate bills pass Congress in the next couple of years, if by the slimmest of margins. It might end up being done by the so-called process of budget reconciliation. It might end up being done by 50 Democratic votes and the tie-breaking vote by a Democratic Vice President, but I think we will see some sort of climate legislation that includes carbon pricing and subsidies for renewable energy that will complement the action the federal government is taking under the Biden administration.

Don Shelby: What you’re saying is there is some reason for optimism… that Republicans, conservatives, are moving a bit… Perhaps it’s because they feel it is the only way they can survive. As you write, denial is a liability, and there is a group of Republicans that are ready to go. Do you feel they will have a multiplication effect on the rest of the GOP?

Dr. Mann: We are in a fraught time. There is more partisan division than we have seen for a long time in this country, to the point where not one Republican voted for a COVID relief bill that was overwhelmingly popular with the American people. It had 70% support, 60% support among Republicans. That speaks to the disconnect right now.

Republican leadership is still, to some extent coddling Donald Trump and Trump’s supporters. I don’t know if there will be Republicans who will cross the aisle and join with Democrats. What I would like to see, I can tell you, is a climate bill or a set of climate bills, that passes not through reconciliation, that in fact isn’t even subject to a filibuster, because it gets more than 60 votes in the Senate. That would require the better part of a dozen Republicans crossing the aisle and joining with Democrats.

I do think younger Republicans recognize climate change is an issue of great importance, to younger people, regardless of their party. The polling suggests that somewhere like 65% of Republicans below the age of 40 support climate action. I do think that compromise climate legislation which might include some mechanisms that moderate Republicans like, which includes for example market measures like carbon pricing, I think we might see something like that pass Congress. I think there’s a good chance of that.

And that will complement the substantial action that’s already being taken by the Biden administration. The renewed leadership by the United States is now setting the stage for global engagement as we go into the next Conference of the Parties, COP26, later this year in Glasgow.

Don: You talk about doomism. It petrifies, turns us into rocks. Sometimes it comes from friends—people who understand the science, but they think it’s too late. Doomism can halt all the progress, if it takes over.

Dr. Mann: I think you used the operative word when you said petrifying, because it’s the same Latin root as petrol, oil.

Doomism does align with the agenda of the oil industry and the fossil fuel industry, because it does potentially lead us down that path of inaction.

The irony of doomism is that it ends up weaponizing, in a sense, folks who would be most likely to be on the front lines, demanding climate action. Environmental progressives, who are very supportive of action, but have been led to think now that it’s sort of beyond the point of no return, that there’s nothing we can do now to prevent catastrophic climate change, and that potentially leads them down this path of disengagement.

The forces of inaction, the inactivists, the fossil fuel interests, those doing their bidding, they don’t care about the path you take, they just care about the destination; they want you disengaged. And they don’t are if you’re disengaged because you deny the science of climate change or you’re disengaged because you become convinced that it’s simply too late to do anything.

There is a direct and immediate impact on the warming of the planet from our efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The science very clearly indicates that, and it very clearly indicates that there is still time to prevent catastrophic warming of the planet, more than 1.5ºC (3ºF) warming of the planet, if we take dramatic action now.

Joe: Do you think putting a clear price signal in place, so the economy is now equipped by that information to steady itself, that some of the for-profit interests can change course and find a different way to live?

Dr. Mann: What we need here is a clear price signal. A lot of people do recognize that climate change is a crisis. There is a renewed awareness, but not everyone is going to actor because it’s the right thing to do. Economics tells us we need incentives, so that even people who don’t care about climate change are still making climate-friendly decisions in the products that they purchase, in the way they get their energy, in the way they travel, because there are incentives.

There is a very important discussion, debate, that we have to have, about how we do that.

  • Is it a carbon tax?
  • Do we use a cap and trade system?
  • A fee and dividend?
  • What do we do with the revenue?

Whether a carbon price is progressive or regressive depends very much on what you do with the revenue. There is this growing belief, actually, within the progressive movement that carbon pricing is somehow regressive, because the costs will fall on those with the least resources, that it’s a regressive tax, in other words. That absolutely doesn’t have to be the case.

In Australia, where they had a carbon tax, what they called an emissions trading scheme, which was effectively a carbon tax, in place for more than a year, until the conservative government came in and got rid of it, it was actually benefitting front line communities, low income individuals and families, because the revenue was actually returned progressively to the people, and that’s happened in Canada as well.

There are ways to implement carbon pricing so that it is progressive, so it doesn’t hurt the front-line communities that are already most impacted, most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, because what we need is a just transition.

Joe: Full disclosure, in my work with Citizens’ Climate, we advocate for a fee and dividend policy, and for the very reasons that you shared. In your view, taking stock of the science, taking stock of the policy realm, is it possible to say that if we do something like that, and we get to a clean economy on schedule, on time to avoid warming above 1.5ºC, for instance, that we will be better off?

Dr. Mann: The science, and the economics, collectively, does send that message, that we can both grow the economy and preserve the environment at the same time. Too often it’s framed as a false choice, and that’s based on a fallacy. That fallacy is that we can possibly prosper on a dead planet.

There is no economy on a lifeless planet.

The fact is climate change is costing us far more now, and the damage it’s doing now is unprecedented. That cost is far greater than any nominal cost of implementing climate action. We have to get away from that fallacy that we have to choose between economic growth and environmental preservation. The path that actually preserves the environment and preserves the climate is going to be the path that leads to the strongest economy, because a healthier planet, all else being equal, is going to give you a healthier economy.