As any Geography teacher will tell you, as soon as you mention climate change, a student will call out, “Sir, if you care about the planet so much why do you drive a car?” More recently as veganism has become increasingly popular, I started to hear, “Sir, you are such a hypocrite, if you really cared about climate change you wouldn’t eat meat!”
On one level these may be sincere philosophical questions about personal behaviour and ethical beliefs, but beneath them lies a wider phenomenon that distracts us and pollutes our climate change discourse.
Besides the questionable accusation of hypocrisy (I never told my students not to eat meat) and misinformation about the main contributors to climate change (beef consumption is responsible for 6 percent of carbon emissions) many people have resorted to finger-pointing and behaviour-shaming rather than holding the true climate change culprits to account. These are the fossil fuel corporations and their conservative political allies who champion polluting energy over renewable energy. They sit back and escape scrutiny.
Michael E Mann explores this deflection and the “inactivists” who spread it in his new book, The New Climate War – the fight to take back our planet (Scribe Publications 2021).
Mann is a Professor of Atmospheric Science and is famous for his “hockey-stick graph” which, in the late 1990s, showed the world the clear upward trend in global temperatures. He became an instant celebrity scientist and a whipping boy for fossil fuel lobbyists intent on discrediting climate science and climate scientists.
Mann recently spent a year in Australia and witnessed the drought induced Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20. He mentions Australia often in his book and makes a few acerbic references to our politicians, such as, “Morrison coddled coal and played a destructive role in international climate negotiations”. He calls former Prime Minister Tony Abbott a “fossil fuel flack”.
The global atmosphere is continuing to trap heat as we burn more coal, oil and gas. While COVID lockdowns cleared Australia’s skies for a few weeks, climate change is still the issue that will define this generation.
Mann’s ultimately uplifting book reminds us that “while the situation is urgent, we have agency”. It’s not too late. Runaway climate change does not have to be around the corner. He explains that “doomism is the new denialism” – it can be paralysing rather than motivating. The doomists, delayers and deflectors are the new enemies in the climate war.
Mann is “objectively hopeful and cautiously optimistic” about climate action. We don’t need “transition fuels”, illusive “carbon-capture and storage” or even geo-engineering fantasies such as shooting sulfate into the stratopshere. We need political will and an educated active population to
vote for systemic climate action. Mann acknowledges that “Individual action is part of the solution… but it can only get us so far”.
Mann has written an important and engaging book that will reinvigorate those suffering from climate change fatigue. As he says, the kids have got this worked out. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, with her “remarkable ability to speak truth to power” has called us out.
We need to give young people hope by explaining that the fossil fuel ship is turning around. “We appear to be nearing the much-anticipated tipping point on climate action,” Mann writes.
We all need to advocate for systemic climate action. And eat a little less meat.