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The New Climate War
The Fight to Take Back Our Planet
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Shortlisted for the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award
A renowned climate scientist shows how fossil fuel companies have waged a thirty-year campaign to deflect blame and responsibility and delay action on climate change, and offers a battle plan for how we can save the planet.
Recycle. Fly less. Eat less meat. These are some of the ways that we've been told can slow climate change. But the inordinate emphasis on individual behavior is the result of a marketing campaign that has succeeded in placing the responsibility for fixing climate change squarely on the shoulders of individuals.
Fossil fuel companies have followed the example of other industries deflecting blame (think "guns don't kill people, people kill people") or greenwashing (think of the beverage industry's "Crying Indian" commercials of the 1970s). Meanwhile, they've blocked efforts to regulate or price carbon emissions, run PR campaigns aimed at discrediting viable alternatives, and have abdicated their responsibility in fixing the problem they've created. The result has been disastrous for our planet.
In The New Climate War, Mann argues that all is not lost. He draws the battle lines between the people and the polluters-fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, and petrostates. And he outlines a plan for forcing our governments and corporations to wake up and make real change, including:
- A common-sense, attainable approach to carbon pricing- and a revision of the well-intentioned but flawed currently proposed version of the Green New Deal;
- Allowing renewable energy to compete fairly against fossil fuels
- Debunking the false narratives and arguments that have worked their way into the climate debate and driven a wedge between even those who support climate change solutions
- Combatting climate doomism and despair-mongering
The Architects of Misinformation and Misdirection
Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public.
—Unnamed tobacco executive, Brown and Williamson (1969)
THE ORIGINS OF THE ONGOING CLIMATE WARS LIE IN DISINFORMATION campaigns waged decades ago, when the findings of science began to collide with the agendas of powerful vested interests. These campaigns were aimed at obscuring public understanding of the underlying science and discrediting the scientific message, often by attacking the messengers themselves—that is, the scientists whose work hinted that we might have a problem on our hands. Over the years, tactics were developed and refined by public relations agents employed to undermine facts and scientifically based warnings.
KILL THE MESSENGER
Our journey takes us all the way back to the late nineteenth century, to Thomas Stockmann, an amateur scientist in a small Norwegian town. The local economy was dependent on tourism tied to the town’s medicinal hot springs. After discovering that the town’s water supply was being polluted by chemicals from a local tannery, Stockmann was thwarted in his efforts to alert the townspeople of the threat, first when the local paper refused to publish an article he had written about his findings, then when he was shouted down as he attempted to announce his findings at a town meeting. He and his family were treated as outcasts. His daughter was expelled from school, and the townspeople stoned his home, breaking all the windows and terrifying his family. They considered leaving town but decided to stay, hoping—in vain—that the townspeople would ultimately come around to accepting, and indeed appreciating, his dire warnings.
That’s the plot of the 1882 Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People (made into a film in 1978 that starred Steve McQueen in one of his final and arguably finest performances). The story is fictional, but it depicts a conflict that would be familiar to audiences in the late nineteenth century. The eerie prescience of this tale today, when an anti-science president dismisses the media as an “enemy of the American people,” and conservative politicians knowingly allow an entire city to be endangered by a lead-poisoned water supply, has not been lost on some observers.1 An Enemy of the People is the canonical cautionary tale of the clash between science and industrial or corporate interests. And it serves as an apt metaphor for the climate wars that would take place a century later.
But before we get there, let us next flash-forward to the mid-twentieth century, where we encounter the granddaddy of modern industry disinformation campaigns. This campaign was orchestrated by tobacco industry leaders in their effort to hide evidence of the addictive and deadly nature of their product. “Doubt is our product,” confessed a Brown and Williamson executive in 1969.2 The memo containing the admission was eventually released as part of a massive legal settlement between the tobacco industry and the US government. This and other internal documents showed that the companies’ own scientists had established the health threats of smoking as early as the 1950s. Nevertheless, the companies chose to engage in an elaborate campaign to hide those threats from the public.
Tobacco interests even hired experts to discredit the work of other researchers who had arrived at the very same conclusions. Chief among these attack dogs was Frederick Seitz, a solid-state physicist who was also the former head of the US National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Science. Those impressive credentials made him a valuable asset for the tobacco industry. Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds would eventually hire Seitz and pay him half a million dollars to use his scientific standing and stature to attack any and all science (and scientists) linking tobacco to human health problems.3 Seitz was the original science-denier-for-hire. There would be many more.
Pesticide manufacturers adopted the tobacco industry’s playbook in the 1960s, after Rachel Carson warned the public of the danger that DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) posed to the environment. Her classic 1962 book Silent Spring ushered in the modern environmental movement.4 Carson described how DDT was decimating populations of bald eagles and other birds by thinning their eggs and killing the embryos within. The pesticide was accumulating in food webs, soils, and rivers, creating an increasingly dire threat to wildlife—and ultimately, humans. Eventually, the United States banned DDT, but not until 1972.
Carson was awarded for her efforts with a full-on character assassination campaign by industry groups who denounced her as “radical,” “communist,” and “hysterical” (with all its misogynist connotations—misogyny, and racism as well, as we will see, have become inextricably linked to climate-change denialism). The president of Monsanto, the largest producer of DDT, denounced her as “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”5 Her critics even labeled her a mass murderer.6 Even today, the industry front group known as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) continues to defame the long-deceased scientist by insisting that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson.”7 What Carson’s posthumous attackers don’t want you to know is that Carson never called for a ban on DDT, just an end to its indiscriminate use. It was ultimately phased out not because of the environmental damages that Carson exposed but because it had steadily lost its effectiveness as mosquitoes grew resistant to it. That was something that Carson, ironically, had warned would happen as a result of overuse.8 And here we are thus afforded an early example of how the short-sighted practices of greedy corporations looking to maximize near-term profits often prove self-defeating.
Credibility and integrity are a scientist’s bread and butter and greatest asset. It is the currency that allows scientists to serve as trusted communicators to the public. That’s why the forces of denial targeted Carson directly, accusing her of all manner of scientific misconduct. In response to the controversy, President John F. Kennedy convened a committee to review Carson’s claims. The committee published its report in May 1963, exonerating her and her scientific findings.9 Science denialists are never deterred by pesky things like “facts,” however. And so the attacks continue today. Consider a 2012 commentary that appeared in conservative Forbes magazine entitled “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies,” by Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko. Miller and Conko are Fellows at the aforementioned Competitive Enterprise Institute. Miller is also a scientific advisory board member of an industry front group known as the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), and, unsurprisingly, a tobacco industry advocate.10 In the piece, they accuse Carson of “gross misrepresentations,” “atrocious” scholarship, and “egregious academic misconduct,” despite the fact that her scientific findings have been overwhelmingly affirmed by decades of research.11 Though bird populations continue to be imperiled by pesticides, more sonorous springs did largely return. And for that, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Rachel Carson.12
Due to the work of Carson and other scientists studying the effects of industrial toxins on humans and the environment, awareness of other threats emerged in the 1970s. Lead pollution generated by the gasoline and paint industries, for example, came under scrutiny. Enter Herbert Needleman, whose story is disturbingly reminiscent of Thomas Stockmann’s from Ibsen’s play. Needleman was a professor and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His research identified a link between environmental lead contamination and childhood brain development. Sounding a familiar note, lead industry advocates sought to discredit him and his research, engaging in a character assassination campaign that included unfounded accusations against him of scientific misconduct.13 He was exonerated—twice. The first exoneration was the result of a thorough investigation by the National Institutes of Health. Then, in what might sound like the scientific equivalent of double jeopardy, there was a separate investigation by his university, during which he was locked out of his own files, with bars placed on his file cabinets. No evidence of impropriety ever emerged. His research on how to detect chronic lead exposure—validated by numerous independent studies in the intervening decades—likely has saved thousands of lives and prevented brain damage in thousands more.14 “Enemy of the People” indeed.
DENIAL GOES GLOBAL
In the 1970s and 1980s we begin to see the emergence of truly global environmental threats, including acid rain and ozone depletion. Industry groups whose bottom line might be impacted by environmental regulations began to significantly step up their attacks on the science demonstrating these dangers, and of course on the scientists themselves.
Frederick Seitz—the granddaddy of denialism who was enlisted by the tobacco industry in its war on science—was provided lavish industry funding in the mid-1980s to create the George C. Marshall Institute.15 Seitz recruited as partners astrophysicist Robert Jastrow (founder of the venerable NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) and oceanographer William Nierenberg (onetime director of the revered Scripps Institution for Oceanography in La Jolla, California). These three individuals, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway noted in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, were what could be called free-market fundamentalists. None of them had training in environmental science. What they did possess was an ideological distrust of efforts to limit what they saw as the freedom of individuals or corporations. As such, they played willfully into the agenda of regulation-averse special interests.16 Borrowing from the very same tactics Seitz had cut his teeth on as a tobacco industry attack dog a decade earlier, the GMI crew would sow doubt in the areas of science that proved threatening to the powerful vested interests they represented.
One of these scientific issues was acid rain, a phenomenon I’m intimately familiar with, having grown up in New England during the 1970s. At that time, lakes, rivers, streams, and forests throughout eastern North America were being destroyed by increasingly acidic rainfall. The scientist Gene Likens and others discovered the origins of the problem: midwestern coal-fired power plants that were producing sulfur dioxide pollution. Likens would later become the “environmental sustainability czar” for the University of Connecticut.
In April 2017, I gave a lecture at the University of Connecticut in which I revealed some of my own experiences in the crosshairs of the climate-change-denial machine. At the dinner following the lecture, Likens was seated next to me. He turned to me and said, “Your stories sound a lot like mine!” As we ate our salads, he regaled me with stories that were disturbingly familiar: nasty letters and complaints to his bosses; hostile reception by conservative politicians; attacks from industry-funded hatchet men and politicians seeking to discredit his scientific findings. As Likens said some years ago in an interview, “It was bad. It was really nasty. I had a contract put out on me.”
Likens was referring to a coal industry trade group known as the Edison Electric Institute that had offered nearly half a million dollars to anybody willing to discredit him.17 William Nierenberg, the aforementioned member of the GMI trio, in essence took up that challenge when Ronald Reagan appointed him to chair a panel investigating the acid rain issue. The facts, however, proved stubborn, and the panel’s conclusions, published in a 1984 report, largely reaffirmed the findings of Likens and other scientific experts. But hidden away in an appendix written by a contrarian scientist, S. Fred Singer, was a passage suggesting that, as Oreskes and Conway put it, “we really didn’t know enough to move forward with emissions controls.” The passage was just dismissive enough to allow the Reagan administration to justify its policy of inaction.18
Fortunately, the forces of denial and inaction did not prevail. Americans recognized the problem and demanded action, and politicians ultimately responded. That’s precisely how things are supposed to work in a representative democracy. In 1990, it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Clean Air Act, which required coal-fired power plants to scrub sulfur emissions before they exited the smokestacks. He even introduced a vehicle known as “cap and trade,” a market-based mechanism that allows polluters to buy and sell a limited allotment of pollution permits. Cap-and-trade policy is, ironically, now pilloried by most Republicans. It was the brainchild of Bush’s EPA administrator, William K. Reilly, a modern environmental hero whom I’m proud to know and call my friend.
My family frequently goes on vacation to Big Moose Lake in the western Adirondacks. My wife’s family has been going there for seventy years. Her parents remember back in the 1970s when the lake was so acidic you literally didn’t need to take any showers. A jump in the lake would clean you right off. The waters were crystal clear, because they were lifeless. The wildlife has returned now—I see and hear it when we’re there, from the bugs to the fish and frogs to the ducks and snapping turtles, along with the haunting sound of the loons. You sometimes see small teams of scientists out in boats collecting samples of the water in the various lakes, examining its chemistry and contents. The affected ecosystems still haven’t recovered completely. Environmental pollution can disrupt food chains, forest ecosystems, and water and soil chemistry in a way that can persist for decades or centuries even after the pollutants themselves are gone. But we are on the road to recovery in the Adirondacks, thanks—dare I say it—to market-based mechanisms for solving an environmental problem.
In the 1980s, scientists recognized that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used at the time in spray cans and refrigerators, were responsible for the growing hole in the ozone layer in the lower stratosphere that protects us from damaging, high-energy ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The erosion of the ozone layer brought with it an increasing incidence of skin cancer and other adverse health impacts in the Southern Hemisphere. My friend Bill Brune, former head of the Department of Meteorology at Penn State, was one of the original scientists researching the relevant atmospheric chemistry. As he has written, “Some of the scientists who carried out this seminal research decided to become advocates for action to mitigate the likely harm from a depleted ozone layer. These scientist-advocates were subjected to intense criticism.”19 That criticism, as Bill noted, took several forms: “Manufacturers, users, and their government representatives initiated public relations campaigns designed not to illuminate but to obscure, to throw doubt on the hypothesis and the weight of scientific evidence, and to otherwise convince lawmakers and the public that the data were too uncertain to act upon.” He added, “When results inevitably began to refute their views, or whenever their own work was proven wrong or rejected for publication, these contrarian scientists, government representatives, and industry spokesmen then changed tactics, to denigrate the entire peer-review process.” Among those contrarian scientists was the very same S. Fred Singer we encountered in the context of acid rain denial. Get used to that name.
Disregarding the naysayers, in 1987 forty-six countries—including the United States under Reagan—signed the Montreal Protocol, banning the production of CFCs. Since then, the ozone hole has shrunk to its smallest extent in decades. Environmental policy actually works. But, with both acid rain and ozone depletion, policy solutions came only because of unrelenting pressure on policymakers by citizens combined with continued bipartisan good faith and support on the part of politicians for systemic solutions to environmental threats. That good faith all but disappeared with the advent of the Trump administration. Indeed, after his 2016 election, Trump appointed individuals to important positions who not only denied the reality and threat of climate change but had played critical roles decades ago in industry-led efforts to deny both ozone depletion and acid rain. Think of them as all-purpose deniers-for-hire.20
You might also call them spiritual successors of the George C. Marshall Institute, Frederick Seitz’s science-denying think tank. By the late 1980s, the GMI was largely focused on environmental issues. But as it happens, it was not acid rain or ozone depletion that brought the institute into existence in the first place. It was instead the threat that the findings of science posed to an entirely different vested interest: the military-industrial complex. During the late cold war, leading defense contractors, such as Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman, were profiting from the escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. They stood to benefit in particular from Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars, an antiballistic missile program designed to shoot down nuclear missiles in space. Standing in their way, however, was, quite literally, one lone scientist.
SCIENTIST AS WARRIOR
Carl Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He was a respected, accomplished researcher with an impressive record of achievement in earth and planetary science. Sagan did seminal work on the “Faint Young Sun Paradox,” the surprising fact that Earth was habitable more than three billion years ago despite the fact that the Sun was 30 percent dimmer then. The explanation, Sagan realized, must be a magnified greenhouse effect. This work is so fundamental that it constitutes the first chapter in the textbook I’ve used to teach first-year Penn State students about Earth history.21
Sagan, however, was far more than a scientist. He was cultural phenomenon. He had an unmatched ability to engage the public with science. Not only could he explain it to the person on the street, he could get people excited about it. I can speak to this matter on a personal level. It is Carl Sagan who inspired me to pursue a career in science.
I had always had an aptitude for math and science, but it had constituted a path of least resistance, not a passion. Then Sagan’s popular PBS series Cosmos premiered at the start of my freshman year in high school. Sagan showed me the magic of scientific inquiry. He revealed a cosmos that was more wondrous than I could have imagined, and the preciousness of our place in it as simple inhabitants of a tiny blue dot just barely discernible from the outer reaches of our solar system. And the questions! How did life form? Is there more of it out there? Are there other intelligent civilizations? Why haven’t they contacted us? I pondered these questions and so many more that Sagan raised in the epic thirteen-part series. Sagan made me realize it was possible to spend a lifetime satisfying one’s scientific curiosity by posing and answering such fundamental existential questions.
Sadly, I never got a chance to meet my hero. I finished my PhD in geology and geophysics in 1996, the very same year Sagan passed away. Being in the same field as Sagan, I almost certainly would have met him at meetings or conferences had I entered the profession just a few years earlier. But I have had the pleasure of getting to know him through his writings, and to make the acquaintance of some who knew him well. That includes his daughter, Sasha, a writer who is continuing her father’s legacy of inspiring us about the cosmos and our place in it.22
Sagan was so compelling and charismatic a personality that he quickly became the voice of science for the nation. On Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, he would mesmerize national audiences with his observations, insights, and often amusing anecdotes. In so doing, he literally knocked Carson’s previous go-to science guy out of the lineup for good.23 That was none other than astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, the aforementioned GMI cofounder. Which brings us back to the main thrust of our story.
Carl Sagan became increasingly political in the 1980s as he recognized the mounting threat of a nuclear arms race. He used his public prominence, media savvy, and unrivaled communication skills to raise awareness about the existential threat posed by a global thermonuclear war. Sagan explained to the public that the threat went well beyond the immediate death and destruction and the resulting nuclear radiation. The massive detonation of nuclear warheads during a thermonuclear war, Sagan and his colleagues argued in the scientific literature, might produce enough dust and debris to block out a sufficient amount of sunlight to induce a state of perpetual winter, or, as they termed it, “nuclear winter.”24
Humanity, in short, might suffer the same fate the dinosaurs encountered following a massive asteroid impact: a sunlight-blocking dust storm that ended their reign sixty-five million years ago. Sagan helped bring about public understanding of that scenario through his various media interviews and in an article for the widely read Sunday newspaper insert Parade magazine.
Sagan feared that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which many cold war hawks and military contractors supported, would lead to an escalation of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and a dangerous buildup in nuclear arms, portending the very nuclear winter scenario he so feared. But, as Oreskes and Conway noted in Merchants of Doubt, the cold war–era physicists at GMI saw these legitimate concerns about SDI as scare tactics employed by Soviet-sympathizing peaceniks.25 In their eyes, the very concept of nuclear winter was a threat to our security. Working with conservative politicians and industry special interests, the GMI trio sought to discredit the case for concern by going directly after the underlying science—first by discrediting the scientist, Carl Sagan, personally. The attacks took place in congressional briefings and in the pages of mainstream newspapers, where they solicited and wrote articles and op-eds to debunk the findings of Sagan and his colleagues. This campaign even included intimidating public television stations that considered running a program on nuclear winter.26
Here’s why Sagan’s anti-SDI campaign is germane to the central topic of this book: The nuclear winter simulations that Sagan and his colleagues conducted were based on early-generation global climate models. So if you didn’t like the science of nuclear winter, you really weren’t going to like the science of climate change, which revealed the culpability of the same powerful polluting interests that groups like GMI were defending. With the collapse of the cold war in the late 1980s, the GMI crew, as Oreskes and Conway noted, needed another issue to focus on. Acid rain and ozone depletion would keep them busy through the early 1990s. But as these matters faded from view (in substantial part because even Republicans—as noted earlier—ultimately supported action), GMI and like-minded critics needed another scientific boogeyman to justify their existence. Climate change surely fit the bill.
The Climate Wars
There’s no war that will end all wars.
When the rich wage war, it is the poor who die.
AND SO, IT BEGINS
In the early 1990s I was a graduate student working on my PhD in the field of climate science within the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University. I had been lured away from the Physics Department, where I had been studying the behavior of matter at the quantum scale. Instead, I would now study the behavior of our climate system at the global scale. For an ambitious young physicist, climate science was the great western frontier. There were still big, wide-open questions where a young scientist with math and physics skills could make substantial contributions at the forefront of the science. This was my opportunity to realize the vision that Carl Sagan had instilled in me as a youth—a vision of science as a quest to understand our place in the larger planetary and cosmic environment.
My PhD adviser was a scientist named Barry Saltzman, who played a key role in the discovery of the phenomenon of “chaos”—one of the great scientific developments of the twentieth century. Chaos is responsible, among other things, for the fact that one cannot predict the precise details of the weather beyond a week or so out. Barry was a skeptic—in the true and honest sense of the word. He was unconvinced in the early 1990s that we could establish the human impact on our climate. This was a tenable position then, given that the climate models being used were still quite crude and that the warming signal in the roughly one century of global temperature data was only perhaps just beginning to peek out from the background noise of natural variability.
There were other scientists, such as James Hansen, the prominent director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (yes—the same institute that had previously been directed by none other than Robert Jastrow), who had a different view. Hansen felt that we could already demonstrate that human activity—specifically, the generation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas—was warming the planet. On a record hot June day in Washington, DC, in 1988, Hansen had testified to Congress, saying, “It is time to stop waffling.… [T]he evidence is pretty strong.” The Reagan administration had become increasingly unhappy with Hansen’s public statements even before that June day. As a NASA civil servant, he was subject to having his written congressional testimonies vetted by the administration, and starting in 1986, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget had repeatedly edited them in such a way as to downplay their impact. Exasperated, Hansen finally announced in bombshell 1989 testimony that his words were being altered by White House.1
- On Sale
- May 10, 2022
- Page Count
- 400 pages