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“Climate change obstacles are all political, not technological”

“Climate change obstacles are all political, not technological”

Michael Mann. Photo: Amanda Mustard

Professor Michael Mann’s claim to fame is a hockey stick. Not the sporting kind. He published a depressing graph 23 years back in which he demonstrated how the average temperature in the world remained relatively stable over thousands of years. The graph was similar to a hockeystick.

 

Mann was just a postgraduate at the time. However, his research caused shockwaves in the industry because it provided alarming evidence 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”.

Michael Mann. Photo: Amanda Mustard Michael Mann. Photo: Amanda Mustard


 

Mann, however, has stopped taking these attacks to heart after so many decades in the industry. “I’ve been railing against the fossil fuel industry and their talking heads for decades now, so that’s business as usual,” he told Calcalist in an exclusive interview. “The forces of inaction did everything they could to try to bring me down, and they failed. They have moved on to other targets. And that allows me to speak bluntly in a way my younger colleagues can’t. They’re still far more vulnerable. I have that privilege because it’s something I’ve done. I’ve seen into the abyss. I’ve fought the battles and emerged stronger for it. So in the end, I guess I have to thank them.”

 

In your new book, “The New Climate War: The Fight To Take Back Our Planet” you rail against climate advocates that you identify as “doomers”. Why do you pursue climate advocates from all people?

 

“I show tough love for some who are on the right side of the issue. I support climate advocates and I try to talk to them about areas where I believe some activities aren’t constructive. When you lead people to believe that even if we do everything we can, we can’t prevent these disastrous outcomes, then it potentially leads them down this path of disengagement: ‘Well, if I can’t do anything, then I’ll just enjoy life while I can, and burn up all the fossil fuels I can and live the most extreme’. That’s the danger here and you do see it play out.”

 

The real villain is the fossil fuel industry.

 

“But you do see doomism sometimes used by climate inactivists. Marc Morano is a climate denier and one of the worst funded by the fossil fuel industry. He sent this mass email to his followers quoting Greta Thunberg and claiming that the process was a complete failure, that there’s no hope, and that the process is broken. Greta’s heart is completely in the right place, she’s a real leader, and the youth climate movement has been such an important factor in why we’re seeing the progress that we are seeing, which is why we really have to watch out for what we say, because otherwise people like Morano will twist our words to feed this sort of doomist narrative that ‘oh, look, you know, even climate advocates have agreed that there’s nothing we can do. So the game is over’ and that’s just so dangerous. The new climate war is not about denial of science. They can’t deny that it exists. It’s obvious to people, and they can understand why it’s happening. So this is one of the troubling new forms of denialism – denial that we have agency.”

 

But still, if it weren’t for alarmists like Greta and American journalist David Wallace-Wells we would not be where we are today – at a historic peak as far as public awareness is concerned. Could it be that if people didn’t panic, the chances of them actually acting are too low and we can’t afford to take the risk of not doing anything.

 

“Yes, I agree with that. There’s sort of a sweet spot there, a delicate balance between urgency and agency. And it’s easy to err on one side or the other.”

 

Mann, 56, is currently the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center. Mann studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley with a second major, applied math. He also received a PhD in Physics from Yale University. He was always interested in environmental issues and was co-author of a 1998 paper with Raymond S. Bradley, Malcolm K. Hughes. In this paper, he used advanced statistical techniques and found regional variations in a hemispherical reconstruction of climate over the past 600 years. The same team produced a reconstruction covering the past 1,000 year the next year. He was also one of eight leading authors of the 2001 “Observed Climate Varability and Change” chapter in the Third Scientific Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mann’s research was included in Al Gore’s widely successful documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and the IPCC acknowledged that his work contributed to the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which was won jointly by the IPCC and Al Gore.

 

How is it possible that you remain so emotionally involved after all these years of climate advocacy?

 

“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. It sometimes pierces the wall of objectivity that you try to build around your self, and it affects me emotionally, sometimes unexpectedly. The warming is just as predicted by models decades ago. Everything is on track. And yet when you see it happening, you realize this isn’t just model projections. This stuff is actually happening. It’s almost like the inner skeptic in you as a scientist is saying, ‘Yeah, I know the models predict this. This is what the data proves. But is it really happening?’ And now the answer is yes, because you can see it with your own two eyes.”

 

Your critics claim that you are more of a politician than a pioneering scientist today.

 

“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 defense of myself against these attacks, my participation in the public debate about climate change was an important part of my life. It is an honor to be able influence the discussion about the greatest challenge that humanity faces 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. It’s one thing to call climate change a crisis, or an emergency, which is true, but it’s another to exaggerate the effects to make that point. I criticised him for misstating or exaggerating the science in a way which feeds the narrative. Once you do that, it is easy to twist reality. As Stephen Shneider, a prominent climate expert, RD, was my mentor, I used to say that the truth is already bad enough. There’s no need to exaggerate it, because it erodes the credibility of climate scientists and advocates, for one.”

 

Wallace-Wells exaggerates?

 

“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. While he may agree with the idea to a certain extent, the science doesn’t support the notion of a scenario such as that. If we heat the planet by four degrees, which would be disastrous, that is a path we could take 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 book that fossil fuel advocates know that denigrating the climate crisis is no longer an option given the extreme weather that the world is currently experiencing. They are trying new tactics like creating a rift among activists so that they can attack one another and weakening the community as a whole. They also promote innovative technologies to distract people from the real solution.

 

How can we defeat 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. Recent surveys show that Americans support carbon tax. It is needed as one of many economic policy that level the playing fields, so that you don’t have to pay more for electricity from renewable energy. The playing field is not level right now, with politicians propping up the fossil fuel sector through all manner of subsidies, indirect and direct. 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 must get rid of these subsidies and provide subsidies to renewable energies.

 

“Once you do that, that market signal can take various forms. It can be in the form of a tax on carbon, but there are other options, such as cap and Trade (a government regulatory program designed limit the total amount of chemical emissions from industrial activity). The government issues permits to companies that include a cap on permitted emissions (RD). This was used in Europe and the U.S. in the past to address the problem of acid rain.

 

What about our individual responsibility? After all, we’re the ones to blame for the huge amount of plastic in the oceans, for one. Our society is addicted by consumption.

 

“I try to take a nuanced position about that in the book. Individual behavior is important. We feel better about ourselves when we are working towards solving a larger problem. We need to realize that the fossil fuel industry as well as those who promote their agenda want us to believe that this is all we need to do and that we can take all the pressure off.

 

“But you and I can’t provide subsidies for the renewable energy industry. We can’t block new fossil fuel infrastructure. We cannot put a price on carbon. These are the things that our politicians must do. We need them to exert pressure on them. We should vote out those politicians who refuse support meaningful climate policy, and vote for those who will. It all comes down to individual action. As you have mentioned, we can use our voices through our votes. However, in every other way we use our voices, we are contributing to the solution as well by putting pressure upon policy makers and opinion leaders.

 

“Too many people want to somehow classify Glasgow/COP26/the entire COP framework as either failure or success. When you look at the outcome of the summit, the glass isn’t half full, but you can see it as half full. We received a number of new NDC pledges from countries, including India. This was their first commitment to eventually eliminating carbon emissions. Although it wasn’t until 2070, there were some groups that took the latest NDC commitments and did updated simulations. The simulations now show that the temperature is below two degrees Celsius. If each country fulfilled their commitments, there would be enough progress. This is 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.”

Greta Thunberg. Photo: Reuters Greta Thunberg. Photo by Reuters

 

Although you refer to India in a positive context and China in a negative context, India has also weakened its pledge to phase-out coal.

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“Yes, that was a disappointing development. Although it almost feels like semantics it was enough to make things a little more difficult. We need to look back and understand this. It would be easy for India to be criticised, but they were frustrated by the insufficient funding from big industrial economies to finance clean energy infrastructure. Climate Finance – refers specifically to transfers of public funds from developed countries to developing nations, given their UN Climate Convention obligations to provide additional financial resources. There is blame everywhere. This shows that there is need for continued negotiations between the parties. We don’t plan to wait five years, as we did in the past, for the next round. There was an understanding that the parties are going to come back next year and see if they come to an even more ambitious agreement among these countries.”

 

Some claim that the UN failed, that it’s just not the right framework to solve the problem, and that we must find an alternative.

 

“It’s the worst group and the worst mechanism, except for all the others, as we sometimes say,” he says with a smile. “It’s what we have right now. It is the only multilateral way to influence global climate policy. My view is that we need to work within this mechanism, and within that framework, and acknowledge some progress. It doesn’t really matter if the UN or any other organization is in charge of this. It comes down to the end of differences in interest between the various parties. This is what we must do. We need to ensure that these agreements are viewed as both beneficial for the industrial world as well as the developing world. This will ensure that everyone benefits from our actions. We must ensure fairness, equity, justice in the implementation of any global agreements. Four years ago, we were in a much worse situation. The United States no longer provides leadership. In fact, the U.S. was playing an adversarial role in these negotiations under the Trump administration.”

 

That raises the question – aren’t the summit commitments just not sustainable as countries are able to withdraw from their agreements depending on the people they elect?

 

“Well, this could be said about any matter of geopolitics (e.g. nuclear arms treaties, etc). We must do our best within the flawed global negotiation framework. However, we also have to exert pressure as nations against state actors who violate their commitments (e.g. Through economic and political pressure, which can include tariffs and border adjustments. But in the end, we get the politicians we vote for, and the single most important thing we can do is vote for climate-friendly policymakers and vote out fossil fuel apologists.”

 

So that’s it? We can only vote.

 

“Individual action is one tool, but we need to recognize that not everybody will pay extra if they have to get their power from renewable sources, just because it’s the right thing to do. Economists have known for a long time that this doesn’t work. We need incentives, we need incentives so that people make environmentally sound decisions, even without consciously thinking about it, and that’s the toolbox that we discussed earlier.”

What about Bill Gates and others who advocate for nuclear energy?


 

“Bill Gates has stated that we need a miracle to solve this problem. It is disconcerting to me. It’s disingenuous. He continues to claim that we don’t possess the technology to decarbonize the economy. This is misleading and leads us in the wrong direction. Nuclear energy is not only risky, but also expensive. It is much more costly and requires more government subsidies. Therefore, it doesn’t make economic sense from a market economic perspective. Geoengineering is also something he supports, such as putting sulfate particles up into the stratosphere in order to block out some sunlight. We could make the planet worse by not considering the possible side effects.

 

“Gates chooses to advocate that dangerous path because he downplays the role that renewable energy can play today. He ignores substantial literature that shows how we can decarbonize our global economy using existing renewable energy technology. This includes wind, solar and energy storage. We have the tools. Gates makes the mistake of suggesting that the obstacles are technological. They are political. He once said in an interview, ‘I don’t know the solution to the politics, so I just discuss the technological aspect’. You don’t have to know the solution to the political problem. 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. Israel is a friend and ally of the U.S. I think we might see some changes under the current administration. Many countries, such as China, had a sort of softening in their commitments under Donald Trump. I believe it happened with Israel too. 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? Australian troops were less that 1% of the troops who fought in World War 2. They fought anyway because it was the right thing. That’s what I would also say to Israel.

 

“I’m stubbornly optimistic and stubbornly hopeful. Am I pollyannaish? Do you not realize that we are in a precarious place and that things could turn either way? I am fully aware that there are some very dark futures that are possible right 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.”



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