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Climate wars

He’s had vitriolic attacks and even death threats, but climate change scientist Michael E Mann is relishing the fight.

Climate change scientist Michael E Mann

 As winter slowly creeps up on New Zealand, the US has been enjoying a record-breaking warm spring. “Off-the-charts record-breaking,” clarifies climate scientist Michael E Mann. It’s got to the point, he says, “where people on the street are noticing that something is very different, that we’re seeing unprecedented weather, so they’re asking about that, and they’re asking about the role of climate change”. 

Via Skype from his home, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University suggests it’s a good environment in which to have a new book out on climate change – even if the new “litmus test” of the Republican Party appears to be “to deny the reality of climate change”. Republican presidential primary candidates who previously indicated they accepted the science and the risks of unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions have now backtracked, he claims. 

In Mann’s latest book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, he squarely tackles the contrarians. Mann has been a pivotal figure in two of the biggest climate change controversies: the so-called “hockey-stick” graph, published relatively early in his career, showing a sudden rise in Northern Hemisphere temperatures in the second half of last century; and “Climategate”, which stemmed from the hacking of a server storing emails for the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, including many to and from Mann. 

What he describes as selected and distorted versions of those emails were then published in an apparent effort to undermine UN climate talks about to begin in Copenhagen. The fact that those negotiations ended in failure made the use of the emails “a crime against the planet”, says Mann. 

In his book, he warns that “public discourse has been polluted now for decades by corporate-funded disinformation – not just with climate change but with a host of health, environment and societal threats”. He has poked the bear: criticised groups with vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry, and those he believes have been part of a systematic campaign to undermine climate scientists. In return, he has been subject to vitriolic attacks in print, calls for investigations into his conduct and death threats and he even had his office closed down in 2010 when he received white powder in the mail. 

Was poking the bear so wise, then? Surely he expected a backlash? Indeed, but Mann is clearly relishing the fight. “It’s been in some ways amusing to watch the sort of [unco-ordinated] and haphazard way the climate change deniers are trying to figure out a way to discredit the book – just trying to throw as much mud against the wall as they can and hope that some of it sticks. I say bring it on, guys.” 

It wasn’t always so. Mann’s road from “unassuming associate professor” to public figure was a baptism of fire. A child of academia (Mann’s father was a mathematics professor), he grew up believing that taking a public position on scientific issues beyond simply publishing research was “anathema”. 

He initially believed his job ended when he took off his lab coat. And in the mearly 1990s, as he sought a postgraduate field in which to follow his Berkeley physics degree, the scientific consensus on climate change was still a long way from coalescing. When he began work on palaeo climate modelling – recreating historical climate data to help understand possible future scenarios – he hoped to determine how much of an impact natural climate phenomena had on global warming. He was not yet convinced that human activity had had a significant impact. 

Mann’s “hockey-stick” graph

The critical moment at which he realised the seriousness of climate change was when the hockey-stick graph was included in the 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “I think it was in the onslaught of attacks against me when people were attacking my integrity, my character, that I realised there was something larger going on. And over time the attacks against me have really led me to [change] from someone who was a reluctant and accidental public figure in this debate to someone who embraces my role and my opportunity to educate the public about this issue.” 

On the face of it, the hockey-stick graph, which Mann and his colleagues first published in 1998, was just a simple temperature graph. Except it wasn’t quite that simple: it went back centuries, charting the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere since AD1000. Using ancient proxy data, such as tree rings and ice cores, together with modern temperature records from weather stations, it showed a relatively steady temperature across the millennium until the late years of the 20th century, when the temperature swung sharply upwards. 

Hence the “hockey-stick” moniker: those late years of sudden warming were the blade of an ice hockey stick lying on its back. The irony of it all, given how troublesome it became, is that taking all the data the team had accumulated and simply charting it was the “least interesting thing” they could have done, Mann says. 

He and his colleagues were accused of deliberately beginning the temperature record at the end of the medieval warm period to make the later warming look more dramatic. He insists there was a lack of reliable data going back any earlier, although he and his colleagues have since managed to extend it further back. The result, he says, is that they still haven’t found any other warming that comes even close to what we are currently experiencing. 

Mann and his colleagues were also criticised for having severely limited sources for their historical records. But all the records are public, he says, and derive from different types of samples across dozens oflocations. The hockey stick has even been “blamed” for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, he notes – even though it wasn’t published by then.  

By the time Climate Wars gets to Climate-gate in 2009, it’s a bit like watching Titanic – you know the iceberg’s coming, but the aftermath is still shocking. “Imagine,” Mann writes, “how unpleasant it might be to have your private emails… mined by your worst enemy for anything that, taken out of context, could be used to make you look bad. Then imagine what it would be like to be expected to defend each and every instance of sloppy word choice or ambiguous phrasing that could be found.” 

Mann’s career came under intense scrutiny. The Attorney General of Virginia required Mann’s previous employer, the University of Virginia, to provide him with all of Mann’s work and correspondence going back years. Penn State undertook its own investigation. It concluded that there was no evidence of professional misconduct. Then there was that white powder incident, which turned out to be a hoax. Fox News commentator Glenn Beck summed up his feeling on the whole affair when he invited all climate scientists involved in the IPCC process to kill themselves. 

Mann believes Climategate has had unintended consequences for his critics – it has actually engendered sympathy for his position. This is partly because journalists writing about climate change have also been subject to personal attacks and vexatious complaints. “The attackers are educating the journalists about what we go through as scientists in this field, first-hand.” 

In 2010, the journal Science published a letter, signed by 250 members of the US National Academy of Science, including 11 Nobel laureates, calling “for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them". 

Significantly, says Mann, a new breed of student is emerging – those who are attracted, rather than repelled, by the sensitivity of the issues. “I encounter this when I interview prospective new students, who are passionate, not just about science but about communicating the science. So, I think there may be a real backlash taking place here, in response to the attacks, if we’re actually breeding a whole new kind of climate scientist who’s up to the challenge of confronting the disinformation and passionate in communicating.” 

predicted Arctic ice cover in 2045 and 2075, photo Getty Images

When Mann began writing his latest book in 2010, atmospheric CO2 concentrations sat at 388 parts per million. Eighteen months later, as publication approached, they’d reached 392ppm. Yet another set of climate talks have passed with no noticeable effect. He believes if we get to 450ppm, we’ve probably committed to 2°C of warming, which could mean many thousands, if not millions, of lives lost or displaced. “I think that if we take the past as prologue, the scientific community has always been too conservative. We’ve tended to understate the amount of change and the rapidity of the changes. And so if we look to the past, reality is, if anything, likely to lie on the high side of the projections, as opposed to the low side. “So no, I don’t think we’ll get lucky and find that climate change is likely to be less profound than what we project it to be.” 

Yet, he writes, he remains “cautiously optimistic”. Where he finds his optimism is in the fact that in the past we’ve addressed problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer and acid rain – in the nick of time. “This is a much harder problem to tackle because it gets at the root of our global dependence on fossil fuels for energy. And it’s a more dramatic shift that we have to undertake to move away from that behaviour. But we did it in the past; we can do it now.” 

He cautions against thinking there may be a magical answer: geo-engineering solutions are tempting, but ultimately unpredictable, he believes. You get into the realms of “science fiction”, he says, with schemes that would pump sulphates into the atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of volcanos, for instance, or seeding oceans with iron so they absorb more CO2. “It’s the known unknowns and unknown unknowns. And what keeps me up late is the unknown unknowns. The things we can’t even envision yet because we don’t understand the system well enough. The chance that it’ll work against us is far greater than the chance it’ll work in our favour.” 

So, emissions are climbing, we won’t get lucky, there’s no technological fix and we’re reliant on political will to wind things back within the next few years. How is that optimistic? “An argument could be made that I couldn’t tell you anything but that.” But, says Mann, “an argument of despair is not going to serve any purpose”. Optimism is what is needed here. “And I am."