Michael Mann – The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

February 20, 2012

Our guest this week is Michael Mann, the prominent climatologist and, above all, leading defender of his field—and himself—against political attacks.

Mann is out with a new book this month, which details his ten year battle against political attacks and misrepresentations. It’s called The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines.

And already, people are attacking it on Amazon.com without having even read it.

Michael Mann
is an American climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He’s a co-founder and contributor to the blog RealClimate.org, and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. He has over 150 peer reviewed publications to his name, and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is his second book.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry from Monday, February 20th, 2012. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney Port of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Michael Mann, the prominent climatologist and above all, leading defender of his field and himself against political attacks. Man is out with a new book this month which details his 10 year battle against political attacks and misrepresentations. It’s called The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars Dispatches from the Frontlines. And already people are attacking it on Amazon.com without having even read it. Michael Mann is an American climatologist and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University. He’s a co-founder and contributor to the blog Real Climate Dawg and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. He has over 150 peer reviewed publications to his name and the hockey stick and the Climate Wars is his second book. 

Michael Mann, welcome back to a point of inquiry. Thanks, it’s great to be back. You are. 

In my opinion, perhaps you have the questionable honor of being the most attacked climate scientist over 10 years I’ve watched this happen and your willingness to not only to take it, but to stay strong in the rise above it. I just want to say it kind of makes you a hero in my eyes. So I want to thank you all. So if the show, by thanking you for that, is very kind of you to say. Well, let’s start off with some news that relates closely. Your book, The tables recently have been turned. In 2009, your emails were leaked. But more recently, there have been variety of news reports on somewhat contested documents. But it’s been in the mainstream media internal alleged documents from a climate skeptic think tank, the Heartland Institute. And it’s been in The New York Times. It’s been elsewhere. They’re contesting some of the documents. What’s your reaction? Do you have any sympathy for them? I mean, after what you went through, how do you feel about it? 

You know what? I was actually one of a number of scientists who wrote an open letter. It was published, I think, in The Guardian the other day, basically expressing, you know, some sympathy because we know how it feels to have, you know, materials, confidential materials taken and leaked out into the public domain. In the case of the climate scientists, myself and many others whose emails have been stolen. There were, I think now and nine different inquiries and investigations that have been done that have shown that, in fact, there was no wrongdoing, there was no impropriety, despite the way that some of the emails have been cherry picked and taken out of context. 

On the other hand, from what I have read in the in The New York Times and The L.A. Times, it sounds like there are some worrying bits of information that were released from these documents. Most concerning to me was that there was apparently a plan underway to introduce disinformation, climate change denial, disinformation you might even call propaganda into the classroom K through nine school kids. 

This is the new battleground or it’s going to be the new battleground. We feared this for some time. I had Eugenie Scott on the show and she’s turning her organization to focus on this. 

It’s somewhat ironic that this broke just as the National Center for Science Education is now getting into the issue of climate change in the classrooms, because I know personally from my interactions with high school teachers that there is an effort, there is a lot of pressure from coming from certain places to not teach the science of climate change as well as the science of evolution in schools. 

And that is, you know, that is such a threat to are to having a meaningful public discourse about an issue. If we can’t even teach children the basic science that will allow them to understand the various issues of science that are policy relevant, then how can we move forward to, you know, is as a society and and still lead the world when it comes to science and technology? 

People are going on Amazon here. Your book is just out and people are going on Amazon and they’re one starring it and they haven’t even read it. I mean, obviously, they haven’t read it. They just don’t want other people to. 

Why? Why do they think? Why do you think that they find it so threatening? 

Well, you know, it’s ironic because a lot of the actions by those who are detractors simply amplify the points that I make in the book itself, which is that there is this very concerted and fairly well organized and well-funded effort to discredit climate science and to discredit individual climate scientists like myself because of, frankly, the inconvenient nature of what the science implies for our continued reliance on on fossil fuel burning. 

And so, ironically, when I give a talk at Penn State a week ago, I actually had a coal industry front group run radio ads attacking me and demanding Penn State not allow me to speak. They also apparently hired a public relations firm to manufacture what would appear to be a grassroots opposition to me giving this talk. 

As it turns out, they sold more tickets at the door than any other previous Penn State forum event. And sales of my books spiked after this all happened. So I have to thank that particular coal industry group for the free publicity for my book. 

In here, you tell a personal story. I mean, did you ever imagine you would end up as much of a political combatant as you ended up being, as opposed just a researcher or you start the book? You saying you started out as a math geek, you were trying to program a computer to play tic tac toe, like in the movie War Games. Right. That’s a long way from here back to there. 

Oh, yeah. I was a computer geek in high school and. And, you know, I just loved solving problems with computers. 

And that’s what got me interested in part and going onto fields of science where you could solve complex problems using math and using computer methods. And I started out in theoretical physics and then eventually realized that there were some really interesting unsolved problems in the sciences and went into climate. The science of climate. 

Interestingly enough, my PTSD work in in climate had nothing to do with climate change. It was much more focused on natural climate variability. And it was only when we started to delve into evidence from what we call proxy data, like tree rings and corals and ice cores. 

It sort of led us to conclusions that did have implications for climate change. So, yeah, I would say that I was sort of accidental and reluctant entrant into the public arena when it comes to the issue of climate change. But over time, I’ve learned to embrace, you know, that that role and to try to do what I can to further the public’s understanding of this issue. 

One, I remind our listeners that Mike Mann’s new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars Dispatches from the Front Lines, is available through our website. Point of inquiry, dot org. So let’s go through the story. 

It began with the hockey stick. This is the figure in the 1998 paper. What amazes me most, reading back over it in the paper that start at all. It’s almost 15 years old now. So isn’t it strikes me as highly unscientific that anyone attacks it because science moves, including your own science moves. It’s now well past whatever that paper did or didn’t say. Right? 

Well, you know, sadly, opponents to environmental regulation, be it in the arena of climate change or with regard to chemical contaminants or pharmaceuticals, regardless of the issue. 

There has been this modus operandi of the forces of anti science who look to to discredit science in these areas, to try to create a straw man, to make it seem like all of the science rests not just on one study, but one particular person. It’s the same sort of vilification that we see of Charles Darwin. 

It’s why, you know, the science of of evolutionary biology. Evolution. Yeah, but it Darwinism. It’s this ad hominem, this idea that it’s all, you know, one evil person rather than thousands of scientists who have independently confirmed the findings. And it’s why they’re still attacking Rachel. 

Rachel Carson, they’re not letting her, you know, lie, you know, in her grave. 

They continue to attack Rachel Carson even now because of this belief that if they can take her down, they take the entire environmental movement down with it. And I think this is what happened with us. 

The hockey stick reconstruction became an icon in the climate change debate with the release of the 2001 third assessment report of the IPCC and climate change. 

Those who deny the reality of climate change, I call them climate change deniers. 

They’re not skeptics because they they show no skepticism at all. Skepticism is a very good thing in science. But they they show a one sided skepticism. So climate change deniers have targeted this icon and they have continued to attack me and my coauthors out of sort of a cynical belief that if they can bring us down, they bring the entire science of climate change down is, of course, absurd. And it’s some and it’s highly cynical. But unfortunately, it’s it’s a tactic that often is effective and it’s used by the forces of anti science, in this case in climate change. 

So what is the state of science on the hockey stick as a temperature reconstruction? 

What you did was you showed that the recent temperatures are anomalous in the history of it depended on the study, but it went back ultimately a thousand years or more. Is there at first tell us what you now know about that? 

And also, you know, is it true that the case for global warming doesn’t depend at all on this? I mean, it kind of does. 

It is, you know, through the reconstructions of temperature that show recent warming to be anomalous, like our original hockey stick reconstruction or the, you know, two dozen reconstructions now that have been published by independent groups that come to the same conclusion. 

That is just one in many independent lines of evidence that recent climate change is unusual. And furthermore, that it is very likely attributable to human activity. We can’t explain it from. Natural factors. The main pillars of evidence for the reality of human caused climate change are not actually paleo climate reconstructions like the ones that my collaborators and I worked on. 

But the use of modern observations compared against predictions of climate models that show that the warming we’re seeing in the larger scale changes in our climate cannot be explained by natural factors. They can only be explained by human factors in particular of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations from fossil fuel burning. 

So if there was an interesting episode, it was during a House committee hearing that I testified at. Back in 2006. And one of the one of the representatives actually asked posed a rhetorical question, if my parents had never had to be there, if I had never been born. 

It was a it’s a Wonderful Life sort of scenario with me as the George Bailey character. I talk about it in the book. Would you know? 

Would you. Would our understanding be any different? And in reality, no. 

The fact that we know that humans are changing the climate. You know, I suppose it’s you know, it’s disappointing to realize that, you know, that. No, I haven’t had the. 

The crucial role that my detractors would like you to think in framing our understanding of climate change. But the fact is, there are too many independent lines of evidence. Thousands of studies, thousands of scientists around the world. The consensus of every major scientific society in any of the industrial nations of the world. 

Have all come to the conclusion that climate change is real and it’s due to us. 

So the study was attacked and I mean, let’s face it, someone who attacks one piece of evidence that ignores the other body of evidence, they’re just not looking for truth. I mean, they’re doing something else. OK. Because if you wanted truth, you would look at all. But OK. So they did that. And then, you know, you were dragged before Congress. Maybe maybe you wanted to go sometimes, but your work was reanalyzed. People tried to get your data. Climate gate happened. Then the lawsuit with Ken Cuccinelli suing the University of Virginia. Mean you’ve got all these battle scars. What have you learned about dealing with this kind of adversity? Let me just say I would be stressed out. 

Well, let me add one minor correction first. No problem. Some of our, you know, detractors claim that we had to be coerced into providing our data, and that’s just false. All of our data was out in the public domain. And, you know, that’s. It’s now established. But you still hear claims made that we weren’t willing to provide our data. And so, no, you know, our data and methods were all out there. And other scientists, as you noted, independently reproduced our findings. 

And then again, even if you took away the entire science of paleoclimate reconstructions, we would still know that humans are responsible for the modern global warming and the changes we’re seeing in the climate and much larger changes that lie ahead if we continue on this course that we’re on. 

So it would be it would almost be humorous. 

It would almost you know, it it would be you know, it’s almost farcical the extent to which my collaborators and I in particular been vilified by the deniers of climate change in this cynical hope that if they can bring down Mike Mann, they bring down the IPCC and all of climate change. 

I suppose it would be easy to become cynical and jaded and and retreat, you know, into back into, you know, the my lab room and behind my computer screen and and not engage the public any further. 

But in fact, the attacks against me have done just the opposite. 

They’ve led me to understand, frankly, the disingenuousness and the dangerousness in the campaign that is afoot to discredit the science of climate change. You know, perhaps the greatest challenge that civilization has ever faced. I would be derelict in my duties if I had an opportunity to try to help inform that vital discourse around this topic and and shied away from doing so. So I have embraced the opportunities that my own the various episodes in my story have provided me to to try to inform that discussion. 

Let me remind listeners again that Mike Mann’s new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars Dispatches from the Frontlines, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. 

So let me just ask you. There is one one area where I guess I might disagree with you a little better. I might challenge you. And then one of one of my online readers or listeners had had a question, too, that I think is a skeptic question, but I think it’s very reasonably posed. And so I think it because the good to air it so the cause there’s just no doubt you’ve been targeted and there’s no doubt that it’s not about truth. It’s about something else. 

And there’s no doubt that people are really riled up to deny global warming really riled up. My question is, is it an industry strategy? And I think that you say that. And I I think it used to be and I used to write that it was. But, you know, you see corporate America having moved so much and then you sort of look at the social science of who continues to deny. And it seems to be sort of more of a libertarian ideology thing that is actually not necessarily so tied to the big oil majors anymore. You know what I mean? So how do you do with that? 

Yes. Back in, I think was in 2006, there was quite a bit of criticism. In fact, it was bipartisan. 

I think there was a letter sent by both Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, and Senator Rockefeller from West Virginia to Exxon Mobil, demanding them essentially to cease and desist in their ongoing funding of organized climate change denial. And in the time since then, Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel interests have actually sort of ramped down their funding. But interestingly enough, just as they have been ramping down their funding, private fossil fuel interests like Koch Industries have ramped up their funding. In fact, Coke Industries. That’s Casey H, the Coke brothers, David and Charles and David Coke. 

They, for example, fund, you know, dozens of front groups like so-called American Americans for Prosperity. 

This was reported on in The New Yorker and other places there. Yeah. Right. 

And so, in fact, some of these private interests that don’t have the same subject are not subject to the same degrees of financial disclosure that publicly traded corporations are subject to continue to fund climate change denial. And it’s actually difficult to determine just how much funding they’re putting into it, because a lot of that information is not public. 

What is nonetheless true is that there are certainly what I would say are honest, very decent people who who do not accept the reality of climate change. 

They think that the science is unsound. 

They are basically acting on information, disinformation that has been fed to them. 

And it’s not their fault. And sometimes they get worked out up over it because of the very carefully dialed rhetoric that is used by some of these groups fomenting climate change denial that the rhetoric that’s used to try to to fan the fires of hate and resentment. 

And I think that’s very unfortunate. 

So you do see a lot of sort of down in the trenches, ordinary people who express skepticism contrarianism about climate change and are doing so because they have been fed disinformation. And the real question is, who’s feeding them that disinformation where? 

Whereas the funding for all of this, you know, very organized and what appears to be orchestrated, promotion of misinformation that these people are receiving, whether it’s on talk radio or certain news networks or editorial pages of certain newspapers. 

I think that many of the individuals who, you know, who expressed skepticism about the science are as much victims as the scientists and the rest of us are of this disinformation campaign. And that’s what’s so unfortunate. 

Do you think anybody you use the word cynical a couple times and you’ve used organized a couple times, how many people out there do you really think? No, it’s bogus, but just say it anyway. My sense, I guess maybe I’ve been accused of being an optimist. I think people delude themselves and they want to believe wrong things. The number of people who really make it up and no better, I imagine, is pretty small. What do you think about that? 

Sure. I think, you know, we all have, you know, that cantankerous uncle who, you know, is it just a devil’s advocate who if you say it’s black, they’ll say it’s. Right. You know, we all know people like that. And no doubt some of the you know, the the rampant climate change denialism that we see, you know, is from, you know, probably has that at its origin. 

I think there probably as many different reasons almost as there are individuals when it comes to the denial of climate change. I think many find themselves challenged in terms of their ideology by the implications of climate change, of climate change is real. 

And we accept, as the the projections tell us, that there are dangerous impacts that lie ahead. 

If we don’t bring carbon emissions under control, then one is led in to, you know, a position of recognizing the need for regulation. 

And so if you’re a libertarian who believes that there’s absolutely no room at all for regulation of the free market, then acceptance of the science almost puts you in conflict with your ideology. 

And I think we often see that that that sort of cognitive dissonance as a cause of climate change denial sort of forces you to deny the science or deny your ideology. 

And most people, given that choice, doesn’t do well or, you know, what choice they’ll make right now if there is global warming that it’s caused by humans. Strong scientific consensus. You’ve contributed to that. I heard through the Web an interesting question. 

And this was someone asking. OK. It’s accepted. But what would what kind of evidence, if it existed, would falsify it? They’ve gotten the person’s name, Gordon Wells, and he drew analogy with evolution where it’s actually easy for evolutionists to give this analogy. And there is a evolutionists. His name was GSB Hall Day. And I hope I’m not saying it wrongly said easy. You show me fossil rabbits in the Precambrian, then you phosphide. If you show that something that didn’t exist yet in a you know, in a geological layer where it couldn’t be, then you’ve got evolution refuted. Is there anything like that and claims. I’m not saying it’s obvious has been found. There’s anything like that. 

Well, you know, it’s it’s a great question, really, because ultimately, you know, all of our scientific understanding is based on theories which can never be proven. 

They can only be disproven. 

And the challenge in science, of course, if you’re going to reject the prevailing theory, you’ve got to come up with a theory not just that explains the one thing that the theory you’re rejecting couldn’t explain, but it has to explain everything that that previous theory explained to. And it turns out that’s a real challenge because, you know, science is not scientific. 

The evolution of scientific understanding is not the, you know, the house of cards that many, many somehow think it is. It’s much more like a puzzle. 

It’s a puzzle. And you’re filling in the pieces. And in many areas of science, that puzzle is nearly complete. There’s still a few pieces that we have yet to fit in. So there’s still some uncertainty. 

And that’s what scientists are always working to figure out, you know, understand the things that don’t fit it. 

But when you’re that far along in the puzzle and you’re only missing a few pieces, there’s no way you’re going to find another solution to that puzzle. 

That doesn’t look like the one that you’ve got. You’re still you know, it’s more another analogy one could use. It’s like a wall made of bricks. And, you know, there may be a few bricks missing. 

You can take out a brick here or there, but the wall isn’t going to come crumbling down because of it in the case of climate change. 

You know, it was the U.S. military back in the 1940s. The Air Force needed to understand the greenhouse effect of CO2 to design heat seeking missiles. 

You have to know the absorption spectrum of CO2 in the atmosphere because CO2 absorbs heat. 

That’s the greenhouse property that we’re talking about. And if you’re designing a heat seeking missile and you need it to be able to find its target, you have to understand what’s in its way. Is this CO2 that’s sort of putting this fog of noise around the signal you’re looking for. 

And so the you know, the U.S. Air Force understood and needed to understand the greenhouse effect of CO2. We wouldn’t you arguably might not have prevailed in World War two if we hadn’t. So to falsify something like that would require a revolution of physics and chemistry. So fundamental that I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that in centuries. 

Fair enough. In the book, you talk about something. It’s quite a powerful moment. You call it the Serengeti strategy. 

And I just I’ll let you explain it, but I want you to explain it. And then I want you to talk about what it implies for responding to attacks. 

Thanks for the question. Yeah, I sort of start out the book talking about an episode back when I was first working on the third assessment report of the IPCC. 

And we were. In Africa, we were in Tanzania in sort of within view of Mount Kilimanjaro. 

It was a wonderful meeting. It was an amazing, you know, an exotic location to be discussing science. But we had an opportunity to go on a safari out to the Serengeti. And we saw, you know, the the amazing, you know, wild animals of the Serengeti, you know, lions and giraffes and elephants. 

And when I talk about the zebras, you know, so one interesting thing about the zebras is that they stand back to back and they form this wall of stripes. And I remember asking, you know, the tour guide will, you know, why is that? That’s really interesting. 

And he explained that, well, you know, with this wall of stripes, the predators that would otherwise prey on them can’t see any individuals. They can’t make out an individual zebra as long as they’re seamlessly melded in this wall of stripes. 

And so I sort of looked back to that and drew a parallel with sort of my experiences ever since then. In the climate change debate where we’ve seen, you know what you know what the lions do, they look for the zebras that are at the edge of the herd. Right. That that aren’t that aren’t part of the pack. 

They look for the vulnerable member. That’s not seamlessly incorporated into the pack. 

And that had implications for, you know, everything that ensued in the attacks against climate science and climate scientists were those who stood out from the crowd, like Ben Santer back in 1995 because of the prominence of his work on detecting the human influence on climate. Was attacked just like the lion, looking for that vulnerable zebra at the edge of the herd. Ben was attacked and my colleague, sadly, not with us anymore. 

Steve Schneider, who’s a great communicator and a great scientist. 

He was attacked. James Hansen has been attacked. Many other climate scientists have been attacked. And I think, you know, to use the word cynical, again, in a cynical effort to try to pick one vulnerable individual from the pack, make an example of them for others. And that’s what I think we’re seeing. 

And that’s why that has been a recurrent modus operandi, not just in the attacks against climate science, but indeed in many of the attacks against science, that it might be inconvenient to certain interest groups, whether it’s the science of evolution or the science of climate change or the science of ozone depletion or the science of of, you know, of stem cell research. 

Well, it makes sense. I mean, it’s an institution the institutions respect that’s been around for a long time. It’s the National Academy of Sciences. Who do you attack anyway? The president. But there was a president before the individual at least. Let’s face it, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Right. I mean, how are they going to handle it? Maybe you find someone who is sort of like the Dan Quayle of climate science who starts saying all these things that get them into more trouble and the strategy works. So what is the what is the response? And the response is solidarity. 

I mean, it’s a don’t get outside the bar or have the pack cluster around you. Has that happened? 

Well, you know, the I think the lesson that we can, again, draw from this analogy is that you need the other members of the pack to come to the defense of the vulnerable individual. I mean, you do see that in certain cases in nature, and we’ve seen that now, I think in the wake of the sort of ramping up of attacks against the scientists that began a few years ago with the stolen emails and then with the various accusations of of errors in the IPCC, the attacks against the credibility and the integrity of the IPCC. 

I think what you saw in the wake of those attacks was a broader recognition among not just scientists in my field of climate change, but I think very broadly the scientific community beginning to recognize that as a nature. The journal Nature said it themselves in an editorial. You know, we’re in a street fight with those who are looking to discredit us. Not that we are acting like street fighters, but the tactics of street fighting are being used now against climate scientists. Science is now being used as a political football, as a just another way to wage politics in a way that I don’t think we really saw before. I think the scientific community has rallied because of that. And in the various meetings here at Triple A-s last December at AIG, you. I have never seen so many sessions devoted to communication, to public outreach. 

Than I’ve seen in over the past year at the very scientific meetings that I’ve gone to and institutions like the National Academy of Sciences, triple A’s, who sponsors this conference that were out here. 

You know, the American Geophysical Union, that I could go on down the list of all issued very strong statements of support for four scientists against these attacks and essentially have issued calls to arms two to four scientists to rally to the defense of their colleagues as we are, as the Serengeti strategy is increasingly deployed against individual scientists. 

Would you therefore say and this is a hard question. Another scientist, maybe younger than you, obviously going to have less experience than you? They get in some situation where one of their studies ends up being the one that’s attacked. Would you say stand and fight because it’s safe now? Or would you say, I don’t know. That’s a personal decision and everyone’s got to make it differently. What would you say? 

Well, I’d probably stand and fight because it’s the right thing to do, both for you and for the scientific community. But moreover, stand and fight, because we’ll know. We’ve got your back. The scientific community’s got your back. Now. 

Well, that’s actually a pretty powerful statement, and I’m glad that you can make it. And on that note, I just want to thank you for standing and fighting and for being with us again on point of inquiry. Thank you, Chris. It’s been a pleasure. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Michael Mann and his new book. Please visit our online forums by going to Center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Org. One of inquiry is produced by Atomizing in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. 

The show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney