CORTE MADERA, CALIFORNIA – Don’t believe the climate crisis doomsayers: We can still achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. But we have to elect lawmakers with the political will to enact meaningful climate legislation. The atmosphere is warming significantly, just as Exxon Mobil scientists were predicting back in 1982. But the fate of our planet is far from sealed, so long as the electorate rejects candidates who back “fake” climate solutions…or no solutions at all.
Those were among key messages delivered by climate scientist Michael E. Mann PhD, whose iconic hockey stick graph drew the link between carbon emissions and global warming to center stage in 1998, making him a primary target of a decades-long smear campaign by the oil and gas industry in concert with right-wing news outlets.
Mann, now the Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, spoke at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, discussing his book The New Climate War.
The event was organized by House Natural Resources Subcommittee Chair on Water, Oceans and Wildlife Jared Huffman (D-Ca) whose subcommittee has jurisdiction over federal water projects, fisheries management, oceans policy, wildlife, and endangered species.
Mann, who recently moved from Penn State to the University of Pennsylvania, had traveled to the Bay area in late August to tour the Northern California coast from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Along the way, he visited north coast streams and rivers too low for kayaking; once-thriving kelp forests now replaced by deadly algae blooms; and examples of adverse health impacts brought about by lingering wildfire smoke.
As an example of the impact of climate change playing out in real time, Mann discussed the lack of clean and potable water in Jackson, Mississippi, where flooding contaminated the local water facility with raw sewage, leaving the community for weeks without water.
Mann also discussed how wildfires are destroying vegetation and destabilizing ground soil, leading to deadly mudslides when rains come.
Percentage of alarmed Americans increasing
From 2014 to 2019, the number of Americans saying they are alarmed about climate change has tripled, and Americans “dismissive” of the threat of climate change has declined to just 10%, according to survey research conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, publisher of this site.
But some of those still vigorously opposing climate action continue to magnify efforts to try to convince people that skepticism is more prevalent than data suggest. So even though only a small portion of Americans still deny climate change, some people continue to think the doubts are more pervasive than they actually are, Mann said, in part because some partisan news and online news sites help spread a message of doubt and denial.
With extreme weather events and massive wildfires increasing in frequency and intensity, bold-faced climate change denial is no longer a viable deflection tactic, Mann said. But he thinks the consequences have become impossible to ignore, so he debunked common bogus efforts he said are used to deflect criticism and delay needed policy actions. He pointed to several examples:
Emphasizing personal responsibility rather than collective action
Seventy percent of carbon emissions come from 100 fossil fuel companies. Individual citizen action alone is not enough to save the ecosystem. While individuals should do whatever they can to minimize their own environmental impacts, Mann continued, those efforts alone cannot lead to the needed emission reductions. Without policy and regulatory action, using more efficient appliances, driving more efficient vehicles, changing our diets and traveling less are all useful, but in the end inadequate.
Seeking perfection can lead to forsaking progress
Another common deflection tactic Mann cited involves dividing progressive voters with the argument that if regulatory proposals aren’t perfect, they shouldn’t be supported. But democracy is about compromise, Mann argued, and perfection often can be the enemy of progress.
As an example, he pointed to the recently passed Investment Reduction Act, which he said cannot on its own solve the climate crisis. But he praised the new law as the most aggressive climate legislation ever passed, and the best deal possible in a closely divided and highly partisan Senate and House of Representatives. In addition, he said enactment of that sweeping law opens the way for more opportunities to build on and strengthen the efforts to better manage climate change and its impacts.
The promise of carbon capture technology is another deflection tactic Mann cited. The promise is that we’ll figure out a way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. “Trust us. We’ve got this,” we’re told, much as the reclusive billionaire character in the satirical film Don’t Look Up schemes to split a meteor hurtling toward the earth into 30 smaller pieces with drones so he can harvest their $140 trillion worth of minerals. “What could possibly go wrong?” Mann joked.
Saying it’s okay to mine and burn fossil fuel because the situation will get better down the road is another deflection tactic, Mann said. There may be carbon capture solutions we’ll someday want to explore. But they are not viable or commercially available today, and likely won’t be within the next 10 years, he said. He cautioned that emissions need to be reduced by 50% by 2030, or serious damages to the ecosystem could result.
“The only 100% reliable way of keeping carbon in the ground is keeping carbon in the ground,” Mann told his audience.
Allowing polluters to emit to climate pollutants in exchange for planting of trees is another deflection tactic. There are obvious flaws to this logic. First, Mann said, there’s no guarantee that the carbon stays sequestered. The 2019-2020 fire season in Australia doubled that country’s carbon emissions, providing ammunition to those who are skeptical of some carbon offset strategies.
While certainly desirable, expecting reforestation, however massive, to sequester carbon emissions at the scale needed to protect the atmosphere from dangerous warming remains farcical, according to Mann. There are sectors of the global economy, such as cement and aviation, that are going to be especially difficult to decarbonize, and which may benefit from carbon offsets at some point. But forest carbon sequestration is not a viable offset for justifying continued mining and burning of fossil fuels, he said.
Despite repeated harassment, character assasination, and even death threats he and other climate scientists have faced over recent decades, Mann said he has not abandoned hope. And he said it’s not too late to reverse course. “The Syrian uprising was the consequence of an epic drought. We’re starting to see tears at the seams,” Mann said.
“There’s a reason we want to keep warming below 3°F and reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Because those actions will probably keep us within our adaptive capacity.”
Eric Schwartzman served as special digital communications advisor to the US Department of State for the Paris Climate Agreement. He is the author of The Digital Pivot: Secrets of Online Marketing and editor of the Sonoma Wine Tasting Blog.