It is hard to overstate the timely value of Michael Mann’s latest book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. The book explains clearly how the battlefield over climate issues has shifted. Climate “inactivists” as Dr. Mann calls them, generally no longer contend that the planet is not warming or that human actions are not the cause. The facts overcame those objections some time ago. The percentage of Americans who believe them now is in single digits.
So those who would forestall action on climate change have launched flank attacks. There are several effective weapons in this effort, each cogently described by Dr. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The craftiest of these attacks may be the marketing campaign to pin on individuals the responsibility for fighting climate change. Doing so, of course, lets corporations off the hook and takes systemic political change off the table. Thus, we are told that we can handle climate change if we would just recycle more, fly less, eat less meat, and turn out the lights.
When she spoke in State College in 2018, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe pointed out that if every individual did every possible thing to reduce his or her carbon footprint, that would eliminate only one third of the carbon emissions required to stabilize the warming of our Earth. The bulk of the effort must come from systemic solutions such as putting a price on carbon and ending massive subsidies for fossil fuels.
It’s a question of framing the narrative, Dr. Mann explains. “The fossil fuel disinformation machine wants to make it about the car you choose to drive, the food you choose to eat, and the lifestyle you choose to live rather than about the larger system and incentives. We need policies that will incentivize the needed shift away from fossil fuel burning toward a clean, green global economy.” He emphasizes that he favors efforts to reduce a household’s carbon footprint. But these things by themselves, are not enough.
Dr. Mann’s book is full of examples of the often-successful efforts of fossil fuel companies—and their friendly-sounding front organizations (The Heartland Institute, the Breakthrough Institute, et al)—to create doubt among citizens and even drive wedges between climate activists. Climate “doom” scenarios, for example, actually benefit the status quo by robbing people of any sense of agency to change the situation.
He devotes a full chapter to the need to price carbon effectively and discusses how to do that via methods such as cap and trade or carbon fee and dividend. (Full disclosure: the latter is the step preferred by Citizens’ Climate Lobby through a bill called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act). Dr. Mann is one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists. But this book demonstrates that his understanding of political science, marketing, and public relations—hard-won through many years in the vortex of the climate wars—is impressive too.
No doomsayer himself, Dr. Mann sounds an optimistic note. “There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes,” he says, “if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.” The New Climate War (www.publicaffairsbooks.com) is lucid, accessible and an important read for anyone who cares about the present and future of climate action.
** Richard W. Jones, of State College, is a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
This OpEd appeared in the Centre Daily Times on February 7, 2021.