If billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos really want to maximize their efforts to solve the global climate crisis, they should focus less on gadgetry and more on getting governments to act.
That’s the message from Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann, who delves into the changing circumstances of a decades-old debate in a book titled “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”
At the age of 55, Mann is a grizzled veteran of climate wars: In 1999, he helped lay out the “hockey stick” projection for rising global temperatures, and in 2009 he was swept up in the Climategate controversy over hacked emails.
Mann has chronicled the conflicts over climate science in a series of books published over the course of the past decade. But in “The New Climate War,” he argues that the terms of engagement have shifted.
Amid waves of wildfires and extreme weather, it’s getting harder to deny that Earth’s climate is becoming more challenging. Instead, the focus of the debate is shifting to whether the climate challenge can be met — and if so, how best to meet it.
Gates has argued that investment in technology is the key to averting a catastrophe. “Tech is the only solution,” he said during last October’s GeekWire Summit. The Microsoft co-founder expands upon that perspective in an upcoming book titled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”
Mann takes issue with that argument in “The New Climate War.”
“Where I disagree with Bill is that, no, I don’t think we need a ‘miracle,’ which is what he said [was needed] to solve this problem,” Mann told me during an interview for the Fiction Science podcast. “The miracle is there when we look up in the sky at the sun, when we feel the wind. … The solutions are there. It’s a matter of committing the resources to scaling them up.”
One of Gates’ big energy technology ventures is Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, which is working on small-scale nuclear power plants. But Mann doesn’t think nuclear power will play a significant role going forward — due to high costs as well as broader concerns. “It comes with obvious potential liabilities, whether it’s proliferation issues, weapons issues or environmental threats,” he said.
Mann thinks even less of Gates’ support for solar geoengineering strategies. “That’s going down a very dangerous road,” Mann told me. “When we start interfering with this system [that] we don’t understand perfectly, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.”
As for Bezos, Mann said he’s already had some conversations with the Amazon CEO’s team about climate initiatives such as the $10 billion Earth Fund.
“It’s a start,” Mann said. “Would I like to see him spend less on some of these wackier [ideas like] establishing space colonies, and more on saving the one planet in the universe that we know does support life? Yeah.” (For what it’s worth, Bezos argues that his space vision is aimed at moving energy-intensive, pollution-producing heavy industries off the planet and thereby preserving Earth for residential and light industrial use.)
Although he begs to differ on the details, Mann is nevertheless grateful that Gates and Bezos are on the right side in the new climate war. “I’ll gently criticize these folks where I feel it’s appropriate, but I do welcome these voices at the table, because we need everyone on board,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Denialism and doomism
In his book, Mann argues that the “inactivists” who resist efforts to address the climate challenge have turned to a subtler form of denialism, as well as a phenomenon that Mann calls “doomism.”
Mann says the climate-denial crowd has picked up the game plan that’s been followed by the gun lobby, Big Tobacco and the bottling and packaging industry.
Just as “guns don’t kill people,” “smoking doesn’t kill” and “people can stop pollution,” some opponents to policy solutions claim that fixing the climate mess should be left up to individuals. Some even say that you shouldn’t complain about carbon emissions unless you swear off air travel and stop eating meat.
“There are things that we can do in our everyday lives that decrease our environmental footprint — and they make us healthier, they save us money and they make us feel better,” Mann acknowledged. “What we can’t allow is for the forces of inaction, the ‘inactivists,’ to convince us that that’s the entire solution.”
Others insist it’s already too late to avoid the climate catastrophe, and say the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the hellscape to come.
“If we really were doomed, if the science said that, then we’d have to be upfront about that,” Mann said. “But the science says the opposite. The science says there’s still time to avert catastrophic warming.”
Mann said the current political climate (so to speak) is favorable for making progress, thanks in part to a youth movement led by the likes of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and student activists in Washington state.
The next phase of the war
“The New Climate War” had to be turned in for publication months before November’s presidential election, but Mann said the results bore out his assumption that Joe Biden would win out. The results in the Senate — a 50-50 tie with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker — couldn’t be any closer.
Because of that narrow mandate, “we probably can’t expect to see something like a Green New Deal,” at least for the next two years or so, Mann said. But he doesn’t rule out moving ahead with the first stages of a carbon-pricing system similar to the tax scheme that Canada currently has in place.
Climate campaigners in Washington state tried twice to set up a carbon-pricing systems, in 2016 and 2018, but both initiatives failed at the polls. Mann noted that fossil-fuel interests weren’t the only opponents.
“Ironically, some of the opposition in recent years to market mechanisms has actually come from the environmental left — because it’s been framed as inconsistent with social justice, that the cost will somehow fall on disadvantaged front-line communities, those with the least resources,” he said. “That definitely does not have to be the case.”
Mann said the key is to tweak market-based pricing systems so that the revenue goes to support the communities that need help, and support the spread of renewable energy technologies.
How would Mann spend the revenue? I put an extra spin on that question by asking him what he’d invest in if he were given a few million dollars to start up a climate-related venture. His answer was true to form.
“I would put it into science communication, focusing on what I see as the remaining obstacles when it comes to scientists informing the public discourse, because we do play a role,” Mann replied.
“We shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what the policies should be. There’s a worthy political debate to be had about that,” he said. “But we need to define the scientific ground rules to find what the objective evidence has to say about the risks that we face, so that we have an honest political debate about solutions.”
What’s Michael Mann reading? For bonus book recommendations, and more from the Fiction Science podcast, check out the Cosmic Log version of this article.
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