Tim McDonnell: Every country on earth yesterday agreed to transition away from fossil fuels by 2050.
Brooke Gladstone: It was good news from the COP 28 Climate Summit. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Those words stated at the world's largest climate conference were unprecedented, but what exactly did they mean?
Michael Mann: I liken it to, you're diagnosed with diabetes and you tell your doctor, "No worries, doctor. I will transition away from eating donuts." That's not the way it works. We have to bring carbon emissions down dramatically. 50%.
Brooke Gladstone: Also this week, after failing to gain any seats in recent midterms, the press all but sounded the death nail for the book-banning group Moms for Liberty. But Moms for Liberty is really part of a broader ecosystem that's aimed at sowing distrust in our public schools. It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the United Nations' largest annual conference on climate change called COP 28 came to a close. The gathering at times boasting nearly 70,000 attendees took place in Dubai with both location and leadership raising quite a few eyebrows.
Speaker 5: The president of COP 28 President Sultan Al Jaber is also the head of the UAE's State Oil company. Two roles some critics have said are incompatible.
Speaker 6: It was a controversial decision to appoint the CEO of a national oil company. Normally, a government official, such as a minister of environment or some minister of foreign affairs is placed in this role.
Brooke Gladstone: In itself, Sultan Al Jaber's appointment prompted plenty of concern, not to mention a BBC investigation of leaked documents suggesting that the United Arab Emirates was going to use the conference as a venue to make some oil deals. Then as the summit got underway, Al Jaber's public statements only added fuel.
Sultan Al Jaber: Show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development. Unless you want to take the world back into caves. There is no science out there or no scenario out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve 1.5.
Brooke Gladstone: Al Jabar was referring to a global temperature increase of one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. The internationally agreed-upon limit that the Earth's temperature should rise. It's a rise proven to be driven by fossil fuels and a limit many climate scientists fear will blow right by in the next decade. Still, world leaders, politicians, activists, and private sector reps struggled to craft a goal every country in attendance could agree on. The first efforts flopped.
Speaker 8: The latest drop totally dropped language to phase down or phase out the use of fossil fuels. It just said countries should take action that could include reducing their production and consumption of fossil fuels. Now this is a major blow to those who expected ambitious action to slow global warming.
Brooke Gladstone: On the final day of the conference, a deal was struck.
Speaker 9: The COP 28 President Sultan Al Jaber described the deal as historic.
Sultan Al Jaber: We have confronted realities and we have set the world in the right direction.
Tim McDonnell: I think it's worth giving credit in this COP to some of the elements that really were historic and unprecedented.
Brooke Gladstone: Tim McDonnell covers energy and climate for Semafor. He attended COP 28.
Tim McDonnell: Every country on Earth agreed to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade so as to achieve net zero by 2050. We've been having these climate negotiations for almost 30 years. This is the first time that every country has actually specifically called out the main cause of climate change, which is burning fossil fuels, and made a commitment to stop doing that at some point in the future.
Brooke Gladstone: While it may be unprecedented, many are underwhelmed. Some media outlets dubbed it landmark and historic, but some prominent climate scientists, reports the Guardian, called it devastating and dangerous in its ambiguity.
Tim McDonnell: There's a few clauses that give some escape hatches for the fossil fuel industry using natural gas to replace coal in the power sector or allowing room for this carbon capture technology that's controversial.
Brooke Gladstone: One of the major escape hatches was buried within the language of the agreement itself. The phrases phase down and transition away from instead of phase out.
Michael Mann: There was no language committing to phase out fossil fuels.
Brooke Gladstone: They did have transition away.
Michael Mann: Yes, transition away.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael Mann is a climate scientist and geophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Michael Mann: I likened it to you're diagnosed with diabetes, you tell your doctor, "No worries, doctor. I will transition away from eating donuts." That's not the way it works. We have to bring carbon emissions down dramatically. We need to decrease them 50% this decade and down to zero by mid-century if there's going to be any hope of keeping warming below a catastrophic three degrees Fahrenheit.
Brooke Gladstone: Mann says the window of opportunity to avert catastrophe is closing fast.
Tim McDonnell: I don't despair.
Brooke Gladstone: Semafor's Tim McDonnell.
Tim McDonnell: I do think that the actions we're seeing are genuinely meaningful and will make a difference in the long term and every little bit really makes a huge difference in the way that this affects people's lives. It's not moving fast enough, it's not enough but these baby steps do add up actually.
Michael Mann: There were some baby steps, but what we need right now are herculean leaps.
Brooke Gladstone: Outside the fierce debates world leaders conduct each year at COP, climate scientist Michael Mann has been waging his own battle against the disinformation campaigns that have plagued him and his research for decades. For years, outright climate denial was the name of the game. He's noticed more and more that straightforward climate denial has been morphing into something called delayism.
Michael Mann: We've seen this transition away from outright denial by polluters because it's just impossible to deny something that people can see with their own two eyes. That doesn't mean polluters have given in, instead, they've turned to these other tactics.
Brooke Gladstone: What is delayism in this context? People simply saying, "We don't have an urgent need to act precipitously?"
Michael Mann: Delay in this context was the promise of future technology that cannot be deployed at scale today, but it's promised as something that will be delivered in the future. That's the delayism. "Oh, don't worry, we'll solve this problem down the road with carbon capture or geo-engineering as a way of justifying business as usual today."
Brooke Gladstone: Geoengineering like shooting chemicals into clouds or things like that.
Michael Mann: Yes. Shooting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to form a blanket to reflect sunlight. These fanciful schemes, they're almost the stuff of science fiction or they sound that way and they are rife with the principle of unintended consequences. Many of these interventions could leave us even worse off if we implemented them. It's a dangerous gambit in my view and it has been used along with carbon capture as a crutch. Carbon capture, the idea that we could capture massive amounts of carbon pollution and bury it beneath the surface of the ground. We'll continue to burn coal, but we'll capture the carbon or we'll try to capture the carbon.
Brooke Gladstone: It serves the forces of inaction or as you say, the inactivists.
Michael Mann: Absolutely, yes it does.
Brooke Gladstone: You've outlined a variety of D words. Let's go to the two terms that go hand in hand. Deflection and division.
Michael Mann: Deflection is deflecting our attention away from the needed policies, carbon pricing, clean energy portfolio standard, policies that the fossil fuel industry doesn't want because it'll hurt their bottom line. They would rather steer our attention towards--
Brooke Gladstone: Personal behavior.
Michael Mann: Exactly. It's not a coincidence that British Petroleum, BP, gave us the first widely used individual carbon footprint calculator because they wanted us so preoccupied with our own individual carbon footprints that we were not looking at their much larger carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of the fossil fuel industry. That's deflection.
Brooke Gladstone: Now division, which is about getting people engaged in climate activism to fight each other so they don't take the fight to the enemy.
Michael Mann: That's exactly right. We know that petro states like Saudi Arabia and Russia use troll armies on social media as a propaganda tool. They try to generate conflict among climate advocates, getting them fighting with each other. One of the ways to do that, ironically, is to get them to argue about their individual behavior. Do you eat meat? Do you fly? We were just talking about that in the context of deflection, but it also comes into the issue of division. What could be more divisive than being criticized for your lifestyle?
Brooke Gladstone: What about the last one? The idea that you should just give up because there's not much you can do anyway. Doomism. I see it all the time. I see it, especially among young people who are wondering whether or not they should have kids.
Michael Mann: They've bought into some of the most extreme and misleading rhetoric that's out there, that's there to convince them it's too late because if you believe it's too late to do anything, it potentially leads you down that same path of disengagement as outright denial.
Brooke Gladstone: That's another D-word.
Michael Mann: [chuckles] Absolutely. That's all polluters care about. They don't care about the path you take, they just care about the destination. They want you disengaged and convincing climate advocates that it's too late is one way of doing that. A lot of good people, especially young folks, as you say Gen Zers, there is this sense of doom and dread. We call it climate anxiety. Some of it is justified, but the extreme view of it where you come to believe there's nothing you can do, that's not justified by the science. That's actually the main message of my latest book, Our Fragile Moment. If you look at past earth history, that tells us it's not too late to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, but it could become too late if we buy into the defeatist rhetoric.
Brooke Gladstone: What are the stories, the narratives we are told that it's too late to do anything?
Michael Mann: One of the things that climate doomers, those who are convinced it's too late will point to are some of the past geological extinction events. They'll say, "Those were examples of runaway warming driven by the release of methane and it's unstoppable and it's happening now."
Brooke Gladstone: It's happening now, then because of volcanic events.
Michael Mann: That's exactly right. The warming was driven by the release of carbon dioxide from intense episodes of volcanic activity, but the argument is that what really drove the extinctions was that that initial warming caused the release of methane. It was a runaway effect, unstoppable, and led to mass extinctions. The argument then goes, "And we know that that's what's happening today." Both are wrong. That's not happening today. There is an increase in the concentration of methane, mostly from natural gas extraction.
Brooke Gladstone: The great dying 250 million years ago when 90% of all species died out because of a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere because of volcanoes, they say, "That's what's happening today. There's no difference." You say there is a difference. The principle one being humans are directly causing this, not volcanoes.
Michael Mann: There are two things going on here. The first is that there wasn't a rapid release of methane. The data doesn't show that. This idea of runaway methane, it's not supported when you actually look at what happened, it's not happening today. It didn't happen back then. What did happen back then, as you say, was the massive release of carbon dioxide. In that case, it was from a period of very intense volcanic activity. There's nothing we could have done about that if we lived back then, but today it's from the burning of fossil fuels and we absolutely can do something about it.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's circle back to delayism. Last year The Intercept called it, denial's hipper, more dangerous cousin kind of, "What? Me worry? The nerds will save us."
Michael Mann: Absolutely. In fact, the bottom line is polluters want us to remain addicted to fossil fuels. They don't care about the reason for it. That's the end. Every year that they can delay the transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy is another year where they make record profits, and that's what it's about at this point because they know the fossil fuel age won't end for want of fossil fuels. It'll end because we know that something better has come along, renewable energy. They just want to slow down that transition. We can't afford for them to slow down that transition because we will blow through our carbon budget for keeping warming below a catastrophic three degrees Fahrenheit.
Brooke Gladstone: How do you think one can battle against tactics like delayism now creeping into international climate negotiations in comparison to say denialism, because denialism is easy to fight these days. How do you fight delayism?
Michael Mann: There's a wealth of information out there and so you can arm yourself with the facts. Skeptical Science is a great website that has all of the leading climate denier claims and the actual responses to those. You can follow actual climate scientists or climate advocates on social media. Arm yourself with facts and resources, educate those around you. Most important of all today, make sure to communicate both the urgency but the agency, the fact that it's not too late. That is so important, especially among younger folks who have fallen victim to this doom and despair, climate anxiety. We have to help them out of that dark valley and get them back out there advocating for change.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael Mann, thank you very much.
Michael Mann: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael Mann is a climate scientist and geophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. Coming up, how does a powerful movement of conservative women suddenly go poof, or did it? This is On The Media.
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