Review of Michael Mann’s 2021 book “The New Climate War” and my own reflections on “when is it optimal to be talking about optimisation?”
Michael Mann’s latest book brings you right up to date with how the climate change denialism movement has morphed into something new – “climate inactivism”.
The organised and well-funded denialism machine, which used to achieve traction among large numbers of (mostly least-well informed) observers, based on its tropes of “it’s not happening”, “it’s not affected by human activities, so there’s nothing we can do about it” and denial of basic scientific facts, has been changing its tune over recent years.
As it has become more and more untenable for such crude denial to sway members of the public who have at least a small amount of scientific fact-checking ability and enquiring minds, the denialists are either switching to “the other side” and accepting that it’s happening and actions are required, or they are increasingly changing into “inactivists”.
Inactivism is a more subtle approach than denial, in that it accepts the consensus of climate change science but argues against significant action in the short- to medium-term to address it.
Inactivists are typified by Dr Bjorn Lomborg (mentioned in the book), who suggests that climate change is real, that humans are a major driver of warming since the Industrial Revolution, and that action is required. However, he uses various arguments to suggest that such actions should be delayed – essentially arguing that other things are more important right now, and waiting until later will make the task easier, more affordable and (as he argues) more optimal economically. He goes further than this, even suggesting that warming of nearly 4 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels would be optimal for humanity. In Dr Lomborg’s view, acting on climate change now actually causes more damage than it solves, thereby representing some form of sacrifice of human wellbeing.
However, as Michael Mann says in the book:
“The premise that climate action demands sacrifice is itself deeply flawed. If anything, the opposite is actually the case. The cost of inaction on climate, as measured in the damage done by devastating wildfires, heatwaves, floods, and superstorms, is far greater than the cost of taking action. The real sacrifice would be if we fail to act, and subject ourselves to ever more dangerous and damaging climate-change impacts.”
There is academic literature that goes even further than Michael Mann, by suggesting that acting on climate change provides a net positive economic benefit to humanity, increasing our wellbeing. The following is from Ekins and Zenghelis, (2021) "The costs and benefits of environmental sustainability":
"Recent evidence suggests the short-term GDP impacts of well-designed environmental action could be positive, crowding-in rather than ‘crowding out’ the drivers of future growth. This paper provides evidence that not only makes the environmental case for action, in terms of its benefits for human health and welfare, it also shows how such action can generate economic returns in terms of productivity, jobs and income and reduce the costs of meeting any emissions and resource use targets. A cost effective low-carbon, resource-efficient transition can generate a cleaner, quieter, more secure, innovative, and productive economy for all countries at all stages of development."
Basically, responding to climate and other environmental challenges provides additional resources to tackle other problems. It's a win-win no-brainer! This directly contradicts Dr Lomborg’s approach, which could be described as an “opportunity cost” approach.
In brief, it’s an “also-and” rather than an “either-or” when it comes to tackling climate change and, at the same time, other ‘bads’ causing damage and suffering to humanity (such as poverty and other inequalities within and between countries).
Many inactivists present the narrative as if it is an either-or.
Quite a lot of the text in Michael Mann’s book warns us about the dangers inherent in the newer, sometimes more subtle, tactics of inactivists compared with older “denialist” approaches (which are still out there in the ‘socials’). As he says:
“Though they are on the run, the forces of climate-change denial and inaction haven’t given up… When dangerous lies threaten to poison our public discourse, we must do our best to correct the record. But we must avoid traps set by trolls and bots looking to divide us. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here. We must each just remain vigilant and use our best judgement.”
One of the biggest messages from the book is not to let inactivists subtly (or otherwise) drive wedges between groups of people pushing for (and acting on) ways of addressing climate change.
This will become a greater risk as more and more people ‘come over from the dark side’ (of climate change denial) and when global combined efforts start to “bend the curve” of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.
Ultimately, Michael Mann paints a cautiously optimistic tone that factors are moving increasingly in a positive direction, towards concerted and co-ordinated global actions by governments and peoples around the world to tackle climate change.
That is a much healthier place to be, psychologically, than the basically defeatist “there’s nothing we can do about it anyway” attitude prevalent among the denialists and inactivists, many of whom take that stance very cynically and deliberately, to protect their own financial interests in the fossil fuel industry for whom ‘the writing is on the wall’.
Michael Mann tells us that we can learn lessons from the covid-19 pandemic, for example the cost of delays (in terms of real human suffering).
I would take this comparison even further than he does. Despite being guided by the science in climate change, as has been the case in most countries with the pandemic, there are still difficult decisions to be taken with climate change (as there are with pandemic responses). In the same way that governments have to decide when to ease pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions, governments (within the UNFCCC CoP processes) will ultimately need to decide when to ease off on GHG emissions reduction requirements – essentially, answering the question “what is the optimum warming above pre-industrial levels?”
That’s not going to be an easy task, and it will be where conversations and analyses from multiple disciplines will be needed – from climate science, economics, sociology, environmental sciences, etc – to arrive at sensible international agreements beyond the middle of this century.
Perhaps when that time comes (which might be a few decades away yet, as we haven’t even been able to “bend the curve” on climate change yet) the likes of Dr Lomborg will provide valuable inputs to the discussions and he will no longer be perceived as an inactivist but more as a part of the wider “optimisation literature”. After all, something that is not an optimal approach in one era can become optimal in another one.
In the meantime, I sincerely hope that Dr Lomborg and other people who could be called inactivists can be persuaded to desist from spreading misinformation or disinformation, because such activities reduce trust in credible science, on which we will all increasingly have to rely if we are to avoid the crystallisation of one or more of the worst climate crisis scenarios on our pathway to climate stability.
Michael Mann is to be applauded both for all his work on climate science, and on his courage to speak out against denialism and inactivism. His book is an excellent read and packed with great insights and advice.
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.