“Climate change obstacles are all political, not technological”
“It's no longer about denying the science because they can't deny it. People can see it, people understand it's happening. So this is one of the troubling new forms of denialism - denial that we have agency,” says Professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climatologists
Mann was a young postgraduate at the time, but his research sent shockwaves through the industry as it provided alarming proof of global warming. The paper propelled Mann into the big leagues and earned him a long list of titles and awards, while also providing him with many powerful and influential enemies, headed by the fossil fuel companies and right-wing politicians who attacked Mann on a personal level and labeled his paper as “scientific facism”.
After so many years of climate advocacy, how come you are still so emotionally involved?“I have spent several months in Australia in 2019 and that really changed things for me. Fifteen years ago that wouldn’t be the case, but now there’s almost no place I can go, no experience I can have, without being reminded of how real this is. And every once in a while, it sort of pierces that wall of objectivity you try to build around yourself, and it impacts me emotionally and sometimes unexpectedly. The warming is pretty much as the models predicted it would be decades ago. Things are pretty much on schedule. And yet when you see it happening, you realize this isn’t just model projections. This stuff is really happening. It’s almost like the inner skeptic in you as a scientist is saying, ‘Yeah, I know the models predict this. I know the data show this. But is it really happening?’ And now the answer is yes, because you can see it with your own two eyes.” Your critics argue that you are today more of a political figure than a groundbreaking scientist. “They said the same thing about Carl Sagan, so I'll take that as a compliment. As I often point out, I didn’t come to politics, politics came to me when I found myself under attack by right wing politicians because of the science—i.e. the hockey stick curve—that my co-authors and I had published which demonstrated the profound impact we are having on the climate and was seen as inconvenient and a threat to powerful vested interests including the fossil fuel industry. In the process of defending myself against these attacks, I was drawn into the public debate over climate change. I consider it a privilege to now be in a position to influence the conversation about the greatest challenge we face as a civilization. As for my contributions as a scientist, I prefer to let the scientific community evaluate that.” In your new book you claim that David Wallace-Wells’ essay in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, “was to climate doom porn what Shakespeare is to modern literature”. Isn’t that a bit too harsh? After all, he’s on your side. “I like David, and knowing him, I know that his heart is in the right place, but I am frustrated by the huge amount of attention that essay - and later book - have attracted, it influenced so many people. The thing is, that it's one thing to characterize climate change as a crisis, which it is, or even as an emergency, which you could argue it is, and another thing to exaggerate the impacts to make that case. I criticized him for misstating and overstating the science in a way that feeds the narrative. And once you do that, you twist the reality. And like the great Stephen Shneider (a leading climate expert, RD), who was my mentor, used to say: the truth is bad enough. There’s no need to exaggerate it, because it erodes the credibility of climate scientists and advocates, for one.” How does Wallace-Wells exaggerate? “There’s this idea that there are huge amounts of methane that are bubbling up in the Arctic and will lead to runaway warming, and we can't stop it from happening. He buys that premise to an extent, and the science doesn't support the notion that a scenario like that could be in play. If we warm the planet four degrees, which would be a disaster, that is a possible path if we don't do anything. But there is a loss of distinction between possible futures if we fail to act and the sorts of futures we face, if we do act - and that’s a problem.” Mann explains in his new book that fossil fuel advocates have already realized that denying the climate crisis is no longer a viable option considering the extreme weather the world is experiencing. Therefore they are using new tactics, such as creating a rift between activists so that they direct their attacks against one another and weaken the community as a whole. They also promote innovative technologies to distract from the real solution, which necessarily includes reducing the use of polluting fuels, they place the responsibility for the crisis on the actions of individuals, for example throwing out plastic bottles, and they promote doomism, which results in despair and inaction. How can we win the fight over the fossil fuel industry? “I view the solution as being multifaceted, you know, we have this toolbox and we have to use all the tools in it. Carbon tax is an important tool, and a recent survey shows that Americans support it. It is required as a one in many economic policies that level the playing field, so that you don't have to pay more to get your electricity from renewable energy. Right now the playing field isn't level, and we have politicians putting their thumb on the wrong end of the scale, propping up the fossil fuel industry through all sorts of subsidies, direct and indirect. Renewable energy is getting cheaper (it is actually cheaper than fossil fuel energy in most of the world, RD), but it’s not happening fast enough. We have to get rid of those subsidies and provide subsidies for renewable energies. “Once you do that, that market signal can take various forms. It can take the form of a carbon tax and there are also alternative approaches such as cap and trade (a government regulatory program designed to limit the total level of emissions of certain chemicals, particularly carbon dioxide, as a result of industrial activity. The government issues a set amount of permits to companies that comprise a cap on allowed emissions, RD), that was used in the U.S. and in Europe in the past to deal with the problem of acid rain." What about our responsibility as individuals? After all, we’re the ones to blame for the huge amount of plastic in the oceans, for one. Our society is addicted to consumption. “I try to take a nuanced position about that in the book. Individual behavior is important, and we feel good about ourselves when we feel like we're working towards solving a larger problem. What we have to be aware of is that the fossil fuel industry and those promoting their agenda want to convince us that that's all we need to do, that it's all on us - in order to take the pressure off of them. “But you and I can't provide subsidies for the renewable energy industry. We can't block new fossil fuel infrastructure. We can't put a price on carbon. These are things that we need our politicians to do, and we need to put pressure on them and we need to vote out those politicians who refuse to support meaningful climate policy and vote in those politicians that will. And so it does in the end, as you alluded to, come back to individual action, once again, because we can use our voice and we use our voice through our votes, but in every other way that we use our voice, we are also contributing to the solution by putting pressure on policy makers and opinion leaders and others in positions of influence and power. “Too many people want to somehow classify Glasgow/COP26/the entire COP framework as either failure or success. But if you take a step back and you look at what came out of the summit, I see the glass not as half empty, but as half full. We had a number of new NDC commitments from countries, including India, which for the first time committed to eventually zeroing out their carbon emissions. Although not until much later this century, 2070, but there are some groups that took the latest commitments that came out of Glasgow and did updated simulations of projected warming, and for the first time, the simulations are starting to come in below two degrees Celsius. So there was enough progress if each of those countries made good on their commitments. That's not enough. We need to get it below one and a half degrees to really have the confidence that we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
What about those who advocate for nuclear energy, like Bill Gates?“Bill Gates has stated that we need a miracle to solve this problem. And I find that really disconcerting. I find it disingenuous. He continues to argue that we don't have the technology to decarbonize our economy, and that's very misleading and it leads us in the wrong direction. Not only does nuclear energy come with all sorts of risks, it is not cost effective. It's much more expensive, requires much more governmental subsidies, so it doesn't even make sense from sort of a market economic standpoint. And he also advocates geoengineering, like shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere to block out some of the sunlight. And when you look at the potential side effects, we could end up screwing up the planet even worse. “Gates chooses to advocate that dangerous path because he downplays the role that renewable energy can play today. He ignores very substantial literature that demonstrates a path forward where we can decarbonize the global economy with existing renewable energy technology - wind, solar, geothermal, energy storage, smart grid technology. We have the tools, the obstacles aren't technological as Gates implies - they're political. He once said in an interview, ‘I don't know the solution to the politics, so I just discuss the technological aspect’. But if you don't know the solution to the politics, you don't know the solution to this problem, because the obstacles are all political. They're not technological at this point.” What do you think about Israel’s declaration ahead of Glasgow, to sort of leverage the Startup Nation to innovate in the climate issue? “It is disappointing. Israel’s 2030 commitment - to reduce 30% of it’s emissions - is not enough. But Israel is a friend to the U.S., and I think that under the current administration we might start to see things evolve. Many countries, like China for example, were sort of easing off in their commitments under Donald Trump, and I think it probably happened with Israel as well. And now that the U.S. is back at the table, leading on this issue, I think that that hopefully will start to move things in the right direction.” Israelis can say, ‘we’re but a fraction of the world’s population, let us be’. “Israel is a small country, but we all have to do our part. Australians sometimes say, you know, we’re only 1% of the world’s emissions, how can we make a difference? But Australian troops were less than 1% of the troops that fought in WW2, and they fought anyway because they knew it was the right thing to do. And so that's what I would say to Israel as well. “I’m stubbornly optimistic and stubbornly hopeful. Am I pollyannaish? Do I not recognize that we are in a precarious situation and that things could go either way? I fully recognize that there are clearly some very dystopian futures that are within the realm of possibility now. But as long as that is avoidable, as long as there are paths forward to a better future, I consider it our role as public scientists to try to paint the path forward and to help guide us down those more optimal paths.”