Michael Mann

Climate in the First 100 Days

Air Date: April 19, 2021

Penn State climatologist Michael Mann discusses the Biden-Harris administration’s actions on climate and how to increase global accountability.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome back to the program Michael Mann. He is the climatologist, award-winning climatologist at Penn State. Thank you so much for joining me today, Professor.


MANN: Thank you, Alexander. Great to be with you.


HEFFNER: Michael, how would you assess so far, the Biden Administration’s climate agenda?


MANN: Well, I think they’ve surprised us, frankly. The critics who felt that they weren’t going to be bold enough, I think they’ve been pleasantly surprised at how, just how bold an agenda the Biden Administration has put forward, the sort of flurry of executive actions they announced a month ago that really implement climate friendly policies across our entire federal government in every agency, a far more expansive view, in fact of the role of the Executive Branch in acting on climate than in prior administrations, including the Obama Administration. So, I think we’ve seen a lot of important specific policies that they’re putting forward to address the climate crisis, but none, no development is more significant than their efforts to establish a new international presence, to communicate to the world that the United States is back and ready to lead once again when it comes to the defining challenge of our time.


HEFFNER: Michael, your latest book of course, is “The New Climate War” by Public Affairs. What would you most want to impart to President Biden and the Biden-Harris Administration about the current state and urgency of climate in terms of what the research tells us?


MANN: Yeah, well as I like to say these days, the research both conveys urgency and agency; the urgency is the fact that we are already seeing devastating climate change impacts. All we have to do is turn on our televisions to see the images now that are part of our daily lives, the impacts that climate change, the impacts that climate change is already having on our planet, on our civilization, on our environment. The agency comes with the knowledge that there is still time for action. And the latest science tells us that if we stop burning carbon, the warming stabilizes pretty soon, within a few years, the warming of the surface of the planet stabilizes within a few years of us ceasing to put carbon pollution into the atmosphere. And so that means that there is a direct and immediate impact of our efforts to act. So there is urgency, dangerous climate change by some measure has already arrived, but there is agency. We can prevent the worst impacts from happening if we act now and we act in a coherent and global manner.


HEFFNER: Was it that the Obama Administration’s policy was incoherent or was it that it was reversed so quickly that it was not entrenched in American activity, behavior? What’s a route forward?


MANN: Yeah, it’s a really good point. You know, I think there were a few things. The Obama Administration really sort of kept climate policy siloed in a small number of agencies. Really, it was seen largely as the domain of the EPA and the DOE, whereas the Biden Administration in part, in response to advice from former Obama Administration folks, who’ve said, if we could do it again, here’s what we would do. And one of the things that they said they would do is incorporate climate policy across the government. But the other thing is Executive Actions can be fleeting. Live by the Executive Action. You die by the Executive Action. And that’s what we saw because Obama was unable to pass climate legislation with a Republican Congress that refused to play along, they were only able to enable these Executive Actions and those were reversible. And we did see a massive reversal, a reversal of all of that progress or most of it by the Trump Administration. So I think the Biden Administration recognizes, look, we have to do everything we can right now through Executive Actions, but we need legislation. And fortunately that’s possible with Democratic control, even by the slimmest of majorities, Democratic control of the Senate means a Climate Bill or set of bills can be brought to the Senate floor. It can be passed if necessary by reconciliation. So there’s an opportunity to have a legislative arm that really codifies these changes that will give it more staying power than simply Executive Actions alone.


HEFFNER: In the legislation of the American Recovery Act, the American recovery plan does include some climate elements?

MANN: That’s right. The stimulus bill actually passed more than a month ago, contained $35 billion dollars of green energy stimulus. So to the critics who say it isn’t possible to pass climate legislation through a divided senate well, that’s not true. In this case, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted for that stimulus package, again that $35 billion dollar for green energy stimulus. And so to me what that suggests is there is the possibility of climate legislation, as long as it is part of a larger package that can achieve bi-partisan support. That’ll be the challenge.


HEFFNER: And as we look towards potential infrastructure investment, what do you think would be a manageable amount and approach for the new administration to pursue? Because you have someone like Senator Manchin of West Virginia who has expressed an eagerness about infrastructure and supporting a new wave of American infrastructure. How do you think you balance that with the climate standards or investments that you’re seeking?


MANN: Yeah, and that’s a, it’s a great question because, you know, Manchin, of course he has a state that’s suffering. They will benefit greatly from a major infrastructure package, but it’s also a coal state and Manchin in the past has shown himself to be fairly friendly to fossil fuel interests and has indicated he doesn’t, for example, support expansive Green New Deal-like legislation. He voted against a mock Green New Deal bill last year. So I think you sort of have to thread the needle here. What you need is an infrastructure package that’s so compelling that somebody like Manchin will vote for it, even if it has some pretty stringent climate policies that some of his fossil fuel backers might not be too happy with. That’s going to be the challenge, because you will need Manchin and the other red state Democrats to hold firm, if you’re going to pass climate legislation through reconciliation, and there is the possibility that Republicans, even the moderate ones, won’t play along and that any meaningful policy will have to come through, you know, reconciliation bills. That may be the reality of the next two years, hopefully two years from now, it’s possible to change the makeup of Congress so that you will be able to advance bolder climate legislation.


HEFFNER: When we spoke several years ago, and of course we spoke recently on the podcast, but if you were to think of the new climate war in terms of what’s changed over the last five years, in terms of the various stakeholders, coal being among them, but new energy, old energy, gas, oil, electric, what has changed over the course of the last four or five years that I think gives you more hope about winning the climate war?


MANN: Yeah, so, you know, the old climate war was the battle by fossil fuel interests and those conservative politicians and media outlets to promoting their agenda, to attack the underlying scientific evidence, to discredit the case for climate change. That’s just not possible anymore because we can see the impacts of climate change playing out. But, you know, the inactivists, as I call them the forces of inaction, they haven’t rolled over. They haven’t given up, they’ve just turned to, you know, an insidious array of more subtle tactics that are still aimed at blocking progress, still aimed at keeping us addicted to fossil fuels. And that includes efforts to divide climate advocates, infighting distracting us by us to focus on individual behavioral change rather than the needed systemic policies. And even promoting doom. If we believe it’s too late to do anything about the problem that ironically leads us down that same path of inaction. So we have to recognize those tactics when we see them. But, you know, you take a state like West Virginia, you take some of these red states: Florida, Texas, West Virginia, these are some of the States that are seeing the most dire impacts of climate change. West Virginia has seen record flooding events, devastating flooding events in recent years that have really cost their economy. So I think what we’ve arrived at now is a situation where, you know, the forces of denial, even, you know, some of the fiercest pro proponents of the fossil fuel industry are now suffering the consequences of climate inaction. And that’s changed the story and it’s changed the dialogue and it’s changed the debate so that there really is an opportunity for meaningful progress, but we have to first make sure that we don’t, that we don’t fall victim to the obstacles that have still been put in our path by the inactivists.


So even though denial is largely over, there are these other obstacles. And they’re the only thing that remain in our way in this transition. So we have to recognize when, you know, there are efforts to divide us or to distract or deflect us because that is a last-ditch effort to slow down the transition. Look, they know it’s going to happen, the fossil fuel industry, they know that we’re going to leave behind most of those fossil fuels in the ground. We can’t afford to burn them, but they’re going to try to delay that transition as long as they can, because they make billions of dollars of profits every year, as long as we, we’re still using fossil fuels. So that’s the challenge now is to accelerate that transition is to not allow the forces of inaction to throw these obstacles in our way, that’s the new climate war, and we have to win it because the planet literally does lie in the balance.

HEFFNER: Michael is also the author of “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy.” And I sense a maturation of society in the newest book of 2021. That was of course, 2015, 2016 you were working on that book. That maturation you’re describing in political terms in potential states that are adversely affected by climate: Texas, Florida, you mentioned. Texas certainly politically has, has become more of a battleground,

MANN: Right.

HEFFNER: Florida has gone in the opposite direction. And, you know, we constantly talk about this question of the experience or consequence of climate induced harm and whether that’s extreme weather or literal climate change and weather, or, you know, affecting produce and crops. We know that it manifests in disparate places, disparate geographies and zip codes, but it’s interesting. And I wonder if you make of the fact that, you know, Texas and Georgia seem to be evolving much more than let’s say Florida, some of the other, you know, Southeastern border states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, of course also, even though climate has had some real effect in the Midwest. You don’t see that kind of cultural change in Iowa or Nebraska. So I just wondered if you’d reflect on these, sort of disparate political climates in their relationship with climate induced problems?


MANN: Yeah. It’s complicated because the political maps are changing and the climate impacts, climate impact maps are changing, right? Texas, of course, at the very center of that with this cold snap that they suffered you know, a week or two ago. And the science does actually suggest that things won’t get colder, but we might see more frequent called air outbreaks as pieces of the, what we call the polar vortex sort of are more likely to break off and drift southward in the winter as the jet stream slows down. And so there’s some evidence that climate change is playing a role there and Texas certainly felt the impacts, the devastation we all read about it. It was one of those defining events that tells us that we’re dealing now with major consequences. And it doesn’t matter how, you know, whether you’re a blue state or a red state, climate change doesn’t care. That having been said, there are certain places that have really borne the brunt of climate change impacts, our coastlines in the East, the Gulf coast and the Southeast coast with sea level rise.

And these devastating hurricanes we’ve seen in recent years, the Western States with unprecedented heat and drought and wildfires, but even Iowa, you know, which might sound like it’s sort of left out of the picture experienced this a duration event last summer an unprecedented sort of flooding event that destroyed a lot of the crops. And you know, they’re paying the consequences, they’re paying the price of climate change as well, feeling the consequences of climate change as well. So nobody is immune from the impacts of climate change. It doesn’t, you know, climate change doesn’t care what your politics are. It doesn’t care if you’re a blue state or a red state. And ultimately, I think that that’s going to be the key development here, regardless of, you know, you can’t deny a problem when it’s lapping up on your doorstep and that’s what’s happening with climate change in Florida.


HEFFNER: Michael, you were in Australia during the extreme heat wave doing research. And that was, you know, basically what Texans experienced with this freeze and how unprecedented that was in the history of the state was similar to the Australian experience, never having reached that level of temperature. But what occurs to me in our discussions over time is just how much, this seems dependent upon temporal public consciousness, as opposed to a permanence. And it’s a problem that just seems unavoidable. We don’t want these events to be occurring, but the truth is that in the last couple of years, Florida, for instance, has been spared any kind of cataclysmic event, like a Sandy or a Rita or Harvey. So, you know, the struggle continues to be an uphill battle for permanent public consciousness not just in the wake of storms or extreme weather.


MANN: Yeah. You know, that’s true to an extent, but even though you know, Florida has sort of dodged a number of bullets when it comes to landfall in hurricanes in recent years, notwithstanding the hurricane that bears my name Michael, that struck the panhandle. That was the landfalling category five, the first one ever that late in October. So they have dealt with some of those consequences, but now they’re dealing with, what’s known as you know, sunny day flooding. It doesn’t take a tropical storm. It just takes a high tide now because of sea level rise to flood the streets of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale and other parts of Florida. So they are seeing the consequences. And it’s sort of interesting when you look at some of their politicians, like Matt Gaetz is one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, in the House of Representatives. And yet he has actually chided some of his fellow Republicans for denying the threat of climate change because he lives in Florida, his constituents are dealing with the impacts, and he said that Republicans have to stop denying that. And even DeSantis who’s been, you know, rightly criticized on so many fronts, particularly his lack of a willingness to meaningfully deal with the pandemic. Even DeSantis has actually implemented some pretty reasonable policies at least as far as adaptation is concerned to deal with climate change. He’s not a climate change denier. You can’t afford to be a climate change denier if you’re representing the people of Florida. So I ultimately do think that the reality, even in this fact-challenged era that we live in, ultimately, you know, nature does get the last, you know, nature bats last. And there’s no denying what people can see with their own two eyes and they can feel.


HEFFNER: Based on what transpired with the last administration and the efforts of Markey and Waxman and others to get across the finish line, a Cap and Trade, or a carbon tax system. What realistically do you think could be adopted as legislation over the next two years and is something that Democrats as the primary party advocating climate action could say, separate from the Green New Deal, this is a reworking of how fossil emissions are going to work in this country for the next decade? Again, separate from some of the lofty and frankly, unrealistic notions of the Green New Deal as a whole. If you were to just say, we’re going to write this legislation up this next year, and we’re going to campaign on it in 2022, what would be the smartest strategy in terms of the kind of system that you would devise? Would it be carbon tax? Would it be Cap and Trade or something else?


MANN: Yeah. So thanks. It’s a great question. And, you know, the premise of your question is, is correct. You know, we’re not going to see a lofty, expansive Green New Deal passed this 50-50 Senate because we already know there are five Democrats, five sort of red state conservative Democrats who voted against a Green New Deal in a test vote last year. They’ve already communicated the fact that they’re not going to vote for something that comes laden with massive social programs, a climate agenda that is that expansive in nature. But at the same time, they could support some sort of consensus climate legislation that does for example have market mechanisms. Subsidies for renewables, that’s critical, and progressives will argue for that. So moderate conservatives who don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, we’d like to think that they’re doing something about the problem, and it’s sort of in their DNA to support market mechanisms and be that a carbon tax or Cap and Trade or fee and dividend, look let’s have that debate in Congress. Let’s debate that on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I think that something like that, a compromise Climate Bill or set of bills that has market mechanisms that, that has some things that moderate Republicans want, but is still acceptable to progressives, something like that could pass with all the Democrats and a half dozen Republicans as well, maybe even breaking a filibuster. And so that’s what I think we’ll see. I think we’ll see some sort of climate legislation pass within the next two years that will compliment what the Biden Administration is doing through Executive Actions now, and maybe two or four years down the road we will have sort of you know, a congressional environment that’s for passing more expansive climate legislation, but let’s get what we can now, something that will compliment what the administration is doing.


HEFFNER: And what can be done with the passage of the recovery plan when we think of all the ways that the pandemic should accelerate our public health and climate as an extension of our public health and wellbeing?


MANN: Yeah. You know, I think what we’ve seen for example is that you know, our infrastructure; we’ve had problems with our energy infrastructure. That’s Texas, the cold snap with sort of a perfect storm of that of that unusual cold, you know, snap. And their very backward energy infrastructure. You know, the fact that they’ve stayed isolated from the national grid because they don’t want to be regulated. All of those things came together in a perfect storm and it was devastating. So I think even, you know, maybe some Republicans in Texas are open-minded to the notion that we need a more robust grid. We need a grid that has substantial renewable energy, because what actually broke down in that case was their natural gas supply. And if they had had more input from renewables, from sun, from solar and wind and geothermal they would have had a more robust grid that would have gotten them through that episode. So I think that’s infrastructure, smart grids, things that make sense to ordinary Americans. Everybody wants a more robust and cleaner and greener energy grid. And that’s something that hopefully Democrats and at least moderate Republicans could get behind.


HEFFNER: Finally, Michael, when we think of the global responsibility and wanting more proof that countries outside of the United States are working in partnership, there was this question about the substantiation of the Paris Accord. Great, it’s an accord, but we ought to have accountability for how folks are performing or conducting themselves. Does that exist now in terms of keeping accountable, all the member countries of the accord.


MANN: So, you know, the Paris agreement employs, what they call a name and shame sort of enforcement mechanism, which is peer pressure, right. If you’re not doing your part you know, you’re going, you’re going to hear it from fellow nations. For the time being that is the enforcement mechanism that’s in place. What I would like to see at this next meeting in Glasgow, and of course, we’ll have this April summit in the U.S. headed up by Joe Biden. It’ll be sort of a preface to the Glasgow climate meeting later this year. What I would like to see is a discussion of, you know, enforcement mechanisms with a little more tooth in them, because ultimately while peer pressure works and, you know, while it’s great, the commitments that we’ve already gotten, it’s also clear that the current commitments from the countries of the world only get us maybe halfway to where we need to be to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. We’re going to need a real ratcheting up of those commitments. And we’re going to need a way to put more pressure on countries you know, to ratchet up their, and not just ratchet up their commitments, but actually meet those commitments. So that’s what we have to talk about.


HEFFNER: What is the global governance beyond naming and shaming. I mean, what is the governing structure that can accomplish what you’re saying, Michael?


MANN: Well, I mean, you know, one thing that the United States is talking about what the Biden Administration is talking about border adjustments, basically tariffs, if you are shipping your goods to our country and you are not, you know, you don’t have a price on carbon and you don’t have market mechanisms within your own country to, you know, to penalize carbon emissions, we’re going to penalize you when your products come across the border. So, that is one mechanism that every nation has available to itself: tariffs and border adjustments to hold other countries accountable. That’s, you know, that’s the sort of thing that I think we’re going to see more discussion of and the Biden Administration in fact, just this week started talking about that, started talking about, look, we’re going to try to get a price on carbon. And then we’re going to look into something like border adjustments to make sure that countries that aren’t doing, you know, doing their part pay a price for, so for doing, for not doing so.


HEFFNER: Michael Mann, climatologist at Penn State, author of “The New Climate War” and “The Madhouse Effect.” Thank you so much for your time today.


MANN: Thank you, Alexander. Always a pleasure.


HEFFNER: Stay well.


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