How Companies Denied Their Role In Climate Change
Michael Mann seeks to debunk the lies that have derailed attempts to curb climate change and arms readers with a real path forward to preserving the planet.
The following is an excerpt from The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael Mann.
“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels…. There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. . . . Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert…. [Some countries] would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed…. Man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical…. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet
You might be forgiven for assuming those prophetic words were spoken by Al Gore in the mid-1990s. No, they were the words of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil senior scientist James F. Black in recently unearthed internal documents from the 1970s. In the decades since, instead of heeding the warnings of its own scientists, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests waged a public relations campaign contesting the scientific evidence and doing everything in their power to block policies aimed at curbing planet-warming carbon pollution.
As a result, our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not yet taking the measures necessary to avert the largest global crisis we have ever faced. We are in a war—but before we engage we must first understand the mind of the enemy.
What evolving tactics are the forces of denial and delay employing today in their efforts to stymie climate action? How might we combat this shape-shifting Leviathan? Is it too late? Can we still avert catastrophic global climate change? These are all questions to which we deserve answers, and in the pages ahead, we’ll find them.
Our story starts nearly a century ago, when the original denial and delay playbooks were first written. It turns out, the fossil fuel industry learned from the worst. The gun lobby’s motto—that “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”—dates back to the 1920s. A textbook example of dangerous deflection, it diverts attention away from the problem of easy access to assault weapons and toward other purported contributors to mass shootings, such as mental illness or media depictions of violence.
The tobacco industry took a similar tack, seeking to discredit the linkage between cigarettes and lung cancer even as its own internal research, dating back to the 1950s, demonstrated the deadly and addictive nature of its product. “Doubt is our Product” read one of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company’s internal memos.
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Then there’s the now iconic “Crying Indian” ad. Some readers may recall the commercial from the early 1970s. Featuring a tearful Indian named “Iron Eyes Cody,” it alerted viewers to the accumulating bottle and can waste littering our countryside. The ad, however, wasn’t quite what it appeared to be on the surface. A bit of sleuthing reveals that it was actually the centerpiece of a massive deflection campaign engineered by the beverage industry, which sought to point the finger at us, rather than corporations, emphasizing individual responsibility over collective action and governmental regulation. As a result, the global environmental threat of plastic pollution is still with us, a problem that has reached such crisis proportions that plastic waste has now penetrated to the deepest part of the world’s oceans.
Finally, we get to the fossil fuel industry. Joined by billionaire plutocrats like the Koch brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes, companies such as ExxonMobil funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign beginning in the late 1980s, working to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil fuel burning. This science denial took precedence even as ExxonMobil’s own team of scientists concluded that the impacts of continued fossil fuel use could lead to “devastating” climate-change impacts.
And the scientists were right. Decades later, thanks to that campaign, we are now witnessing the devastating effects of unchecked climate change. We see them playing out in the daily news cycle, on our television screens, in our newspaper headlines, and in our social media feeds. Coastal inundation, withering heat waves and droughts, devastating floods, raging wildfires: this is the face of dangerous climate change. It’s a face that we increasingly recognize.
As a consequence, the forces of denial and delay—the fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels—can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change simply isn’t credible anymore. So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multi-pronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay. This is the new climate war, and the planet is losing.
The enemy has masterfully executed a deflection campaign—inspired by those of the gun lobby, the tobacco industry, and beverage companies—aimed at shifting responsibility from corporations to individuals. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis. Though these actions are worth taking, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed. That’s quite convenient for fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, which continue to make record profits every day that we remain, to quote former president George W. Bush, “addicted to fossil fuels.”
The deflection campaign also provides an opportunity for the enemy to employ a “wedge” strategy dividing the climate advocacy community, exploiting a preexisting rift between climate advocates more focused on individual action and those emphasizing collective and policy action.
Using online bots and trolls, manipulating social media and Internet search engines, the enemy has deployed the sort of cyber-weaponry honed during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They are the same tactics that gave us a climate-change-denying U.S. president in Donald Trump. Malice, hatred, jealousy, fear, rage, bigotry, all of the most base, reptilian brain impulses—corporate polluters and their allies have waged a campaign to tap into all of that, seeking to sow division within the climate movement while generating fear and outrage on the part of their “base”—the disaffected right.
Meanwhile, these forces of inaction have effectively opposed measures to regulate or price carbon emissions, attacked viable alternatives like renewable energy, and advocated instead false solutions, such as coal burning with carbon capture, or unproven and potentially dangerous “geo-engineering” schemes that involve massive manipulation of our planetary environment. Hypothetical future “innovations,” the argument goes, will somehow save us, so there’s no need for any current policy intervention. We can just throw a few dollars at “managing” the risks while we continue to pollute.
With climate progress sidelined by the Trump administration’s dismantling of climate-friendly Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policies such as the Clean Power Plan, along with its rollbacks in regulations on pollutants, its green-lighting of oil and gas pipelines, its direct handouts to a struggling coal industry, and its cheap leases to drill on public lands, the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed free rein to expand its polluting enterprise.
The enemy is also employing PSYOP in its war on climate action. It has promoted the narrative that climate-change impacts will be mild, innocuous, and easily adapted to, undermining any sense of urgency, while at the same time promoting the inevitability of climate change to dampen any sense of agency. This effort has been aided and abetted by individuals who are ostensible climate champions but have portrayed catastrophe as a fait accompli, either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, by dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or by setting the standard so high (say, the very overthrow of market economics itself, that old chestnut) that any action seems doomed to failure. The enemy has been more than happy to amplify such notions.
But all is not lost. In this book, I aim to debunk false narratives that have derailed attempts to curb climate change and arm readers with a real path forward to preserving our planet. Our civilization can be saved, but only if we learn to recognize the current tactics of the enemy—that is, the forces of inaction—and how to combat them.
My decades of experience on the front lines of the battle to communicate the science of climate change and its implications have provided me with some unique insights. The “hockey stick” is the name that was given to a curve my colleagues and I published in 1998 demonstrating the steep uptick in planetary temperatures over the past century. The graph achieved iconic status in the climate change debate because it told a simple story, namely, that we were causing unprecedented warming of the planet by burning fossil fuels and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Decades later, the hockey-stick curve is still attacked despite the many studies that have not only reaffirmed but extended our findings. Why? Because it remains a threat to vested interests.
The attacks on the hockey stick in the late 1990s drew me—then a young scientist—into the fray. In the process of defending myself and my work from politically motivated attacks, I became a reluctant and involuntary combatant in the climate wars. I’ve seen the enemy up close, in battle, for two decades now. I know how it operates and what tactics it uses. And I’ve been monitoring the dramatic shifts in those tactics over the past few years in response to the changing nature of the battlefield. I have adapted to those shifting tactics, changing how I engage the public and policymakers in my own efforts to inform and impact the public discourse. It is my intent, in this book, to share with you what I’ve learned, and to engage you, too, as a willing soldier in this battle to save our planet from a climate crisis before it is too late.
Here’s the four point battle plan, which we’ll return to at the end of the book:
Disregard the Doomsayers: The misguided belief that “it’s too late” to act has been co-opted by fossil fuel interests and those advocating for them. It’s just another way of legitimizing business-as-usual and a continued reliance on fossil fuels. We must reject the overt doom and gloom that we increasingly encounter in today’s climate discourse.
A Child Shall Lead Them: The youngest generation is fighting tooth and nail to save their planet, and there is a moral authority and clarity in their message that none but the most jaded ears can fail to hear. They are the game-changers that climate advocates have been waiting for. We should model our actions after theirs and learn from their methods and their idealism.
Educate, Educate, Educate: Most hard-core climate-change deniers are unmovable. They view climate change through the prism of right-wing ideology and are impervious to facts. Don’t waste your time and effort trying to convince them. But there are many honest, confused folks out there who are caught in the crossfire, victims of the climate-change disinformation campaign. We must help them out. Then they will be in a position to join us in battle.
Changing the System Requires Systemic Change: The fossil fuel disinformation machine wants to make it about the car you choose to drive, the food you choose to eat, and the lifestyle you choose to live rather than about the larger system and incentives. We need policies that will incentivize the needed shift away from fossil fuel burning toward a clean, green global economy. So-called leaders who resist the call for action must be removed from office.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge make a journey into an unfamiliar future. It is understandable to feel paralyzed with fear at the prospect of our planet’s degradation. It’s not surprising that anxiety and fear abound when it comes to the climate crisis and our efforts to deal with it.
We must understand, though, that the forces of denial and delay are using our fear and anxiety against us so we remain like deer in the headlights. I have colleagues who have expressed discomfort in framing our predicament as a “war.” But, as I tell them, the surest way to lose a war is to refuse to recognize you’re in one in the first place. Whether we like it or not, and though clearly not of our own choosing, that’s precisely where we find ourselves when it comes to the industry-funded effort to block action on climate.
So we must be brave and find the strength to fight on, channeling that fear and anxiety into motivation and action. The stakes are simply too great.
As we continue to explore the cosmos, we are finding other planetary systems, some with planets that are even somewhat Earth-like in character. Some are similar in size to ours, and roughly the right distance from their star to reside in the so-called “habitable zone.” Some may harbor liquid water, an ingredient that is likely essential for life. Yet we have still not encountered any evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system, our galaxy, or indeed the entire universe. Life appears to be very rare indeed, complex life even more so. And intelligent life? We may, at least for all intents and purposes, be alone. Just us drifting aboard this “Spaceship Earth.” No other place to dock, no alternative ports at which to sojourn, with air to breathe, water to drink, or food to consume.
We are the custodians of an amazing gift. We have a Goldilocks planet, with just the right atmospheric composition, just the right distance from its star, yielding just the right temperature range for life, with liquid-water oceans and oxygen-rich air. Every person we will ever know, every animal or plant we will ever encounter, is reliant on conditions remaining just this way.
To continue to knowingly alter those conditions in a manner that threatens humanity and other life forms, simply so a few very large corporations can continue to make record profits, is not just unacceptable, or unethical—it would be the most immoral act in the history of human civilization: not just a crime against humanity, but a crime against our planet. We cannot be passive bystanders as polluters work toward making that eventuality come to pass. My intent with this book is to do everything within my power to make sure we aren’t.
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Excerpted from The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael E. Mann. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc
Michael Mann is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet (Public Affairs, 2021) and a Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and the Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.