When confronted by the uncomfortable suggestion that their products might be harmful, big business trends to react in a depressingly familiar way. They lie and they fight back. Big car manufacturers sold poorly designed and unstable cars until legislation forced them to design for safety. Tobacco companies insisted their products were safe long after research showed that they caused cancer. Likewise, oil companies have spent fifty years aggressively fighting the idea that fossil fuels are causing dangerous changes to the climate of Earth. So when Michael Mann talks about a climate war, he isn’t exaggerating.
Mann is a leading climate scientist who is still at the forefront of efforts to get the climate crisis taken seriously after 20 years. In 1999, he was part of the team that popularised the “hockey stick graph” the visual tool that showed how global temperatures have increased in relation to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For daring to make such a suggestion, he has suffered relentless attacks by the fossil fuel industry and its shadowy supporters. He is in a war, battles are fought. In this book, he describes the conflict between activists and inactivists; between those who want the world to be a better, cleaner, safer place and those who want to keep (polluting) business as usual.
At the end of the introduction he tells us:
“To continue to knowingly alter those conditions in a manner that threatens humanity and other life forms, simply so a few very large corporations can continue to make record profits, is not just unacceptable or unethical — it would be the most immoral act in the history of human civilisation: not just a crime against humanity, but a crime against the planet”.
This paragraph deserves some deeper consideration, as this is both the essence of the book and also the bizarre and dangerous situation that we find ourselves in.
When the engineers and inventors of the 18th century started developing the technologies that underpinned the Industrial Revolution, they were simply creating machines that could do work. They certainly faced localised opposition to the pollution and the bad working conditions that these early industrial developments created. Although this early industrial activity was limited in its scope and impact, it spread rapidly. Northern Europe and North America rapidly industrialised followed by much of Asia in the 20th century. More activity means more emissions and the Hockey Stick showed how this translated into raised global temperatures.
The connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change was first discovered by scientists working for Exxon in the 1960s. The oil giant was quick to suppress the findings. Other scientists started investigating and in 1988, Dr James Hansen testified to the US Congress that there was almost certainly a connection between rising global temperatures and the increasing emission of greenhouse gases.
Rather than accepting that their activities were putting the stability of the only known inhabited planet in the universe at risk, the fossil fuel companies decided that their profits were more important. This is the “most immoral act in the history of human civilisation” that Mann refers to.
The fossil fuel companies have engaged in a long campaign to try to protect their business. Initially, the response was denial, the science is wrong. Science responded with ever more robust and convincing research. Politicians started to take an interest and policy to reduce emissions began to take shape. The fossil fuel companies fought every step of the way with denial of the science, false science, think-tanks and institutes that are little more than propaganda machines, media manipulation and constant campaigns to divide opinion and cause division amongst those campaigning for change.
This book is important (in my view) because it lays bare the tactics of the fossil fuel business. Many worthy sounding ideas turn out to be distraction tactics from the fossil fuel giants. Take for example the idea of the carbon footprint, the amount of carbon dioxide that we each generate on a day to day basis. Like all the best lies, it has some truth at its core. Personal behaviour does matter. But agonising over the emission differences between two activities does not change the reality that global commerce is based on massive use of fossil fuels. Agriculture, construction, energy generation and transport are all dependent on fossil fuels. Systematic change, a change in the way the world does these things, is essential to really make a difference to emissions and hence climate change.
Mann works through these strategies, showing where they came from, who proposed and supported them and why they are wrong. This is the great strength of the book, providing an understanding of the war we find ourselves in. We learn what is at stake, who the protagonists are and what strategies they employ.
In particular, Mann rails against Doomism, the idea that it’s all too late, the damage is done and we are all doomed. He reminds us that science does not say this. Yes, things are bad and will get worse if humans don’t change their behaviour. But he insists that urgency coupled with agency can save us. We must act quickly and we genuinely do have the ability to turn this crisis around.
The book ends (thankfully) on a positive note. Mann sets out all the progress that has been made. The reductions in emissions by the advanced economies, the developments in alternative energy, legal commitments in place, greater awareness of the crisis, the imminent death of coal as a fuel, the demise of petrol and diesel engines. He also believes that the fossil fuel lobby is running out of ideas. Their nonsense is continually and publicly refuted.
Hurrah! But …
Public awareness of the climate crisis has improved enormously. Part of the reason for this is that the predicted effects of climate change are already here. Wildfires, droughts, floods, desertification and crop failure are not predictions, they are news. The war with the fossil fuel lobby may be nearly over, the peace will have to built with Earth itself.