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Michael Mann on COVID: ‘I see a perfect storm of climate opportunity’ – Also exposed ‘deadliness of anti-science’ views

By Jonathan Watts

The book provides a long list of other reasons to be hopeful – rapid take-up of renewable energy, technology advances, financial sector action and more. Even so, the US, like other countries, is still far short of the second world war-level of mobilisation that you and others say is necessary to keep global heating to 1.5C. Have the prospects for that been helped or hindered by Covid?
I see a perfect storm of climate opportunity. Terrible as the pandemic has been, this tragedy can also provide lessons, particularly on the importance of listening to the word of science when facing risks. That could be from medical scientists advising us on the need for social distancing to reduce the chances of contagion, or it could be from climate scientists recommending we cut carbon emissions to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe. There is also awareness of the deadliness of anti-science, which can be measured in hundreds of thousands of lives in the US that were unnecessarily lost because a president refused to implement policies based on what health scientists were saying. Out of this crisis can come a collective reconsideration of our priorities. How to live sustainably on a finite planet with finite space, food and water. A year from now, memories and impacts of coronavirus will still feel painful, but the crisis itself will be in the rear-view mirror thanks to vaccines. What will loom larger will be the greater crisis we face – the climate crisis.

• The New Climate War by Michael E Mann is published by Scribe (£16.99).

You are a battle-scarred veteran of many climate campaigns. What’s new about the climate war?
For more than two decades I was in the crosshairs of climate change deniers, fossil fuel industry groups and those advocating for them – conservative politicians and media outlets. This was part of a larger effort to discredit the science of climate change that is arguably the most well-funded, most organised PR campaign in history. Now we finally have reached the point where it is not credible to deny climate change because people can see it playing out in real time in front of their eyes.

But the “inactivists”, as I call them, haven’t given up; they have simply shifted from hard denial to a new array of tactics that I describe in the book as the new climate war.

Who is the enemy in the new climate war?
It is fossil fuel interests, climate change deniers, conservative media tycoons, working together with petrostate actors like Saudi Arabia and Russia. I call this the coalition of the unwilling.

If you had to find a single face that represents both the old and new climate war it would be Rupert Murdoch. Climate change is an issue the Murdoch press has disassembled on for years. The disinformation was obvious last year, when they blamed arsonists for the devastating Australian bushfires. This was a horrible attempt to divert attention from the real cause, which was climate change. Murdoch was taken to task by his own son because of the immorality of his practices.

We also have to recognise the increasing roles of petrostate actors. Saudi Arabia has played an obstructionist role. Russia has perfected cyber warfare and used it to interfere in other countries and disrupt action on climate change. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has made a credible case about Russia’s efforts to hijack the 2016 presidential election and get Trump elected. Russia wanted to end US sanctions that stood in the way of a half-trillion-dollar deal between Rosneft and ExxonMobil. It worked. Who did Trump appoint as his first secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil.

Today Russia uses cyberware – bot armies and trolls – to get climate activists to fight one another and to seed arguments on social media. Russian trolls have attempted to undermine carbon pricing in Canada and Australia, and Russian fingerprints have been detected in the yellow-vest protests in France.

Another development in the “climate war” is the entry of new participants. Bill Gates is perhaps the most prominent. His new book, How to Prevent a Climate Disaster, offers a systems analyst approach to the problem, a kind of operating system upgrade for the planet. What do you make of his take?

I want to thank him for using his platform to raise awareness of the climate crisis. That said, I disagree with him quite sharply on the prescription. His view is overly technocratic and premised on an underestimate of the role that renewable energy can play in decarbonising our civilisation. If you understate that potential, you are forced to make other risky choices, such as geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration. Investment in those unproven options would crowd out investment in better solutions.

Gates writes that he doesn’t know the political solution to climate change. But the politics are the problem buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution and perhaps your solution might be taking us down the wrong path.

What are the prospects for political change with Joe Biden in the White House?
Breathtaking. Biden has surprised even the most ardent climate hawks in the boldness of his first 100 day agenda, which goes well beyond any previous president, including Obama when it comes to use of executive actions. He has incorporated climate policy into every single government agency and we have seen massive investments in renewable energy infrastructure, cuts in subsidies for fossil fuels, and the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. On the international front, the appointment of John Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris Accord, has telegraphed to the rest of the world that the US is back and ready to lead again. That is huge and puts pressure on intransigent state actors like [Australian prime minister] Scott Morrison, who has been a friend of the fossil fuel industry in Australia. Morrison has changed his rhetoric dramatically since Biden became president. I think that creates an opportunity like no other.

You also suggest that Greta Thunberg has sometimes been led astray.
I am very supportive of Greta. At one point in the book, I point out that even she has at times been a victim of some of this bad framing. But in terms of what she does, I am hugely supportive. Those I call out really are those who should know better. In particular, I tried to document mis-statements about the science. If the science objectively demonstrated it was too late to limit warming below catastrophic levels, that would be one thing and we scientists would be faithful to that. But science doesn’t say that.