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Fossil fuel advocates may have added strategic inaction to their arsenal, but there is reason for climate optimism

The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet

Michael E. Mann
PublicAffairs
2021
272 pp.
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In Michael Mann’s latest book, The New Climate War, the reader is afforded a unique perspective on the struggle for climate action and climate protection. This perspective, covering the span of a few centuries and ending in the present, weaves together the missteps, manipulations, and misrepresentations that have occurred throughout the so-called climate war between those who believe that human actions play a role in climate change and those who do not. The book ends on a hopeful note with a call to action and recommended steps for climate advocates.

The “new” climate war Mann refers to in the book’s title introduces a previously untapped element in the climate battle—strategic inaction, as perpetuated by entities he describes as “inactivists.” According to Mann, this new approach—used to greatest effect by those charged with advancing fossil fuel interests—is intended to deflect blame, divide the public, and delay action so that business can continue as usual. Climate inaction differs from climate change denial, a strategy used in past climate arguments that was ultimately unsuccessful. Although I understand Mann’s reasoning, I disagree that we are in a new climate war. It is, I believe, the same war, albeit with higher stakes.

Mann describes various attacks that have been leveraged against climate advocates, including himself: attacks on scientific data, terminology, and hypotheses; attempted character assassinations; and the use of outright trickery and deceit to mislead the scientific community and the public. Such efforts, he argues, were meant to deflect attention away from fossil fuel interest groups and their supporters.

At the same time, the book ties together every action and every inaction that has affected the fight to protect Earth from the adverse consequences of climate change. Mann is transparent about times when those who fight for climate action have fallen short, for example, describing incidents in which climate change advocates have failed to refute false narratives perpetuated by climate deniers. The notion that individuals should be responsible for addressing the adverse effects of climate change is one such narrative, which, he rightly argues, deflects attention away from the fossil fuel industry.

Climate change is a “threat multiplier,” a term that has different meanings in different contexts, notes Mann. From a national security perspective, for example, it may contribute to political instability and terrorist activity by exacerbating existing stressors such as agricultural deficits and water shortages. It can also imperil a country’s civil infrastructure. Meanwhile, from a public health perspective, climate change can exacerbate health disparities in communities that are already disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Here, Mann describes how adverse effects from climate change rendered regions such as Puerto Rico, where health care infrastructure was severely compromised as a result of Hurricane Maria, unable to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the book’s closing pages, Mann reveals that he is “cautiously optimistic” about tackling the climate crisis. His reasons stem from the fact that a great deal of attention has been focused on climate change of late, both as a result of the numerous extreme weather events that have occurred recently and because we have had to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, which has highlighted just how unprepared and vulnerable we are to global threats.

Mann is most heartened, however, by the current revival of environmental activism, particularly, as he states, “by children across the world,” which he argues has helped to show that climate change is the “defining challenge of our time.” As such, this book is a must read not just for people currently working to address climate change but also for those who are new to the climate fight, the latter of whom will learn much about past challenges, struggles, and attacks that have been aimed at climate champions.

There is good reason to hope for change, Mann argues. He points to the sustainability efforts that many cities, states, corporations, and nations are embracing, and he emphasizes that although we need to recognize and accept that damage has already been done as a result of climate change, it is not too late to take action.

About the author

The reviewer is the senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, DC 20006, USA.