15 Feb 2021

Dr Michael E Mann on fighting a new climate war

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 15 February 2021

There's the old climate war, the one where fossil fuel interests put all their efforts into denying there's a problem. And then there's the new one.

Denial isn't working anymore says Dr. Michael E. Mann. He's the director of the  Earth System Science Center at Penn State.

He says the new climate war deploys 'inactivists" who block efforts to wean the world off fossil fuels. Dr Mann joined Afternoons to talk about what can be done about these new tactics and why he's optimistic about saving the planet. 

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Photo: 123RF

He tells Jesse Mulligan he’s found himself in the crosshairs of climate deniers with powerful vested interests.

“[They were] looking to discredit the science because it was inconvenient to some fossil fuel interests who were promoting their agenda. I would say I was an involuntary combatant in the climate wars, but ultimately I’ve come to embrace the role that that’s provided me to inform this conversation about what is arguably the greatest challenge we face.”

Dr Mann says the difference now is that climate change can’t be denied, it’s playing out in real time across the globe.

“The inactivisits, as I call them, can no longer deny that it’s happening so they have turned to this array of other tactics in their effort to keep us addicted to fossil fuels because, in the end, they don’t care about the reason or the path we take to inaction, they just care about the destination. They want us disengaged and to not go to a transition we need to see to renewable energy.”

Some of the new tactics he’s encountered include deflection, distraction, division, doom-mongering and delay.

He begins with deflection: “they want us focussing on our carbon footprint, not theirs, and so it’s not surprising that the idea of an individual carbon footprint calculator actually came from British Petroleum (BP) in the early 2000s. This is a way of deflecting attention from the needed systemic solution like policies to incentivise renewable energies. They don’t want us focussed on those policy solutions; they want us focussed on individual behaviour.

“We should all do those things we can do to decrease our environmental footprint and, in many cases, they make us healthier, save us money, make us feel better about ourselves, and send a better signal to other people, but what we can’t allow is for individual action to be framed as the entirety of the solution.”

The doom-mongering tactic is to present climate change as a fait accompli.

“It’s to say there’s nothing we can do about it now, we’re so far down the road that it’s too late and we’re going to experience runaway planetary warming and the end of life as we know it, the extinction of the human species and all other animal life.”

He says the doom-mongering tactic is insidious because it spreads among people causing division and ends up promoted by big outlets like the New York Times.

“When you’re bombarded by this framing, you start to adopt it yourself. The real problem is that it has taken hold even among objective media organisations and a lot of the ground troops are individuals who would otherwise almost certainly be on the front lines of fighting the climate battle – environmental progressives who have come to believe that it’s too late to do anything.

“That’s what’s so problematic here, because the fossil fuel interests already have political conservatives on their side by and large. Here, they’re actually weaponizing people on the left side of the spectrum.”

Dr Mann says it took a long time to win the war against denial, and we’re now very close to getting policy changes necessary to make a difference.

“If you look at what’s happening in the United States with our new President Joe Biden, we’re really on the cusp of seeing substantial action on climate and we have to recognise those obstacles that are still in our way and, in many ways, they’re far more insidious, they’re not as obvious as the old tactics of outright denial.”

He says the gun lobby in the United States gave one of the best examples of a deflection campaign with their slogan, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

“It was perhaps the most effective deflection campaign of all time because it tried to convince the public and policy makers that, once again, we didn’t need policy solutions, we didn’t need regulation of firearms, we just needed individual change.

“The fossil fuel industry has taken and run with those playbooks and we need to recognise those tactics as we see them play out whether it’s with common sense gun reform or climate action.”