The New Climate War: an interview with climate scientist Michael E Mann


Ahead of the Australian release of his new book The New Climate War – which offers a battle plan to save the planet – renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann speaks to us about everything from capitalism to coronavirus, and why he thinks Australia needs Greens in government.

Interview by Joana Partyka

In the classic text Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu writes, “There is no greater catastrophe than underestimating the enemy.”

More than two millennia later, renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann presents a detailed and meticulously researched insider account of just how catastrophic those consequences can be. His new book The New Climate War zeroes in on the enemy –  global fossil fuel companies and their vested interests – and exposes the ruthless and deliberate crusade they have fought over decades to minimise their role in the climate crisis.

If you’ve ever felt pressure to calculate your carbon footprint, or felt guilty about flying, or felt ashamed for using disposable coffee cups, it’s a crusade you’ve personally been caught up in. And while minimising your individual carbon footprint and using a Keep Cup are important things to do please don’t stop doing them, they’re far from enough. Seventy-one percent of global emissions come from the same hundred companies, who have got you believing it’s actually your fault.

The result, as we know, has been disastrous for our planet. A catastrophe, even.

But Mann argues all is not lost – far from it, in fact. Drawing on his decades of experience in climate science and research, Mann draws battlelines between the people and the major corporate polluters, presenting a thoughtful plan for how we can fight back and win. Because, as Lao Tsu offers: “When the battle is joined, the underdog will win.”

Ahead of the February 2 Australian release of his book, Mann speaks to us about everything from capitalism to coronavirus, and why he thinks Australia needs Greens in government.

Hi Michael, congratulations on the book and thanks so much for speaking to me!

Let’s get straight into it: in your book, you denounce bothsiderism as explicitly undermining progress on climate, and you say it’s actively unhelpful for leftists to attack the Democrats’ climate policies (despite their arguably many shortcomings). I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that there is no difference between the Dems and the GOP in the climate arena, but Biden has outright said he will not ban fracking, for instance. Is there not space for a considered critique of middling climate policy; for demanding more of our progressive parties than the flaccid halfway measures they sometimes offer?

I would argue that my position is more nuanced. It’s not that leftists shouldn’t challenge or criticise positions of more mainstream Democrats, but that these challenges or criticisms must be based on fact and not buy into false framing – especially the framing that has been created by malevolent actors (like state-sponsored bots online) looking to divide the climate advocacy community.

Let’s take the example of fracking. It is not the case that Biden (or mainstream Dems) are pro-fracking or that they don’t want to see it end. But ‘banning’ it is seen as draconian by the public and will reduce support for the desired actions. There are other ways to attack the problem that don’t require what some would see as heavy-handed authoritarian policies.

Take now the example of coal. It has undergone a death spiral over the past few years here in the U.S. That’s obviously not because of Trump’s ‘war on coal’ – Trump indeed had promised to bring coal back! This happened because of market forces that have rendered coal uncompetitive against alternatives like renewables, but also other fossil fuels.

The Biden administration is committed to phasing out fossil fuels rapidly. But it favours a combination of incentives and subsidies for renewable energy and other tools like carbon pricing – much like what Australia had until the fossil fuel industry successfully scuttled it – to level the playing field in the energy marketplace to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels.

As for incoming President Joe Biden, he and his nascent administration are taking the strongest stance yet of any administration when it comes to climate action. Biden campaigned on climate and therefore has a mandate to act on climate. Thus far his actions and appointments suggest that he intends to make good on that pledge.

In the past, climate policy has often been confined to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Biden's appointments suggest a multi-agency approach, incorporating climate-forward policies in Departments of Interior, Treasury, Agriculture, etc. Moreover, Biden clearly seeks to reestablish [the U.S.’s] status as  leader in the international climate effort, using the full weight of the presidency in negotiating international cooperation. By nominating John Kerry, who helped negotiate both the U.S./China bilateral agreement and the international Paris agreement that followed it, Joe Biden has demonstrated that this is his intent.

That segues nicely to the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s iteration of the GND marries issues of social justice together with the climate imperative, which is similar to the Australian Greens’ blueprint for the GND. You have concerns that this “ambitious scope” might alienate supporters, yet you also write in your conclusion that acting on climate will intrinsically alleviate social injustice. Is there a way to effectively communicate the latter point without invoking the former – to strengthen support for the climate elements of a GND by secondarily highlighting the social justice elements – or do you believe any focus on this serves to erode wider support for climate action?

I very much support the goals of the GND as advocated by AOC in the House and Ed Markey in the Senate, and similar efforts sponsored by the Greens in Australia. And I wish there had been a ‘blue wave’ in our last election that swept in large Democratic majorities in both houses of the U.S. congress. But that did not materialise. So we must recognise that expansive Green New Deal-like legislation probably cannot pass a divided 50/50 Senate, and we will need to make some concessions if we are to win climate legislation in the U.S. over the next couple years.

House and Senate Democrats have put forward bold climate plans, and they’re a great starting point. Some moderate Republicans can probably be brought across the aisle to support legislation involving green energy stimulus and carbon pricing of some sort. Both are critical tools in the climate action toolbox. A couple years from now, if the political winds are even more favorable, we might be in a position to pass even bolder legislation through the U.S. congress. But let’s get what we can in the meantime. The more we’re able to accomplish here in the U.S., the more pressure there will be on the Australian government for meaningful climate action as well.

And yes, acting on climate is acting for social justice, given the inequities when it comes to the impacts of climate change, and the fact that those who have the least resources and income had the least role in creating the problem and are bearing the brunt of the impacts. This is a point I try to drive home in the book and in all of my messaging. Shortly after the book came out in the U.S., I had the opportunity to do a joint event with Dr. Bob Bullard, widely considered the ‘father of environmental justice’. It was a real pleasure to talk with him and to work with him, as he – more than perhaps anyone – is responsible for the increasingly widespread recognition that climate action advances the cause of social and racial justice.

Speaking of resource inequity, many environmental and climate groups use messaging around overthrowing capitalism as a means – or the only means – of achieving climate goals. You argue we should not use this framing, for reasons including that conservatives weaponise it against the climate movement. Given the incompatibility of capitalism’s core tenets with many of the measures necessary to rapidly decarbonise the economy, can you tell me a bit more about why you believe the 'overthrowing capitalism’ framing should be stripped from the conversation, as opposed to building on it and using it to garner more support?

The discourse of overthrowing capitalism is at the distal left end of our current window of public discourse here in the U.S. It alienates not just the right but the broad middle who are worried about that sort of language, given that capitalism is seen – rightly or wrongly – to have provided us with the standard of living we have today.

As I try to underscore in the book, we absolutely have to have a conversation about the larger problem: how to live equitably and sustainably on this planet. The coronavirus crisis does provide an opportunity for us to begin to ask some of these deeper questions. And I do believe that we have to ultimately consider whether a capitalist, resource-driven economy is compatible with those goals. It very well may not be.

But we’re not there yet – we’re not ready to have that conversation in the U.S.; the current political economy makes that conversation fraught right now. And we must act on the climate crisis immediately if we are to avert planetary catastrophe. So I argue passionately in the book for doing all we can right now within the framework of the current system while working to change that system for the better.

In rebutting the common assertion that humanity is unwilling to act boldly on climate change, you cite the WWII effort and the Apollo mission as evidence that human behaviour is not immutable and that we can collectively act radically if it’s in our interests. I certainly agree, but as you point out society was obviously very different during those times – trust in government (at least here in Australia) was much higher, and toxic media monopolies and social media didn’t pervade or outright manipulate the discourse. How do you think we can overcome these 21st century roadblocks to rouse a similar mass effort in the name of climate?

I agree with all of those things. The challenge is even greater now because of the toxic impact of right wing media – particularly true in Australia where Murdoch controls so much of the media market – the assault on fact-driven discourse, etc. That challenge was vivified here in the U.S. recently by the right-wing, racially-tinged domestic terrorist attack on the very heart of our democracy.

And yet the pushback and reaction against the attack has been fierce. And it may be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ when it comes to the fascist wave of Trumpism that we endured for the past four years. The will and conscience of the people still matters. We can still rise to the great challenges we face. And I believe, and argue in the book, that a whole bunch of things have come together – the children’s climate movement, the racial justice movement, renewed environmental activism, and a favourable shift in the political winds – that are uniquely favourable for climate action. This is our time, and we have to make it happen now.

You devote an entire chapter in the book to the role of fear in the climate crisis, denouncing fear-mongering and pointing out the danger when progressives unwittingly take part in it. While ‘climate doom porn’, as you call it, is obviously pernicious, is there a constructive place for fear at all? Do you think it can be harnessed as a motivational force for good?

Yes, these things are always a bit more nuanced than is implied by headlines and talking points. Concern is, of course, important and it does drive many to action. I try to emphasise in my messaging both the URGENCY and the AGENCY. Namely, yes, dangerous climate change is upon us.

This is obvious in Australia, where I spent the first few months last year on sabbatical as I witnessed in person the devastating bushfires, caused by unprecedented climate change and drought. It is obvious here in the U.S. where we witnessed an unprecedented wildfires season out west and a devastating record hurricane season back east last summer. It is obvious now in so many parts of the world. But we can still prevent the worst, potentially irreversible impacts of climate change if we act boldly over the next decade. Those who argue that it is too late to act are wrong on the science and unhelpful in the message they are sending to others. But those who dismiss the urgency of action are equally unhelpful. There is a happy medium, and that’s what I try to accomplish in my own writing and messaging.

You write a lot about the parallels between the COVID crisis and the climate crisis. There’s been some discussion around how the unpleasant sacrifices COVID has forced on us could make us less amiable to large-scale climate action due to perceived personal sacrifices. What do you say to this? Can we use our collective COVID experience to instead supercharge climate action?

Thanks – it’s a great point. The COVID crisis does demonstrate that behaviour change can make a difference – emissions were down 7 percent for 2020, in large part due to COVID-related lockdowns and social distancing, though, importantly, also due to the ongoing shift away from fossil fuels.

But it also demonstrates that personal sacrifice isn’t the solution. Sure, there are things we can do to decrease our environmental and carbon footprint, and often they save us money, make us healthier, make us feel better about ourselves, and set a great example for others. Why wouldn’t we do those things? But we can’t allow polluting interests to convince us that that’s all we need to do; that it is somehow a substitute for collective action and systemic change, like climate-friendly governmental policies. Those policies can both improve the quality of our lives and address the climate crisis. It’s a win-win, and we need to make sure we communicate that to the public. The real ‘sacrifice’ would be the tragic damage to our planet and to our lives if we fail to address the climate crisis in time.

Just finally, you’re quite scathing in your assessment of the Morrison government and Australia’s ensuing contribution (or lack thereof) to global progress on climate action. How do you think Australia would fare under a Labor government, particularly given our hostile media environment and the stranglehold fossil fuel interests have over our government?

In the best of all possible worlds, I would like to see a Labor/Greens coalition government in Australia, which would draw upon the best each party has to offer. I don’t know if that’s possible in the current political environment, but it would fill my heart.

I had the honour of befriending Christine Milne during my sabbatical down under last year, and I’m a big fan of what she accomplished as leader of the Greens, playing a critical role in clean energy legislative efforts. But I also appreciate the efforts by folks like Peter Garrett, whom I have also befriended, and am saddened about the way he was savaged by the Murdoch press and conservatives, and unable to accomplish as much as I know he would have liked when he was Environment Minister for Labor under the Rudd government some years ago. Peter is a wonderful champion for climate action (and truth be told, yeah, I love the Oils—the band, not the fossil fuels).

I would like to see these great folks working together, because that’s the sort of coalition that I think is necessary to take on the fossil fuel juggernaut in Australia, which is a formidable coalition of bad actors including fossil fuel interests, the Liberals they control, and the Murdoch media machine that trumpets their message and promotes their agenda.

The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann (Scribe) is out on 2 February.

Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens' National Communications Officer.

Hero image: via Pexels.

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