Interview. 'British Petroleum gave us one of the first individual carbon footprint calculators because the fossil fuel industry wanted us so focused on our own carbon footprint so that we ignored theirs.'

Michael E. Mann: How ‘inactivists’ have quietly perpetuated climate change denial

Michael E. Mann is among the world’s leading climatologists. His work, particularly the famous “hockey stick graph” illustrating a temperature spike in the 20th century after 900 years of stable climate, has been the focus of attacks by the climate denial machine for years. Through funding, propaganda, media manipulation and communication strategies, climate deniers have constructed a decade-long disinformation campaign with the sole purpose of delaying and hindering political action on climate.

I interviewed Mann, who has now collected his experience in a book, The New Climate War (published in Italy with Edizioni Ambiente), to talk about the new strategies of deniers, rebranded “inactivists” by Mann, and how to recognize and deactivate them in order to move towards a constructive and effective path of action for climate.

Climate denial has evolved through the years and strategies have changed. One of the initial strategies, which obviously you mentioned in your book, was to “reposition global warming as a theory” rather than fact. What are the current denier strategies, and what do you tell people when they say climate denial doesn’t exist anymore?

It exists in a different form. It’s not the sort of hard denial that we encountered in the past: “Climate change is a hoax, the planet isn’t warming.” That’s just not tenable anymore. Those sorts of talking points aren’t credible anymore because people can see and feel the impacts of climate change now in their own lives. And so, as you allude, what we’ve seen is a shift in tactics, away from denial but towards all these other words that begin with “D,” from denial to delay, division, deflection and doom-mongering because ironically that can lead us down this path of disengagement. If we really believe that we have no agency, we can’t do anything about the problem.

And so you’ve seen the forces of inaction or the inactivists, as I brand them in the book, polluters and those advocating for them, we’ve seen them shift to these other tactics in their effort to prevent us from moving on because that’s all they care about. The end game is the same, whether it’s because we deny that climate change is real or we don’t care, or we think it’s too late or for any other variety of reasons.

As somebody who’s been on the front lines of the climate wars for literally more than two decades now and I’ve watched those tactics evolve — that was the purpose of this book, to sort of share what my own observations so we can make sure that we don’t fall victim to these new tactics, because they are the only thing now that lie in our path. We’re so close to finally seeing the action that’s necessary, but we still have these obstacles. And the purpose of the book was to make people aware of what those obstacles are.

So you consider inactivism to be another form of denial?

I see them as close cousins of denial. They are not denial of the evidence of climate change but denial of the urgency, denial that we have agency that we can do something about it, denial that we can do it. And so in many respects, these other words that I’m using — deflection, delay, division — they are all close cousins of denial, engaging in this softer form of denial that we should or can do something about it.

You mentioned deflection, let’s go back to that for a second. These past few weeks, here in Italy, the debate on nuclear energy has picked up again because our environment minister made some public declarations and the story was amplified — at times irresponsibly — by the media. Do you think turning the conversation on climate change into a debate on nuclear is deflection? Is it a distraction maneuver?

Yes, there are people who have the honestly held belief that this an important potential source of energy. And I respect that. But you see others who are really trying to manipulate public opinion, using nuclear energy as a way to do that. This [mechanism] is sort of like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: the more support we provide for nuclear energy, the less support we’re arguably providing to scale up renewable energy, and renewable energy presents the real threat to fossil fuel energy. A focus on nuclear can dampen enthusiasm for scaling up renewable energy. It is seen as one of the tactics in this effort to prevent this needed transition: off fossil fuel energy toward renewable energy. [The debate on nuclear] plays into the conservative culture wars. Conservatives have realized that that’s a great way to create division and opposition to renewable energy.

 One of the most effective denier strategies and deflection campaigns has been redirecting responsibility at the individual level. And you talk about this a lot in your book. You mentioned the Crying Indian Ad as well as one of the starting points for this type of messaging. Can you tell us a little bit about it? How has it affected the way we perceive responsibility tied to pollution, climate change and environmental issues today?

Yes, [the Crying Indian Ad] is brilliant. When I was growing up, I remember the Crying Indian advertisement and how it had a profound impact on my entire generation. […] We were all fooled because what we didn’t realize is that it was trying to shift the responsibility away from systemic solutions to individual behavior. What was really going on is Coca-Cola and the beverage industry didn’t want to see bottle bills…it would hurt their profits. It would hurt their bottom line. And so they ran this massive campaign, a remarkably effective campaign to basically, without being explicit about it, convince us that all we needed to do was be better stewards of the environment and pick up those bottles and cans.

They’ve used [this strategy] again and again, and the fossil fuel industry has happily taken from that playbook. British Petroleum gave us one of the first individual carbon footprint calculators because BP, the fossil fuel industry, wanted us so focused on our own carbon footprint so that we ignored theirs.

There are a lot of issues on the communicative level. In Italy, two big issues are the doomist narrative, which you mentioned earlier, and false equivalence in the media, which is a huge problem because a lot of progressive media outlets keep giving a lot of space to denier perspectives. What is your opinion on this? And how do you think we can kind of overcome those issues?

There has been an effort to weaponize people on the left. What’s so insidious about the new climate war is that [deniers] have won over conservatives already and so it’s a huge win for them if they can actually bring progressives into the fold, to weaponize them for their purposes. And that’s why you see the effort at division, getting progressives fighting with each other because if they’re divided and arguing with each other, they’re not presenting a united front demanding action on policymakers and polluters. False equivalence is a really good point because, frankly, we’ve largely moved past that here in the United States, but that doesn’t mean we’ve moved past that everywhere. And those battles are still being fought. When I traveled through Italy a few years ago and did a series of lectures […] I got some sense of the politics of climate denial at the time. And my sense was that there is still this residual contrarianism…It’s really important for scientists and science-friendly organizations to reach out and work with journalists to help them navigate this fraught environment.

As you said, there is also doom mongering, despair mongering, which is taking individuals who would otherwise be on the front lines, people who care deeply about the problem and would be on the front lines, you convince them it’s too late and they disengage, that’s a huge win for [deniers]. Of course, we should all do everything we can to minimize our own environmental impact […] but we can’t allow it to be framed as the solution where it actually takes the pressure off of policy, systemic solutions. And that’s why it’s so important to recognize that the people who have become disillusioned and disengaged, they’re not the enemy. They have been weaponized by the enemy. [It’s important] to get them to recognize that they do have agency, that there are things that we can still do, that it’s not too late to get them out on the front lines.

In your book you talk about the non-solution solution. So much of the deniers’ strategies and narrative today is on solutions. Can you tell us what the non-solution solution is and how the strategy works?

The goal here — and it’s the Shellenbergers and the Lomborgs, that is their whole raison d’être — is to muddy the waters, to engage in soft denial where you claim to accept the science, but you’re actually downplaying the impacts and you’re downplaying the threat to the point where it seems reasonable to propose much more moderate prescriptions for addressing the problem that seem much less onerous, much less disruptive. “We can just tinker at the edges” or “we just need to use natural gas because it’s a friendlier fossil fuel,” as if the fossil fuel can be a solution to the problem, or geoengineering…And it crowds out investment in the true solution, arguably renewable energy.

There’s also a lot of talk these days about net zero in 2050, and there are two problems there. It kicks the can way down the road, decades down the road, so it puts almost no pressure on policy makers to act now. Secondly, the net zero allows for the articulation of things like carbon capture. Basically, the idea here is anything but solving the problem at its source, which is getting off the burning of fossil fuels. The idea is to throw up all of these distractions, all of these alternatives, so you sound like you’re doing something, you sound like you’re proposing solutions because people now expect their politicians to be doing something, they realize that there’s a crisis, they expect something to be done. So the whole aim here by inactivists is to appear to be doing something, but in fact, to be doing nothing to address the problem at its core.

This is a big question but starting from the things that you talk about in your book, what do you think are some of the real solutions?

There are lots of things that we can do, and individual behaviors is part of it, but we can’t provide subsidies for renewable energy, we can’t put a price on carbon, we can’t block new fossil fuel infrastructure. Only our policymakers, our elected representatives can do that. And so that means the most important thing we can do as individuals is to use our voice, to demand action by policy makers, to vote out politicians who fail to support climate action, to vote in politicians who do raise awareness, to make sure it’s part of the conversation. There are lots of things that we can do individually, but ultimately, we need systemic changes. We need government action. We need countries right now to step up.

Is this what you expect and hope will be the outcome of the COP26?

Yes, and that’s going to depend in part on domestic politics and individual countries, this battle is going to have to be fought in every country right now, including Italy, including other EU countries, including the United States, Canada, China. The EU has put forward a bold pledge. The United States has. China, we’re expecting to come to the table with a meaningful pledge going into Cop26 later this year. We’re seeing pledges that would put us on the path we need to be on. We’ve got to reduce carbon emissions. We’ve got to be at zero at 2050, but that’s 30 years from now. Let’s talk about where we need to be within the decade. We need to reduce carbon emissions by 50% within the decade. And that’s where current policy comes in. You can’t kick the can down the road. We’ve got to do that now. There’s still a gap between talking the talk and walking the walk. We call it the implementation gap. We need to continue to put pressure, even on those politicians who might appear to be on the right side, who we think are on the right side. That doesn’t mean they’re quite willing to do what’s needed, what’s necessary. So holding their feet to the fire, even those who we perceive as our political allies, we’ve got to keep the pressure on them because there’s still a huge amount of pressure on the other side, coming from the fossil fuel industry and their advocates.

In The New Climate War you also talk about dynamics like meat-shaming and flight-shaming. Do you believe fear-messaging is effective?

There are some messengers, as I document in the book, who were doing the bidding of the activists by promoting the narrative that it’s literally too late to prevent runaway warming and extinction of all life on Earth. And that is just extremely unhelpful. There are some bad things that are happening now. We can see dangerous impacts of climate change. Dangerous climate change is here by some measure. And so we have to recognize that bad things are already happening. But it will get much worse if we fail to act. So acknowledging that there’s reason to be distraught about the impacts we’re already seeing, but that’s no reason to give up in this fight.

And I believe in the carrot versus the stick in the case of meat, for example. There are all these things I’ve done in my individual life: our electricity plan is entirely from renewable energy, I have a hybrid vehicle, my wife now has a plug-in hybrid, our commuting is done entirely from our electricity that charges up entirely from wind. And so we’re not burning fossil fuels. There are these steps that we can take that move us in that direction and then set a good example for other people. I don’t eat meat. And so, I’m happy to share the things that I’ve done and why I feel good about it. But what I don’t want to do is to point fingers at others because then it just becomes this purity test. We all have to make choices that allow us to live within a system right now that’s imperfect. We have to live within the system today that unfortunately is still dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. The struggle is to work within system that exists and to change that system.

My take on this is let’s try to get people to make more carbon friendly choices by setting an example, but don’t tell them you can’t have a hamburger anymore or you can’t fly anymore because then you’re going to get this rebound effect. You may actually cause them to become even more entrenched because they feel like they’re being attacked. The forces of inaction are trying to divide us along these lines by getting us finger pointing at each other.

You’ve been involved in a lot of denial machine attacks personally, what do you feel is the most important thing you’ve learned during these years about how the denial machine and the inactivist world works?

This is a great question and I would say that it’s: facts don’t matter to them. They don’t care about the facts. They’re not trying to win the argument. They’re just trying to create an argument because that’s all that’s necessary to cause people to throw up their hands…The other way to think about it is we’re trying to build something; they’re trying to tear it down. That’s an asymmetric fight. The bad faith in the climate discourse has now metastasized into something bigger: it’s the total loss of good faith in our entire public discourse, alternative facts, fake news. What we’ve got now is intentionally generated anti-science and, in the United States, we’ve got a party that has been weaponized by the fossil fuel industry and other bad actors to do their bidding for them by literally denying the facts, whether it’s social distancing and mask wearing, dealing with the COVID-19 crisis or dealing with the climate crisis […] I think that a similar dynamic is playing out in other countries right now. At its core it is the weaponization of misinformation and disinformation. I think that’s the larger problem we have to deal with right now, and climate inaction is also symptomatic of that problem.

Stella Levantesi, climate journalist and photographer, is the author of “I bugiardi del clima. Potere, politica, psicologia di chi nega la crisi del secolo” (edizioni Laterza) a book investigating climate change denial history and tactics

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