Michael Mann Continues the Fight in 'The New Climate War'

Michael Mann hits the ice with a new book that is critical of personal actions.

the Hockey Stick
Michael Mann's Hockey Stick.


Climate scientist Michael Mann is most famous for his hockey stick, which he used in 1998 to graphically present the rise in planetary temperatures over the centuries. He immediately came under attack by powerful forces that had a vested interest in denying climate change and he has been dropping the gloves and using that hockey stick to crosscheck the opposition ever since. But climate denial is a harder sell than it was 20 years ago, and the hockey net is a moving target; instead of denial, the fossil fuel companies and the governments on their payroll are ragging the puck, in "a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay." That's the subject of his latest book, "The New Climate War."

New Climate War

New Climate War

I should declare upfront a personal interest in this book; I have spent the last year writing a book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," in which I monitor my carbon footprint down to the gram and try to demonstrate how important personal actions are. Mann has no time for this, doing a breakaway down the ice on page three of the book:

"Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis. Though these actions are worth taking, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed. That’s quite convenient for fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP... The deflection campaign also provides an opportunity for the enemy to employ a “wedge” strategy dividing the climate advocacy community, exploiting a preexisting rift between climate advocates more focused on individual action and those emphasizing collective and policy action."

Mann describes how the "inactivists," the deniers working to deflect and delay, learned from the gun and tobacco industries, as well as the bottling industry with their hugely successful "Crying Indian" campaign, a subject we have been covering for years on Treehugger, designed to train us to pick up the industry's garbage and to turn recycling into a virtue, almost a religion.

Now, according to Mann, they are training us and shaming us, starting with the big fish like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio and lately Bill Gates, for the hypocrisy of having private jets or big houses. (Bill Gates has both!) You are damned if you do, and now, according to Mann, you are damned even more so if you don't:

"A whole bevy of climate scientists and advocates now advertise the fact that they no longer fly, have turned to vegan diets, or have chosen not to have children. These individuals are trying to do what they believe to be the right thing, and attempting to lead by example. But they seem surprisingly unaware that when they seem to make it all about personal choices and the need for sacrifice, they are in fact unwittingly playing into the inactivist agenda. The Crying Indian PSA redux."

And of course, when people in the climate movement do these things and try to set an example, the inactivists use the Gorka gambit, where the Trump advisor told the Fox fans “they want to take your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers." Truer words were never said; we do.

The book is about the new climate wars, but it does seem to go on at length about the old ones, with Fox News and Sean Hannity, Koch and Michael Moore, Shellenberger and Lomberg. But then Mann sharpens his skates and turns his attack on the new enemies, the doomsayers like Jonathan Franzen, Rupert Read, David Roberts, and Eric Holthaus. They are aiding and abetting the enemy: "The misguided belief that “it’s too late” to act has been co-opted by fossil fuel interests and those advocating for them. It’s just another way of legitimizing business-as-usual and a continued reliance on fossil fuels. We must reject the overt doom and gloom that we increasingly encounter in today’s climate discourse."

Now I am not a doom and gloomer and couldn't make my way through The Uninhabitable Earth; nor am I a techno-optimist like Bill Gates who thinks we can suck the carbon out of the air. I like to think that we are a big tent with the same goal: to raise awareness and deal with this problem. Few have taken twenty years of abuse from the fossil fuel interests like Michael Mann has, and if anyone should be allowed to have an axe to grind, it is him. But all of us are in the same boat.

Greta Thunberg holds a microphone during a Fridays for Future protest in Hamburg
Greta Thunberg, seen here at a Fridays for Future protest in Hamburg, Germany, in March, started the student protest movement. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Mann does have room in his heart for Greta Thunberg, even though she leads by example and tries to live a low carbon diet; she gets a pass in a chapter titled "The Wisdom of Children" even though calling her a child is one way the inactivists try to demean her. She sparks a movement "with literally millions of children around the world marching, striking, and protesting for climate action weekly." Except they are not children, they are young adults and I suspect would be offended at the description.

Meanwhile, I am getting close to the end of this and wonder what he is suggesting we should actually do. I begin to warm up to the book when he gets to a discussion of carbon budgets.

"We can only burn a finite amount of carbon to avoid 1.5°C warming. And if we exceed that budget, which seems quite possible at this point, there is still a budget for avoiding 2°C warming. Every bit of additional carbon we burn makes things worse. But conversely, every bit of carbon we avoid burning prevents additional damage. There is both urgency and agency."

Wait a second, isn't this exactly why all the personal responsibility types have given up their hamburgers and their pickup trucks? Because every bit of additional carbon makes things worse? Because they have agency? And then:

"While the laws of physics are immutable, human behavior is not. And dismissiveness based on perceived political or psychological barriers to action can be self-reinforcing and self-defeating. Think World War II mobilization or the Apollo project."
Serve and conserve
credit: serve and conserve

Wait another second, wasn't World War II all about personal examples, personal service, doing without, living with less? We've got the posters to prove it. Human behavior can change and it makes a difference.

So what are we to do; what are the solutions? Mann rounds them up at the end: Disregard the Doomsayers, pay no attention to David Attenborough or all these pesky writers churning out "climate doom porn." "Every ounce of carbon we don’t burn makes things better. There is still time to create a better future, and the greatest obstacle now in our way is doomism and defeatism." Rather than, say, burning stuff.

Educate, Educate, Educate. "Don't waste time engaging directly with climate-change-denying trolls and bots." Yet that is what half of this book seems to have been doing.

"Changing the System Requires Systemic Change: Inactivists, as we have seen, 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 decarbonizing our economy. They have sought to deflect the conversation toward the car you drive, the food you eat, and the lifestyle you live."

So how do you do that? "We must bring pressure to bear on politicians and polluting interests. We do that through the strength of our voices and the power of our votes. We must vote out politicians who serve as handmaidens for fossil fuel interests and elect those who will champion climate action." In the United States? Talk about defeatism and doomism. The inactivists are working like mad right now to ensure that the system never lets a Democrat get elected again. The system is broken.

Nope. Perhaps it is because I am old enough to have been through boycotts of California grapes and South African oranges that I believe that the best way to put corporate polluters out of business is to stop buying what they are selling. We saw what happened during the pandemic: airlines went bust. Coal companies went bankrupt. Exxon got knocked off the Dow Jones. People not buying stuff makes a difference, whatever the reason.

I am not a climate scientist, I am just an architect who became a writer and a teacher, but I do know that when I trade a car for a bike I emit less carbon and use a few tons less aluminum and steel. When I eat chicken instead of steak, I am emitting less carbon and not contributing to deforestation for soybeans and pastureland. And when I skip a single round trip flight, I save enough carbon to equal my carbon budget for the year. Because I know that every ounce of carbon makes things worse. I don't finger-wag at people who don't but I do hope I set an example.

Attack on all fronts

Canada War Museum

I also know that we have to attack on all fronts; in our homes, in the voting booth, and in the streets, and we have to focus our energy on the enemy, not each other.