I read Michael Mann’s The New Climate War so you don’t have to.
Ever since I started identifying with the Deep Adaptation/Post-Doom (terms I use interchangeably here) perspective, I make it a practice to read critiques of that perspective, so as to avoid falling into the errors of group think and confirmation bias. Unfortunately, what I’ve read so far has been disappointing, because none of the critics have really engaged with the nuance of the Post-Doom message. Michael Mann’s The New Climate War (2021), which came out this past January, is no exception.
Michael Mann is a respectable and respected climatologist and geophysicist, not to mention climate activist. He is credited with the research that gave us the famous “hockey stick graph”, which shows global average temperatures increasing precipitously in the 20th century. As a result of his work, Mann came under fire from denialists. He later turned to the study of the disinformation tactics of the fossil fuel industry.
Unfortunately, Mann’s The New Climate War shows none of the rigor or reservation that one would expect of a renowned scientist. What it does show are the signs of someone who has spent too much time on social media: personal attacks, an absence of nuance, and sarcasm in the place of reasoned discussion.
Mann does get some things right, in my opinion. He is critical of conscious consumerism (i.e., eating less meat, restricting air travel, etc.) as an inadequate response to climate change. He correctly identifies climate change as a systemic, not an individual, problem. He critiques both nuclear energy and geoengineering as dangerous alternatives to fossil fuels.
However, he also dismisses reforestation and regenerative agriculture, because these could “only” sink 44% of our annual emissions. He also entirely fails to take up degrowth as an option. In fact, all of Mann’s proposed solutions — carbon pricing, incentives for renewable energy, etc. — fit neatly within a neoliberal framework. And Mann is a technoptimist who doesn’t take the limitations of renewable technologies seriously.
But the real reason why I wanted to read Mann’s book is his chapter 8, “The Truth Is Bad Enough”. Here, Mann takes on the wider Deep Adaptation/Post-Doom community, including Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) and We’re Doomed. Now What? (2018)), Johnathan Franzen (“What If We Stopped Pretending”, The New Yorker, 9/8/19), Guy McPherson (coiner of the term “Near-Term Human Extinction”), Jem Bendell (author of the Deep Adaptation paper), and David Wallace-Wells (“The Uninhabitable Earth”, New York Magazine, 7/10/17, later expanded into a book — which Mann calls “climate doom porn”). In his sweeping indictment, he even includes apparently all of Extinction Rebellion, which Mann labels “soft doomism”.
The “New Climate War”, referenced in Mann’s title, refers to the disinformation campaigns of the fossil fuel industry. The “old war” was overt climate change denialism. The “new war”, says Mann, is more subtle. It involves advocating conscious consumerism and deflecting attention away from achievable policy reforms. It also includes, according to Mann, “doomism”.
Unfortunately, though he is familiar with many of the major Post-Doom voices, Mann does not seem to have grasped the nuance of the Post-Doom perspective. This probably has a lot to do with his over-reliance on Twitter. A full third of Mann’s citations in his chapter 8 are to social media links, most of them Twitter. At one point, he even quotes a full paragraph from his own Facebook post. (Why?) These online forums are not exactly conducive to rational discourse. Any platform that limits users to 280 characters is bound to encourage the worst forms of communication. And Mann has carried this over from his Twitter account to his book.
Mann engages is personal attacks on the aforementioned individuals, bordering on the ad hominem. He has some choice barbs for Scranton, but his most exhaustive (and exhausting) attack is reserved for Wallace-Wells, against whom he seems to carry a personal grudge. Mann debated Wallace-Wells publicly, and he apparently was offended when Wallace-Wells didn’t include Mann’s critical comments in his best-selling book. Like some other Twitter junkies, Mann does not like to be ignored.
Setting aside the sardonic, sometimes shrill, tone of Mann’s writing, he fails to even grasp what he is critiquing. To begin with, he lumps Post-Doomers together with Doomers in a single category of “doomism”. If you’re not already familiar, the difference is this: Doomers recognize that some kind of “end of the world” is coming sooner rather than later, but they stop there or they limit their response to individual preparations (i.e., “preppers”). Post-Doomers, on the other hand, while recognizing that our power to change the world is limited — by physics, by politics, by human psychology — go on to ask the next questions: How can we live meaningful lives in the context of a collapsing civilization? How can we adapt to a rapidly changing world — both materially and psychologically? How can we be a benefit to the wider community — both human and other-than-human?
Mann lumps these two groups into one. In fact, he doesn’t even really address the Doomer community. Instead, he mislabels the Post-Doom community as “doomist”. He then goes on to equate “doomists” with deniers, because he sees both as a form of “inactivism”. This unexamined assumption, that recognizing the limitations of our agency necessarily leads to inaction, pervades the entire chapter.
In fact, Post-Doomers are not “inactivists”. They are not paralyzed by fear or resigned to defeat or any of the other attributes that Mann ascribes to them. Many of them do take issue with the forms of activism that Mann advocates or with the policy solutions that he proposes, but that is not the same as resignation or inaction. But from Mann’s perspective, if you disagree with his ideas about how to fix the problem, then you have “given up”.
It does not take an especially close reading of the Post-Doom literature to know that this is an inaccurate portrayal. Just because Post-Doomers see climate change as an unsolvable predicament does not mean they are opposed to efforts to reduce carbon emissions or mitigate the impacts of climate change. They merely say that mitigation is not enough; we also need to adapt. It’s not mitigate or adapt; it’s mitigate and adapt.
What’s more, Post-Doomers see a connection between the refusal to recognize our existential limitations and the culture of unchecked growth which has brought us this predicament. Mann completely misses this point, so he doesn’t see that the Post-Doom perspective has profound policy implications. When we recognize that the way of life that we have created — our “normal” — is doomed, then we can stop wasting time, energy, and depleting resources trying to save it, and instead focus on creating a new kind of society which is more in harmony with the physical reality of the planet.
Mann says elsewhere that “There is a larger conversation to be had about whether we can continue on this path of increasing resource extraction and consumption in a sustainable manner.” But he doesn’t think we have time for that conversation. From the Post-Doom perspective, we don’t have time not to have that conversation. In fact, it’s the only conversation worth having at this point. Inexplicably, Mann does think we have time from piecemeal, bipartisan legislative reform which does nothing to change the system of extraction and consumption that created this crisis.
Mann wants to balance the sense of urgency with a feeling of agency. But his underlying problem is that he can only say “The problem is urgent, but we still have time.” for so long before people start to question the accuracy of one of those statements. Somehow Mann manages to say with a straight face that Deep Adaptation is “giving up before we have even tried.” I have to wonder what Mann thinks the last 30 years of climate activism have been if not trying.
In those 30 years, more carbon has been release than in the history of the world before that. Meanwhile, global CO2 levels have risen from the “safe” threshold of 350ppm to 410ppm. We are already over 1°C of warming over pre-industrial levels, and we are projected to reach a 4°C increase by the end of the century, much of which is already “baked” into the system. This is not an argument against mitigation. It is an argument for combining adaptation with mitigation.
Perhaps in an effort to provide what he sees as a needed counter-balance to the “doomists”, Mann ventures so far into the realm of optimism that he sometimes sounds like a denier. It’s surreal to read Mann, at different points, being blithe about 3 degrees of global warming and downplaying the significance of 2–15% species loss (a figure which I believe he grossly understates, but should still be disturbing).
At other times, Mann and the Post-Doomers seem to be standing on two sides of a very thin line. Yet, Mann still sees a yawning chasm between the two. At one point he criticizes Wallace-Wells for using the word “panic”, and then turns immediately around and defends Greta Thunberg’s use of the same word. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that Mann likes young Thunberg and despises Wallace-Wells. The absurdity of Mann’s inconsistency comes to a climax when he disagrees with Thunberg on one point, but then blames Wallace-Wells for it, because Thunberg follows his Twitter feed and may have been influenced by him. (If it’s not already clear, Mann needs to get off Twitter.)
Other inconsistencies pile up. Mann repeatedly criticizes the “middle-age White men” of the Deep Adaptation community, but then gets defensive when he himself is accused of “white bro mainsplaining”. He criticizes what he sees as a lack of professional scientific support for Deep Adaptation (which is debatable), but then he fills his chapter with random quotations from uncredentialed “observers” on Twitter. He complains of a lack of nuance in interpretation of scientific papers by Post-Doomers, but fails to invoke any nuance in representing the perspective of those Post-Doomers.
Mann bemoans how his own words have been “misrepresented and weaponized” by the denialist media, but then he criticizes Post-Doomers for how their words are taken and used by those same denialists. For example, he criticizes Naomi Klein for linking climate activism and anti-capitalism, because it “fans the flames of the conservative fever swamps”. Mann actually seems more concerned about how conservatives will view Klein’s message than with whether or not she is right — which makes sense when you realize that Mann’s progressive, reformist agenda is one which requires cooperation from neoliberals on both sides of the aisle.
Mann even engages in the same rhetorical abuses that he says denialists used again him. He goes so far as to imply that Post-Doom is a creation of Russian troll-bots. And at one point, he invokes the specter of Naziism, that last refuge of desperate debaters.
After reading Michael Mann’s The New Climate War, I was left with a very similar feeling as when I spend too much time on social media. Lots of toxicity. Very little substance. Lots of outrage. Very little nuance. Lots of mudslinging. Very little self-reflection.
This is unfortunate, because from a broader perspective, there’s actually not too much separating progressive activists like Mann and Post-Doomers like Scranton, Jem Bendell, Wallace-Wells, and the rest. Both see that our society is coming up against physical limits, and both feel a need to identify the right response. What separates them is that progressive activists like Mann desperately cling to an uncritical optimism in the mistaken belief that the only alternative is nihilism and paralysis. Meanwhile the Post-Doomers, most of them former activists themselves, have let go of the false hope and have been pleasantly surprised to find on the the other side, not nihilism and paralysis, but meaning, connection, and a new love for this fragile-resilient world of which we are a part.
Originally published at http://anotherendoftheworld.org on March 23, 2021.