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10 Questions With Penn State Climate Expert Michael Mann

Over the past few decades, discussions of climate change have increased in debate popularity due to rising sea levels, more irregularities in weather patterns, and new government policy.

Michael Mann, a distinguished Penn State professor of atmospheric science and author of various books on climate change, has been working to deploy the masses in “The New Climate War” through education.

We chatted with Mann about his latest book, the future of climate policy in the Joe Biden era, and how Penn Staters can fight in the battle against climate change disaster.

Onward State: Where are we today in the climate war that you discuss in your book “The New Climate War”? What can be done to move forward from here?

Michael Mann: We are very close to seeing the sort of action that is necessary for the world to avert catastrophic climate change. Fossil fuel industry-funded climate change denial is on the wane because impacts are now playing out in real-time, in the form of unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and superstorms that are undeniable.

But fossil fuel interests and the forces of inaction (the “in-activists”) haven’t given up in their efforts to stymie action. Instead, they’ve shifted to an insidious new array of tactics — division, delay, deflection, and despair-mongering in their efforts to block climate action. The purpose of this book is to help folks recognize and fight back against these tactics, which represent the few obstacles now in our way.

OS: With another presidential cycle just beginning, how can the Biden Administration’s climate plan create positive change? In what ways could their plan be improved?

MM: A Biden victory ushers in a new era of global cooperation and allows us to repair much of the damage that was done to our reputation on the world stage by Trump over the past four years. 

But make no mistake, the sobering reality is that even if every country meets its commitments under the Paris Agreement (and many, including the U.S. and EU, are currently falling at least a bit short), that gets us less than halfway to where we need to be, i.e. on a path to limiting warming below 2ºC (let alone the more stringent 1.5ºC many are now calling for). So, Paris is a good starting point, but we need to go well beyond Paris now to achieve the reductions that are necessary. 

Biden has put forward a bold climate plan with ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and support for both regulatory and market-driven policy measures. With a 50/50-split Senate, there is a real opportunity for meaningful climate legislation, but it will require some degree of compromise. 

My new book, “The New Climate War,” went to press this summer and it anticipates precisely where we’ll likely be, given the anticipated makeup of the Senate:

“Given an even modestly favorable shift in political winds, one could envision [a bold climate bill] passing the House and moving on to the Senate with a half-dozen or more moderate conservatives crossing the aisle, joining with Senate Democrats to pass the bill within the next year or two.”

In short, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see meaningful action here in the U.S. and a reassertion of global leadership on climate.

OS: Ideally, what does the world look like to you five years from now in terms of where you would like climate action to take us.

MM: The implications, once again, are that we are very close to prevailing in this battle for the future of our planet. That is highlighted by the favorable shift in the political winds here in the U.S., with a president who campaigned on and is leading on climate and a congress in Democratic hands that will likely pass meaningful climate legislation. So, it is all the more important we recognize the roadblocks that in-activists are still tossing in our way and fight back against them effectively. That’s the purpose of my book.

Five years from now, I’m optimistic that we’ll look back at 2020 and, as truly awful a year as it was, we’ll say, “that’s the year we turned the corner on climate.” 

OS: Realistically, what does the world look like to you five years from now in terms of how much can actually be achieved?

MM: Hah—I’m going to give the same answer as above.

OS: If you could boil it down to one entity, who has the main responsibility to create change? (Individuals, big corporations, government, etc.)

MM: Well, it’s all of us, but with the proviso that we are not in the position to effect policy change (i.e. create subsidies for clean energy, put a price on carbon, regulate industrial pollution, etc.), we need our policymakers to do that. It is on us then, in turn, to put pressure on our policymakers, including using the power of our vote — as we just did this past election — to vote in politicians who are willing to advance our interests rather than fossil fuel interests. 

OS: What policies has Penn State created to address climate change? In what ways could those policies be improved?

MM: Penn State has made some real strides in recent years, reducing campus-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 32% since I arrived in 2005, thanks to the leadership by the Penn State Sustainability Institute, Office of the Physical Plant, and other units at the University.

The University has achieved these reductions through a combination of energy efficiency measures, retiring its coal-fired power plant and purchasing of renewable energy, and has begun construction of a 150,000-panel solar array that is projected to provide 25% of the University’s electricity over the next 25 years.

But for Penn State to do its part in meeting President Joe Biden’s nation-wide goal of reaching 100% renewable power by 2035, it will have to do more. That includes quickly weaning itself of the remaining fossil fuel contribution (natural gas in particular) to its electricity generation.

OS: You are educating people about the climate crisis and how to encourage change within governments and corporations, but in what other ways are you contributing to this fight?

MM: I would say that I’ve been on the front lines of the battle now for a couple of decades, ever since my co-authors and I published the “hockey stick” curve back in the late 1990s while I was a postdoctoral researcher.  The hockey stick became an iconic symbol in the climate change debate, and I found myself a reluctant combatant in the climate wars, with fossil fuel interests and their front groups and advocates working hard to discredit it and me.

Over the years, I have come to embrace the opportunity that has given me to inform the larger societal conversation about climate change and what to do about it. Though it’s not what I had signed up for, I consider it a privilege to be in a position to influence the larger conversation about the greatest challenge we arguably face as a civilization. 

OS: In what ways can Penn State students join the battle for our planet and create change on campus?

MM: There are many ways Penn State students can become engaged in climate action. First of all, just talking about the issue — with their friends, their classmates, their family, and everyone else. Raising awareness is critical — joining on-campus environmental groups and organizations that are engaged in climate action is a great way forward (like the offerings from Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, for example).

There are opportunities for research in areas like clean energy or environmental policy, which students who are passionate about climate might find to be great intellectual outlets for their activism.

Voting is critical — college students really made a big difference in the most recent election, helping vote in a climate-friendly president and congress. Being out there on the front lines, demanding accountability from our policymakers, I would say is the most important thing you can do. College students have always played a key role in that.

A few years ago I wrote a piece, “College Students Are Critical to Tackling Climate Change,” for the Knowledge Review, drawing upon my own experiences as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley during the 1980s.

OS: How can people avoid getting discouraged when working toward this kind of change?

MM: By recognizing all of the reasons for cautious optimism, as I outline at the end of the book– the resurgence of activism over climate, the important lessons learned from Coronavirus, a youth climate movement that has re-centered the conversation where it needs to be, around principles of international ethics, and our obligation to future generations and those today who are most vulnerable.

All of that combines with the favorable shift in political winds I discussed in response to question two, to place us in the best position we’ve been in yet to really make meaningful action in tackling the climate crisis. The purpose of my book is to help folks recognize the few remaining obstacles in our path so that we can get past them and finally see the action that is necessary.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?

MM: A Troodon — it was among the smartest dinosaurs (probably as smart as a modern-day chicken). But let’s not be like the dinosaurs. They weren’t in a position to forestall their demise. We are (pun intended)!

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About the Author

Mackenna Yount

Mackenna is a junior food science major from Manitou Springs, Colorado, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She loves food, is addicted to coffee, and can give you random facts or bad jokes that you didn't ask for. Ask her to bake gluten-free goodies so she has an excuse to try out new cupcake flavors. Mackenna can be contacted via Twitter @mackennayount (especially if you want to show off your best dad jokes) or you can shoot her an email at [email protected].

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