Climate scientist Michael Mann speaking at a podium
Mann explaining to climate activists and advocates that ‘it is not too late’ © Julian Meehan

American climate scientist Michael Mann is on a mission to protect the world against the “doomers” — fellow academics or campaigners who have decided it is too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

In his latest book, Our Fragile Moment, Mann uses palaeoclimatology (the study of prehistoric climates) to demonstrate why he believes certain of his peers are wrong to throw up their hands in despair.

He is insistent, nonetheless, that urgent political action is needed to avoid humanity creating a world in which it would be much less pleasant to live. “Our destiny is still mostly in our own hands” is the main message of Our Fragile Moment, Mann says, by video link from Philadelphia.

Best known for his “hockey stick” graph that showed the dramatic rise in global warming since the industrial revolution, Mann has been director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania since September 2022.

While his 2021 book The New Climate War dealt with the politics of climate change, and the solutions needed to bring down emissions, Our Fragile Moment is aimed at “explaining to climate activists and advocates that it is not too late”. Mann analyses geographic records to show how and why global warming happened in the past and to underline his message that “warming does really stop when carbon emissions go to zero.”

Some scientists argue that, the longer it takes to reach net zero, the greater the risk that global warming will continue long after greenhouse gas emissions have been cut. But Mann quotes a favourite aphorism of his friend and mentor Stephen Schneider, a professor of environmental biology at Stanford University who died in 2010: “The truth is bad enough! We don’t need to scare the pants off of people with exaggeration. Palaeoclimate records tell us the models are right and, if we stop burning fossil fuels, we can prevent additional warming.” 

The “obstacles” to stopping global heating “are not physical, they are political”, insists Mann. However, he agrees that the odds on whether we take the necessary steps don’t look good at the moment. The idea of a “fragile moment” can be applied to much more than just climate change, he says — citing, in particular, “threats to democracy”, not least in the US.

“There is no path to meaningful climate action that doesn’t go through democratic governance,” Mann says. “If we, the US, as the greatest legacy polluter don’t lead, the rest of world won’t follow.”

And he acknowledges polls showing Donald Trump as favourite to win the next US presidential election. “If we lose the battle in the US, I am not very optimistic about where any of this goes.”

Mann draws parallels between the fall of the Mesopotamian civilisation in about 4200BP (before the present) and the conflict in Gaza today, where an “underlying factor” is “competition for water and other resources”. A hotter world will mean more drought and, various studies suggest, more conflict as people fight for decreasing access to water: “If we can’t understand that climate change is making the world less safe, more politically unstable . . . there isn’t any hope for us, because it is hitting us right in the face, right now.”

He draws “some hope” from the fact the world has “thwarted an existential threat” before in the form of the use of thermonuclear weapons during the cold war. “We’ve stared into the abyss and blinked at least once before,” says Mann. Climate change is a “deeper, more ingrained problem”, although he believes “we can look to the past for some cautious optimism.” 

Mann would like to see more nuance across the board on the framing of climate change, including the 1.5C warming level cited in the Paris Agreement. This temperature rise “isn’t a cliff that we go off at”, says Mann — even though it is often presented as such.

He believes the figure is important, as “we need actionable targets, or there is nothing really holding politicians’ feet to the fire.” But “we need to make it clear that every fraction of a degree [of warming] matters.” 

Similarly, in his latest book, Mann suggests a figure of 8bn people is “beyond the natural ‘carrying capacity’ of our planet” but admits conversations about population and climate action are difficult. “They require a level of nuance it is hard to maintain in the social media, binary world we seem to increasingly inhabit,” he says. “It is obvious the planet can only support so many human beings. We can inflate the numbers through technology, but there are limits.”

Discussions about population are often avoided because, historically, they have sometimes “led us to problematic places where the blame seems to be placed preferentially on the developing world and on people of colour”, says Mann. “The racial overtones that have emerged in the past are problematic and troubling, and we need to flip the switch.

“It is possible to say a population is too large for the planet to support and still recognise that culpability does not apply equally across the board. In the developed world, our footprint is orders of magnitude bigger than in the developing world. More people means more carbon, more warming, and more climate change, but not all people are the same.”

Instead of focusing on population by itself, Mann advocates increasing support for the education of women, which can limit population growth and help address climate change.

A multitude of studies show that extreme weather events, more frequent in a warmer world, have a bigger impact on women than men. The loss and damage fund, agreed at the COP27 summit last year, can help drive change in this area, increase resilience and allow poorer nations to leapfrog to clean energy, says Mann. 

Whether and how negotiators “put more meat on the bones” of the fund will be Mann’s focus at COP28. “There are all sorts of things about COP28 that can make one feel uneasy,” but “I think there is some potential” for loss and damage. The fund, he says, also comes back to a core message of his book: “We can work together to solve this problem, but it requires co-operation at an unprecedented scale.”

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