“Climate change obstacles are all political, not technological”

“It's no longer about denying the science because they can't deny it. People can see it, people understand it's happening. So this is one of the troubling new forms of denialism - denial that we have agency,” says Professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climatologists

Roni Dori 17:3323.12.21
Professor Michael Mann’s claim to fame is a hockey stick. No, not the sporting kind, but rather a despairing graph he published 23 years ago in which he showed how the average temperature on earth remained relatively stable for thousands of years before surging in the second half of the 20th century, creating a graph similar to a hockey stick.


Mann was a young postgraduate at the time, but his research sent shockwaves through the industry as it provided alarming proof 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


However, after so many years in the business, Mann no longer takes such attacks to heart. “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. And so they've moved on to other targets now. And I think that frees me up to speak more bluntly in a way that some of my younger colleagues probably can't, they're still much more vulnerable. I have that privilege because I've looked into the abyss and withstood the assaults and came out 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 go after climate advocates of all people?


“I show tough love for some who are on the right side of the issue. I very much support climate advocates, and it's important for me to try to speak to them about where I think 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.”


Still, the real villain here is the fossil fuel industry.


“But you do see doomism sometimes used by climate inactivists. Just a couple of weeks ago, after the Glasgow summit, one of the worst fossil fuel industry funded professional climate change deniers, Marc Morano, who has worked for decades to undermine public acceptance of the science and to prevent any action on climate, sent out this mass email where he happily quoted Greta Thunberg claiming that the process was a total failure, that the process is broken, and that there's no hope. 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. And that's the new climate war: it's no longer about denying the science cause they can't deny it. People can see it, people understand 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 without that panic, the odds that people would actually act is too low and that we cannot afford the risk of inaction any longer?


“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), currently serves as the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Mann majored in physics with a second major in applied math at the University of California, Berkeley, and obtained a PhD in Physics from Yale University. He was interested in environmental issues from a young age and in 1998 he was the lead author of a paper produced with co-authors Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes, in which he used advanced statistical techniques to find regional variations in a hemispherical climate reconstruction covering the past 600 years. The same team produced a reconstruction over the past 1,000 years the following year and in 2001 he was one of eight lead authors of the "Observed Climate Variability and Change" chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report. 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.


After so many years of climate advocacy, how come you are still so emotionally involved?


“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. And every once in a while, it sort of pierces that wall of objectivity you try to build around yourself, and it impacts me emotionally and sometimes unexpectedly. The warming is pretty much as the models predicted it would be decades ago. Things are pretty much on schedule. And yet when you see it happening, you realize this isn’t just model projections. This stuff is really happening. It’s almost like the inner skeptic in you as a scientist is saying, ‘Yeah, I know the models predict this. I know the data show this. But is it really happening?’ And now the answer is yes, because you can see it with your own two eyes.”


Your critics argue that you are today more of a political figure than a groundbreaking scientist.


“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 the process of defending myself against these attacks, I was drawn into the public debate over climate change. I consider it a privilege to now be in a position to influence the conversation about the greatest challenge we face 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. The thing is, that it's one thing to characterize climate change as a crisis, which it is, or even as an emergency, which you could argue it is, and another thing to exaggerate the impacts to make that case. I criticized him for misstating and overstating the science in a way that feeds the narrative. And once you do that, you twist the reality. And like the great Stephen Shneider (a leading climate expert, RD), who was my mentor, used to say: the truth is bad enough. There’s no need to exaggerate it, because it erodes the credibility of climate scientists and advocates, for one.”


How does Wallace-Wells exaggerate?


“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. He buys that premise to an extent, and the science doesn't support the notion that a scenario like that could be in play. If we warm the planet four degrees, which would be a disaster, that is a possible path 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 new book that fossil fuel advocates have already realized that denying the climate crisis is no longer a viable option considering the extreme weather the world is experiencing. Therefore they are using new tactics, such as creating a rift between activists so that they direct their attacks against one another and weaken the community as a whole. They also promote innovative technologies to distract from the real solution, which necessarily includes reducing the use of polluting fuels, they place the responsibility for the crisis on the actions of individuals, for example throwing out plastic bottles, and they promote doomism, which results in despair and inaction.


How can we win the fight over 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. Carbon tax is an important tool, and a recent survey shows that Americans support it. It is required as a one in many economic policies that level the playing field, so that you don't have to pay more to get your electricity from renewable energy. Right now the playing field isn't level, and we have politicians putting their thumb on the wrong end of the scale, propping up the fossil fuel industry through all sorts of subsidies, direct and indirect. 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 have to get rid of those subsidies and provide subsidies for renewable energies.


“Once you do that, that market signal can take various forms. It can take the form of a carbon tax and there are also alternative approaches such as cap and trade (a government regulatory program designed to limit the total level of emissions of certain chemicals, particularly carbon dioxide, as a result of industrial activity. The government issues a set amount of permits to companies that comprise a cap on allowed emissions, RD), that was used in the U.S. and in Europe in the past to deal with the problem of acid rain."


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


“I try to take a nuanced position about that in the book. Individual behavior is important, and we feel good about ourselves when we feel like we're working towards solving a larger problem. What we have to be aware of is that the fossil fuel industry and those promoting their agenda want to convince us that that's all we need to do, that it's all on us - in order to take the pressure off of them.


“But you and I can't provide subsidies for the renewable energy industry. We can't block new fossil fuel infrastructure. We can't put a price on carbon. These are things that we need our politicians to do, and we need to put pressure on them and we need to vote out those politicians who refuse to support meaningful climate policy and vote in those politicians that will. And so it does in the end, as you alluded to, come back to individual action, once again, because we can use our voice and we use our voice through our votes, but in every other way that we use our voice, we are also contributing to the solution by putting pressure on policy makers and opinion leaders and others in positions of influence and power.


“Too many people want to somehow classify Glasgow/COP26/the entire COP framework as either failure or success. But if you take a step back and you look at what came out of the summit, I see the glass not as half empty, but as half full. We had a number of new NDC commitments from countries, including India, which for the first time committed to eventually zeroing out their carbon emissions. Although not until much later this century, 2070, but there are some groups that took the latest commitments that came out of Glasgow and did updated simulations of projected warming, and for the first time, the simulations are starting to come in below two degrees Celsius. So there was enough progress if each of those countries made good on their commitments. That's 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: Reuters


You mention India in a positive context, but India and China have also weakened the pledge to phase out coal.


“Yes, that was a disappointing development. it almost feels like semantics, but it was enough of a change to sort of put a little bit of a damper on things. And I think that, again, we have to step back and understand that. First of all, it would be easy to criticize India, but they in turn were frustrated that the big industrial economies haven't yet contributed enough funding to help them finance clean energy infrastructure (climate finance - refers to transfers of public resources from developed to developing countries, in light of their UN Climate Convention obligations to provide new and additional financial resources, RD). So there's blame all around. And what this points to is the need for continued negotiations between these parties. Again, a little bit of good news there - we're not going to wait five years as we have in the past for the next round of negotiations. 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 mechanism for affecting global climate policy. And so my view is that we have to work within that mechanism, and that framework and recognize that some progress has been made. And it doesn't matter whether it's the UN or some other organization that presides over this, it comes down in the end to differences in interest among the different parties. And that's what we have to work out. We have to make sure that these agreements are seen both as good for the industrial world and for the developing world, everybody gains from us taking action here. And we just have to make sure that there's fairness and there's equity and justice in the way that we implement any global agreements. Four years ago we were in a much worse place. We no longer had any leadership by the United States. 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 have to accomplish what we can within the flawed global negotiations framework that exists, while also levying pressure, as individual nations, against state actors that go back on their commitments (e.g. through political and economic pressure that can include border adjustments and tariffs, etc). 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? All we can do is 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 long understood that it just doesn't work that way. 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 those who advocate for nuclear energy, like Bill Gates?


“Bill Gates has stated that we need a miracle to solve this problem. And I find that really disconcerting. I find it disingenuous. He continues to argue that we don't have the technology to decarbonize our economy, and that's very misleading and it leads us in the wrong direction. Not only does nuclear energy come with all sorts of risks, it is not cost effective. It's much more expensive, requires much more governmental subsidies, so it doesn't even make sense from sort of a market economic standpoint. And he also advocates geoengineering, like shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere to block out some of the sunlight. And when you look at the potential side effects, we could end up screwing up the planet even worse.


“Gates chooses to advocate that dangerous path because he downplays the role that renewable energy can play today. He ignores very substantial literature that demonstrates a path forward where we can decarbonize the global economy with existing renewable energy technology - wind, solar, geothermal, energy storage, smart grid technology. We have the tools, the obstacles aren't technological as Gates implies - they're political. He once said in an interview, ‘I don't know the solution to the politics, so I just discuss the technological aspect’. But if you don't know the solution to the politics, you don't know the solution to this problem, because 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. But Israel is a friend to the U.S., and I think that under the current administration we might start to see things evolve. Many countries, like China for example, were sort of easing off in their commitments under Donald Trump, and I think it probably happened with Israel as well. 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? But Australian troops were less than 1% of the troops that fought in WW2, and they fought anyway because they knew it was the right thing to do. And so that's what I would say to Israel as well.


“I’m stubbornly optimistic and stubbornly hopeful. Am I pollyannaish? Do I not recognize that we are in a precarious situation and that things could go either way? I fully recognize that there are clearly some very dystopian futures that are within the realm of possibility 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.”