01/15/2021

A New President, An Ongoing Climate Crisis

17:14 minutes

a white man leaning against a wall in front of a painting with his arms crossed over his chest
Climate scientist Michael Mann. Credit: Joshua Yospyn

In The New Climate War, author and climate scientist Michael Mann devotes a whole chapter to the “Crying Indian,” an iconic figure of the early environmental movement. It was popularized in a television ad during the 1970s, which showed garbage strewn all over the ground, and an American Indian weeping. The ad implied that if you cared about the environment, you could help by picking up litter. 

Focusing on individual action distracted viewers from focusing on the harm of industrial polluters. Missing from the screen were pictures of rivers so clogged with industrial wastes they caught fire, and air so thick with smoke and soot you could see what you were breathing. The message was: Just pick up the bottles and cans. Don’t pay attention to the pollution. 

Today, Mann suggests, climate messaging is equally distorted, even if the crisis is different. To prevent a climate crisis, individual actions are useful, but insufficient. For real change, we have to fight the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. 

On January 20th the United States has a new opportunity to do just that. The incoming Biden Administration will have a full plate of issues to tackle—among them, hustling to re-engage with foreign allies, and reversing the climate damage of the last four years. But there is room for cautious optimism. President-elect Biden campaigned more aggressively on climate issues than any of his opponents, and has appointed John Kerry to the newly created position of Climate Envoy within his administration. 

Climate scientist Michael Mann joins Ira to discuss what President Biden can do in his first 100 days to show he’s serious about enacting climate policy, and his new book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.


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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Back in the early 1970s, when the environmental movement was just beginning, a very prominent ad caught the eye of TV viewers. It showed litter being tossed carelessly onto the roadside, crashing at the foot of a Native American who was weeping at the site. The punchline of the ad.

SPEAKER: People start pollution. People can stop it.

IRA FLATOW: The ad was intended to distract you from casting your gaze at industrial polluters. Missing were pictures of rivers so clogged with industrial wastes, they actually caught fire, air so thick with smoke and soot, headlights were turned on during the day. Michael Mann devotes a chapter in his book, The New Climate War, to the parallels between this Madison Avenue figure, the crying American Indian, and what the fossil fuel industry is doing today, distracting us from holding drivers of climate change from accountability, the fossil fuel industry.

But Mann writes, “There’s room for hopeful optimism, President-elect Biden campaigned aggressively on climate issues.” So what can President Biden do in his first 100 days to show us he’s serious about enacting climate Policy Michael Mann is here with some advice. He is Professor of Atmospheric Science, Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, author of The New Climate War, the Fight to Take Back our Planet. Welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks so much Ira, always a pleasure to talk with you.

IRA FLATOW: You know, it’s interesting. It seems that that crying Indian is gone. But 51 years later, the message is still the same. You dedicate a whole chapter in your book, as I say, to the image of the crying Indian. What does that image have to do with the fossil fuel industry Today

MICHAEL MANN: Yes, it’s a classic example of a deflection campaign. It’s the defining example, perhaps, of a deflection campaign which is aimed at distracting us and deflecting attention from the needed systemic changes, policy changes, to individual behavior as if individual behavior, us being better people, is how we solve these problems. And it was extremely effective. And so the fossil fuel industry has sort of taken that same playbook and run with it in their effort to deflect attention from the need for carbon pricing, and incentives for renewable energy, and leveling the playing field in the energy industry so renewables can compete fairly.

They don’t want any of that. So they’d rather make it about individual behavior, our diet, whether we fly, and, hey, if they can get us pointing fingers at each other and behavior shaming each other, it’s a twofer because then they divide and conquer the climate advocacy community and we no longer speak with a unified voice demanding change.

IRA FLATOW: So if the Biden administration came to you, and I don’t know if they have or not, and said, Michael, we need your help, tell us what we can do in our first year in office that would be the fastest, what would be the most effective for combating climate change? What advice would you give them?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, I would say, in part, to continue doing what you guys are doing. I think they’ve gotten off to a great start on climate. The first and most important thing was to communicate to the world community that we’re serious about this, that the US is willing to not only support global efforts, the Paris Agreement and going beyond the Paris Agreement, but to once again be a leader on this issue, as we were under President Barack Obama, and has signaled that to the world community by, for example, appointing John Kerry as the special envoy on climate, the so-called climate czar.

John Kerry helped negotiate the Paris summit, the bilateral agreement between the US and China. He has real diplomatic bona fides in the world community. But he also helped shepherd one climate bill about 10 years ago. It didn’t ultimately pass Congress, but he’s advanced legislation as well. So we’ve got a very serious actor in place to help convince the world that we’re back, and we’re willing to do our part, and we’re willing to lead. And meanwhile, Biden has also integrated climate policy into every single cabinet, into every single appointment that he’s made, which is sort of a revolutionary idea.

In the past, climate action has sort of been confined within the executive branch, to the EPA, and maybe the Department of Energy. But here, it’s really spread out across all of the various cabinets and agencies. And it’s a recognition that this is now a problem that permeates every sector of modern life. And to solve it, we need to advance policy measures in every sector.

IRA FLATOW: Well, give me an idea of what advancing policy. What kind of legislation? How do we hold the fossil fuel industry responsible and what do we do to get past that?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, exactly. And that’s sort of the carrot. But we need to stick too. We need to dis-incentivize polluters, carbon polluters. And there are various ways to do that. One could certainly do that by no longer providing subsidies for additional fossil fuel infrastructure. And Biden has indicated that he won’t do that. He won’t promote the building of new pipelines like the Keystone XL pipeline that was green-lighted, again, under Trump.

But we also need a price on carbon. Polluters have to pay for the fact that they’re doing damage to the planet. And we need to level the playing field in the energy marketplace so renewable energy can truly compete fairly against fossil fuel energy. And so I think that there are ways to do carbon pricing such that it is progressive, in fact. And that’s the way it’s been implemented in places like Canada and Australia where lower income individuals and families have actually benefited.

So it’s essential that we make sure that any of these mechanisms are done in a way that’s just and that doesn’t put undue burden on those who have the least resources and have the least responsibility in creating the problem. And I hope that there might be room now for some sort of bipartisan compromise climate legislation. Look, we probably won’t get a Green New Deal, an expansive new climate, Green New Deal, through a 50-50 Senate. But I think we can get some meaningful legislation accomplished in the next two years.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the Green New Deal, do you think progressives are going to be against things that fall short of the terrific expansion of the economy and the kind of things they want to see happen in the Green New Deal?

MICHAEL MANN: So I am a little worried about the perfect becoming the enemy of the good here within, sort of, some enclaves in the environmental community. There is this notion that, for example, carbon pricing, which I think is one of the essential tools in the toolbox. It’s not a magic bullet, none of these things are. But it’s one of the tools. We need to use every tool we’re available that’s available to us if we’re going to conquer this problem.

So I think we have to make it clear that carbon pricing can be done in a way that’s just, that doesn’t hurt lower income and front-line communities. And it’s not, again, the silver bullet. One of the criticisms against carbon pricing is, well, the price won’t be high enough to make a real difference, to get us the emissions reductions we need. Well, that depends on the price that’s set. And of course, there’s going to be a political battle over that. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t want to see a high carbon price.

But that is part of the negotiation. And it is just one of the tools in the toolbox. So carbon pricing along with subsidies for renewable energy and all these executive actions that are moving forward under Biden and our engagement with the global community, all of those things, collectively, together, can lead us down the path where we avert catastrophic warming of more than two degrees Celsius, three degrees Fahrenheit, some of these targets we talk about that we don’t want to go beyond. There’s still a path forward. And I’m optimistic, given the shift in the political winds, that we can do it.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of optimism, I sort of detect, when we talk about the public in general, that there has been a paradigm shift in accepting climate change as a real thing. And that seems to portend well for the future. Do you get that also?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, I do. And that is sort of one of the favorable developments, I would say, that have come together to put us really in a uniquely favorable position to see meaningful climate action. There’s the fact that climate change has become so obvious to the person on the street. We’re seeing the impacts play out in real time now. This isn’t just about polar bears up in the Arctic decades from now. It’s about unprecedented super-storms, wildfires, heat waves, floods, that we see play out now in real-time on our television screens.

Now, that’s part of what has led to this new climate war, the fact that the forces of inaction, the in-activists, as I call them, sort of fossil fuel interests and those doing their bidding, recognize that they can no longer credibly deny that climate change is real or even that it’s caused by us. And so instead what they’ve done is to engage in this multi-pronged campaign, this new climate war that I describe, consisting of various tactics, including the deflection that we talked about, but also the promotion of false solutions like geoengineering, or, hey, we can just capture the carbon, and bury it, and continue to burn fossil fuels.

And we really have to look out for doom mongering. There has been an effort for them to sort of fan the flames of doom-ism. If you really believe it’s too late to do anything, then that potentially leads you down the same path of inaction as outright denial. And look, it could be inactivists, the fossil fuel interests behind this, they don’t care about the path you take. They just care about the destination. They want you not to be out there demanding action on climate.

IRA FLATOW: So you sound optimistic. I mean, you end your book on an optimistic note that things can really turn.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, you know, there are a number of developments that have come together and– sort of forgive the expression– a perfect storm of circumstances that really placed us in a position where we finally may see that tipping point in public consciousness, a recognition that now is our time and we have to act now. There is great urgency. But there is also agency. We can solve this problem.

IRA FLATOW: We started our conversation by talking about what individuals can do and what individuals have been told to do. What advice would you give to people who say, I’m inspired to do something. I want to read your book and then go out and take action on the climate crisis. What can I do? What do you say to those people?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, it’s a two-pronged response. I say, do all those things that you can do in your everyday life that reduce your environmental footprint. I mean, look, they save you money. They make you healthier. They make us feel better. They set a great example for other people. Why shouldn’t we do these things? So of course, we need to do those things. But we can’t allow that to be viewed as a substitute for the needed systemic changes. We need subsidies for renewable energy. We need to accelerate the green energy transition. We do need some sort of carbon pricing, in my view.

And look, as individuals we can’t implement those things. So we need politicians. We need policymakers who are willing to do our bidding, the bidding of the people they’re supposed to represent, rather than the bidding of fossil fuel interests, which has too often been the case. And look, we took the first step in this last election. Voting is one of the most important ways that we can sort of express ourselves politically. And we came out, we turned out. And we elected a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress now that are willing to act.

But we can’t stop there. We have to continue to put pressure on our policymakers, on our politicians. Because we know there’s huge amounts of pressure being placed on them by the fossil fuel interests. And it’s the squeaky wheel. If we don’t push back against that pressure and demand accountability then, unfortunately, even those we view as our political allies may not do what’s necessary to be done. So be out there, using your voice, talking about this issue, writing to your local politicians, speaking out, writing letters to the editor, and just making sure that this is at the forefront of our conversation in the next 100 days as we move forward and we have a real opportunity for meaningful action.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Michael Mann, author of the new book, The New Climate War, on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. As you say in your book, that there’s urgency but we also have agency.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s critical to communicate both. And it’s critical to recognize that the science actually supports that. Most of the doom-ism that we see these days is predicated on a distortion of the science. And in some cases, the misrepresentations by doom-ists are almost as egregious, if not as egregious, as the misrepresentations by outright climate change deniers. For example, the idea that we’re already in a position where runaway warming is inevitable, there’s nothing we can do to prevent the massive escape of methane that will warm the planet beyond livable conditions.

The science doesn’t support that at all. In fact, the best available science now indicates that if we stop burning carbon, if we were to go cold turkey right now on burning carbon and carbon emissions went to zero, the surface temperature of the planet would stabilize in a few years. And that’s an important revision of sort of the understanding we used to have where we thought that the planet would still warm up for decades because of what we call thermal inertia, the oceans slowly warming up in response to the greenhouse gases that are there.

That is true. But as we do more realistic modeling experiments that incorporate the full Earth system, the role of the oceans and the biosphere in absorbing carbon, we’ve learned that if we stop burning carbon, the oceans, as they continue to take carbon out of the atmosphere, will actually draw down atmospheric carbon. It will come down. And that effect offsets this sort of committed warming thermal inertia effect.

And in the end, you get sort of a flat line. If we stop burning carbon now, surface temperatures stabilize almost immediately. That is extremely important. It means our actions do, indeed, have agency. It means that there’s an immediate and direct response to our reductions in carbon emissions.

IRA FLATOW: Didn’t we see an example of that during COVID-19 when people were hunkered down at home and not driving and industries were shut? Wasn’t there a tremendous decrease in greenhouse gas emissions?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, absolutely. What we saw was that our actions can make an immediate difference with our greenhouse gas emissions. And for the year 2020, it looks like they’re going to come down about 7%. They’ll be down 7%, which is the biggest drop we’ve seen in modern history in carbon emissions. That’s the good news. The bad news is we’ve got to do that every year for the next 10 years, at least, to remain on that path for stabilizing warming below catastrophic levels, one and a half degrees Celsius, roughly three Fahrenheit.

That means an additional 7% this year and, then an additional 7% the following year, and so on. And it quickly becomes obvious that the sorts of changes that we’ve made, the social distancing, the lockdowns, the largely behavioral changes, the reduction in transportation, that got us that 7% reduction, that saturates pretty quickly. To go beyond that and get additional similar reductions in subsequent years, we really need to decarbonize our economy.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels for transportation, for power generation, for industry, et cetera. And that requires major structural changes. So there is sort of a mixed message. Yes, our actions make an immediate difference. And we see that in the drop in carbon emissions this year. But it also drives home the point that there’s only so much that we can do based on behavioral changes to go beyond that. We need to decarbonize our civilization. And that means a lot of work over the next few years.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you Michael. Michael Mann, Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, author of a really terrific new book, The New Climate War, the Fight to Take Back Our Planet. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Good luck with the book.

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks so much, Ira. Like I said, always a pleasure to talk with you.

IRA FLATOW: And you can check out an excerpt of his new book, The New Climate War, up on our website at sciencefriday.com/climatewar.

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