The politics of climate change
Review: “The New Climate War”
Usually we reserve this column for books about the Adirondacks, or by Adirondack writers. In this case, the closest connection I can make is that Paul Smiths College faculty member and climate scientist Curt Stager recommended it during a recent presentation. However, this is a book relevant to people everywhere, and especially those in our region concerned about environmental change.
The thesis of Michael Mann in “The New Climate War” is simple. Our planet is changing, with well documented warming, primarily due to human use of fossil fuels. Yet those who benefit from the fossil fuel industry, primarily the oil companies, those who distribute their products, and politicians who support them, don’t want us to believe there’s an issue.
Early chapters show how this behavior is not new. Industry fought revelations about the dangers of cigarette smoking, chemical pollution, and indiscriminant use of insecticides. Those standing to lose economically denied the claims of health and environmental damage, and also vilified the messengers, including people like Rachel Carson, almost an icon today.
Mann goes through a lot of scientific data and also analyzes quite a bit of commentary that’s been published over recent years. He gives solid examples of how various politicians and lobbyists have denied, deflected, and distorted issues, often willing to spread disinformation and outright lies in service of achieving their aims of opposing legislation that could forestall environmental damage.
Oil companies and behind-the-scene operators like the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch showed no hesitancy in hiring shills, some of them with quasi-scientific backgrounds, to write columns and distributing these to multiple media outlets. Climate change deniers holding public office, one of them a former president, added their forceful and misleading claims to the mix.
But Mann emphasizes that all is not doom and gloom, even though detrimental climate change has worsened over the years that he has researched the field.
For one thing, weather-related occurrences like severe storms, and events like the massive forest fires out west this year, have brought climate issues to the fore in public discussion. Young people have been especially vocal in arguing the need to address what most people see as a crisis. In fact, denying climate change has been relegated almost to the fringe elements of the political sphere.
Mann reminds the reader frequently, though, that those who once preached denial still push their cause by supporting inactivity and delay in change. They do this by focusing on downsides of potential solutions, opposing support for alternative energy sources, and turning their old ad hominem arguments toward young advocates like Greta Thunberg.
Some opponents become extreme. They no longer deny climate change is real. Instead their strategy has become claiming that such change has become so advanced that there’s no chance of preventing catastrophe. Thus, there’s no benefit any more from limiting fossil fuel use or growing the use of wind, solar, or other energy potential.
Or they try to put the focus on individual responsibility, suggesting it’s citizens who need to change behaviors. There’s value in individual adaptation, but that alone won’t be sufficient. Systemic change is needed, with diversion away from reliance on carbon-based fuels and its concomitant carbon dioxide production.
The author makes clear that he wants to give a message of hope. Yes, there’s been damage that can’t be undone, and we can’t fully understand the consequences yet. However, we can mitigate impacts far in the future. His key assertions are that we need to understand both that there’s urgency, and that we have agency, the ability to still make effective change. He reminds us of the success our country had in eliminating acid rain concerns (albeit in a less partisan era). Stakes are higher now, and our objectives must be, too.
Yes, Mann is espousing his point of view. However, he seems to back up his statements effectively. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But he makes clear we all have a stake in the continued search for new strategies. If we’re not interested in doing so for ourselves, we can reflect on how our efforts will impact our children, grandchildren, and generations far into the future. Reading this book can help inform these efforts.