Michael Mann keeps his eyes on the prize

Climate Economy

Michael Mann keeps his eyes on the prize

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Renowned climate scientist Michael Mann has explained climate science for the last 20 years, and he has no plans to stop

Climate&Capital’s “Beers with Blair” is a regular column where editor Blair Palese explores the latest trends and developments with the world’s leading climate scientists and climate action advocates.

As fires ravage the west coast of the US and five tropical cyclones form in the Atlantic simultaneously, it seems like an important time to talk with one of the world’s best-known climate scientists about what we’re facing and what our chances are as emissions continue to rise. I met Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, on one of his early visits to Australia and, more recently, spent time with him here during the deadly Australian fires last summer. 

Michael is a climatologist and geophysicist and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC). This week he was a co-winner of the 2020 World Sustainability Award and was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, much to the chagrin of climate change deniers everywhere. 

Michael is most known for the creation of the famous “hockey stick graph” showing the alarming jump in global temperatures in conjunction with the rise of human produced carbon dioxide emissions in the 20th century. His credentials are too numerous to list but it’s worth noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged his work as part of why it jointly won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore. He’s written four books and a new one is expected in January. Maybe most important, Michael has a wicked sense of humor that’s come in handy when facing some of the realities of the global climate change crisis. 

In Australia, Mann pulls no punches in talking about the link between the worst fires in the country’s history and climate change. He speaks in a way that most Australian scientists would not, calling out years of drought and ever increasing extreme heat as the recipe for a fire disaster that burned 12 million acres, an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Unsurprisingly, he says much the same about the US west coast fires and extreme weather events we are seeing around the world this year: This is the face of climate change.

“We lived through Australia’s angry black summer. And now we’re seeing the same thing on the west coast of the US.”

“California after Australia? It’s sort of deja vu all over again,” Mann says. “We lived through Australia’s angry black summer — unprecedented heat and drought coming together to produce deadly bushfires that killed 24 people and literally blanketed the continent in smoke back in January and February. And now we’re seeing the same thing on the west coast of the US.”

The problems are real

Michael reminds me that as of mid-September, the northern hemisphere is only midway through its fire season with several months of threat ahead. “We are now seeing new records broken everywhere: the most acreage burned in California, the second, third and fourth largest wildfires in the state’s history, the hottest temperature ever recorded on the face of the planet —130 F (54.4 C) in Death Valley. Hurricane Laura in the Gulf of Mexico was called an ‘unsurvivable storm,’ language we’ve never heard before in forecasts.”

And this is just the beginning, says Mann. 

With the world coping with COVID-19 and extreme weather challenges not just in North America but across Asia and in Syria, the Caribbean, Brazil and the Arctic, it is a global time of compounding calamities. 

“While COVID-19 threatens public health, human health, climate change is an even greater threat,” he explains. “It fundamentally threatens the health of our entire planet. Maybe these COVID times have opened up a conversation about resilience and vulnerability that will parlay into a meaningful conversation about how to confront this greater crisis when we’re in position to do that.”

Extreme weather events like the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico are strengthening faster and more likely to catch us by surprise, giving us less time to prepare, evacuate and take other precautions to blunt the impacts. “We’re seeing a dozen or more billion dollar extreme weather events a year here in the United States, that’s certainly one measure of the destructive impact of climate change,” he says. “We call it a threat multiplier. It stresses our existing resources and our resilience.”

The cost of inaction on climate change is far greater than that of taking action

The cost of inaction on climate change is, Mann continues, far greater than that of taking action, despite what naysayers claim. But given the deadlock on action in countries like the US, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, I ask Mann where he sees hope ahead on the climate front. 

“With the extreme weather we’re seeing, climate change is no longer some theoretical problem in the future, far away,” he tells me. “It’s what’s happening to us where we live right now. I think Americans understand that. I think Australians understand that. It’s a question of whether our policy makers are going to hear the calls from the public and do something about it.” 

This, of course, brings us to the all-important US election just months away. With the Biden Harris team putting forward a strong climate change platform that includes a commitment to achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions before 2050, the contrast with Trump’s four years of environmental destruction couldn’t be more stark. But even under Trump, state and local governments in the U.S. have made quite a bit of progress in decarbonizing the economy. He notes that California and New York are already moving away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy. 

“The U.S. is going to come close to meeting our Paris obligations despite the fact that Trump has threatened to pull out of Paris and has done everything he can to dismantle the progress that had been made at the federal level. But I think another four years of Trump would mean it becomes impossible to repair the damage that he’s doing.”

Can we turn it around in time?

There’s no getting around the big question: Have we left it too late to address climate change in order to keep warming below unlivable levels? On this question, Mann is clear.

“It’s still achievable. If we in the U.S. elect a Democratic president in Biden and a Congress that’s willing to work with him, I think we will see the progress we need.” 

Mann explains that the Democrats in the Senate have put forward a bold climate plan of their own and are committed to real climate change policy. Having a Democratic Senate is as important, he says, to electing Biden in order to end the policy stalemate. The intersection of the racial justice movement and the climate movement is one of the most important shifts in the US that he hopes will bring voters out in November to make a difference. 

“Part of the reason for the Democrats’ position is that kids and adults have been out demonstrating in the streets in the United States and around the world, putting pressure on policy makers,” he says. “But pressure is still needed even for politicians who are nominally on side because there’s so much pressure coming from the other side.” 

Internationally, Mann believes there is still a great deal of work to do and a shrinking window of time in which to do it. 

“What you have is a small number of petro states — Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and what I call ‘Trumpistan’ or the United States under Trump”

“What you have is a small number of petro states — Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and what I call ‘Trumpistan’ or the United States under Trump — and ExxonMobil and fossil fuel interests who dominate those countries always trying to sabotage global negotiations. It’s made them very fragile. If Trump is defeated, if Democrats take back the Senate, then we can hit the ground running.” 

Taking a pause

With the delay of the next UN climate negotiations — COP26 — due to COVID, progress in upping international ambition to reduce emissions is stalled. I ask Mann if the global pause on everything, including the COP talks, might not be a good thing with the US election in November. 

“The world is sort of taking a pause to see what happens in this election so it doesn’t really make sense to try to do anything on the international stage before we know what the playing field is going to look like,” he answers. “I think that if the election goes the right way here, that sets the stage for meaningful global action.” 

“I think that if the election goes the right way here, that sets the stage for meaningful global action” 

Mann says that the world is closely watching significant climate actions taken on the state and local levels in the US and the finance sector across the world as a sign that action will win out post -Trump. Major steps by BlackRock, the Bank of England and some of the largest investment funds globally are sending clear market signals that fossil fuels are a bad investment and that fiduciary responsibility means addressing climate change.  

“I think all of those threads are coming together and we’re seeing action even in what you might think of as the conservative world of business and finance — that’s another reason to be  cautiously optimistic.” 

I ask Michael how, after more than 20 years of working in the toxic climate change political environment, he stays in the fight, including stepping up to regularly take on climate deniers in the media and contend with threats, social media attacks and constant challenges over the validity of his research. 

“I keep my eye on the prize,” he says. “This is much larger than me, or any one person. It’s about the future of the planet. I always try to maintain that perspective — and a thick skin!”





Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.