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This story was first published on January 22, 2021

Michael E. Mann is recognized around the world as a leading expert on climate change. He’s a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. His latest book is “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”

WPSU’s Kristine Allen talks with Mann about tactics used by climate change deniers, what needs to be done about the climate crisis, and why he’s optimistic about tackling climate change.

LISTEN to their conversation

ALLEN: What is what you call the new climate war as opposed to the old climate war?

MANN: Well, the old climate war, which we have been fighting for decades, is the industry-funded effort to discredit the science of climate change by fossil fuel interests, and those doing their bidding who don’t want to see us transition off fossil fuels to renewable energy. You know, the science of climate change has been inconvenient to those special interests, and they have used their tremendous power and influence to undermine the public understanding and faith in the science of human caused climate change.

Over the last several years, the impacts of climate change have simply become so profound, so obvious to the person on the street, that it just isn’t credible to deny them anymore. And so what these forces of inaction — I call them “inactivists” in the book — have done, they haven’t given up their war on climate action. But they’re changing their tactics, moving away from outright denialism to a more insidious array of tactics that are nonetheless aimed at blocking efforts to transition off of the burning of fossil fuels.

And that consists of efforts to divide the climate advocacy community to get them arguing with each other so that they don’t present a united front, efforts to deflect attention from the needed systemic solutions, the needed policy changes, to individual behavior, as if it’s simply about individuals changing their own lifestyle.

ALLEN: And climate activists would possibly buy into that a bit, because, you know, everyone wants to do what they can to mitigate climate change. Right?

MANN: Yeah, I mean, the reality is that we should engage in you know, everyday actions and changes in our lifestyle, that reduce our environmental footprint, that often make us healthier and happier and save us money, things we ought to do anyway. But what we can’t allow is for that to somehow become a substitute for the demand for policy action. And that’s what the inactivists have sort of done to try to divert attention completely away from the need for regulation of the fossil fuel industry entirely.

There are other tactics as I detail in the book: promoting despair, doom, because if they can lead us down this path of despair, it ultimately leads to the same destination: inaction.

So those are some of the central tactics. That’s really what the book is about: being aware of the tactics that are being used now to prevent the needed transition from fossil fuels, recognize those tactics and make sure that we don’t become victims of them. Because we are at an amazing moment where there really is an opportunity now to make substantial progress in acting on the climate crisis, and we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Students from Susquehanna Township and Cedar Cliff high schools demonstrate for action on climate change in front of the state capitol on Friday, December 6, 2019.

ALLEN: Your iconic “hockey stick” graph, published in 1998, made you a target of climate change deniers. Could you recap for us that controversy, why that graph was such a wake-up call?

MANN: Sure. So more than two decades ago, as you said, April 1998, on Earth Day of 1998 April 22, we published the first of a series of articles presenting the now iconic hockey stick graph, which was an effort to reconstruct how global surface temperatures have varied over the past. We only have about a century and a half of widespread thermometer measurements, and they show that the planet has warmed up now more than a degree Celsius for the better part of two degrees Fahrenheit.

But what we don’t know from the historical measurements alone is how unusual that warming might be in the longer-term context. Our study sought to use indirect natural archives that tell us something about past climate conditions, like tree rings and corals and ice cores and lake sediments to piece together this puzzle of how the climate changed in the more distant past.

It revealed … a graph demonstrating the trends over the past 1,000 years showing that the warming spike that we’ve seen over the past century without precedent as far back as we could go at the time, 1,000 years. It became a lightning rod for climate change deniers precisely because it told such a simple story. You didn’t need to understand the complex physics of Earth’s climate system to understand what this graph was telling us: that there’s something unprecedented about the changes taking place today. By implication, it probably has to do with us.

Because it became such a potent image in the climate change debate, it and I and my co-authors found ourselves at the center of orchestrated attacks by politicians fossil fuel interests, those doing their bidding, seeking to discredit the hockey stick, as if by discrediting the graph or by discrediting me personally, somehow, the evidence for human caused climate change that they find so inconvenient would somehow collapse like a house of cards.

In fact, there are dozens of different lines of evidence that all tell us that the climate is warming and that we’re responsible. Even if the hockey stick curve didn’t exist, we would still know that. But it’s really because it was such a powerful image, it and I found ourselves at the center of the larger effort to discredit the science of climate change the climate wars, as it were.

ALLEN: There’s an effort to discredit the scientists themselves. Tell me about what you call the “Serengeti strategy.”

MANN: Yeah, in fact, I coined that term in my earlier book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,” because I was struck by something I had seen at a meeting in Africa, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change back in the late 1990s.

A group of us took a side trip to the Serengeti. One of the striking visuals that I encountered during that Safari was a wall of zebras. When zebras travel as a group, and they’re feeding, they’re stationary, they will stand back to back in such a way that they essentially form this very long wall of stripes. It’s a way to confuse predators. They can’t pick out an individual zebra, they just see a wall of stripes.

So I likened that to this phenomenon that we’ve seen in the climate wars, where fossil fuel interests, those who do their bidding, have targeted individual scientists, because they know they can’t take down the entire scientific community. It’s this very sturdy wall of scientific evidence that is accrued over decades. But if they can just take one scientist, attack them, discredit them and make an example of them maybe they can scare off other scientists. I call that the Serengeti strategy.

But the evidence has just become so overwhelming, you know. Now, the new climate war consists of this other array of tactics, less an effort to discredit and deny the science and more of an effort to distract us with non-solutions to divide us to deflect attention, etc.

ALLEN: The climate war has its espionage as well. I was intrigued by an incident you talk about in the book, “Climategate,” where there were emails stolen from a server before a climate conference. What happened there?

MANN: Climategate was this effort 10 years ago, by those who have been working for years to discredit the science of climate change and discredit climate scientists, the inactivists, as I call them, to distract the public and policymakers with a manufactured fake scandal in the lead-up to the Copenhagen summit of December 2009, which at the time was really seen as the best opportunity in years for meaningful global action on climate.

In the lead-up to that summit, various individuals and organizations that have been promoting climate change denial and attacking scientists had gotten ahold of thousands of emails from a server in the UK. These are emails between various climate scientists around the world, myself included, and they had combed through these emails to find individual words and phrases that they could use to try to make it sound like the science was not sound, that the scientists were engaged in efforts to mislead people. They did that by taking simple innocent words like “trick”: a trick, in the lingo of science and mathematics, is a clever approach to solving a vexing problem. But take it out of context. It can be sort of used to somehow try to claim that the scientists were trying to trick the public.

All of these were really cynical distortions of what the scientists were actually saying. They were used to (trying to) discredit the science by discrediting the scientists themselves. It was a very effective disinformation campaign that was heavily promoted by fossil fuel interests, by the organizations and front groups that they fund, by the right-wing media, the Murdoch press, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, etc. It was a full on press for several weeks, in fact, over months to try to promote this narrative that the basic science was untrustworthy, and they got mainstream media outlets to cover it, to actually regurgitate their narrative.

It probably had a negative impact on the proceedings in Copenhagen. In fact, the Saudi Arabian delegate (Saudi Arabia is a petrostate like Russia). These are governments that see fossil fuels as their primary asset and have done everything they can to block global efforts on climate. That applies to Saudi Arabia and applies to Russia, who has also had a role in these efforts.

We now think that Saudi Arabia and Russia probably both played a key role in this manufactured scandal. The Saudi delegate used these climategate allegations to declare that the science of climate change was fundamentally untrustworthy, and that this would negatively impact any efforts in Copenhagen aimed at meaningful climate policy.

So it’s perhaps the most profound example of the sorts of disinformation campaigns that have been used by inactivists over the years to distract the public to prevent action on climate. The fact remains that now, 10 years later, the impacts have become so obvious that they can’t really deny that climate change is real or human-caused anymore. And so they’ve turned to more insidious and nefarious means of trying to distract the public and block action.

ALLEN: You mentioned the Russians, and we’re used to thinking about the Russians interfering with our elections. But I understand they’ve been active in climate debate and in social media over the climate issue as well.

MANN: Absolutely. This is something that we now understand in light of the 2016, their efforts to sway the election in Donald Trump’s favor. A lot of things have come to light. One of them is that Exxon Mobil, and Rosneft, which is Russia’s state oil company, had a half trillion-dollar oil deal. It was a joint venture to extract the extensive fossil fuels from Siberia and Russia together in Exxon Mobil had the equipment necessary to do it.

So as a joint venture between the Russian government and the world’s largest fossil fuel organization, Exxon Mobil, which too has been a major funder of climate change denial, and one of the principal actors in the climate wars, they had this half trillion dollar oil deal that was blocked because of the sanctions against Russia over their actions in Crimea.

One of the first things that happened at the Republican convention prior to the 2016 election, in the drafting of the Republican platform, Paul Manafort. He’s a lobbyist who has been connected to Russia, and Ukraine, he helped change the language in the Republican platform that removed Republican support for sanctions against Russia. So an argument could be made that Russia’s involvement, their effort to defeat Hillary Clinton (who would have continued with the sanctions) and instead elect Donald Trump, who had promised to get rid of them.

That was really about fossil fuels. And it puts this past climategate matter in a new light, because we can now understand that some of the same actors that we know worked with Russia to discredit Hillary Clinton through her stolen emails, we know that Wikileaks was working with Russia, Julian Assange was working with them. We now see that all of those same actors were involved in the climategate affair, back in 2009, which itself was an effort by state actors and fossil fuel interests.

Russia now seems to be principal among them, and they’re looking to forestall any meaningful climate action. They’ve been doing the same thing in our most recent election. And we know the reason: fossil fuels are their single greatest asset.

ALLEN:  In the book you have a chapter on how market mechanisms can help fight climate change. Can you explain why those are important and why climate activists might shy away from those?

MANN: There are lots of tools in the toolbox that we can use to spur the decarbonization of our economy. Some of them are what we would call demand-side measures, reducing public demand for fossil fuel energy.

You can do that by leveling the playing field: so that renewable energy, which isn’t degrading the planet in the way that fossil fuel energy is, can compete fairly in the market by leveling the playing field, to force the fossil fuel industry to basically pay for the damage that they’re doing to the planet. Pricing that damage that’s being done has to be part of the economics.

Amy Sisk / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The owners of Beaver Valley nuclear power station in Shippingport, Pa. reversed a decision to shut it down early, citing Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among several northeastern states that is designed to lower carbon emissions.

You can level the playing field in that manner by providing explicit subsidies for renewable energy. There’s a lot of support for doing that. There’s even support for that in the most recent stimulus package that passed Congress on a bipartisan basis.

Think of it as sort of a carrot and a stick: you can do that by providing subsidies for renewable energy, and that’s the carrot. You can do it by putting a tax or putting a price on carbon, that’s the stick. There are different ways to do that: carbon pricing, you can have a carbon tax, and if it’s a carbon tax, there are different ways to do it, that make the tax more or less progressive. That’s where the politics comes in. You can use a tradable emissions permit so-called “cap and trade.” There are lots of ways to do this.

But ultimately, market mechanisms are an important tool in the toolbox. We’re going to need every tool that we have. As I note in the book, what’s unfortunate is that there’s this trend over the last several years where environmental progressives have increasingly become antagonistic to market measures, like carbon pricing, for leveling that playing field and for accelerating the transition off fossil fuels.

It has to do with a number of what I would really say are myths to a large extent: the idea, for example, that a price on carbon would be regressive. Well, that depends precisely on what you do with the revenue, if you return it to frontline communities to sort of lower-income families selectively. There are ways to actually make it progressive.

Then the carbon taxes that have been passed in Australia and Canada, those carbon taxes have ended up being progressive, they’ve actually helped lower-income in frontline communities economically. There’s also this notion that a carbon tax just isn’t enough to reduce demand for fossil fuel energy. Well, that depends on you know how large the carbon tax is. Once again, it’s just one of the tools in the toolbox. Nobody’s saying it’s a panacea.

But to take it off the table means that we’re sort of tying one hand behind our back in this war, to act on the climate crisis. Some of the bad actors that I’ve talked about, Russia, in particular, through social media, through bots and troll armies, has worked hard to actually alienate progressives, when it comes to carbon pricing. That’s the great irony. They recognize that the political right is already sort of leaning towards their position of inaction. So if they can get some environmental progressives, for example, by convincing them that carbon pricing is regressive in nature, it’s a great way for them to dampen enthusiasm for meaningful climate action.

I’ve tried to alert people, really progressives, in this case, to the insidious nature of this tactic, some of the things that I think play into it, frankly, are this notion that carbon pricing buys into neoliberal economics, market economics. Well, yeah, but so do pretty much all of the solutions that we’re talking about, you have to work within the framework of, you know, the economy you have today, and we do have a market economy. And sure, there’s a worthy discussion to be had about whether capitalism and market economies are ultimately consistent with a sustainable sort of existence on this planet.

We need to have that larger conversation. But we’ve got to solve the climate crisis, now, in a matter of years. We don’t have time to remake the global economy, we have to use the tools that are available to us within the context of the existing economy. And carbon pricing is a big part of that.

ALLEN: In recent years, we’ve experienced natural disasters that are linked to climate change. Can you talk about how things like wildfires and hurricanes can be connected?

MANN: Yeah, I’ll tell you there was a satellite image that literally connected those two things late this fall, when you know, we had this very late hurricane season that continued on into late November. And that, in part, we know is connected to the warming of the tropical Atlantic Ocean, which is creating more favorable environment for Atlantic hurricanes. We’re seeing both more active seasons and more powerful and damaging hurricanes. But that season is getting longer as surface temperatures in the Atlantic warm-up and they remain warm enough for tropical hurricanes to form well into the late fall, and persisting again into the late fall well outside of the typical fire season out west, where these massive wildfires record wildfires this summer in California, Oregon and Washington.

To bring this back to the satellite image, I believe it was in November. It was one of the Greek-named Atlantic hurricanes, very late in the season, that was spinning out in the North Atlantic. If you looked at that satellite image, at the periphery of this hurricane, there was a brown cloud that was swirling in towards the center of the hurricane. And that was the smoke in the ash from those wildfires.

So that one image sort of embodied these twin assaults of human-caused climate change, and really underscored how direct the impacts now are, where they’re literally playing out in real-time in the form of multiple weather disasters that have been amplified by human-caused climate change. I think that’s part of why it’s just no longer credible for the inactivists to deny that this is happening. They’re instead using every tactic in the book to try to confuse and distract us. But the impacts of climate change are now playing out in real-time. This isn’t about polar bears off in the Arctic, it’s about us here. And now in the negative devastating impacts we’re already dealing with.

ALLEN: You write in the book that watching the pandemic unfold was like watching a time-lapse of the climate crisis. What can we learn about climate change from the pandemic?

MANN: It’s a great question. It’s a big question. There are lots of lessons that we can take away from it. I tried to go through those various lessons in the closing chapter of the book. There are some pretty deep overriding lessons about resilience and fragility, and sustainability. I mean, look, you know, we have a planet of nearly a billion people now competing for finite space, and food and water. A microscopic organism can now turn all that on its head turns society upside down.

We are so fragilely dependent on the earth system continuing to provide the resources that we continue to extract. I’m hoping that there’s some larger lessons that we take away from the pandemic about how fragile that infrastructure really is. Again, the importance of asking some deeper questions about whether our current path, our current behavior is a sustainable one.

But there are some immediate lessons that can be taken — the death and destruction that can be wrought by ideologically motivated science denial. In the case of COVID-19, the Trump administration saw it as advantageous to their politics, in those supporting them, which includes the fossil fuel industry. The conservative media and that entire ecosystem, saw it as favorable to their agenda, to deny the science that was telling us we need to engage in lockdowns and social distancing, and mask-wearing and all of these other things.

We can measure directly the cost of that science denial now in what will be millions of deaths around the world that have resulted and much more sort of long-term health impacts, people who will be dealing with the devastating permanent impacts of this virus for the rest of their lives and the toll that will take on the health care system.

All of that, a large part of it anyway, because we had an administration that denied the science and looked to discredit in the same way that the fossil fuel industry has tried to discredit scientists like myself. Look at how the right-wing media and Trump and Republicans looked to discredit Anthony Fauci because of his message as a leading health expert about the need to engage in these lockdown(s), in social distancing measures, and mask-wearing.

A principle lesson is that the cost of science denial can be measured directly in human lives and human suffering. We saw that play out over a period of months with coronavirus. It’s playing out on a longer timeframe with climate change.

But make no mistake, much larger number of lives will be lost from climate change because of our inaction our failure to act meaningfully thus far. Far more lives will be lost because of climate inaction and the science denial and the inaction agenda, the fossil fuel interest — far more lives will be lost because of that than will be lost because of the pandemic. Look, we’ll get past this pandemic a year from now, it will largely be in our rearview mirror to a large extent. But the looming crisis of climate change will still be there.

ALLEN: As we record this interview, it’s January 19, 2021. Joe Biden is the president-elect, soon to be inaugurated. And just this week, as we speak, Democrats took control of the Senate, they will control both houses of Congress, albeit by a very slim margin. What are you hoping for from the new Congress and the new president in terms of climate legislation?

MANN: You know, it’s a very favorable development. Because the Senate will now be controlled by a Democratic majority leader, we could now see a climate bill actually brought to the Senate floor, which would never have happened under Mitch McConnell.

So we now have the possibility of climate legislation getting a vote. Now the question is, can it pass? There probably will be the votes to get a climate bill or a set of climate bills passed, but probably not one that looks like the Green New Deal in its current form. We may not have a political climate where something as expansive as the Green New Deal in the way it’s been proposed by, you know, Ed Markey and AOC, where something like that can pass.

Richard Vogel / Associated Press

Climate change activists holding signs join in on a rally supporting the “Green New Deal” in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, May 24, 2019.

But what could pass would be compromise climate legislation, where you would have most if not all of the Democrats, maybe a few holdouts from fossil fuel states, and at least a half dozen Republicans crossing the aisle to join with them to pass a bill or series of compromise climate bills, which would include among them carbon pricing, where there’s sort of a consensus among moderate conservatives and Democrats that we can use market mechanisms to try to accelerate the transition towards renewable energy.

We can provide stimulus and funding for renewable energy. The recent stimulus bill that was passed on a bipartisan basis by the Congress actually does that provide something like $30 billion for funding and green energy. So we could see a compromise climate bill passed Congress in the next couple years. It would involve, again, moderate conservatives and Democrats. It would involve market pricing mechanisms, along with other sort of demand-side and supply-side measures to accelerate this transition that’s underway.

So there’s a real cause for optimism here. For a number of reasons, there’s a greater awareness than there’s ever been in substantial part because of the youth climate movement, Greta Thunberg and other youth climate protesters who’ve really raised awareness about the ethical obligations on our part to not degrade this planet for future generations.

You have these unprecedented extreme weather events that have driven home the direct impact of climate change the catastrophic consequences. You have this pandemic, which has sort of opened our eyes to the threat of science denial, and a failing to heed the warnings of scientists when it comes to crises, whether it be the pandemic or the even larger climate crisis. You have this favorable shift in political winds, which finally puts the United States in a position to re-establish global leadership on this issue. Joe Biden has very clearly indicated that he will do that.

So there are reasons to be very cautiously optimistic that we’ll see real meaningful action that will look back at 2020 as awful a year as it was, Kristine, I think we’re going to look back at it as the year where we turn the corner on climate.

ALLEN: Michael Mann, thank you very much.

MANN: Oh, thank you. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

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This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.