Mann versus the oil oligarchy

| 8th April 2021 |
Michael Mann on a Tundra Buggy looking for polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba (13th November 2010). Photo: via Michael Mann.

Michael Mann on a Tundra Buggy looking for polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba (13th November 2010). Photo: via Michael Mann.

Professor Michael Mann takes on the climate denial of the oil monopolies - even as some environmental campaigners also take some flack.

He criticises the denialists, and greed of the corporate bodies who fund them. In doing those things, his book is an asset for us all.

The story of Michael Mann’s career has been brilliantly told previously in the Ecologist. Born in 1965; he was studying for a PhD in Geology and Geophysics at Yale when in 1999 he was the lead author of a paper setting out the evidence of natural variation in global temperature.

Long read: Strategies for the new climate war

Seeking to present the data in visual form, his “hockey stick graph” showed how fast the world had been heating since 1980, and how out of kilter that recent history was with the previous thousand years of relative stability.

The consequence of that publication, as Mann describes in his lively new book The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, has been a continuous and gruelling battle against the climate deniers.


He was denounced on Fox News, criticised in the Wall Street Journal, attacked in congressional hearings in the United States by prominent Republicans, and denounced in right-wing publications financed by the likes of the oil billionaire Koch brothers, and the Heartland Institute and George C. Marshall Institute which they partly fund.

The point of Mann’s book is to explain the tactics used by right-wing propagandists, and to put the case for transforming our world away from climate catastrophe.

He characterises the main approach of the climate change deniers as “deflection”, citing as a key instance the 1971 “Crying Indian” TV advert, in which man’s destruction of nature caused an actor Iron Eyes Coady to weep.

The film showed rivers thick with polluted waste, a world taken over by roads and factories, a driver emptying rubbish out of his war window. The images appeared to echo the concerns of the nascent environmental movement.

But the ad was paid for by brewing, glass and can companies. Their objective was to avoid laws requiring them to produce using recyclable materials, or to collect the waste which they had manufactured.


The words of the advert - “People start pollution - people can stop it” - deflected consumer action away from the state and from the companies that were causing the pollution to individual consumers, requiring us to clean up after them.

Professor Mann has surprisingly harsh words for the left. Mann criticises the politics of Extinction Rebellion in Britain, accusing them of doom-mongering, insisting that large swathes of public opinion can be used to keep pressure on government and companies only if it is addressed in a constant tone of determined optimism.

He defends the record of market solutions such as carbon pricing, when there is a case to be made that the schemes have been characterised by widespread false accounting, they have taken up vast amounts of time and money, and - compared to the extent of change that is needed - had only a meagre effect.

Near the end of Mann’s book, he describes going to Australia in 2019, catching a coral reef just before the acidification of the oceans bleached it, and being in that country in time for the forest fires.


And yet despite the horror of those experiences, he insists, climate breakdown can and will be resisted, future generations will maintain more or less the same relationship with nature that we have now.

He writes: “I feel some wistfulness about the fact that my daughter, when she grows up, may not be able to experience these same natural wonders with her children or grandchildren. It’s appropriate to feel grief at times for what is lost. But grief about that which is wrongly presumed to be lost yet can still be saved – and which is used, under false pretences, in the service of despair and defeatism – is pernicious and wrong.”

In a recent comment article in The Guardian, Mann did look back on his time in Australia again, giving more space to environmental tragedy and less to criticising the left.

In his book Mann is aiming for a tone of armoured optimism, but what comes over is rather hectoring, directed both at the right-wing propagandists, and also at “defeatis[ts]” - in other words those hundreds of thousands of people on the environmental left wondering when the polluters will ever be bought to trial.


I don’t want to end there but rather with what is compelling about the book.

Mann insists that people are winning the climate war - that China is meeting its emission targets, the battle to win hearts and minds is going to end in victory.

He finds hope everywhere - in the United States and in the electoral defeat of Trump, in the current coronavirus crisis and the lessons it teaches about the futility of ignoring science.

He wants to keep the focus on systemic rather than individual change, and explains why that's so important. He criticises the denialists, and greed of the corporate bodies who fund them. In doing those things, his book is an asset for us all.

This Author

David Renton is a barrister and the author of The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, published by Pluto Press, London, 2019.


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