By Ed Meek
This incisive volume will assist the creation of a much-needed collective effort, helping to frame a unified approach to waging combat on those who are destroying the environment for the sake of short-term profit.
The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael E. Mann. Public Affairs, 351 pages. $29.
If you’ve had enough of climate denialists, doomsayers, distorters, and deflectors, Michael E. Mann’s new book supplies an antidote: there is hope to win what many now call the war on climate change. Mann is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a distinguished professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State. He is famous for what is referred to as the “hockey stick” diagram that outlines the rise in global temperature since the Industrial Revolution (between 1 and 1.5 degrees Centigrade).
When it comes to combating climate change, Mann spends most of the book identifying various enemies who stand in the way of getting all of us on the same page. The first few chapters round up the usual suspects: the fossil fuel industry and its big money enablers who are bent on sowing confusion and doubt. Mann compares the obfuscatory strategy of the fossil fuel industry to big tobacco. “Doubt is our product,” said a tobacco executive when confronted with evidence that smoking caused cancer. Mann points to the long history of corporations attacking the messenger, beginning with Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring “ushered in the modern environmental movement.” When Carson pointed out the tragic consequences for animals of using the pesticide DDT, the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto turned to character assassination.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, in the early ’80s Exxon asked its own scientists to investigate the effects of burning fossil fuels. Internal memos predicted the rise in CO2 and global temperatures. Exxon decided to keep this information from the public and to engage in decades of fostering lies. This approach didn’t work for long because global temperatures, along with CO2 levels, were obviously rising.
So, companies like Exxon and BP decided to take another misleading approach. Mann refers to it as the “Crying Indian.” The Crying Indian was an advertisement in the ’70s by Coca Cola in which a native American is shown shedding a tear over litter strewn along America’s highways. The message of the ad was that we should all pick up after ourselves and protect our environment. The real purpose behind this nefarious campaign: to prevent bottle bills from being passed because Coke and other soft drink manufacturers thought legislation would cut into their profits. The idea was to shift the responsibility for protecting the environment from them to us.
Mann argues that fossil fuel companies use this same approach to deflect the public. Corporations want us to focus on what we, individually, should be doing. The psychological switch is obvious: by making us feel guilty about our role in climate change, fossil fuel companies figure that we won’t go after them. Or at least it will slow us down from pointing fingers at the real culprits. Oddly enough, as Mann points out, liberals often buy into the idea that it is our fault rather than the fault of fossil fuel companies and the politicians who support them.
This marketing campaign, with its hypocritical selling of “personal responsibility,” is effective because to reject it Americans will have to shake their embrace of “selfie” culture — the idea is that you are the center of the universe. Big oil figures it can hawk the notion that we are in control and drum up peer pressure to cut back on flying or become vegetarians or drive a hybrid. But, as Mann points out, reducing our individual carbon imprints is only of use in the contest if fossil fuel companies stop drilling and mining and if our politicians create laws that help us transition to clean energy. The bottom line is that we have to keep the oil in the ground.
Mann also assails those on the left and right for harping on worst case scenarios He takes on David Wallace Wells, who wrote Uninhabitable Earth, making the case that it doesn’t help the cause to scare people out of their wits. Mann’s position is that we have to face reality, but that, if we work together, we still have time to make a difference in the quality of life for the generations to come.
Mann also calls leftists like the Sunrise Movement, Bernie Sanders, and AOC to account for refusing to back a carbon tax because, according to them, it will hurt the poor. This is a war we all have to fight: we need to draw on all the tools available and one of them is a tax on carbon.
Overall, Mann is optimistic about Greta Thunberg and the youth movements she has fostered. They are signs we are finally beginning to deal with a monumental challenge that threatens our environment and our future. We are now at a turning point because of mounting evidence that something is seriously wrong with our planet: the wildfires in Australia and in California, the droughts, the floods, the warming and rising oceans and the melting ice at the poles, along with the negative effects of climate change on animals, fish, birds and bees. All of this evidence of transformation has convinced 63 percent of Americans that “global climate change is affecting their community” and “the federal government is not doing enough about it.” The US “should prioritize developing alternative energy sources” say 79 percent, according to a poll taken last year.
In an excellent essay in this month’s Harper’s Magazine, Greg Jackson asks, “Why not address this issue [climate change] head on? Why not seize the opportunity to stimulate our economy, rebuild our nation, take meaningful action, and come together in common purpose?” Jackson claims our country is suffering from depression, fostered by an epidemic of loneliness, and that the mutual effort required to fight a war on climate change is just what we need. Mann’s incisive volume will assist that move toward a collective effort, helping to frame a unified approach to waging combat on those who are destroying the environment for the sake of short-term profit. To do that, Mann argues we must remove the lackeys of big oil from positions of power: “We must vote out politicians who serve as handmaidens for fossil fuel interests and elect those who will champion climate action.”
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).