Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean
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‘The New Climate War’: Michael E. Mann on how to fight the climate inactivists

Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean

So far in this Column we’ve looked at two issues – climate anxiety, and destructive fishing – both of which provide perfect examples of what Michael E. Mann discusses in his most recent book, ‘The New Climate War’.

Mann is a renowned American climate scientist, most famous for his hockey-stick graph showing temperature rises caused by increasing CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Being at the front-line of climate science for the last three decades also means that Mann has been at the front-line of attacks from climate deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry and other usual suspects such as the Koch brothers and the Murdoch media empire.

The subtitle to the book is ‘the fight to take back our planet’, yet this is not an allusion to the aforementioned climate deniers, who have now been almost completely wiped off the mainstream slate. Mann’s book was written before the US Presidential Election, but perhaps he would agree that Joe Biden’s victory marked the death knell for climate denialism, with the most powerful person in world politics no longer a member of the denialist club.

So who are we fighting the new climate war against then, if not the deniers?

The answer, says Mann, are the five Ds: the “downplayers, deflectors, dividers, delayers, and doomers,” who employ a host of tactics to frustrate, prevent and dilute actions to tackle the climate crisis.

These strategies are nothing new; as Mann notes, the same tactics used by the anti-climate lobby now were employed by tobacco firms half a century ago when the scientific evidence that smoking was unequivocally bad for our health had become irrefutable.

The epigram of Chapter 1 is a quote from a tobacco executive in 1969: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of science’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

Sow seeds of doubt, and at worst, action is delayed, at best, it is never taken.

“The solution is already here. We just need to deploy it rapidly and at a massive scale. It all comes down to political will and economic incentives.” When put in these terms, Mann makes it sound as if our fight against climate change is an easy win. And yes, in the sense that we already have the solutions we need to ‘take back our planet’ – the renewable energy technology and capacity and the infrastructural ability to decarbonise our societies – the path is a clear one. Yet systemic, structural changes, of course, face powerful, wealthy, well-connected obstacles, from those financing politicians such as the Koch family, to those at the helm of worldwide media empires like Rupert Murdoch.

It’s not the climate we’re fighting, it’s these guys (and that gendered ending is intentional).

By-and-large, it is the same people who are responsible for the fact that CO2 levels are now reaching 420ppm – wealthy, white, western men – who are behind the most asserted attempts to prevent us from taking the far-reaching actions necessary to slow down, and then bring down, this crucial number.

Let’s go back to what I said at the beginning; climate anxiety is a fear many of us have about our future, and it can be a positive motivator for action, or it can be played upon by the forces of inaction. Through doomsaying for instance, we are told it is too late to do anything about the climate crisis, that we should just focus on adaptation, or that any change we make will not be enough. Method: sow seeds of doubt. Aim: prevent action, fuel inaction.

The same goes for the individual vs. collective action debate, or really, false dichotomy, which seeks to pit those in the same camp – the climate-concerned – against one another. Take the issues raised in Seaspiracy from last week’s Column: industrial fishing has consistently pushed the plastic-straw narrative, focusing our attention away from their destructive actions.

Inactivists, Mann warns, “have waged a campaign to convince you that climate change is your fault, and that any real solutions involve individual action and personal responsibility alone, rather than policies aimed at holding corporate polluters accountable and decarbonising our economy. They have sought to deflect the conversation toward the car you drive, the food you eat, and the lifestyle you live.”

The more time we spend in internecine quarrels about these deflecting issues, the less time we spend tackling the rigged system which forces the individual to pollute, to be a hypocrite, and to be a consumer at the end of environmentally-damaging supply-chains.

Two words at the heart of Mann’s book are urgency and agency. We must fight the inactivists, the doubt-sowers and the doom-sayers, to ensure that we retain the power of agency that comes with both individual and collective action, so that our politicians implement systemic changes which meet the urgency required to tackle the climate crisis.

The New Climate War then, must be waged against those who are at war with our planet and our future; the fossil fuel corporations, the media moguls and political financiers who seek to delay and divert us from taking action that is not only necessary and scientifically-supported, but also increasingly popular with the public and previously unconvinced conservative politicians.

ACTION: In my first column’s action, I quoted Eric Holthaus on the importance of talking to others about the climate crisis. The same message runs throughout Mann’s book. This week’s action, then, is to fight against the inactivists, even if indirectly: if a friend questions your individual actions or calls you a hypocrite, respond in a way which highlights systemic changes which alone can turn the tide against the climate crisis. Tell them that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, and point them to campaigns (such as the CEE Bill Alliance) which seek to address these systemic issues.

ACTION 2: on a further point, if you are a UK citizen, MAKE SURE YOU ARE REGISTERED TO VOTE. There are various elections taking place in early May this year, which decide the make-up of local and regional councils and mayors whose decisions have significant implications. If you are a student, you can register to vote at your home and term-time address. Local elections matter! I have ordered postal votes for both my home and Oxford addresses – it is a simple and quick form you can fill out online. If you are not registered to vote, the deadline is the end of next Monday (the 19th). Register here: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

Pura vida,

Max.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue, and now writes a weekly Climate Column. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.