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Michael Mann: “Defeatism is as much of a threat as climate denial”

The renowned climatologist on net zero and the fight for democracy.

By Megan Kenyon

Michael E Mann is a climatologist and geophysicist, and is currently the director of the Centre for Science, Sustainability, and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, Our Fragile Moment, was published last year and looks at the lessons we can learn from the Earth’s geological history in the fight against climate change. He spoke to New Statesman Spotlight about the importance of clear climate policies, the upcoming US and UK elections and why we should be worried about doomism and defeatism in the fight against climate change.

Are we making enough progress on the path to tackling climate change?

We are making progress, but not enough progress. Right now, if every country meets its commitments under the Cop26 agreement, and does so on time, it could limit warming to 2°C. But that’s still too much warming, and as yet, many countries are not meeting their obligations.

In light of rising temperatures, are you confident that we will meet the goals we need to limit warming?

I’m confident we’re on a better trajectory than we were ten years ago, when we were looking at potentially as much as 4°C warming of the planet – truly devastating, potentially civilisation-ending amounts of warming. Current policies now likely hold warming under 3°C, and Cop26 obligations potentially bring warming below 2°C. So we’re making progress, but not yet enough progress.

How do you stay positive as someone working in this field?

Being immersed in the science, and knowing the numbers, I know that it’s still possible to avert the worst consequences of climate change. The obstacles to keeping warming below 1.5°C – as yet – are not physical or technological. They remain political – and political obstacles can be overcome. I am especially inspired by young folks – they get it. And they are working to change the world for the better. I have faith that they will lead us forward, but we can’t wait for them to be in positions of power and influence to take the needed actions. We need to act now on their behalf, elect climate champions and throw out fossil fuel industry apologists.

What lessons can we take from history to help us to tackle climate change?

That happens to be the subject of [my most recent book] Our Fragile Moment. My review of the Earth’s history reveals both the urgency in acting now to preserve a liveable planet and the agency we have in doing so. Past climate episodes document the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide levels, and we’re increasing those levels at an unprecedented rate – that’s the threat, and that’s the urgency. But those same episodes validate the models we use today to predict future climate change. And those models tell us that we can avert catastrophic warming by lowering carbon emissions substantially in the decade ahead.

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[See also: Farmer protests and Just Stop Oil are two sides of the same coin]

How well do you think the UK is doing on tackling climate change?

Unfortunately, the current Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak] has reversed the proactive climate policies that were in place before his tenure. In particular, he has favoured increasing oil production and new natural gas plants, policies that are inconsistent with the UK’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

We have two major elections coming up in the next year, in the UK and the US. What would you like to see in terms of climate policies?

It would be good, of course, to see the UK elect a climate-forward government. But the US, as the world’s largest cumulative carbon emitter, has an even greater obligation to the world. It must lead on climate if we are to expect other major emitters – such as China and India – to commit to substantial reductions in their carbon emissions. There is no path to global climate action without US leadership. And there is no path to US leadership that does not go through democratic governance. And that’s literally what this next American election is about – whether we go down the path of democracy or autocracy. Everything rides on this election. In terms of climate policies, here in the US, the Inflation Reduction Act gets us part of the way there, but it’s only the carrot part. We also need the stick –disincentives for fossil fuels in the form of carbon pricing or clean energy portfolio standards, with penalties for non-compliance.

Do you think the urgency of climate change is being communicated? How can governments bring more people along with them?

One of the many threats, in my view, is that doomism and defeatism today pose as much of a threat to climate action as outright denial. As the impacts of climate change become ever more obvious, it’s very difficult to credibly deny the problem. So, polluters have instead turned to other tactics in their efforts to block action. And among them is fanning the flames of doomism, for if we truly come to believe there is nothing we can do, then why try? That’s why I focus, in my outreach efforts, on both urgency and agency – and the science supports this. We must act now to avert catastrophic outcomes, but there is still time to act. As stated earlier, the only real obstacles at this point are political ones.

What will it take to overcome these political obstacles to climate action?

It will take collective action on our part. We must vote climate deniers and delayers, and fossil fuel lackeys, out of office and vote for climate champions instead. Many of the needed actions – economic incentives for clean energy and disincentives for fossil fuels – cannot be accomplished by us, but only by our elected leaders. They must represent our interests above special interests

[See also: We should be more worried about nature-related risks]

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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