In November 2009, an anonymous hacker stole thousands of emails from the climate-research unit of the U.K.'s University of East Anglia. Twenty of the emails were then released online, but they'd been deceptively edited to suggest that the scientists who'd written them were conspiring to trick the public into believing in global warming.
The furor, quickly dubbed Climategate, turned attention from fighting climate change and toward the "controversy" of whether human-caused climate change — long a matter of settled science — was real. In the U.S., two-and-a-half years later, the issue that many consider humanity's greatest challenge is barely on the national political radar.
Meanwhile, one scientist whose message was mangled in Climategate is fighting back.
Michael Mann, a Penn State University professor and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, has published his first book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press). Mann was among the scientists awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."The hockey stick" is the nickname for his best-known research finding.
In 1998, he was lead author of a paper that reconstructed historic temperatures using data from tree rings, coral and ancient ice deposits. With its sharp upward angle at one end, the graph line plotting temperature resembled a hockey stick laid on its back — demonstrating that the second half of the 20th century was warmer than any period in the previous 1,000 years. The image was publicized globally in the IPCC's 2001 report. And the hockey stick's popularity, as Mann drolly notes in Hockey Stick, made him the puck — the target of threatening emails as well as defamatory attacks by radio talk-show hosts and pro-industry interest groups.
The feisty Hockey Stick explores how climate-change deniers warp scientific messages to suit their agendas. Mann, on the road promoting Hockey Stick, recently spoke with City Paper by phone from Washington, D.C. (A complete interview transcript is available here.)
One favored denier tool, he says, involves singling out one scientist, or one study, to discredit — as though doing so could nullify an entire body of research. The intimidation strategy has long been used in industry campaigns against research into the dangers of everything from pesticides to cigarettes.
"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," says Mann. "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." And media outlets are ill-equipped to assess such claims, thanks to layoffs that have decimated the ranks of science reporters.
Deniers, meanwhile, call themselves "skeptics." And who could oppose skepticism, a foundation of good science? But real scientific skepticism, Mann says, "is two-sided": It seeks independent confirmation of any surprising finding, not just ones you dislike. Self-styled "climate skeptics," he says are often "one-sided skeptics. They are willing to indiscriminately reject mainstream, replicated, validated, consensus scientific findings, based on arguments that don't stand up to the slightest bit of scientific scrutiny."
Likewise, denier insistence that researchers present "absolute proof" of human-made climate change also misconstrues actual science. As Mann notes, we haven't actually "proven" Newtonian physics or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, either. Rather, they are the best available explanations for certain physical phenomena. Similarly, the best explanation for a warming planet is that we're filling the sky with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses. "Proof," quips Mann, "is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages."
Meanwhile, lacking good research of their own, deniers often misrepresent what climate scientists say. Take Climategate. One hacked, decade-old email a colleague sent Mann was edited to highlight, out of context, the phrase "hide the decline" — supposedly, the decline in global temperatures. But the phrase actually referred to a single anomalous data set concerning high-latitude tree rings from after 1960 — a period with copious instrumental data confirming a warming world.
Finally, when climate research is attacked, consider the source. Both the interest groups and denialist scientists who opposed Mann and his colleagues were typically linked to either the fossil-fuel industry or pro-industry interest groups funded by a handful of deep-pocketed supporters. Among them are the industrialist Koch brothers and Western Pennsylvania-based billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Frequent Mann antagonists also included the right-wing Commonwealth Foundation, another Scaife beneficiary.
For all that, Mann believes the public-opinion tide is turning. Polls indicate that acknowledgement of climate change has surpassed pre-Climategate levels — perhaps aided by Mann and other scientists at RealClimate.com, a website dedicated to quickly debunking bad climate information.
Then there's the response to his book, which has been overwhelmingly positive.
"If the hacked-emails scandal was the low point," he says, "this is a nice counterbalance."
MICHAEL MANN speaks at 3:45 p.m. Thu., April 12, at Thaw Hall, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. www.geology.pitt.edu/about/colloquia.html