Friendly fire in the war on climate change

February 23, 2021

The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.
By Michael Mann
Scribe, Melbourne, 2021
351 pp.

Michael E Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist based at Penn State University and the principal inventor of the hockey stick hypothesis as well as a central figure in the “Climategate” affair, decided to become a climate activist upon discovering that his audiences found his lectures on future climate scenarios highly depressing.

Mann’s book reminds me of how variegated and disparate the climate movement is. At the upper end, it includes highflyers such Al Gore and Leonardo Di Caprio, both of whom have endorsed his book. At the other end, it includes climate justice activists who call for “system change, not climate change”, which includes ecosocialists and ecoanarchists. In the middle, the movement includes grassroots climate activists and celebrities such Bill McKibben, a long-time environmentalist and the founder of and Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who jumpstarted the global student climate movement, both of whom have also endorsed Mann’s book.

For Mann, the new climate war is primarily a struggle against the fossil fuel industry, not global capitalism per se. He chronicles how the fossil fuel industry, starting with the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition, orchestrated a climate denial campaign and found support among various ultra-conservative scientists and business interests.

Mann asserts many of the old-time climate deniers or “inactivists” have, by and large, been replaced by an assortment of “deflectors, dividers and doomers”, although he does acknowledge climate denialism on the part of former United States president Donald Trump, and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in more recent times.

Mann cites the example of a 1970s US public service announcement for the Keep America Beautiful campaign. The so-called “Crying Indian” campaign, blaming people for pollution, framed the climate crisis within individual behaviour and deflected attention from destructive industrial practices of the fossil fuel industries.

He claims air travel receives a disproportionate amount of shaming, and with social media targeting “influential experts and public figures in the climate arena as ‘hypocrites’ by accusing them of hedonistic lifestyles entailing human carbon footprints” (p 82) serves as a divisive tactic. Mann argues that air travel, at least prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, accounted for only about 3% of global carbon emissions. However, he fails to mention that various experts place a factor of two to three on this figure, if other emissions are factored into the equation.

Mann singles out Kevin Anderson, a British-based climate scientist, who gave up flying about 15 years ago, as having been taken in by the deflectors. In actual fact, Anderson maintains that individual actions may serve as the catalyst for deeper systemic changes which would contribute to climate change mitigation. Is Mann himself, as a privileged academic and a former advisor to the Clinton campaign on energy and climate in 2016, perhaps deflecting attention from the greater contribution that elites of various sorts make to emissions?

Mann asserts: “Flight-shaming is a good fit with those who see capitalism itself as the enemy” (p 80). I suspect he would categorise eco-socialists as well as eco-anarchists as dividers: those who engage in “class warfare” with the likes of Al Gore, corporations and corporate-linked bodies such as the World Bank, the OECD and the World Economic Forum, which now claim that they seek to take climate action.

Mann fails to observe that aeroplanes, along with ships, have served as a central lynchpin of corporate globalisation. In the case of COVID-19, aeroplanes contributed greatly to the rapid spread of the virus around the world, first carried by affluent travelers, then passed on to ordinary people.

In addition to its emissions, meat production appears to play a crucial role in the spread of various infectious diseases from animals to humans. Mann, who is a vegetarian, validates the assertion on the part of some ecologists “that our resource-hungry modern lifestyle — in particular, the destruction of rainforests and other natural ecosystems — may be the underlying factor favouring the sorts of pandemics we have just witnessed” (p 249).

Mann believes the systemic changes needed to mitigate climate change can be achieved through market mechanisms, particularly carbon pricing and massive new infrastructural changes, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, electrification, including electric vehicles.

In terms of carbon pricing, he does not discuss the respective pros and cons of carbon taxes versus emissions trading schemes (ETS). Mann correctly observes that the carbon price mechanism (CPM) implemented in 2012 by the Australian Labor government led by Julia Gillard, with support from the Greens, resulted in a modest reduction of emissions while operating as carbon tax.

However, the CPM was aborted by the newly-elected Coalition government under Tony Abbott in 2014, roughly a year before it was slated to transform into an ETS.

By and large, however, ETSs have proved to be of limited merit in mitigating emissions, particularly in the case of the European Union.

Mann praises billionaire Elon Musk and his company Tesla for constituting “what may be the greatest threat of all to the fossil fuel industry” (p 126). What Mann fails to note is that solar-powered electric vehicles require a tremendous amount of embedded energy and batteries requiring rare metals, which are in limited supply. Furthermore, electric vehicles are still dependent on extensive road systems and can kill and maim people just as conventional vehicles have done for decades.

Mann concedes that “[t]here are many worthwhile societal problems to confront — animal rights, a cleaner environment, social justice, income inequality, the list goes on” (p 78). However, unlike climate justice activists who frequently observe that those who have contributed the least to climate change are those ones who are suffering the most from it, for the most part he chooses to sidestep social justice issues and the fact that global capitalism has contributed to massive social disparities within and between nation states.

Mann broadly supports the Green New Deal’s goals as delineated by US Senator Ed Markey and Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, he takes potshots at people who have the temerity to critique neoliberalism, such as Naomi Klein as well as Will Steffen, the former executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

While admitting that Steffen is a credible environmental scientist, he faults his colleague for advocating shifting away from neoliberalism as rapidly as possible as a strategy for drastically reducing emissions.

Mann argues that people such as Klein and Steffen function as dividers. He asserts that they provide conservatives with ammunition against climate action by “reinforcing the right-wing trope that environmentalists are ‘watermelons’ (green on the outside, red on the inside) who secretly want to use environmental sustainability as an excuse for overthrowing capitalism and economic growth” (p 95). What Mann fails to see is that a meaningful struggle against climate change and capitalism — not only neoliberalism — are one and the same.

Fortunately, Mann devotes a chapter to critiquing “non-solution solutions”, including natural gas as an interim energy source superior to coal and petroleum; carbon capture and sequestration; bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS); nuclear power, and various proposed geo-engineering schemes such as shooting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere and ocean iron fertilisation.

He rightly criticises Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates for supporting the geo-engineering research efforts of David Keith, a Harvard academic, an affiliate of the Breakthrough Institute and signatory of the Eco-Modernist Manifesto.

I am in basic agreement with Mann’s critique of the climate doomists of various shades who argue that climate change has reached a point that has doomed humanity to extinction.

In the closing words of his book, Mann seeks to address the assertion of those he terms “progressives” that current climate policies don’t sufficiently address social injustices, arguing that “simply acting on the climate crisis is acting to alleviate social injustice” (p 266). Unfortunately, he appears to be hostile to climate justice activists who in calling for “system change, not climate change” are also calling for transcending capitalism, not merely tweaking it to make it slightly more social just and environmentally sustainable.

Mann, to his credit, has made important contributions to climate science and taken on the climate deniers who have harassed him and other climate scientists for long. However, perhaps it is time that he, as an influential climate communicator, joins forces with a burgeoning climate justice movement, which is calling for deeper systemic changes than those called for by the United Nations Congress of the Parties and supposedly enlightened corporate and political elites around the world.

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