On 1 June 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech outlining his plans to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord, a pact that seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The move drew heavy criticism from the leaders of other nations, scientific societies, and scientists.
One of the harshest critics of Trump’s decision has been Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and director of the university’s Earth System Science Center.
— Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) June 1, 2017
Yet despite his comments that “Trump’s actions are bad for jobs, bad for U.S. global competitiveness, and bad for the planet,” Mann remains determined and optimistic that the world can stave off catastrophic climate change. So we asked him how much of a setback Trump’s decision has caused in dealing with climate change.
“We’ll Still Probably Meet Our Obligations”
The “optics” of the United States withdrawing from the accord “are so awful,” Mann told Eos. However, he said that despite Trump’s declaration, enough progress is being made at the local and state government level and by businesses and others for the country to meet its commitment under the Paris accord.
“No matter what Trump does, in other words, we’ll still probably meet our obligations. Now, here’s the problem: Paris alone doesn’t get us to where we need to go” in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dealing with climate change, Mann told Eos. “We’ve got to see substantial ratcheting up of those commitments at the next major international conference. And without leadership from the U.S., it’s hard to see how we do that.”
Trump’s anticlimate policies are “definitely a monkey wrench thrown into the works at a time when everything had to line up if we were going to ramp our emissions down enough to avoid catastrophic warming,” he said. “In essence, it means we are going to have to work even harder.”
Finding a Broader Audience
One way that Mann has been working hard is through his efforts to communicate the problems and solutions about climate change to the general public. The winner of the 2018 Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mann is the coauthor of a recently released illustrated children’s book, The Tantrum That Saved the World. Mann and his coauthor and illustrator, Megan Herbert, first published the book in December 2017.
The book, in language evocative of Dr. Seuss and his Lorax, tells the simple and charmingly written and illustrated story of a girl, Sophia, who gradually becomes aware of the dangers of climate change. She takes urgent action—her tantrum to save the world—after a polar bear, a family from Kiribati, farmers from Syria, New England fishermen, a Bengal tiger, and others arrive at her door asking for her assistance.
The book begins simply enough:
Sophia was minding her business one day,
When, quite without warning, a bear came to stay.
The ice that he lived on had ceased to exist.
He hoped that Sophia would kindly assist.
After the bear and the others call for her assistance and after Sophia gets stonewalled at a government office, she carries a big “Action Now” banner and energizes people to make a positive change:
Sophia’s strong feelings smouldered once more,
And this time they’d gotten too big to ignore.
Raging with purpose, her banners unfurled,
She kicked off a tantrum to save the whole world!
After the story is told, the book continues with a section explaining, in simple terms, global warming and climate change, the plight of the people and animals who arrive at Sophia’s door, and the interconnectedness of all of their individual stories. That section is Mann’s primary contribution to the book. Herbert played the central role in telling the story and drawing the illustrations, with a lot of interaction between the two coauthors.
“I’m always looking for a new challenge and a new way to communicate the science of climate change and its implications and new audiences to communicate to,” Mann said in explaining why he got involved with a children’s book.
“I can really think of no [more] important of an audience other than the youth of this world and their parents. To me, ultimately, that’s what it’s about: it’s what sort of planet we are going to leave behind for our children and grandchildren,” said Mann. Mann also is the author of several other books and coauthor with Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist Tom Toles of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, which is being released in paperback in June with a new chapter entitled “The Return to the Mad House: Climate Denial in the Age of Trump.”
Mann’s Climate Change Elevator Speech to Trump
Mann, who told Eos that he doesn’t shy away from confronting the climate change “denial machine” and “industry-funded attack dogs,” said that if he ever had the chance to give “an elevator speech” to Trump, he would first talk about the president’s grandchildren. Then, he would talk to Trump about what the national security community calls the threat multiplier of climate change.
And noting how America’s scientists and engineers have helped the country achieve significant progress and prosperity, Mann said he would ask Trump, “How can you now turn your back on science and the scientific community simply because you don’t find their conclusions politically expedient?”
“My sense is that Trump is probably not intrinsically a climate change denier,” he told Eos. Mann said he also believes that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine should be given credit and the benefit of the doubt “for his turnaround,” voiced at a congressional hearing earlier this month, in recognizing human activity as the dominant cause of global warming.
“I think that is the position [Trump] has had to reach to pacify the donor class in the Republican party, the Koch brothers, and the polluting interests,” he said. “I think I could probably get him to make some significant concessions in that elevator. The problem would be, once he got out of the elevator and he was back with his handlers, any progress that I had made in that 30 seconds or 2 minutes would probably evaporate pretty rapidly.”
Voting Out Special Interests
“My sense is that we can withstand one term of a President Trump/Republican Congress. We can’t withstand two terms of that,” Mann told Eos. He said that there is “enough bureaucracy within the agencies and in the policy process itself,” including the lengthy period required for withdrawing from the Paris agreement, to “weather one term” of Trump.
To deal with climate change, what’s needed in addition to putting a price on carbon and transitioning more rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy is for people to vote, Mann said. “If people don’t show up at the voting booth, then we are going to get politicians who represent the special interests, the fossil fuel industry, rather than the interests of the people that they are supposed to represent.”
That sounds like something that Sophia, the protagonist in the children’s book, might throw a tantrum about.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer