A Climate Scientist Fights Back | Green Light | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Climate Scientist Fights Back

Penn State professor discusses his new book on the climate wars

Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann is among the world's most prominent researchers in his field — and thus also among the top targets for deniers of climate change. He's fighting back with a new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press).

In 2001, the annual report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted a graph from a paper Mann had co-authored in 1998. The graph, which recreated historic temperature records using data from tree rings, coral and ice cores, was nicknamed "the hockey stick" because its steeply upward, blade-like angle showed that temperatures in the late 20th century made it the warmest such period in 1,000 years.

Mann and his colleagues immediately came under attack from interest groups representing the fossil-fuel industry, and scientists allied with it, plus radio talk-show hosts; right-wing think tanks; conservative politicans; and more, many allied with conservative funders like the Koch brothers and Richard Scaife, the Western Pennsylvania-based owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In 2007, Mann was among the group of scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for their work with the IPCC.

In November 2009, Mann was again at the center of a climate-change imbroglio. Hacked private emails from the climate-research unit of the U.K.'s East Anglia University were released online in deceptively altered form. The emails reputed to show that climate scientists had spent years conspiring to trick the public into believing in global warming.

The emails actually showed nothing of the sort, but Mann was again vilified, and subjected to harrassing and threatening emails. Moreover, Climategate served to distract attention from that December's global climate summit, in Copenhagen, and toward the contrived question of whether global warming was real — a question that by then was long a matter of settled science.

The Hockey Stick is an attempt to set the record straight, and — like the scientist-run website RealClimate.com — to enlighten the public on the misrepresentations peddled by climate-change deniers.

Mann recently spoke with City Paper by phone from Washington, D.C., where he was on the road promoting The Hockey Stick. Following is a complete transcript.

Much of your book is about the tactics climate deniers use. One you call the "Serengeti strategy," after an analogy with how lions hunt zebras, by separating one from the pack.

This tactic that is seen over and over again, whether we're talking about the efforts of the tobacco industry to discredit linking smoking with lung cancer back in the 1970s. Or the denial of the health effects of pesticides, on through the issue of ozone depletion. Acid rain. Any time that the findings of science found themselves on a collision course with certain vested interests, unfortunately what has often happened is those vested interests have done everything in their power to try to discredit that science, and indeed to go after individual scientists, to make an example.

Individual scientists are often seized upon and are separated away from the rest of the scientific community. And they are viciously attacked, their character, their integrity is challenged, accusations of malfeasance are made. They are attacked in certain fringe news outlets who tend to be ideologically tied to some of these vested interests.

There's this effort ... to try to make an example of them for other scientists, to try to say to the rest of the scientific community, "If you too choose to speak out on this issue, we will come after you as well."

It's used on individual studies, too?

In my case what was specifically attacked was this graph, the hockey stick, as it was later named by a colleague of mine. [U.S. Department of Energy climate specialist] Ben Santer, who I talk about in the book, it was back in the '90s, when his work was particularly prominent in the second assesment repot of the IPCC, and he was attacked, his character was challenged, his integrity was challenged. He was accused of impropriety. He was called nasty names in editorials in The Wall Street Journal, [which] cast aspersions on his character.

In our case, in this graph we published in the late 1990s, it sort of became iconic when it was featured in the 2001 IPCC report. Like Santer's work had been prominent in 1995, in the second [IPCC] report, and he was attacked, viciously, the same thing sort of happened to me, when our work was featured prominently in the 2001 IPCC report.

The attacks took the form of unfavorable coverage in sort of contrarian-leaning news outlets. Politicians coming after us ... trying to subject us to vexatious subpoenas, demanding all of our private documents, emails. These are the sorts of weapons that have been used against us by those linked in one way or another to this campaign to discredit the science of climate change.

So the deniers' idea is that if you discredit one scientist, or one study, the whole argument for climate change falls apart?

That's precisely right. The hockey stick is just one of many reconstructions that come to the same conclusions that recent warming is anomalous in a long-term time frame. It's been repeated by many other scientists. But you know what? You could throw out that entire line of evidence. There are multiple independent lines of evidence that the globe is warming, that climate is changing, and humans are a primary reason for it.

Rather than being the sort of house of cards that our detractors would like to make people think the science of climate change is — like some kind of house of cards that rests entirely on one decade-old study, by me — in reality, our understanding of climate change, the basic science goes back neary two centuries. Our understanding of the greenhosue effect. There are thousands of scientific studies that have contributed to our collective understanding. All the major science organizations in the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. .... The science academies of all the major industrial nations are all on record as saying there is a scientific consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change.

But because it's impossible for those who want to deny the science to take on the collective evidence, they try to make it seem as if it's a house of cards that depends on just one study. In reality, it's much more like a puzzle, where we've filled in the puzzle. There are a few pieces missing, there's still things we're trying to figure out. There are some genuine uncertainties in the science. But the fact that we are warming the planet and changing our climate is not one of them.

Yet I could grab your quote about "genuine uncertainties," and say, "Even Michael Mann says ..."

[Laughs] The Daily Mail in the U.K. is sort of famous for doing that sort of thing. .... There's a more important point, which is that as scientists, we have a responsibility to be faithful to what the evidence says. When there are uncertainties and there are caveats to be clear about them. We don't speak [of] things in absolutes, like our detractors do. Typically, we state things with nuance and with caveats, and that's the way science has to be. We have to be open about the uncertainties. That's what allows science to move forward, is the fact that scientists are trying to figure out the things that don't fit.

For those looking to distract or confuse the public, it's all too easy to seize upon that honesty. And frankly, when one side is not playing by the rules of honesty and good faith, then it leads to the sort of problem we've had with the discourse on climate change, where the public is still confused. They still think that there's a controversy within the scientific community, where on the basic issue, there isn't.

What about the use of the term "skeptic," as in "climate skeptic"?

That term has been, frankly, misappropriated by many who claim to be skeptics but are nothing of the sort.

[Those are] the folks that I refer to as contrarians, or if they're denying mainstream science, I'll call them "deniers." I'll call a spade a spade. They don't like that term. Many of those who attack the science would like to be called "skeptics," but skepticism is something that's very appropriate, and very good. All true scientists should be skeptics. We should be skeptical about any new finding. We should demand that controversial or unusual or surprising results be independently confirmed.

We've seen that play out, in these last few months, with issues involving faster-than-light neutrinos. Somebody will produce an extremely surprising and unlikely result, and scientists have to be skeptical, and have to demand replication, and have to subject that result to all the scrutiny it deserves, regardless of where it falls out. Regardless of whether it falls out on the side of, say, whether climate-change impacts will be less than what we thought or more than what we thought.

As scientists, our skepticism is two-sided. It goes in both directions. Whereas those who like to call themselves climate skeptics, often, they are one-sided skeptics. They are willing to indiscriminately reject mainstream replicated, validated, consensus scientific findings, based on arguemnts that don't stand up to the slightest bit of scientific scrutiny.

And then you have people like U.S. Sen. James Imhofe, of Oklahoma, who seized upon the snowy winter in D.C. a couple years ago to mock climate change.

Here in D.C. now, they're breaking records. Warmest spring ever. The cherry blossoms are now blooming earlier than they ever have. And interestingly, you're right, James Imhofe is nowherer to be seen right now. He didn't come out for the early cherry-blossom festival.

Let's talk about Climategate. The phrase pinned to you from that episode was "hide the decline."

That's a great example where a statement has been attributed to me, or it's been used as if it applies to my work, but it has nothing to do with me whatsoever.

It's part of an email that climate-change deniers sort of parsed by connecting two different parts of the email together as if they were related.

Early on, it refers to a "trick," that email. After the emails were hacked and scientists were being lambasted for the supposed indiscretions that were revealed by these emails, the journal Nature — the most austere scientific journal in the land — published an editorial where they pointed out that, look, the term "trick" as it was used in this email is consistent with the way scientists and mathemeticians often use the term "trick." Trick in science or math lingo means a clever approach to solving a difficult problem.

It's so easy to take a word like that out of context, and to an unknowing public, that doesn't understand that that term has a specific sort of meaning in scientific lingo, it's easy to say, "Oh look, it shows that scientists were trying to play a trick on the world." "Mike's trick" was just a way to compare two different data sets.

And "hide the decline"?

Later on, [the hacked email is] talking about one specific data set that [researcher Phil Jones] was using in his figure, that has nothing to do with me. The high-latittude [tree-ring] density data. This was a data set put together by a set of scientists from the U.K., Keith Briffa and his collaborators. ... What they were talking about was this enigmatic decline that these particular tree-ring data respond to temperatures through about 1960. But then they no longer respond to the additional warming in the following decades.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on there. It might have to do with the effects of pollution. There's some fairly complicated mechanisms that may be at work. But the main point in their paper was that these data should not be used to estimate temperatures after 1960, because they're known to decline in response to temperature.

So in this graph that Phil Jones — who wrote that email that's being quoted — he was describing the graph that he was preparing, that was comparing three different estimates of past temperatures. One of them was ours. One was one he and his collaborators had published, and the third one was this Briffa data set. When [Jones] talked about "hiding the decline," all he meant was cutting off Briffa's record at 1960 because they had published on the fact that the data are no good after 1960. It was hiding in plain sight if you will.

It was just a great example of how it's so easy to take sort of nuanced, pretty technical discussion among scientists, and you take one word or phrase out of context and misrepresnt the entire nature of the discussion.

But couldn't you argue that the fact that those tree rings grew slower in warmer temperatures casts doubt on using tree-ring data?

I wish that that's what people had been saying. That would be a worthy discussion, actually. There's actually some interesting science in that question. Instead, [deniers] were saying that scientists were trying to hide the lack of warming.

The instrumental rrecord is available throughout the 20th century, and [even without the tree-ring data] we know that it has warmed substantially throughout the time period that was being talked about there.

The more nuanced and interesting scientific question there is, "OK, why are these data not reflecting temperatures after 1960. It means that they might not be reliable in the past." But let's remember, this was just one very specific data set, the density data — they weren't even data that we used in our own reconstruction. It's easy to try to generalize from that one issue, to make it sound like it calls into question all of the work in that field. And it certainly doesn't.

In other words, the other tree-ring data contemporaneous with instrumental data sets does reflect those data sets.

Yeah — other tree ring data, or coral records or ice cores.

Deniers claim science hasn't provided "absolute proof" of human-made climate change. Why isn't that a good standard?

My line is, "Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages." There's nothing that we do in the course of our daily lives that is informed by science and technology that's based on a proposition that's been "proven."

The way we use science and technology is that there are principles that we know work. They explain the world best. And when we use them, we get the right answers. And until someone comes along and shows that there's some other theory that can do even better, we accept those principles.

The example I use is classical physics, Newtownian physics. It does great for calculating the trajectory of a baseball that's thrown, or even sending a moon-lander to the moon. Or the aerodynamics that provide the lift that allows an airplane to fly. Classical Newtownian mechanics does a great job with all those things. It's a very good theory ...

But at very high speeds close to the speed of light, guess what? It starts to break down a little bit. We have to patch in the theory. We're able to put forward a new theory, the theory of relativity, which was consistent with these new phenomenon. But it didn't disprove Newtownian mechanics. It didn't demonstrate Newtownian mechanics as being invalid for objects that aren't traveling close to the speed of light.

So we haven't proven Newtownian mechanics, just like we haven't proven the theory of relativity. All we can do is say, "Here, this is the theory that best explains the observations. We haven't found anything yet that contradicts it." And [you won't do better] until you come up with another theory that not only contradicts this theory, it has to explain everything else that that theory explained. And that's a really tall order.

So you never reach proof. Because it's always possible there's some new phenomenon that's outside of the range of the assumptions that motivated the original theroy. That possibility is always left open. But it's not like because we haven't proven the theory of relativity, or we haven't proven Newtonian mechanics, or we haven't provent the laws of fluid dynamics, it isn't like we hold them as not being valid.

Like I said, mathematic theorems and alcoholic beverages.

Who's behind denialism?

I describe in the book how there were a series of protests against me. At Penn State, there were attack ads that ran in our college newspaper, The Daily Collegian. There were demands to have me fired. I was being vilified in certain newspapers like the [Pittsburgh] Tribune-Review.

Especially as I'm ... documenting the attacks against me, there was no way to look at what was going on and not realize there was a pattern, that, hey, wait a second, all of these groups, individuals, they all seem to be traced — in many cases, the attacks within the state of Pennsylvania against me, a lot of that was coming from institutions, individuals, that were tied to Scaife one way or another.

Attacks against climate science, including me, at sort of the national scale, a lot of that was coming from Koch Industries. Whether it's front groups that are publishing attacks against me, it turns out if you trace their funding, that they're supported by these organizations, or media outlets that are owned by them. The Commonwealth Foundation,  which was attacking me constantly, is financed by the Scaife Foundations.

What role did the mainstream media play?

I do talk in the book about the issue of false balance, and the tendency to treat matters of science as if they're just another political issue, where there are two sides, two equal sides, that should both be presented with equal weight.

My own view is that to some extent that has to do with — over the past decade or so, with the transition to the new media, there are fewer and fewer science and environmental journalists on the beat.

A lot of the stories that would be handled by journalists that had the background to figure out — if there are two different views on the matter, they had the background to figure out that one of them appeared to be right and one of them was not consistent with what the science had to say. We've lost that. CNN laid off their entire science and technology team some years ago. And if you just look across the boards, there are fewer and fewer jobs for science journalists. ... Stories that used to be covered by somebody with that background are just handed off to a political reporter, who will treat it as just another issue with two sides.

I don't fault in general the journalists. It has more to do with the system.

The public — we're all to blame for not demanding: Hey, science and technology is so important in our lives, how is it that there's so little coverage in the media of stories that relate to science and technology? If you watch cable news, how much time in a 24-hour news cycle is spent on matters involving science — science that's incrddibly improtant to our future? It's disturbing.

How much of that has to do with the public's science literacy?

It's hard to separate it out. The fact that there isn't much science journalism, and coverage, in news today, is in part, because somebody has decided to deemphasize that, those issues, in public discourse. Part of the problem with scientific illiteracy is we're not placing enough value on scientific literacy.

And it's easy to say it's our failing schools, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it goes to the very incentive structure, in our larger societal disucssion, where we just don't value discussion s of science and math, nearly as much as we value what Lady Gaga was wearing the other day.

Or even as much as consumer-level tech. There's plenty of publicity and journalism about the latest iPod.

Consumer applications of science and technology are fair game. But the underlying science and technology itself — how often do we ever hear about the engineering behind these fascinating new devices? We're most likely to hear about, "Well, what are the features?" We sort of do technology, but it's much more consumer- and gadget-oriented than the larger vision we once had of what technology really means.

How much did Climategate effect public opinion?

The recent polls [show] that dissipated very quickly. Public acceptance of climate change is now higher than it has ever been. It sort of rebounded from that.

Don't polls also suggest that much of people's opinion on climate change has to do with changes in weather patterns they experience personally?

This is one of the toughest issues to talk about in this whole debate. Because while it's trivially true that you can't blame individual weather events on climate change, what we're talking about now isn't individual weather events.

This past winter — 2012 — we broke warm records around the U.S. I believe it's a factor of 12 times larger than we would expect in the absence of climate change, in the absence of warming.

If you look at the past decade — we're talking about individual weather events, but as they add up over a season, how many extreme days we had — when you step back, you say, "OK, we're not talking about individual weather events, we're talking about the collective statisitics of this entire year." And then step back further: Last summer, that ratio [of record-setting warmth] was actually larger than 10 to one. The entire last decade, that ratio was about two to one. It was twice as high as it should be in the absence of warming.

That's a big signal. What that says is that people are feeling it. People are seeing it out their windows — gardeners. Hunters, fisherman. I've actually talked to some of them in Pennsylvania who said, we're seeing this out in the field. Especially people who are my age or older, if you're in your 50s, 60s, 70s — this didn't used to happen. This is new. This is different. This isn't just the vagaries of weather.

The way we like to describe it is, we're seeing a loading of the dice. Sure, weather is a random roll of the dice, but what we're now seeing is a systematic loading of those dice.

Yet paradoxically, with only one mention in the last State of the Union address, climate change has practically disappeared from our political discourse. Unlike 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, all of the Republican presidential hopefuls are climate-deniers.

One prominent Pennsylvania politician in particular.

Even Romney, who in the past acknowledged climate change, has backpedaled.

He's flip-flopped on that.

If even the public is noticing climate change, what does this say about our politics?

It is one of the most distressing developments, the fact that this has become so partisan. Just acceptance of the basic science has become divided along the partisan divide.

Historically, that just wasn't true. It wasn't that long ago, six, seven years ago, when you could find prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle who accepted the science and were willing to have the good-faith debate that is to be had on what are the right policies to pursue. But at least they weren't contesting the basic facts, the basic science.

You had people like John McCain. [New York Congressman] Sherwood Boehlert, who's one of the main heroes in our story [in Hockey Stick]. He was a prominent old-school, pro-science, environmental Teddy Roosevelt-like Republican.

Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, founded the National Academy of Sciences. This is not our cultural history, to have acceptance of science be a partisan issue. We have evolved in our political discourse to a point where acceptance of the science of climate change, or evolution, or any number of contentious issues, breaks down along stictly partisan lines.

Is there any way to find common ground?

What's particularly distresing to me about that in the case of climate change is that I know that my friends who are Republicans care every bit as much as my friends who are Democrats about their children and their grandchildren, and they world that they inherit. We know that the decisions we're making now, with our current addiction to fossil fuels, and our elevation of greenhouse-gas concentration in the atmosphere, will have implications decades and centuries down the road, and they'll impact the lives of our children and grandchildren, and it doesn't matter whether you're Democrat or Republican, we all care about the world our children and grandchildren inherit. We want them to inherit the best world that we can leave them.

Are you still personally targeted by climate deniers? Like by email?

On occasion. They usually come in bursts of activity after some talk-radio host says something nasty about me or my colleagues and puts our email address up on their website. Let's just say there does appear to be some coordination of that.

How has the book been received?

I've been delighted at the reception we've gotten. I've gotten so many supportive letters and emails.

I went on the Michael Smerconish [radio] show, about a week ago. As I understand it, he has a somewhat conservative audience? I felt like I got a really good opportunity to talk to a broad cross-section of people, including people who might be skeptcial about the science. And I've gotten almost universally positive feedback, and nice coverage.

That's sort of the flipside of the coin. If the hacked-emails scandal was the low point, this is a nice counterbalance.

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