There are many standout moments in climatologist Michael Mann’s new book, but perhaps the most salient is a chart reproduced from a 1982 internal Exxon document. With uncanny accuracy, the oil company’s own scientists four decades ago were able to predict the likely levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, by 2020, as well as its extremely dangerous impact on global temperatures.
What happened next is what the author describes, with some justification, as “the most immoral act in the history of human civilization”. Rather than raising the alarm, the fossil fuel industry sought instead to protect its profits by spreading disinformation, including funding vicious personalised attacks on individual scientists.
One of their targets was Mann himself. In 1999, he and colleagues published the now iconic “hockey stick” graph, which showed how global temperatures had cooled slowly in recent centuries, only to rise sharply as CO2 levels soared. While most scientists are professionally diffident and avoid public controversy, the Penn State University professor is a man of war. “They thought I was easy prey,” he writes.
His 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars charts in vivid detail how powerful vested interests harassed and threatened him and other colleagues in a vain attempt to silence them. Mann’s latest volume brings the story forward. The premise of The New Climate War is that while overt climate denial is largely a lost cause, it has shape-shifted. The same largely right-wing vested interests are still very much at play, Mann argues, only this time they have cunningly co-opted many of the arguments and anxieties of progressives to stymie and delay effective action.
This is what he calls the new front in the ongoing climate wars being waged by those he labels the climate inactivists. Mann’s alliterative toolkit for inactivists includes disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay and doomism. Watching the Covid pandemic unfold was, he writes, “like watching a time lapse of the climate crisis”. Crucially, in both cases, albeit on different time scales, “the slower we are to act, the higher the cost”.
One of the most insidious shifts in climate messaging is to push all the onus onto individual actions. This effectively lets the real culprits – multinational corporations – clean off the hook. “Is behaviour-shaming the modern opiate of the climate-anxiety-stricken masses? And are the inactivists the pushers?” Mann asks provocatively. It was, he adds, energy firm BP that first promoted the concept of the “personal carbon footprint”.
Last year it emerged that fossil fuel interests were behind a PR campaign in the US trying to drive a racial wedge between Black Lives Matters protesters and climate activists. Mann advises readers not to let themselves “get dragged into divisive spats with those who are on the same side as you”.
Given his pugilistic style, Mann adds: “I constantly have to remind myself of the very advice I’m giving you right now.”
He articulates the frustration felt by some scientists that they are being unfairly judged. “Many ostensible climate advocates would gladly throw us [scientists] under the bus because we’re not living our lives as off-the-grid vegan hermits.”
In war there are casualties, including the innocent. While Mann rightly blasts delayers and cynical “eco-modernists” such as Bill Gates, Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger, some of his volleys inflict collateral damage on good faith climate allies such as George Monbiot and Prof Kevin Anderson.
Unusually, Twitter provides much of the book’s source material (Mann is a prolific tweeter). This may explain the robust nature of many of the exchanges, especially among people supposedly on the same side. Mann reserves special scorn for defeatism: “Doomism today arguably poses a greater threat to climate action than outright denial.” That is probably a stretch.
While cognisant that climate change poses grave risks to civilisation, he adds that “there is no cliff that we fall off at 1.5 or 2C of warming”. A better analogy, he argues, is that “we’re walking into a minefield, and the further we go, the greater the risk”.
The minefield metaphor chimes well with his war framing, but I did not find it entirely reassuring. After all, you may also be unlucky and step straight onto a mine – an outcome every bit as hazardous as tumbling off a cliff. But his point remains valid: for as long as there is the slightest chance of avoiding an irreversible climate calamity, simply giving up is as morally indefensible as climate denial, delay or deflection.
Mann’s conditional climate optimism is inspired in part by the youth climate movement. He is also adamant that the entire fossil fuel sector can be quite quickly replaced by renewables. Many energy experts might demur.
The New Climate Wars is a punchy, provocative, informed, sometimes idiosyncratic but also deeply personal take on the crisis, by a respected voice in the climate science and communications field.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator.