Michael E. Mann Makes My Head Hurt

Dave Rhody
10 min readMar 5, 2021


Reading The New Climate War I felt like a kid watching his parents argue. I wanted to scream, ‘Please quit yelling at each other and just tell me what to do.’

Michael E. Mann believes that we are at war. I don’t want to be at war.

The War on Poverty failed. The War on Drugs failed. The Vietnam War and every American-backed war since then has failed. I understand the need to fight for a just cause, and no cause outranks climate action right now, but I cannot embrace the ideology of war. When I fight for my last breath, it will be without ever engaging in armed conflict, the definition of war.

Putting aside the violent connotations, describing the struggle for the future of humanity as a war, two sides pitted against each other, doesn’t work either. Thinking like this is part of what has caused this crisis.

Life on planet earth is in jeopardy. We have destabilized our climate.

No one can ignore the evidence — wildfires, hurricanes, floods, decade-long droughts, rising sea levels and now a vortex of artic cold invading Texas. It’s clear that the planet is pissed off at us.

No one can ignore the science that defines the cause. Carbon emissions from our massive use of fossil fuels are accumulating in our atmosphere to a point that they are trapping some of sun’s heat. The planet is getting warmer and we know why. Mann is the man who helped solidify the science. His well-deserved reputation dates back the ‘Hockey Stick’ global warming graph published in 1998.

No one can ignore the fatalities.

Hundreds of climate catastrophes have claimed victims. Thousands have died from heat waves in just the past few years — 2018 in Japan, 2019 in France and Australia — thousands more from droughts in Africa and India. And let’s not forget about those who froze to death in Texas this February (2021). And that’s just the beginning. https://eos.org/articles/the-first-undeniable-climate-change-deaths

More than 250,000 people may die each year due to climate change.

Planet Earth is angry and starting to take revenge. But Mann is not talking about the planet being at war with us. He believes that climate activists are in a ‘Fight to Take Back Our Planet’, that we are at war with both the climate deniers and the doomsayers.

I’d rather win them over than do battle with climate deniers. I do not want to declare war on fossil fuel companies or the consumers who enable them. And what would be the point of fighting with the doomsayers?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Michael Mann. Sitting in on a webinar with him recently, I found myself thinking that if I had been in one of his classes at Penn State, he would have been one of my favorite professors. He’s worth listening to. He knows his science and he is a champion of climate action. Even so, his fight with those he says are engaged in ‘climate inaction’ and with his conflicts with other climate activists, his book made my head hurt and I was glad to finish it.

I found relief with a fourteen-year-old named Miles O’Malley. He calmed my throbbing brain and helped restore my sense of purpose. Miles is the narrator of a 2005 novel by Jim Lynch called The Highest Tide. I started reading it the morning after finishing Mann’s book. Miles is in love with the wonders of nature that he finds in Skookumchuck Bay in the Puget Sound.

If there is any creature Miles can’t identify crawling through the tidal pools, clinging to bayside rocks or swooping down from the sky, he soon will. He has read every marine biology book in the Olympia library and quotes long passages from his well-thumbed copies of his collection of Rachel Carson books.

After making a number of unusual discoveries in the bay, like a giant squid never before seen in that part of the world, Miles noted that perhaps the earth is trying to tell us something. When a reporter asked him what he thought it was trying to say, he said, “It’s probably saying, ‘Pay attention.’”

“Rachel Carson said the more people learn about the ocean the less likely they are to harm it.” Miles, at least in my mind, is a climate activist, grounded in his love for the complexity and balance of ocean life forms while pointing at rising ocean levels and the acidification of the Artic Ocean from melting ice caps. He might point to the inland wildfires as well and he would wonder why so much of the world is failing to take it seriously, failing to give it the attention it deserves.

Which brings me back to Michael Mann. He has been paying attention. Perhaps he hasn’t been spending enough time wandering around in tide pools lately, but he understands the climate catastrophes we face and he knows what must be done to mitigate them. We have twelve years to cut carbon emissions by half. And he knows we can accomplish that with current technology if we commit to it now.

But he also believes that anyone standing in the way of the climate commitment we need to make is our enemy. In a recent Guardian interview, Mann was asked the very question that I’ve wanted to ask: “Who is the enemy in the new climate war?”

“It is fossil fuel interests, climate change deniers, conservative media tycoons, working together with petrostate actors like Saudi Arabia and Russia. I call this the coalition of the unwilling,” he responded.

The chief villain he said, when asked to put a face on the enemy, is Rupert Murdoch.

Mann’s choice makes sense. Murdoch, owner of Fox News and a global collection of other right wing media outlets, marches alongside Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil before becoming Trump’s Secretary of State. Murdoch is their loudest mouth-piece, managing a slew of faux journalists who spew climate denial and science disinformation worldwide.

If these are the enemy leaders, the opposing generals in the climate war, who are their soldiers?

My sister supported Trump and seems to get all her news from Fox. But I don’t think she sees herself as a soldier in Murdoch’s climate-denying army. She lives in Texas on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest where she rides her horses and volunteers to help with trail maintenance. She drives a Prius and is planning to install solar panels on her house. She knows I’m a climate activist and says she’s glad I’m at least doing some kind of volunteer work.

My sister and I are not at war with each other.

And, of course, I am not at war with Michael Mann.

I understand his metaphor. He does a great job of describing the propaganda tactics of the other side. The wedge strategy exploiting disagreements among climate activists. Playing on old fears of communism by calling climate activists ‘watermelons’ (green on the outside and red on the inside). And he makes an apt comparison of 1970s ‘Crying Indian’ campaign to explain Big Oil’s initiative to get us all to examine our personal carbon footprints.

The ‘Crying Indian’

Part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign, the ’Crying Indian’ PSA ran nationwide. It ended with a tear rolling down the cheek of a ‘Native American’ (an Italian-American actor) as he stands roadside while litter from passing cars lands at his feet. Little known to the public at that time, the entire campaign was backed by beverage companies like Coke, Pepsi and Budweiser who were trying to avoid a federal bottle tax which would underwrite the cost of litter clean-up.

Mann is saying, of course, that the campaign initiated by BP to get us to take responsibility for our individual carbon footprints is the same thing — convincing us to take responsibility for their waste.

But, Michael, the Crying Indian actually made us pay attention to litter. It motivated millions of kids like me. I’ve been picking up litter on park trails and along roadsides for five decades. And the campaign reinforced our pride and our shared good fortune at living in such a beautiful country.

The daily digest from the Climate Reality Project that I belong to has featured a fascinating thread for the past several weeks — dozens of accounts of people taking responsibility of their carbon footprint. Some say you can’t be a climate activist if you don’t own your role in carbon pollution first. Some say their lifestyle changes have empowered them. Others point out the results of the example they’re setting, how the solar panels on their roof, their meat-free diet or their electric cars help open dialogues with people about climate change.

If Big Oil has something to do with this campaign of personal responsibility, I can’t fault them for it, not entirely even if it is a ‘greenwash gambit’ as Mann calls it. The reality is that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of GHG emissions since 1988. But I’m still more concerned with oil companies greenwashing their future product sales like ‘renewable diesel’ or ‘natural gas’ than I am about them acknowledging that we’re facing a climate crisis.

What if we make a deal with Big Oil? Or we force them, with massive litigation or global public protests, to finance the biggest climate awareness campaign of all time — the kind we need right now. An overwhelming tide of public opinion is exactly what we need to enact climate policy at a level that the Green New Deal calls for. No matter the name, bold action at every level of government is the only hope we have.

We need the kind of public sentiment that fueled victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. Or the peace movement that finally ended the Vietnam War.

We cannot accomplish that without everyone on the same side.

Which brings me, Michael Mann, to your scuffles with other climate activists. You take on Naomi Klein who believes — as I do — that carbon pricing and cap & trade policies are not very effective. You scoff at Bill Gates who is touting science innovations as the key to mitigating climate catastrophe. How is that different than the Koch brothers-funded Heartland Institute taking potshots at PH.D. climatologist Katharine Hayhoe?

Yet you call for a unified climate action voice. You can’t have it both ways, my friend. I know your disagreement with Klein was respectful and that you didn’t say all Gates’s ideas were worthless. But why disagree with them at all. Why not merely say that they present alternative solutions and publicly embrace them as fellow climate activists?

We’ve got to make an even greater leap. We have got to find a way to embrace the millions of people around the world whose livelihoods still depend on fossil fuel. We cannot afford to make them our enemies. Instead, we need to show we care by pointing out the millions of new jobs the new green economy has waiting for them. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2219927-us-green-economy-has-10-times-more-jobs-than-the-fossil-fuel-industry/

According to the latest polls, 68% of Americans believe it’s not too late to do something about global warming. We are, as you said, nearing a tipping point in public opinion. People the world over are witnessing the move toward green energy. Every major auto manufacturer in the world is committing to 100% electric vehicles in the near future. Renewable energy from solar and wind are entering a boom faze while the biggest investment firms in the world are divesting from fossil fuel.

The only question that remains is whether or not climate policies will move fast enough. There may be an ideological war going on over climate and we cannot let that slacken the pace. But just like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty the true war is with the establishment — capitalist interests, government complicity and systemic social injustice.

You said that we cannot let those promoting climate inaction divide us. I agree. But while we all work toward solutions that will mitigate climate change, let’s not pretend that we’re all rowing the same canoe. We’re all paddling upstream, toward solutions, but there’s no point in criticizing the way the person in the next canoe is paddling.

Even if we want to keep seeing this as an ideological war, we cannot look at the people who don’t yet view climate with the same urgency as we do as our enemies. My sister is not my enemy.



Dave Rhody

I’ve been many things, but always a writer. Training with Al Gore at the Climate Reality Project is the latest chapter of a long journey toward understanding.