The Folly of Mann

You can't defend the truth with lies

I’ve never met Michael Mann, corresponded with him, or written anything about him. Nor have I ever had any particular beef with the hockey stick graph or his work as a scientist. But a few months after I signed up for Twitter in 2014, I discovered that he had blocked me. A few years after that, I learned that he had alleged in a 2016 book that Breakthrough was funded by fossil fuel interests.

Mann’s accusation about our funding is false. The entirety of the claim refers to a single small grant we received in 2014 from the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation, a charitable foundation that, like many other prominent environmental philanthropies, has an endowment that traces back to a fossil fuel fortune.

The purpose of the grant was to host a conference about the innovation lessons that clean energy advocates might draw from successful federal investments to develop hydraulic fracturing technologies. We hosted federal scientists from national laboratories, engineers who had worked on the technology for private industry, and leading innovation scholars from around the world to spend two days carefully working through the history of federal programs that had supported the development of fracking technologies — demonstration programs, tax credits, regulations, and public-private partnerships between the Department of Energy and the natural gas industry. The report from the conference is publicly available and is a treasure trove of insights for anyone interested in how government can support innovation to accelerate the clean energy transition.

Perhaps, Mann simply didn’t do his homework on that one. But it turned out that Mann’s 2016 book was chock-full of further falsehoods and misrepresentations of our work, which he has continued to repeat, including in a new book published earlier this month.

Mann claims that we are free-market libertarians opposed to renewable energy. In fact, we have supported far-reaching public investment in renewable energy since our founding and have long argued that scaling low carbon technologies consistent with mitigating climate change would require sustained and substantial public support. He claims we oppose energy efficiency and a tax on carbon. In reality, we have long supported both, although we have also pointed to the limitations of those efforts as climate mitigation policies. He claims that we promote geoengineering as an alternative to mitigating climate change, a claim that is patently false. Mann knows these are all demonstrably false claims. We have pointed them out publicly for years and my colleagues Alex Trembath, Zeke Hausfather, and I wrote him earlier this month detailing falsehoods in his latest book. And yet he continues to make them.

An Abused Scientist Becomes an Abuser

Anyone even a little bit familiar with Mann’s personal history will appreciate the irony in his deliberate misrepresentations of our work. Mann has himself been the target of slanderous and defamatory attacks from actual opponents of climate action. He figured prominently in the “Climategate” hack; has been investigated by the former Republican Attorney General of the State of Virginia, Ken Cuccineli, and by Senator James Inhofe; and has sued the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Frontier Center for Public Policy, and the National Review for libel.

One might think that having been on the receiving end of this sort of thing, Mann would not want to traffic in mistruths and disinformation himself. All the more so as a scientist who has risen to prominence in no small part as a leading tribune of the claims that climate science makes upon policy. One need not believe that scientists should abstain from politics to think that how they engage in politics and public discourse matters.

I wouldn’t claim to know what exactly goes on inside Mann’s head, why he thinks it’s ok to make such claims, or why he has singled out Breakthrough. But his own writing and public persona at least suggest some answers.

Almost everything Mann has written for popular audiences in recent years has been wrapped up in personal biography. Climategate and, most especially, the Cucinelli investigation, made Mann a cause celebre. Since then, Mann has positioned himself quite explicitly as the personification of climate science under attack, a victim of an organized campaign not only to smear his personal reputation but to undermine truth, democracy, and human survival.

Some of this is true. Ideological opponents of climate action, some underwritten to varying degrees by fossil fuel interests, did seize upon correspondence revealed in the Climategate hack to falsely suggest that the entire climate science enterprise was fraudulent. Mann was a major focus of those efforts, and of subsequent investigations, because his hockey stick graph had featured prominently in climate advocacy efforts, most especially Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.

Michael Mann did not deserve these assaults on his work or his integrity. And I can understand why, having been subject to them, he would be angry and prone to see many other things through those experiences. But Mann goes well beyond that, basically reducing the entirety of the struggle to address climate change globally to his personal history. For Mann, climate change is a Manichean struggle between greedheaded corporations (and the craven shills and right-wing ideologues they underwrite) and heroic climate scientists fighting to save humanity from ecological catastrophe, the latter personified by Michael Mann.

Once you have convinced yourself that all climate politics can be reduced, basically, to one’s personal history and beliefs, it is just a short leap to conclude that all dissent from one’s views is an attack upon both one’s’ person and the planet. Here, notably, Mann’s primary targets are not actually those who question the basic relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change but rather those who diverge from standard green framings of the problem and its solutions. Hence the title of his book, “The New Climate War,” refers not to battles over questions such as cloud behavior or climate sensitivity or methane feedbacks, but what to do about the problem, technologically and politically.

This is not accidental. Mann has, in recent years, become the patron saint of the most vocal and ideological climate advocates, those who see the world’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels as, at bottom, a gigantic conspiracy by the fossil fuel industry. James Hansen, whose Congressional testimony in the late 1980s put the issue on the map and who, as a government scientist, was repeatedly muzzled by Republican administrations, was once similarly exalted by many climate activists. But Hansen has always carried his status as an eco-celebrity uncomfortably, and his more recent criticisms of carbon trading and renewable energy and his advocacy of nuclear energy have made him an unreliable totem

Mann, by contrast, is much more reliable ideologically and can be counted upon to conflate climate science with green technological and policy preferences and to wrap it all up in a sweeping narrative inseparable from his personal history. Doing so has served Mann well, establishing him as the go-to climate scientist for many of the big green NGOs, particularly those on the environmental Left. And it has served the interests of the most dogmatic wing of the climate advocacy community, who seek to delegitimize as climate denial any challenge to the claim that addressing climate change requires expansive government regulation, global governance regimes, and a rapid transition of the global energy economy to one powered exclusively by renewable energy.

That’s where we come in.

Green Ideology Versus Green Identity

The effort to reduce all climate politics to a binary conflict between green defenders of truth and science and corrupt denialists is part ideological and part tribal, the former less coherent than the latter.

Indeed, the ideological claims that contemporary greens have made upon the issue have actually evolved quite a bit in the 15 years since Breakthrough’s founding, often in ways that our work has anticipated. Back then, we were savaged for suggesting that the world was not going to tax or regulate its way to a low carbon future. Today, most climate advocates broadly agree, having soured on climate policy that centered on taxing or trading carbon as “green neoliberalism.”

And while a multi-trillion dollar Green New Deal is unlikely to materialize in place of more traditional demands for carbon pricing or regulation, the basic framework – direct public investments in low-carbon infrastructure and technology focused around job creation and economic opportunity, owes far more to Breakthrough’s work over the last two decades than anything produced by either the billion-dollar environmental NGO community or the economic, public policy, or environmental studies programs of the nation’s elite universities.

Mann trots out the tired old trope that we are a “nuclear front group.” For the record, we have never taken any funding from the nuclear industry. But we were the first well-known environmental NGO to come out strongly in favor of nuclear energy as a critical climate mitigation technology a decade ago. Today, that view has gained grudging acknowledgment even in many environmental circles. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, has acknowledged that closing nuclear plants is a bad idea. A federal low carbon electricity standard inclusive of nuclear energy now appears to be the most plausible federal vehicle to drive deep decarbonization of the power sector.

Even environmental attitudes towards natural gas, which has in recent years become public enemy #1, has been less consistent than most acknowledge. The environmental community was broadly supportive of natural gas before it was against it. The Sierra Club alone took $28 million from the industry. Much of the mainstream movement counted on gas to support the transition to renewable energy. Even Bill McKibbon as recently as 2010 touted natural gas as a bridge fuel.

If there were any doubt that Mann’s commitments and claims are mostly about his tribal political identity, not any sort of principled defense of science, the fact that he has chosen to smear us based on a $10,000 grant from a foundation several decades removed from the industry while entirely ignoring the tens of millions of dollars that have flowed into the environmental community directly from the oil and gas industry ought to put that question to rest.

Indeed, it’s not even clear that Mann has actually bothered to read most of the sources he cites for his claims about Breakthrough. The footnote about our views on geoengineering leads to a guest essay we posted on our website in 2013 by an unaffiliated academic, consistent with our long-standing commitment to hosting open-minded debates around geoengineering and other contested environmental questions.

As evidence of our bad faith opposition to climate action, Mann has linked at various times to an old Joe Romm blog post attacking us for an analysis we produced during the Waxman-Markey debate demonstrating that the cap-and-trade program it proposed would allow so many international offsets that emissions under the cap could functionally rise for decades.

As it happened, US emissions have remained well below the proposed Waxman-Markey cap as we suggested they would. Indeed, insofar as there was bad faith on anyone’s part, it was Romm’s, the long-time voice of the Center for American Progress on all things climate, who had conveniently reversed his view about offsets, which he had for years panned as “rip-offsets,” when it became clear that the Democratic climate proposal was going to be up to its ears in them.

I could go on. But the broader point is that Mann hasn’t checked his sources because he simply doesn’t care. What he is really defending is affective environmental identity, not science. In that role, his environmental audience is going to take his word for it. Everybody in that bubble knows who is on which team and anyone criticizing environmental organizations, or for that matter icons like Mann, is clearly not on the right one. Among the tribe, scientists literally speak for the truth, even when they say things that are demonstrably false, and activists speak for the people, even when they make demands that most of the public opposes.

Mann knows that few journalists, scientists, or experts will call him on any of it, because, mostly, they are of the tribe and even those who are not won’t dare to cross it. The journal Science, to take one particularly egregious example, handed its review over to a climate advocate who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists. What followed, suffice to say, was not a careful examination of Mann’s claims or the strengths and weaknesses of his argument.

Losing the Last War

Many, of course, will excuse Mann’s misrepresentations as the cost of war. But that presumes that Mann and his coreligionists are actually winning it. In fact, over the 12 years since Mann became a public figure and dedicated himself to winning the climate war, there has been little change in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they are concerned about climate change, that its effects have already begun, or that scientists agree that it is happening.

According to Gallup, in early 2019 - at the end of the decade long economic expansion after the Great Recession, and after four years of “thermostatic response” to Donald Trump’s climate denial - 44% of Americans reported being very concerned about climate change versus 41% at the end of the last major economic expansion and Republican administration in 2007. 59% of Americans believed global warming’s effects had already begun, versus 60% in 2007. 35% said news about global warming was greatly exaggerated, versus 33% in 2007. 65% said that most scientists believed that global warming is occurring, exactly the same share as in 2006 and 2008 (Gallup didn’t ask the question in 2007).

Indeed, the only significant change that occurred over that period with regard to public understanding of climate change was that it became intensely polarized. The gap between Democratic voters and Republican voters on the issue grew dramatically.

The White House, meanwhile, has been occupied for the last four years by an unapologetic climate denier. All of this during a period when what little funding had ever existed for outright climate denial almost entirely disappeared and climate denial, such as it is, was effectively de-platformed in even major conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal.

Once the actual record of the last decade comes into focus, the abject failure of those who would prosecute a climate war becomes clear. Climate action has not required vanquishing, once and for all, climate denial. Insofar as the US and the world have made progress on climate change, it has been through what Breakthrough has called quiet climate policy — targeted policies by governments to support technological innovation and low-carbon infrastructure to make clean energy cheap. Just last month, dozens of Republican members of Congress overwhelmingly voted for the most significant federal investment in low-carbon innovation and infrastructure in US history, even as Mann was preparing to launch a new book insisting that it is all just a new and more insidious form of climate denial.

By contrast, efforts to frame the entirety of the issue as an epic battle to defend truth and science against climate deniers have not led to a great awakening among the American public. Rather, they have aligned attitudes about climate change even more firmly with other political and ideological commitments that are more strongly held and less likely to yield to evidence, debate, or cross-partisan engagement. As a result, the deniers have not been banished. They have literally been elevated to high office.

Mann’s attacks upon “false solutions,” which include everything from nuclear energy to carbon capture to adaptation to geoengineering are not, as he suggests, about moving beyond the phony debate about the reality of anthropogenic climate change but rather its opposite, an effort to reimpose that debate upon framings, technologies, policies, and political possibilities that might disrupt it. They are not actually in service of the cause of progress on climate change. A decade of prosecuting the climate war has achieved nothing other than raising the ideological stakes associated with the issue, making the possibility of concerted federal climate action even less plausible than it was when he started.

Over the last decade, Mann has now published what is essentially the same book three times, once, literally, in cartoon form. What the ritualized incantations of his personal history and its political meaning actually serve is to enforce ideological discipline within the Left/environmental bubble that pays attention to him, to warn his disciples away from impure thoughts, and, perhaps most importantly, to keep himself at the center of it all.