This is my review of new book by the climate scientist Michael Mann, titled: “A New Climate War. The Fight to Take Back Our Planet“.
Mann is professor for atmospheric science at the Penn State university in USA, he is famous for his incessant climate activism and the so-called hockey-stick study he co-authored over 30 years ago (Mann et al 1999). The finding that global temperatures, quite stable over the past 1000-2000 years have started to exponentially rise with the burning of the fossil fuels in 20th century, has been attacked and denounced as false or even fraudulent many times since it first appeared. Yet science has so far supported and even expanded those initial hockey-stick data for the last 24k years. The anthropogenic global warming has become an undeniable fact of everyday’s life in every corner of the globe.
From Denial to Inactivism
Like Big Tobacco, fossil fuel industry succeeded in sowing doubt in science, having payrolled their own scientists and derailed public intervention for decades, but eventually hard facts won. We now all know that smoking causes cancer and that climate change is real and dangerous. But just like Big Tobacco, the fossil fuel industry and its billionaire owners are not prepared to forfeit their immense profits. Sure, they can’t continue to deny the climate change with its devastating floods, fires, storms and heat waves which the world just started to suffer, and only a niche audience still falls for their alternative, non-anthropogenic explanations. So the oil, gas and coal lobby invented other disinformation and deflection tactics, which they learned from the tobacco and gun industries. And they even have their environmentalist enemies working for them, unwittingly or not.
Mann’s new book is the very definition of a call to action, since its main focus is fighting the inaction and the “inactivists” who bamboozle the public and politics with techno-fix non-solutions, who gaslight environmentally concerned citizens into blaming themselves, and who want us to accept that it’s already too late and all is lost anyway. All these different disinformation tactics have a common goal – to prevent all policies aimed at reduction of carbon emissions.
The outright climate change denial is now pushed to the very far right fringes of the society and rarely features in the public debate. Those like Bjorn Lomborg still have their fossil fuel industry-sponsored think-tanks and their media platforms (like that of Rupert Murdoch), but these days most people don’t want to be (knowingly) associated with climate change denialism. Also because climate change denialists often additionally engage in eugenics, misogyny, homophobia and racism, plus these days also in antivaxxery and covidiocies, theirs is not really a pleasant company one would want to share.
In the face of overwhelming evidence of natural disasters worldwide, the fossil fuel industry, billionaires with vested interests, payrolled politicians and ideologically-driven media have changed their public stance. They now pretend to be concerned with the climate change, even position themselves as part of the solution, and they managed to get some climate change activists to work on their side. The war to derail the public and political decision making process towards inaction is waged by inactivists in very perfidious ways, and Mann asks you not to fall for their tricks and to remain active instead.
It’s all YOUR fault
First, the concept of individual responsibility. Mann recalls the “Crying Indian” public service announcement from 1970ies, when the soft drinks industry convinced the Americans that the real problem with packaging pollution was their own individual littering, and not this industry’s business model itself. Keep America beautiful – drink Coke but don’t litter.
In reality, even the “Indian” was fake, the western film actor was Italian and not a Native American. But the message worked, people really believe ever since that their plastic packaging waste magically disappears once they put it into the trash bin, or even better, into a recycling bin. In reality, our plastic waste, recycled or not, most often ends up in the garbage dumps, sometimes far away abroad, completely out of sight. Otherwise, our carefully sorted, cleaned and collected “recyclable” plastic waste gets burned, very little is actually recyclable.
Individual responsibility: it was the same message arms industry and NRA have used for decades, repeated as mantra after each school massacre in US: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And now the fossil fuel inactivists started to use the same approach for the climate change debate. Their propagandists tell you that not eating meat, never flying, not owning a car and even not having children is the right way to fight climate change. Shame on every climate scientist who flew to an international conference. Shame on you for occasionally eating meat and shame on you for being vegan also. Shame on you for having children, this is incidentally where the environmentally-concerned caviar-communists join hands with fascists eugenicists.
The idea is to drive a wedge between climate activists and to make them compete over personal sacrifices and fight each other over perceived treasons upon the common cause, instead of jointly fighting against the fossil fuels.
Make no mistake: Mann is very much in support of individual action. He became a vegetarian himself, also for health reasons. Greta Thunberg is his biggest hero. But Mann keeps driving home the point that individual actions alone are meaningless without governmental actions, especially actions needed to divest the energy sector of fossil fuels. Indeed, as COVID-19 lockdown data demonstrated, most of our carbon output is not due to individual activities like driving or flying (which must be de-carbonised also), but due to electricity and heat production, for which gas, oil and even coal (the most carbon-emission-intensive fossil fuel) are mostly used.
The Nuclear Option
As it happens, this is where techno-fix non-solutions come into play. First and foremost, the nuclear industry. Even the European Union recently embarrassed itself big-time when the EU Commission, obviously under pressure from France, announced to certify nuclear power as a green energy investment, along with natural gas (Mann’s book was released in January 2021, so these recent developments, even Trump’s election loss and Biden’s return of USA to the Paris Agreement, don’t feature in the book).
In USA, nuclear shills like Michael Shellenberger keep promoting the industry as the green miracle solution to climate change. But not just those who live off nuclear money, sometimes it’s the other way around. While Bill Gates and his Gates Foundation sponsor a lot of climate change research, Gates himself is a big proponent of nuclear as the “green” technology to combat climate change. Even UN is part of it:
Mann is definitely not convinced. He warns that nuclear industry is not safe and the problem of nuclear waste, its long-term storage and dangers cannot be solved. Nuclear energy is also economically utterly inviable without massive public investments, because nuclear power plant construction costs are enormous and the nuclear waste disposal costs are again a different public investment altogether (so much for the free market!). These nuclear subsidies should be instead given to the regenerative energy industry, to allow it for a level playing field with the fossil fuels.
The arguments of climate change inactivists about the alleged unreliability of the solar and wind energy have all been debunked. Modern smart grid technology allows to rapidly switch electricity flows between demand and supply, and there is always wind somewhere when the sun is not shining, and vice versa. Plus there are also regenerative energy sources which deliver power steadily and constantly, like water, tidal or geothermal plants. There are also plans to convert today’s natural gas power station to “green” hydrogen, which would be in turn produced from water using excess solar and wind energy: storable, movable and deployable at all times. All that is needed is the political will for the energy transformation.
But the denial is strong. Mann spends several pages narrating how carbon tax laws failed in US, even revoked where they were already passed, under pressure from the fossil fuel lobby. He regrets that also US left-wing Democrats oppose carbon tax because they believe it would serve the interests of that same fossil fuel lobby. For Mann, a tax on carbon emissions is a key regulatory element to bring those emissions down, because the costs would incentivise the industry to invest into other, climate-friendly technologies.
My only criticism that the book is a bit too exclusively focussed on the climate policies in USA, with occasional references to other English-speaking nations like UK and Australia (Mann wrote much of his book while in Australia, as it happened during the disastrous bushfires of summer 2019/2020). There could have been more focus on other nations, especially the European Union, which climate impact and attempts to mitigate it are both non-neglectable.
In this regard, Mann briefly recalls how a Republican politician in US declared on TV that solar energy is so productive in Germany and not applicable for USA because Germany has much more sun than the States. In reality, Germany has roughly the same amount of sunlight a year as Alaska.
The book is very political, Mann even suspects that Russia’s 2016 interference in the US elections to install the climate change denier Donald Trump as US president was driven by Russian fossil fuel interests. That is certainly true at least in part, indeed Putin’s regime depends on oil and gas exports and is comprised of climate change denialists, who nevertheless declared climate change as a boon for Russia, with grand development plans for the warming Siberia and Arctic.
Mann also recalls in this regard the Climategate affair of 2009, when emails by climate scientists were hacked and then leaked, allegedly revealing that the climate change didn’t really happen and its science was a huge conspiracy to defraud the public of grant money. The emails, including Mann’s, were misinterpreted in all possible way to get there, and derailed international climate negotiations as the result. Behind that leak, just like behind the 2016 US elections leak of Democratic Party’s emails, was in both cases Russia and Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. This fact sadly cannot be denied, maybe Assange is not such a great hero after all, my own two cents.
Much of the book strives to visualise the state of political and social denial in USA towards workable climate fixes. Instead, what is on offer are the techno-fix non-solutions.
Geoengineering and Carbon Capture
Once the fossil fuel industry has convinced you that there are no alternatives, while admitting that climate change is happening, what can the national governments do then to prevent a catastrophe? Carbon capture and geoengineering of course!
Mann debunks these proposals as well. Carbon capture, where CO2 is drawn from chimney stacks or straight from the air, and then pumped down into the Earth where it would petrify into limestone, is only feasible in very specific geological locations. Pumping CO2 into unsuitable bedrock will have it bubble out back into the air straight away. Liquefying carbon dioxide and transporting it with tanker ships to suitable geological sites is environmental insanity, considering that approach’s own carbon footprint. And anyway, suitable geological sites for carbon storage are rare, and their potential limited: even there, a lot of CO2 escapes back into atmosphere.
But then there is geoengineering! That Mann sees as technically doable, but definitely not advisable. Shooting sulphur dioxide into atmosphere to block out the sunlight is actually what humanity used to do before on a big scale – while burning coal. The climate denialists’ red herring about climatologists being so confused that they used to predict an ice age in 1970ies, actually stems from some scientists’ calculations back then regarding the contradicting impacts of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions on the Earth’s climate. The result of these sulphur oxide emissions, finally recognised over 50 years ago, was the acid rain and the death of forests, I am not sure how killing trees and other plants figures into the climate change fighting efforts, can some geoengineering professors weigh in please?
But eventually humanity understood how dangerous this pollution was for the life on Earth, and thus the fossil fuel power stations were forced to scrape their sulphur emissions straight at the chimney stacks. The acid rain ended, and as Mann reminds us, in the US it was the Clean Air Act by the Republican government which imposed these regulations. Today’s Republicans fight a carbon emission tax tooth and nail, and they were so far extremely successful. Instead of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the world seriously considers to geoengineer a cooler climate by blocking sunlight, i.e. by shooting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Yet what comes up, always comes down.
The Crack of Doom
But the fossil fuel industry is also aware that not everyone falls for the “individual responsibility” or techno-fix ruses. For these people, they have the Armageddon narrative. Mann describes this as “doomism”, coming in different flavours, hard and soft doomism, but always telling you that it is too late, we ignored the solutions while they were still possible, we failed to avert a climate catastrophe, there is nothing we can do now to save humanity. The run-away climate collapse is inevitable, it is about to happen even if we cease all carbon emissions immediately, the point of no return is long passed, the Climate Armageddon is coming, either in 50 years, or in 10 years, or tomorrow, depending to who penned the recent bestseller book or the article in the New York Times or The Guardian. The world is doomed. Basically, either hang yourself or join the pillaging. In any case, you must accept that there is no point anymore for reducing fossil fuel consumption.
Mann however says that there is no scientific evidence for this nihilism. The release of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the thawing permafrost in the Arctic, which indeed already began and is a central tenet of climate doomism, is definitely not a sign that it is too late to act. There is no scientific support for the model of a runaway methane release which would turn the planet into a “Hothouse Earth” and which is the current scare of doomism. Mann’s simple explanation where this attitude comes from: climate doom porn sells.
The propagandists of individual responsibility, techno-fix non-solutions and the doomists are working for the fossil fuel lobby whether they want it or not. Ironically, the scientists actually employed by the oil industry predicted already in the 1970ies the temperature developments of today, quite precisely in fact. But the billionaires running the oil business decided that their money will protect them from climate disaster and anyway, they might be already dead by then. So they began with massive sponsoring of climate change denialism while knowing perfectly well about the truth. It wasn’t just individual people, sometimes it was entire national governments.
While Russia and other petrostate regimes never cared about climate change and seem to even believe it will be good for them, the concept of resilience, mitigation and adaptation in the face of climate change is another diversion strategy deployed by the fossil fuel industry to derail climate action. It is part of the soft doomism approach, where you are supposed to think that climate change is already happening (true) and that all you can do is to adapt to it because you can’t prevent it anymore. That is a fallacy, wrong on many levels. Climate change is not a binary thing, it happens qualitatively. If we give up on slashing carbon emissions and focus our efforts and investments on adaptation alone (like, evacuating waterfront settlements), the effects of the climate change will get much, much worse. So bad, that all resilience strategies will fail and the disaster can’t be mitigated. And in a globalised economy and a mobile society, no country will be able to profit from the climate change.
Sure, the climate change is happening and it’s very, very bad. But if we act now, it will be much less bad than if we do nothing. To follow inactivists and do nothing would be really a disaster for the humanity and the planet. Every step counts, and we must put political divisions aside to achieve our common goal of slashing carbon emissions while not falling into the trap of non-solutions.
This is why Mann wrote this book. He wants us to act. He wants us to vote for the climate policies, to become active ourselves, and he concludes that it is the young generation, young people like Greta Thunberg and her fellow campaigners who will save the world with their activism. They deserve our full support in every respect, and we must never fall for the propaganda of the fossil fuel industry, even when they deploy environmentalists and climate scientists as their unwitting stooges.
PS: If you are unsure about the scientific validity of climate claims in the media, Mann recommends this fact-checking website, Climate Feeback.
Disclaimer: As usual, I received no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the author and publisher upon request I am also a bicycle-riding near-vegan vegetarian.
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