"Cautious optimism" about fighting climate change: Salon talks with author of "The New Climate War"

Climate scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann tells Salon that we aren't doomed — but we need to hold polluters accountable

By Matthew Rozsa
January 11, 2021 12:30AM (UTC)
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Waterdrop on a green blade of grass reflecting our earth. (Getty Images)

I have had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, on many occasions, and for good reason: he's affable, sincere, and good at explaining things. Indeed, you don't become one of the world's foremost authorities on climate change without those kinds of traits. In his career, Mann has repeatedly worked to break down the science of global warming in comprehensive but accessible ways. His efforts to raise public awareness have always struck a balance between emphasizing the gravity of the situation facing the planet and expressing cautious optimism that, if we implement the right policies, we can stave off ecological catastrophe.

This is the goal of his new book, "The New Climate War: The Fight To Take Back Our Planet." Mann's thesis is clear: We must fight the people who lie about the threat of man-made global warming, whether out of financial self-interestideological dogmatism, or because they have been duped by others. At the same time, we must also avoid succumbing to the temptation to assume that all is lost. Instead it is necessary to push for bold policies that will address climate change in a meaningful way, from a revised version of the Green New Deal, effective carbon pricing, and making it so that renewable energy can compete fairly against fossil fuels.

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All of this can — and must — be done, Mann argued. Citizens have the power to demand change.

Below is my conversation with Mann. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

What inspired you to write "The New Climate War"?

It's the fact that we see this nefarious, and in many ways more insidious, attack on climate action today, even as the impacts of climate change become so obvious to the person on the street that it's not credible to deny that it happened. The same powerful vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and those who do their bidding, I call them being activists because their agenda is one of climate inaction. For decades they've been denying that climate change is real, attacking the science, trying to undermine public understanding of the problems. And now that that's really not possible, they have turned to a whole new set of tactics in their efforts to block progress on climate. And that's really what the book is about. I felt it was important to talk about that as one who had sort of been in the cross hairs of climate change deniers for decades and witnessed firsthand their tactics and how they've evolved, sort of as a warning to people. 

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The battle isn't won yet. The forces of inaction are no longer denying the basic science, but they're doing all these other things to prevent action. And that's what the book is about. [There is] deflection of attention from the needed policies and systemic changes to individual behavior — as if it's just about us and our diet and how we travel, and the way to solve the climate problem is for us to just be better people. Of course, individual action is important. We should all do things that serve to decrease our environmental footprint and often they make us healthier. They save us money. There are lots of good reasons to do them, but they're no substitute for the needed policies at the very top, the massive decarbonization of our economy, which is necessary.

Now also by focusing attention on individual behavior, they get us fighting with each other, shaming people, pointing fingers at each other about their carbon impurity, and that divides the community. So they get climate advocates arguing with each other. That means there is no longer a unified voice calling for action. There is doom and despair-mongering, an attempt to convince some that it's too late to do anything about it anyway, so why even bother? Unfortunately a lot of climate advocates of good intentions and of goodwill have been hoodwinked and taken in and weaponized in that effort to despirit them to the point of disengagement, so they're no longer on the frontlines demanding action. There is also the promotion of false solutions like geoengineering or carbon capture, basically anything but solving this problem at its source, which is getting off fossil fuels, because that's inconvenient to the fossil fuel industry. So they'd rather have the discussion of solutions focus on all these distracting, fake solution to the problem.

I've interviewed you many times before. I've read your book. I've read other things you've written. The science that you present is incontrovertible. There really is no debate among scholars as to whether or not climate change is real or as to whether or not we need to take very bold steps in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet. The problem is the people who argue against you aren't doing so in good faith. This isn't a situation where you have two sides that are looking at the same information and just happen to draw different conclusions. This is a situation in which one side has an ulterior motive and is lying to millions, if not billions, of people about the truth, because of that motive. How do you address that? I almost feel like on some level, this isn't a climate change issue. This is a psychological issue. How do you get people who are being hoodwinked by bad faith arguments to realize that?

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It's a great question. And that is something I try to accomplish in the book. The first challenge is to just get people to recognize it. 'Look, they're pulling the wool over your eyes. They're manipulating you.' And I use, for example, the classic tale now of the 'Crying Indian' public service announcement from the early 1970s that we all thought was empowering about cleaning up our environment. But it turns out we ultimately learned that it was a propaganda campaign hatched on Madison Avenue by Coca-Cola and the beverage industry to defeat bottle bills, to focus on individual behavior. 'We just have to pick up those bottles and cans ourselves or unleash the Boy Scouts to clean up the bottles and cans. We don't need a deposit. We don't need a systemic solution to this problem.'

So in telling some of those stories, my hope is that sort of this storytelling approach to describing the problem will really help people understand what is happening and how they're being manipulated. Because that's really ultimately the solution — to recognize these tactics, to push back against them, to make sure other people are aware of them, and to not be distracted from the matter at hand, from the prize, which is climate action.

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And we're now, literally today, we've seen political developments — not the mob we've seen in the Capitol — but the election of two Democrats now turning over the Senate to Democratic hands means there's a real opportunity for meaningful policy progress. We've got a president who's on board, we've got a Congress controlled by Democrats who are on board. There's a real opportunity now for meaningful climate action. Let's not be distracted or fooled. Let's focus on the matter at hand, which is making progress.

I completely agree, but I actually do want to focus for a moment on the mob in Washington, because here is the thing: I would assume that people would get that passionately angry about the fact that a handful of wealthy people are emitting all of these greenhouse gasses, and are pushing for policies that make it harder for us to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, and that is gradually destroying the planet. My nephew is going to grow up in a world that is very different from the one that I grew up in as a result. Do you think that would be the sort of thing that makes people angry, and instead they're angry because President Donald Trump isn't allowed to steal an election?

It's a mnemonic, not a precise, scientific model, but sort of the reptilian brain and the way that Republicans are particularly effective at tapping into the circuitry of the reptilian parts of the human brain, preying on all of our worst instincts — selfishness, prejudice, all of that — to weaponize this mob that we're watching on television right now to do their bidding for them. And just as you alluded to earlier, Matt, the irony being that they are mobilizing, weaponizing, this army rabble to engage in actions that are completely detrimental to their own interests, in the present and ultimately down the road. I like to think that even these mob protesters in DC  care about their children, they care about their grandchildren. They want a better life for them.

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And so in a sense, they've been manipulated. They are victims of a misinformation campaign. It's a disinformation campaign, enticed by red meat thrown out by Republican operatives to prey on their worst instincts. Sadly in many cases they are beyond help at this point, and we have to fight on knowing that for many cases they're not to be on the right side of this issue, but we don't need them. They're a fringe, they're not a majority. We can solve this problem without them. We just can't allow them to get in the way.

With the favorable change in winds and in Washington DC, we'll see what happens. I think that we're going to move away from this over the next couple of years. It will be rocky. It won't be easy, but I see the reason for cautious optimism that we're steering the ship in a different direction now.

I do want to have a bit of a lighter note. I noticed that you have blurbs on the back of your book jacket from Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Cheadle, Greta Thunberg and Al Gore. Was that cool, being able to get them to read your book and offer this commentary?

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Well, as you know, I hang out with them at cocktail parties most of the time, and so it was easy to! I was just kidding. It obviously feels great to be able to engage opinion leaders, people who have a reach as well beyond your own. and I very much support forging alliances with people in the entertainment and in media who have an opportunity to really get that message out, who can reach a much larger audience than you can. And many of these folks are sort of personal heroes of mine — Thunberg, Leo. You know, he could have easily spent his life doing nothing but exploiting the excesses of wealth and fame that he's achieved, but instead he takes a beating from fossil fuel interests and climate change deniers because he's focused on actually trying to do something about this and other problems. 

So I have a lot of respect for the folks that you mentioned. It makes it very meaningful when obviously when they have nice things to say about the books. I see this really as an ecosystem of sorts, and scientists and science communicators play a role, and opinion leaders and celebrities play a role. And when we can sort of pool our resources and work together, it just makes it that much easier to achieve the changes that we need to see. It was very gratifying to me, in short.

We were talking about how celebrities have this platform in which they can draw attention to these important issues. I remember growing up and all I would hear from conservatives is, "Oh my God, if I hear one more liberal celebrity preach..." and then they elect a president whose resume is literally nothing but being a celebrity. No political, no military experience whatsoever. Leonardo DiCaprio has a comparable resume in terms of if he wanted to run for president. And he has better policy ideas!

Leo actually has some brains! I've met him and talked with him and he's a sharp, intelligent, thoughtful, good, honest person. Everything you would want actually in a politician. You're so right, and what it exposes is just the fundamental hypocrisy of sort of the right-wing noise machine that we've seen that in spades during the Trump years, engaging in extreme examples of the very vices they like to attribute to progressives. Part of it is the diversionary. It's projection. They're masters. Trump is a master of projection and Republicans become masters of projection.

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That's how they've been able to manipulate this rabble into supporting an agenda, the right-wing conservative profits agenda that goes against their own interests. That can only happen when you're able to sort of master the arts of projection and deflection. And that's the reality. And it's why I spend some time talking about that part of it. For example, this idea of getting us fighting with each other about individual behavior, it divides us, but also deflects attention from the needed causes toward changes in individual behavior. But another aspect of that, it's a great way to cynically, to try to target celebrities like Leo DiCaprio and thereby sort of reduce their effectiveness as spokespeople by accusing them of hypocrisy, as a great way to discredit them and their message. And it's almost always based on distortion and outright fabrication.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Climate Change Donald Trump Global Warming Greta Thunberg Interview Leonardo Dicaprio Michael Mann