Bob Sheak, July 9, 2021
In this post, I focus on Michael E. Mann’s book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, published in 2021. The concept of “war” in this context suggests that there is an intransigent enemy, prominently the Republican Party and its corporate and wealthy benefactors, that threatens to make life on the planet less and less habitable, and that it will take an equally powerful force to stop them.
Where we stand amid the climate crisis?
Despite the growing body of evidence that we are losing the fight against “climate change” and its myriad and increasingly destructive effects, Mann, who is a well-known and published climate scientist, presents us with a multi-part analysis that is designed most fundamentally to leave readers with some “hope” about the future. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” He continues: “Alone it won’t solve the problem. But drawing upon it, we will” (p. 267)
There are many recent books and reports that give us a good understanding of the dire effects and prospects of global warming, how fossil-fuel corporations and an array of other powerful corporate and political forces in and outside of government have created false, but unfortunately effective, narratives denying climate change or deflecting attention away from it. The authors provide extensive documentation of the problem, its causes, the concerted efforts to delegitimize efforts to address the problem, and what can be done to save the planet. Kate Aronoff’s book, Over-Heated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet – and How We Fight Back” is one of these books. Other books on these topics include John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, Robert Pollin’s Greening the Global Economy, Bill McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, and Ian Angus’s facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system. There are two themes, among others, that stand out. We don’t have much time to prevent runaway climate collapse and we have the know how to prevent this from happening. In the final analysis, politics will make the difference. In the meantime, things are getting worse.
For summaries of the evidence on the crisis, see two of my recent posts, one sent out on June18 titled “Global warming intensifies: Additional evidence” (https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/1068) and the other on May 26 with the title “The climate crisis intensifies, while meaning solutions are elusive,” https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/1009. The best evidence on climate change continues to document that the climate crisis is worsening. For example, Victoria Bekiempis reports for The Guardian that scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have found that the “earth is trapping twice as much heat [in 2019] as it did in 2005. The increase is described as unprecedented (https://theguardian.com/science/2021/jun/17/earth-trapping-heat-study-nasa-noaa). Similarly, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise. Stephanie Epps reports that “the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in May 2021 hit the highest level ever measured, showing the global coronavirus pandemic did not decrease overall CO2 emissions despite pausing global economies for months. Atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a monthly average of 419 parts per million in May 2021, according to data from NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released Monday” (https://abcnews.com/US/carbon-divide-hit-highest-level-measured-atmosphere/story?id=78137553).
Hope – looking for a politically feasible way to buttress it
In this post, I’ll focus on Michael E. Mann’s book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, published in 2021. The concept of “war” in this context suggests that there is an intransigent enemy, prominently the Republican Party and its corporate and wealthy benefactors, that threatens to make life on the planet less and less habitable, and that it will take an equally powerful force to stop them.
Despite the growing body of evidence that we are losing the fight against “climate change” and its myriad and increasingly destructive effects, Mann, who is a well-known and published climate scientist, presents us with a multi-part analysis that is designed most fundamentally to leave readers with some “hope” about the future. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” He continues: “Alone it won’t solve the problem. But drawing upon it, we will” (p. 267). One question: What does the evidence on climate change indicate since Mann’s book was published in 2021? His references go up through July 2020, about a year ago. We’ll see, unfortunately, that some of his hopeful trends have not continued or have mixed and limited results. Mann’s emphasize on carbon pricing as his principal policy initiative appears too limited in its potential effects to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, since it relies on corporate-dominated markets. Nonetheless, Mann’s overall analysis is sophisticated in identifying the false rationales and “non-solution” proposals of those who oppose meaningful action on climate change and offers an analytical framework that is useful, though not definitive, in educating readers, government officials, and citizens generally about some important aspects of the climate crisis.
Not too late
Mann’s main contention is that it is not too late to radically reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are the principal sources of climate change and, through domestic and international efforts, to limit the emissions enough to keep the global temperature from rising no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next decade. To achieve this goal, he argues, policies based on science must be instituted, citizens must be “educated” about the facts and, some at least, must be or become active in the political process. In addition, the disinformation of the fossil fuel interests must be effectively challenged, and the government must move quickly to remove fossil fuels from the energy mix and replace them with renewables, energy efficiency, and other environmentally sustainable technologies. Mann argues, “We need policies that will incentivize the needed shift away from fossil fuel burning toward a clean, green global economy. So-called leaders who resist the call for action must be removed from office” (p. 6). The word “incentivize” may suggest that the climate-related policies of corporations and the ideological commitments of the far-right republican Party can be changed through negotiations with the Republican lawmakers and with some incremental changes. However, it becomes clearer as time passes that there is little or no reason to expect the Republican Party to negotiate in good faith. (See Steve Benen’s documentation of this point in his book, The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics). Mann does refer to the need for “systemic” changes, and he supports a limited version of the Green New Deal, but the thrust of his analysis suggests that he would settle for limited “systemic” change.
And then the obstacles. The Republican Party, major segments of the corporate community, vast networks created by the Koch Brothers and other billionaires, right-wing media that reach many millions of people, and a Trump-loyal base of tens of millions of Americans favor all-out support for fossil fuels and have little interest in supporting renewable energy.
Furthermore, support for fossil fuels is only one of the issues that motivates these right-wing forces. For example, the Republican Party, the climate denying, delaying, minimizing-the-threat party, is working to suppress the voting rights of opponents and to prevent the Biden administration from achieving any significant policy achievements. Even out of office, fossil-fuel champion Trump continues to have a massive following that includes white supremacists, evangelicals, gun rights absolutists, anti-immigration groups, most of whom can apparently be counted on to deny, dismiss, or minimize meaningful action on the climate crisis. The totality of these interests represents an enormous obstacle to winning the war against climate change, but additionally and ominously represent a growing threat to democracy. Andrew Cockburn argues that the Republican Party increasingly exhibits fascist characteristics. Note that fascism represents a force that is not amenable to negotiated settlements (https://counterpunch.org/2021/06/22/the-republican-party-has-turned-fascist-and-is-now-the-most-dangerous-threat-in-world). Here’s some of what Cockburn writes.
“When Donald Trump was in the White House there was much debate about whether or not he could be called a fascist in the full sense of the word, and not merely as a political insult. His presidency showed many of the characteristics of a fascist dictatorship, except the crucial one of automatic re-election.
“But Trump or Trump-like leaders may not have to face this democratic impediment in the future. It was only this year that the final building blocks have been put in place by Republicans as they replicate the structure of fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Two strategies, though never entirely absent from Republican behaviour in the past, have become far more central to their approach. One is a greater willingness to use or tolerate violence against their opponents, something that became notorious during the invasion of the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on 6 January.
“The other change among Republicans is much less commented on, but is more sinister and significant. This is the systematic Republican takeover of the electoral machinery that oversees elections and makes sure that they are fair. Minor officials in charge of them have suddenly become vital to the future of American democracy. Remember that it was only the refusal of these functionaries to cave in to Trump’s threats and blandishments that stopped him from stealing the presidential election last November.”
On February 19, 2020, I addressed the issue of fascism in America in post titled “The specter of fascism before and during the Trump presidency” (https://wordpress.com/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/558).
Still, cautiously optimistic and a roadmap
Nonetheless, Mann tells us he is “cautiously optimistic…about prospects for tackling the climate crisis in the years ahead.” He is convinced that we can progress through reform of the capitalist system. In making his case, Mann develops five arguments in support of his position. One, he documents that concern with and action about climate change is growing. Two, he rebuts the arguments of fossil fuel interests that deny or deflect attention from the climate crisis, as a way of educating the public and reducing the spread of lies and disinformation. Three, he identifies – and rejects or dubs inadequate– “non-solutions” that are being promoted, such as natural gas as a bridge fuel, the notion of “clean coal,” geoengineering, massive tree planting, and the nuclear energy option. Four, he criticizes those on the left who want nothing less than the transformation of the whole capitalist system, or who have the conception that only viable alternatives are local (e.g., creation of “resilient communities), or who contend that it is “too late” to make meaningful change and that humanity is doomed. And, five, Mann considers carbon pricing, which, if done right and combined with support for renewables, can potentially reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions on the needed scale and in a timely fashion. His overall position is based on the idea that relevant and effective public policy will ultimately reflect science and the facts. If only they would.
#1 – Growing awareness of the climate crisis
Unprecedented events are difficult to ignore
Mann’s optimism is based in part on his contention that recent events have promoted an increased awareness of the climate crisis. He refers to the following events, (1) “a series of unprecedented, extreme weather disasters that have vivified the climate-change threat” (e.g., wildfires in California); (2) “a global pandemic has now taught us key lessons about vulnerability and risk”; (3) “the reawakening of environmental activism, and, in particular, a popular uprising by children across the world that has framed climate change as the defining challenge of our time” (p.225); (4) climate experts are coming forward; and (5) fossil fuel industry feeling the heat – e.g., coal is in a death spiral and natural gas coming to be seen as a liability by communities” (p. 233).
Opinion polls identify a growing awareness of the climate crisis
He refers to polls that a majority of Americans now accept the realty of climate change, while the number of people who deny or dismiss it have, according to a 2019 poll, shrunk to the single digits (p. 41). Insofar as public opinion is concerned, Mann thinks we may be close to a tipping point on climate that may precipitate increasing political support and government action. With this in mind, he cites a 2019 Pew Research poll that found 67 percent of the public thinks we’re doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” Mann notes that this doesn’t mean they prioritize it. Nonetheless, it reflects that a growing majority of Americans not only have some awareness of the climate crisis but that they want government to do more than they have been doing to address this growing problem. Mann cites another 2019 poll, this one conducted by CNN, which “found that ’82 percent of registered voters who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents consider climate change a ‘very important’ top priority” (232) However, recent polls also identify a partisan divide that suggests that opposition to taking significant action is greater than single digits.
For example, Fred Backus reports on April 21, 2021on a CBS poll (https://cbsnews.com/news/fighting-climate-change-opinion-poll-04-21-2021). According to Backus, when respondents were “asked to choose between general approaches like the environment and climate, 58% of Americans think people should try to do things to shape and change it, while just 42% [not single digits] think people should simply learn to adapt to what happens and make the best of it.” When asked “How should people deal with the climate,” 80 percent of Democrats chose “Do Things to Change,” joined by 54 percent of the Independents, but only 20 percent of Republicans (i.e., 80 percent did not).
There is good reason to be concerned that the efforts of the Republican Party to further suppress the votes of their opponents and to change the rules on votes are counted and validated may give this far-right leaning party control of the U.S. government in 2022 or 2024, in which case opportunities to address the crisis will go by the board. In such an eventuality, Democratic majorities on this or that poll may be irrelevant. At the same time, Mann does say that it is a waste of time to debate over climate-change issues with those adamantly opposed to taking any genuine steps to ameliorate the climate crisis. It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will be able to so corrupt the political system that any rational approach to the climate crisis will be discarded.
Even the Pentagon views climate change as a growing threat
Mann refers to a recent study commissioned by the Pentagon that warns of a scenario in which electricity, water, and food systems might collapse by midcentury as a result of the effects of climate change.” At the same time, the U.S. military remains a major source of CO2 emissions and other pollutants. See support for this statement in my post of December 11, 2019, titled “The US military is not going to save us or itself from the climate crisis” (https://wordpress.com/post/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/528).
Indications that some in the financial sector are having second thoughts about investing in fossil fuels
Mann writes: “the banking and finance industry is rethinking its role in funding new fossil fuel infrastructure.” The industry is concerned that demand for fossil fuels is on the wane, and it will become burdened with “stranded assets,” that is, there will eventually be significant reductions in demand for oil and gas, thus jeopardizing the investments of the financial institutions. He cites a number of sources that confirm the industry’s concerns. Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey reports that “high exposure to fossil fuels in their portfolios will be hurt, as those companies and assets cease to be profitable” (p. 234). And, according to “Axel Weber, the chairman of Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, the finance sector is on the verge of ‘a big change in market structure’ because investors are increasingly demanding that the sector account for climate risk and embed a price on carbon in their portfolio decisions” (p. 235).” Additionally, Mann gives these examples: “Goldman Sachs, Liberty Mutual, and the European Investment Bank – the largest international bank in the world – are among the numerous banks and investments firms that are now pulling away from fossil fuel investments” (p. 235).
As in the financial sector, the insurance industry is worrying about the effects from the advance of climate. Mann gives the examples of the insurance giant, The Hartford, Sweden’s central bank, and Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager,” both of which have indicated they will stop insuring or investing in Alberta’s carbon-intensive tar sands oil production. BlackRock has gone even further, announcing it will no longer make investments that come with high environmental risks including coal for power plants.”
There is recent evidence that this trend is gaining momentum. Robertson and Karsh report that “[t]oday’s private equity shops—including the world’s largest alternative asset manager, Blackstone Group Inc.—are pouring capital into fast-growing sectors such as solar, carbon capture, and battery storage. Part of the attraction stems from the rapid adoption of wind and solar as public demand for climate accountability rises. It’s a shift in investment strategy that comes after years of fits and starts for the once struggling renewables space” (https://bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-06/private-equity-is-ditching-fossil-fuels-over-climate-change-concerns).
Young people are involved
There is also momentum in higher education. Mann gives the example of “students at Berkeley are in 2014 demanding the UC Regents divest of fossil fuel holdings and they were successful, along with students at other campuses. “More than a thousand college campuses, including UC Regents, and other institutions throughout the United States (accounting for more than $11 trillion in holdings) have divested of fossil fuel stocks” (p. 237).
Young people around the globe are demanding change. Many of them have been inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage from Sweden who “by age sixteen achieved an iconic global cultural status,” then nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, featured on the cover of Time magazine, and “sparked a global youth movement called ‘Fridays For Future.’” In support of the young people, “a group of just under two dozen climate scientists, myself [Mann] included, published a letter in Science magazine that was ultimately cosigned by thousands of other scientists around the world. The letter offered support for them for their efforts” (see p. 253). Fossil fuel interests have taken notice. “In July 2019, OPEC’s secretary general, Mohammed Barkindo, referred to the youth climate movement as the ‘greatest threat’ the fossil fuel industry faces” (254).
#2 – Rebutting the arguments of the fossil fuel interests
ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests have for decades “waged a public relations campaign contesting the scientific evidence and doing everything in their power to block policies aimed at curbing planet-warming carbon pollution” (p. 1). They deny and want to delay any government efforts to address the problem (p. 2). Mann calls it a “massive deflection campaign” (p. 2). It surfaced in the late 1980s. “Joined by billionaire plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes, companies such as ExxonMobil funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign…to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil fuel burning. This science denial took precedence even as ExxonMobil’s own team of scientists concluded that the impacts of continued fossil fuel use could lead to ‘devastating’ climate-change impacts” (pp. 2-3). They have been joined by right-wing plutocrats. And they have been winning (p. 3). Part of the reason they have been winning is that the fossil fuel interests and their supporters have been able to spread false narratives that are designed to confuse, distract, and immobilize people when it comes to the extent and depth of the climate crisis.
Fossil fuel interests have “done everything possible to block subsidies and incentives for their competition – renewable energy – and they’ve had a lot of success doing so” (p. 224). Mann gives the example of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute, which have produced model pro-fossil-fuel policy papers to aid Republican Party leaders in the states to enhance their opposition to meaningful climate action. There are signs, however, that ALEC’s influence is diminishing to some extent. “In recent years, fossil fuel corporations such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have pulled out of ALEC, concerned about increased public scrutiny of their funding activities.” But not all. Mann notes that “the privately held giant Koch Industries has remained steadfast in its funding of the group. In one year alone, ALEC helped push through seventy bills in thirty-seven states designed to disadvantage clean energy” ALEC has proposed legislation to undermine state policies mandating a fraction of the energy produced come from renewable sources (so-called Renewable Portfolio Standards).” The organization “has also promoted legislation that penalizes those who choose to install solar panels on their homes with solar panels who attempt to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities” (p. 124).
These same interests have attacked and attempted to block government support for electric vehicles (EVs). Mann gives the following examples: “agents of the Koch brothers met with oil-refining and marketing companies in 2015 to pitch a ‘multi-million-dollar assault on EVs” (p. 126). [And] “…Republican senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who was the third-highest recipient of Koch brothers’ dollars during the 2018 election cycle. Barrasso, as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced the Fairness for Every Driver Act in 2019. It would not only end federal tax credits for EVs, but in addition would create an annual ‘highway user fee’ for all ‘alternative fuel vehicles” (p. 126).
Combatting narratives designed to deflect attention away from the climate crisis
Here are a few of Mann’s examples.
Lifestyle changes are no enough
Mann challenges the widespread idea that change on the climate front depends on changes in individual lifestyles, not on a need for systemic change. Here’s what Mann writes.
“So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay” (p. 3). Mann refers to it as a “deflection campaign” (p. 3). Among other tactics, they have tried to shift “responsibility from corporations to individuals. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis” (p. 3). Mann does not reject such voluntary action by individuals, but they alone take “pressure off the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable” (p.3). The emphasis on voluntary individual action “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” (p. 4). Mann advocates a strategy that combines individual action with political efforts to make systemic changes. He agrees that “plenty of lifestyle changes… should be encouraged, many of which make us happier and healthier, save us money, and decrease our environmental footprint.” However, “consumer choice doesn’t build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a price on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change,” and requires “collective action aimed at pressuring policymakers who are in a position to make decisions about societal priorities and government investment” (pp. 60-61).
#3 – Do not be fooled by those who propose “non-solutions”
Natural Gas: A Bridge to Nowhere
Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a fossil fuel that “is energy rich, and… readily burned for heating, cooking, or electricity generation. Or it can be cooled into a liquid (liquefied natural gas, or LNG) that can be used as a fuel for transportation” and in a form that can be exported (p. 148). “Natural gas reservoirs can be found in sedimentary basins around the world…. (p. 148). Trump has promoted national gas as a “freedom gas.” Those on the right often characterize natural gas as a bridge fuel, “a way to slowly wean us off more carbon-intensive fuels like coal and gently nudge us toward a renewable energy future. The rationale is that, nominally, natural gas produces about as half as much carbon dioxide as coal for each watt of power generated.” However, the reality is that natural gas is “nearly one hundred times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a twenty-year time frame.” And when the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used to break up the bedrock to get at natural gas deposits inevitably allows some of the methane to escape directly into the atmosphere,” the result of “methane releases from drilling operations, pipelines, and storage facilities.” The Trump administration disbanded regulations issued by the Obama administration to regulate “fugitive gas, claiming it would save industry millions of dollars” (p. `150). This is a serious mis-step in that the “rise in methane is responsible for as much as 25 percent of the warming (p. 150).
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has been advanced as a way to clean the CO2 out of coal utilization. Mann describes how it works: “carbon dioxide related during the burning of coal is scrubbed from emissions and captured, compressed, and liquefied. It is then pumped deep into the Earth, several kilometers beneath the surface, where it is reacted with porous igneous rocks to form limestone.” “The Global CCS Institute reports that there are today fifty-one CCS facilities globally in some stage of development that plan to capture nearly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. (Nineteen are currently in operation, and another thirty-two are either under construction or in development.) – 8 are in US” (p. 151).
Mann refers to six problems with CCS that eliminate the method as a constructive tool in efforts to mitigate and contain rising emissions. First, it “isn’t feasible to bury the billions of tons per year of carbon pollution currently produced by coal burning.” Second, “many coal power plants are not located in CCS-favorable sites” Third, CCS is “related to earthquakes and seismic activity or groundwater flow.” Fourth, “Coal is currently not competitive with other forms of energy in the marketplace…. requiring that coal plants capture and sequester their carbon will only make it more expensive and hasten the collapse of the industry.” Fifth, “CCS is not even carbon neutral in the best of circumstances, 10 percent of the carbon would still escape.” Sixth, most of the carbon that is captured “is placed into tapped oil wells for enhanced oil recovery. The oil that is recovered, when burned, yields several times as much carbon dioxide as was sequestered in the first place by CCS” (p. 152).
Geoengineering, or “What Could Possibly Go Wrong”
The fundamental problem with geoengineering proposals is that they “provides a crutch for beneficiaries of our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, they are not cheap as ways to decarbonize the economy, and they have the potential to do great harm (p. 159-160). Nonetheless, they appeal to fossil fuel interests and free-market conservatives (pp. 160-164). Mann critically considers 5 geoengineering proposals and dismisses them as viable options in winning the war on the climate. Here I’ll refer to three of his examples.
First, he refers to proposals “to shoot reflective particulates – sulfate aerosols – into the stable upper part of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere, where they would reside for years” and serve to bl0ck some of the heat from the sun. Mann says it is technologically feasible to do this, but it has major problems that argue against such an approach (p. 155).
Mann identifies seven disadvantages. (1) Blocking the heat energy from the sun will have different spatial patterns, “some regions would cool while others warmed. Indeed, some regions would likely end up warming even faster than they would have without geoengineering” – e.g. accelerating the destabilization of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheet and speeding up global sea-level rise, and some continents could become even drier with worse droughts (p. 155). (2) While “the sulfate particles from geoengineering would be higher up – in the stratosphere – but they would ultimately still make it down to the surface, where they would acidify rivers and lakes.” (3) There is the danger that “sulfate particles may contribute to ozone depletion” (p. 156). (4) The method does not prevent carbon dioxide from continue to build up in both the atmosphere and the ocean – raising ocean acidification. (5) This approach “would require the continuing injection of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere while carbon dioxide continued to accumulate in the atmosphere.” (6) If some calamity, a war, plague or anything else, “interfered with regular required schedule of sulfate injections, the cooling effect would disappear. (7) would “render less viable one of the most important and safest of climate solutions: solar power” (p. 156)
A second geoengineering approach involves “ocean iron fertilization,” or the sprinkling of iron dust onto the ocean with the purpose of generating phytoplankton blooms which, according to proponents, would take up carbon dioxide when they photosynthesize. That is, they would take carbon out of the atmosphere. Then when the phytoplankton die, they sink to the ocean bottom, burying their carbon with them (p. 157). However, Mann points out, “Iron fertilization leads to more vigorous cycling of carbon in the upper ocean, but no apparent increase in deep carbon burial, which means no permanent removal of atmospheric carbon.” Mann mentions another concern. Ocean iron fertilization “could make matters worse, as it could generate “harmful ‘red tide’ algae blooms that create oceanic dead zones” (p. 157).
Thirdly is a proposal to deal with the climate crisis through massive tree planting. The idea here is to engage in large-scale reforestation of the vast regions of the planet that have been deforested,” and that this effort should be “supplemented by land use and agricultural practices that sequester additional carbon in soils” (p. 165). The rationale is that “by planting trees we can get better-functioned ecosystems; maintain and even increase biodiversity; improve the quality of our soils, air, and water; and better insulate ourselves from the damaging impacts of climate change” (165). It is a partial solution. However, Mann points to the downside.
“One study claimed that an additional 0.9 billion hectares of the planet’s surface is available for this purpose. This translates to billions of new trees that collectively could capture just over 200 billion tons of carbon over the next couple of decades.” – about 11 billion tons of carbon a year. “Regenerative agriculture based on recycling farm waste and using composed materials from other sources, combined with land use practices that enhance soil carbon sequestration, could potentially bury somewhere in the range of 3.5 to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such achievements would be praiseworthy. But, Mann says, such levels of carbon removal from the air are overshadowed by the “roughly 55 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide through fossil fuel burning and other human activities.” At most, massive tree planting “would at most only slow the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a factor of 44 percent. In other words, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would continue to rise, just at a rate that is roughly half as fast” (p. 166). This estimate, however, “is overly optimistic, since the “actual land area available for reforestation may be only about 30 percent of the technically available and area assumed in the recent study” (p. 166).
At the same time, deforestation continues. Mann refers to the authors of a 2020 article in Nature which “demonstrated that the peak carbon uptake by tropical forests occurred during the 1990s and has declined ever since as a result of logging, farming, and the effects of climate change.” For example, the “authors found that the Amazon could go from a sink (a net absorber of carbon) to a source (a net producer of carbon) within the next decade….” (pp. 166-167).
The Nuclear Option
Mann is skeptical that nuclear should play a central role in the required clean, green energy transition (p. 169). He gives six reasons. (1) There is “the risk of nuclear proliferation, and the danger that fissile materials and weapons-applicable technology could make it into the hands of hostile nations with militaristic intentions or terrorists.” (2) There continues to be an unsolved “challenge of safe long-term disposal of radioactive waste.” (3) Large nuclear accidents like the accident at Fukushima have profound and long-lasting impacts of environment and people. (4) Nuclear plants will “always will be vulnerable to natural hazards such as earthquake, volcanoes, or tsunamis (like the one that triggered the Fukushima meltdown).” (5) The complexity of nuclear power plants increases the chances of technical failure or human error (Three Mile Island).” (6) Climate change increases the risk, as, for example, “extreme droughts have led to reactors shut down as the surrounding waters become too warm to provide the cooling necessary to convey heat from the reactor core to the steam turbines and remove surplus heat from the steam circuit” (p. 170).
He rejects the assumption the nuclear power is necessary to decarbonize the economy, writing: “Although it may well make sense to continue with the operation of existing nuclear power plants until they are retired (after twenty to forty years, their typical lifetime), given that the embodied carbon emissions associated with their construction is a ‘sunken’ carbon cost, it makes little sense to build new ones” (p. 171).
#4 – Worries that some on the left have gone too far and have opened up opportunities for the enemy to discredit efforts to combat climate change
And some have advanced the notion that catastrophe is a fait accompli, “either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, by dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or by setting the standard so high (say, the very overthrow of market economics itself, that old chestnut) that any action seems doomed to failure” (p 5).
Asking for too much
For example, Mann thinks that the original Green New Deal resolution from progressive Democrats went too far. It was “as a formal resolution by AOC and Senator Ed Markey on February 7, 2019, and advanced a 10-year mobilization over the next ten years. The resolution went beyond measures to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions and included items to guarantee jobs with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people,” along with proposals to provide guaranteed health care, adequate housing, clean water, healthy and affordable food,” and more (p. 94) Mann writes that he broadly supports the GND goals, he has “some concern about the ambitious scope of specific proposals,” namely, that ‘Saddling a climate movement with a laundry list of other worthy social programs risks alienating needed supporters (say, independents an moderate conservatives) who are apprehensive about a broader agenda of progressive social change” (p. 94), and gives climate-change denies the opportunity to argue that “global warming is a hoax promoted as an excuse to expand the size of government.” Mann is also concerned that the GND does not include support for market mechanisms such as carbon pricing (p. 95).
He also criticizes Naomi Klein’s thesis “that neoliberalism – the prevailing global policy model, predicated on privatization and free-market capitalism – must be overthrown through mass resistance [and that] climate change can’t be separated from other pressing social problems, each a symptom of neoliberalism: income inequality, corporate surveillance, misogyny and white supremacy” (p. 95). He fears that should a revolutionary agenda “allows deniers the opportunity to say environmentalists really want to overthrow capitalism and end economic growth (95).
It’s too late to stop climate change
Mann writes: “there is a segment of the climate activist community that not only overplays it, but displays a distinct appetite for all-out doomism,” portraying climate change not just as a threat that requires urgent response, but as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight” (pp. 182-183). He dubs this viewpoint as a form of climate nihilism that breeds disengagement and potential fuels “a brilliant strategy for building a truly bipartisan coalition for inaction” (p. 184). They are disillusioned by the lack of adequate action by the government to address the climate crisis and the belief that “both major parties are equally bad” (p. 184).
Mann identifies Guy McPherson, a retired ecology professor from Arizona, [who] is arguable the scientific leader of the doomism movement, a cult figure of sorts, like other doomists.” McPherson “argues that we have already triggered irreversible vicious cycles (for example, the massive release of frozen methane) that will render the planet lifeless in a matter of years. There’s nothing we can do about it.” According to McPherson, humanity is caught in ‘exponential climate change’[that] will render human beings and all other species extinct within ten years owing to supposed runaway warming. Mann maintain there is “no shred of scientific evidence” to support such views.” This all may eventually come to pass, but there is no evidence that supports McPherson’s contention that, in a matter of years, the climate change will render the planet lifeless or, for example, “no evidence that methane will run out of control and initiate any sudden, catastrophic effects.” At the same time, given continuation of current trends, there is little doubt that at some point, perhaps some decades from, now, humanity may reach a point of no return. Given these assumptions, McPherson argues counterproductively that there is no reason now to cut emissions (p. 196). Contrariwise, Mann maintain that there is “compelling evidence that a clean energy revolution and climate stabilization are achievable with current technology. All we require are policies to incentivize the needed shift.” Indeed, we have the tools we need, writing “a combination of energy efficiency, electrification, and decarbonization of the grid through an array of complementary renewable energy sources” can curtail and reverse climate change (p. 177). But, to reiterate, the existing politics may prevent the us from using these tools.
#5 – Mann’s proposals
There is, he writes, a need for both supply-side and demand-side measures to deal effectively with the climate crisis (120). Supply side measures “take the form of blocking pipeline construction, banning fracking, stopping mountain-top-removal coal mining, divesting in fossil fuel companies, and putting a halt to most new fossil fuel infrastructure.” Demand side measures includes carbon pricing and support for renewable energy. Carbon pricing, according to Mann, represents “a means of leveling the playing field in the energy market, so that those sources of energy are not warming the planet (i.e., renewable energy) can compete fairly against those that are (i.e., fossil fuels).” Such a pricing policy “reflects an effort to diminish demand, while fossil fuel divestment campaigns and opposition to pipelines, offshore oil drilling, or mountain-top-removal coal mining constitute efforts to diminish supply” (p. 107).
The concerns of progressives over carbon pricing
Carbon pricing “seems wonkish and abstract, and it’s harder to capture it in a front-page image or a television screen” and it is viewed as “buying into market economics.” It has been attacked from both the right and left. Progressives argue that prices put on carbon emissions will reflect politics and end up being too low to effect any significant change and that it doesn’t take into account social justice issues, that is, the extra financial burden put on the poor and lower-income people (108). On the question of the adequacy of a carbon price, Mann seems to rely on politics and social movements to ensure that any price on carbon is sufficient. On the social justice implications of carbon pricing, Mann responds, “In fact, the carbon-pricing schemes that have been successfully instituted have been progressive in nature. With the ETS scheme implemented by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, the government compensated low-income earners, who ended up benefiting financially. Under Canada’s carbon tax-and-rebate system, most households actually save money. No less than Pope Francis, a champion of social justice and a true advocate for the poor and downtrodden, has called carbon pricing ‘essential’ for tackling the climate-change ‘emergency’” (p. 109).
One recent development shows perhaps growing support for carbon pricing. Susanna Twidale reports that “[i]nvestors managing more than $6 trillion in assets on Tuesday (July 6] called for a co-ordinated global price on carbon and said emissions costs would need to almost treble by 2030 to reach the world’s climate goals.” Twidale continues: “The call by the The Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance, whose 43 members include some of the world’s biggest pension schemes and insurers, comes ahead of the next round of global climate talks in November” (https://reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/asset-owners-managing-6-trin-call-global-carbon-price-2021-07-05).
Mann offers the reader a perspective based a coherent, in-depth, well-documented analysis of the obstacles to be overcome in the climate war – and some reasons to be hopeful that they can be overcome. Whether his proposals go far enough is open to question. He may be too cautious in wanting to emphasize market mechanisms like carbon pricing as a principal way to curtail rising greenhouse gas emissions so as not to alienate supporters with talk of transforming the existing capitalist system. However, this may have a downside, that is, it may underestimate the power of mega-corporations, including fossil fuel corporations, and their ability to influence politics and government policy in ways that nullify or reduce the impact of carbon pricing or other market-regulating measure. There is certainly a need to limit corporate power generally and fossil fuels specifically. This goal can be advanced by enforcing anti-trust law, by vastly increasing support for climate-friendly options like solar, wind, geothermal, along with sweeping energy efficiency measures, by ending subsidies to fossil-fuel corporations, by banning the US export of natural gas and oil, by providing transitional support for workers who are displaced from fossil-fuel jobs, and by educating the public about sustainable lifestyle options and what makes for a “resilient community.” See the book, The Community Resilience Reader, for multiple views on resilient communities.
Let me end on a positive note. Matthew Hoffman offers a list of reasons to be hopeful (https://yesmagazine.org/environment/2021/01/12/climate-change-hope-momentum). Here it is.
• The first truly global social movement dedicated to climate action and climate justice has gained in size and strength, beginning with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and spreading to the Sunrise Movement in the U.S. and climate justice movements around the world.
• Large-scale capital continues to flee from fossil fuel investments, which are rapidly losing value. According to a recent study by political scientists Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green, and Thomas Hale, this shifting financial ground promises to upend the politics of climate change in important ways, as vested interests lose political power.
• The initial pandemic response demonstrated how societies and economies can pivot quickly in response to an emergency. The longer-term plans for post-pandemic recovery provide an enormous window of opportunity to “build back better,” although this idea does not have universal uptake.
• The Paris Agreement survived the withdrawal of the U.S., which is poised to rejoin after Joe Biden is sworn in as president. Momentum around the agreement was clear at the Climate Ambition Summit where 75 countries announced new national commitments.
• The ranks of countries that have made net-zero commitments is swelling, and a new report suggests that the cumulative effect of countries’ recent pledges (if fully achieved) could keep warming to 2.1 C by 2100, putting a key Paris Agreement goal within reach. Hoffman offers this cautionary note. “These trends don’t guarantee that we have turned the political corner. The forces arrayed against the kind of changes we need are vast and powerful. It will take an enormous amount of energy, resources, and