Climate Scientist on Culprits in PR War Against Science
“It's anti science,” says Michael E. Mann PhD, distinguished atmospheric scientist and director of the Earth Sciences Center at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s a concerted, agenda-driven effort to communicate non scientific, unscientific beliefs. That's what's so dangerous today. That's what vested interests have been advocating, have been pushing forward, have been spreading.”
This isn’t what he signed up for. Mann is a scientific researcher. He’s not a politician or a spokesperson. He does experiments in the lab. But after publishing the famous hockey stick graph which laid bare that the exhaust from burning coal, oil and gas was warming our atmosphere at an alarming rate, Mann found himself on the receiving end of the fossil fuel industry’s public relations war against science. And he’s been chronicling how the strategic communications efforts of inaction have been systemically blocking climate action policy for their own selfish ends ever since.
These are the people who are lying about climate change for oil & gas companies who fund them, says @MichaelEMann at @PSUClimate https://t.co/sOp2XHy26r #climatechange #climateaction #climatecrisis #globalwarming— EricSchwartzman (@ericschwartzman) February 15, 2021
Here’s the hockey graph. The green line projects the direction global temperatures are heading. This is what got the fossil fuel industry so upset, and what propelled them into the war against science.
Caption: Red line: rescaled IPCC 1990 Figure 7.1(c), based on Lamb 1965 showing central England temperatures; compared to central England temperatures to 2007, as shown in Jones et al. 2009 (green dashed line). Also shown, Mann, Bradley & Hughes 1998 40 year average used in IPCC TAR 2001 (blue), and Moberg et al. 2005 low frequency signal (black).
Like the temperature inside a car with the windows rolled up in a hot parking lot, exhaust from spent fossil fuel was getting trapped in our atmosphere, effectively rolling up the windows around our planet. We the people are like trapped dogs inside. But rather than heed the call of science and roll down the windows, those that profit from harvesting and selling fossil fuel-based products kicked into high gear, using the conservative media and the GOP to maliciously weaponize their base.
The Saudis are significant News Corp shareholders, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the Wall Street Journal went to work energizing their conservative base against scientists like Mann “…who are getting rich off of promoting the scare, the hoax of climate change, and often providing our email addresses and out our physical addresses.” These bold faced lies resulted in credible death threats against Mann and his family, even prompting an FBI investigation.
Republican politician Joe Barton representing the Dallas suburbs, who was also known as “Smokey Joe” for his consistent effort to block pollution control in congress and who admitted to sending a sexually explicit picture of himself, went on the attack. “But he's just one of rogues in a gallery of right wing politicians. Ken Cuccinelli, former Attorney General of Virginia went after me. James Inhofe, climate change denying senator subpoenaed my emails. All these people, of course, were basically doing the bidding of the fossil fuel interest groups who funded them,” says Mann.
But rather than back off and step down, which is what the fossil fuel industry had hoped he would do and why they sicked their media and political attack dogs on him, Mann decided to lean in. “The effort to discredit me and to intimidate me is intended to cause me to withdraw from the public conversation. And my instincts have been to do just the opposite,” says Mann. “If these powerful interests really don't want me out there talking about this, maybe I've got something important to say.”
But now, with the extreme weather impacts of climate change undeniable, the forces of inaction have realized that they can no longer convince enough people that climate change isn't real. So they've turned to a new array of tactics, which Mann reveals in his most recent book “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.“
Ironically, those hurt most by climate change often are lower income communities who had been told fossil fuel funded Republican politicians and right-wing media that being a loyal conservative means denying climate change. The GOP and the Murdoch news empire essentially colluded in a ploy to promote fantasy over fact, and as we now see that that effort has metastasized into a destructive cancer of lies and social media misinformation that threatens to upend democracy. A sector of our population remains weaponized against any efforts to convince them that climate change is real.
It’s not just News Corp and the GOP who are responsible, although they are driving forces. Social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter, who are allowed to spread lies with impunity in exchange for sharing their data with the US intelligence community, are also complicit. “Facebook’s goal of showing people only what they were interested in seeing resulted, within a decade, in the effective end of shared civic reality,” writes Jia Tolentino in her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion. But if the old climate wars were about bold faced denial, the new climate wars are more about deflection and division.
Rudy Giuliani is an American attorney and politician who served as the 107th Mayor of New York City under federal investigation for violating lobbying laws and was a central figure in the Trump–Ukraine scandal which resulted in Trump's first impeachment.
A recent defamation suit filed by Smartmatic against Fox News, Sidney Powell, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is seeking $2.7 billion in damages, and accuses them of executing a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at convincing the public of rampant election fraud. So far, it has scared the bejeezus out of Newsmax, a newer right-wing propaganda outlet that gave Trump supporter Mike Lindell the hook for spewing election fraud nonsense and proceeded to read a legal statement acknowledging the Biden and Harris win as legitimate, despite previously amplifying all kinds of voter fraud lies.
In his new book, Mann explains how to recognize and effectively combat the tactics being deployed by the forces of inaction such as fossil fuel interests, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It was, in fact, no coincidence that long-time Republican Party campaign consultant Paul Manafort had Russian sanctions removed for the GOP party’s agenda at the 2016 convention. Russia has an estimated half a trillion dollars worth of oil in the ground, which paved the way for a deal between Exxon Mobil and Putin. It’s why Putin backed Trump, and why Trump made Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, secretary of state.
In what was arguably the most diabolical and well-coordinated smear campaign of the time, emails from climate scientists were stolen from a university server in the UK and released through Julian Assange at Wikileaks on the eve of the U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Although the emails had nothing in them to discredit the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming, Saudi Arabian climate negotiator Mohammad Al-Sabban told BBC, “It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.” Al-Sabban said that he expected news of the e-mails to disrupt the summit in this month.
The tactics of stealing emails, cherry-picking excerpts, and presenting them out of context just prior to a major political event on Wikileaks bears a striking resemblance to the alleged, nefarious email scandal that plagued Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. So the strategy of stealing emails, and staging a well-publicized data dump just prior to a major event has become a standard operating procedure.
An investigation into Climategate produced “…quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that it was bad Petro state actors like Russia and Saudi Arabia, who were involved in the crime. And we now know that Russia does this sort of thing, all that it has their fingerprints all over it, cyber crimes of this sort. But it was the fossil fuel industry and the various front groups that they support,” says Mann.
Rupert Murdoch is an Australian-born American media mogul who owns hundreds of local, national, and international news outlets around the world, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.
“The usual conservative media outlets that have acted as an echo chamber for the fossil fuel industry such as the Murdoch media empire, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the New York Post, the Murdoch tabloids in the UK, Australia and elsewhere around the world, trumpeted this message, and did so so effectively, so consistently, so incessantly, that it ultimately forced even the mainstream media to start to adopt their narrative and to actually parrot many of the allegations to the point where you had CNN and CBS Evening News, parroting uncritically many of the false allegations of Climategate. There wasn’t time for the scientists and the various legitimate institutions to litigate this and ultimately demonstrate that there was no veracity to the claims that were being made. That took years to play out, but the damage had been done,” says Mann.
The suffix -gate comes from the Watergate scandal which resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The scandal was named after the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The suffix is repeatedly trotted out by public relations strategists to accuse their opposition of brewing up a scandal.
Deflection, Dissuasion, and Divisiveness
Academy Award®- winning actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
But fossil fuel proponents don’t care why we remain addicted to oil. So as the plausibility of climate change denial vanishes, now they’re saying that it's too late to do anything or that we can solve the problem by changing our behavior as individuals, which are both techniques aimed at winning progressive support for inaction, and in an effort to drive a wedge between climate action supporters, they’ve attempted to paint Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio as hypocrites who argue that everyone needs to use less carbon while they enjoy their own enormous carbon footprints. While the argument is nothing more than a detour from the real issue, which is global warming, this approach doesn’t deny the existence of climate change. Instead, it attempts to get people arguing about why they should be asked to make personal sacrifices if Gore and Di Caprio aren’t. And this infighting, or course, only further delays meaningful climate action.
Other deflection tactics include pie-in-the-sky geoengineering schemes like shooting reflective sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s heat or the use of natural gas as a bridge to an alternative energy future, as if burning less dirty fossil fuel is a realistic alternative. Nonexistent carbon sequestration technology is also offered as a deus ex machina solution that will miraculously save the day. Marco Rubio is finally admitting to Floridians that climate change is real. But he also says the solution is to adapt. But short of growing gills and fins, how are they supposed to adapt to climate change if Florida real estate is under water?
Social media has grown into a powerful tool for the amplification of outright lies and half-truths spun to deceive and deflect. “Surveillance capitalism turned Facebook into a societal tinderbox. Mr. Zuckerberg merely had to commit himself to the role of innocent bystander,” writes Shoshana Zuboff in an essay published by The New York Times. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, one Bernie Sanders supporter noticed that when Hillary Clinton’s communications consultant Sally Albright responded to him on Twitter, her tweets were rapidly retweeted by the same series of accounts. The result was an avalanche of opposition to everything he said driven by what appeared to be an army of “…bots ― automated accounts masked as real people being used to amplify a particular political message. Who is really pulling the strings, however, remains a mystery,” wrote Paul Blumenthal in a report.
“Our public discourse today in social media environments are easily gamed and weaponized, and I think have ramped up in a way we couldn’t have imagined five years ago,” says Mann. “It enables a whole new set of tactics when our entire discourse moves into the social media space. It means that those actors who are able to hijack and weaponize that space can be that much more effective. And I think that's really what we've seen.” Zuboff argues that like the organs inside us that give us life, our democracy demands that our personal preferences, hopes, fears, and dreams be treated as inalienable rights. “Unless democracy revokes the license to steal and challenges the fundamental economics and operations of commercial surveillance, the epistemic coup will weaken and eventually transform democracy itself,” she concludes.
Strategic social media communications campaigns are being used to divide people with a common cause. By pitting climate advocates who believe in regulatory change against those who believe the problem can be solved through personal lifestyle choices, Mann describes the new climate war as less about denial and more about division. Social media accounts controlled by bots enter conversations based on keywords in an attempt to try and alienate progressives against climate action.
The war against science is further propelled by industry front groups like the George C. Marshall Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which both sound legit, but are in fact fossil fuel-funded think tanks created to regurgitate pro-oil and gas messages through a seemingly impartial lens. They are not impartial at all. Since the late 1980s, the George C. Marshall Institute promoted environmental skepticism and fringe views on the scientific consensus on climate change. And CEI calls concerns about climate change “global warming alarmism.”
It is difficult to distinguish between factual reporting and opinion on Fox News because there are no on-screen disclosures made in close proximity to the programming to help viewers delineate between their so-called news and opinion programming. And it can be equally difficult to tell who’s stumping for whom on the 24-hour cable news channels. But regardless of who says what, burning fossil fuel is still an existential threat to our civilization. “We need to take steps that decarbonize our civilization as quickly as possible. Anything that it sounds like, it's challenging, that basic framework is dubious, and it's probably coming from a dubious source,” says Mann.
Artificial intelligence threatens to complicate matters even more. “We're already seeing things like deep fakes. It used to be that if you saw it with your own two eyes, you could believe it. Now, that's no longer true,” says Mann, who like me is dubious of how the law of unintended consequences will impact artificial intelligence. We hailed social media as the ultimate democratizer of information and what we got was a doctrine of appeasement between the social networks, the intelligence community, and elected officials. “The power of the technology is the threat of the technology at the same time, and I think we just have to be very sober about that. And we have to require that our policymakers be very sober about that,” says Mann.
Winning the Support for Climate Action
We need to take action against climate change and it needs to be collective. Individual action on climate change is not enough. We need a climate action plan and our own climate action network to offset the forces of delay and deception. And we need climate action now.
We cannot allow the forces of inaction to weaken our agenda or splinter the climate advocacy base. Now is the time to get meaningful climate action policy done, even if it requires a strict 50-50 partisan vote in the senate with Vice President Harris breaking the tie.
“Democrats have to recognize that their best prospects for winning more seats and gaining larger majorities in both houses of Congress in the midterm elections is going to be an agenda of accomplishment that they can point to,” says Mann. “The American people want them to act on these crises, the multiple crises we face, which includes the pandemic and the racial justice crisis that we're dealing with right now.”
Sec. John Kerry is an American politician and diplomat serving as the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
Mann’s advice to Sec. Kerry is to lean in. “If Democrats allow the pushback from Republicans to cause them to recoil their efforts, I think they'll pay a price. And I hope that that's a lesson that Democrats have learned. I'm getting the sense that they have.”
More Climate Change Public Affairs Podcasts
- How to Prepare for Climate Change with New York Times Bestselling Author David Pogue
- MIT PhD Joe Romm on the Fossil Fuel Industry's War Against Science
- Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes Talks About Her Book Merchants of Doubt
- How Global Warming Became Climate Change at the US Dept. of State with Liz Murphy and Billie Gross at the State Department
For the complete interview with Mann, listen to this podcast. And to support this podcast, rate and review us on Apple podcasts here.