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An interview with Michael Mann: “There’s reason to be optimistic”…

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I am very honoured to be able to present to you an interview I conducted recently with climate scientist Michael Mann. Michael is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC). He is author of recently published ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’ which I can highly recommend. In our interview we discussed the Hockey Stick, the state of play of climate science, and how it was being in the eye of the ‘Climategate’ storm of a couple of years ago. Here is the interview as a podcast, or below is the transcript, lightly edited for brevity.

When you came out with The Hockey Stick, what was such a departure about it? What was it that represented such a leap forward in our understanding of climate change?

It was an incremental step forward, in reality. Our work built on the efforts of decades of careful work by other paleoclimatologists. It’s a point I try to convey in my book. We had extended what had been done before. We not only provided a more confident reconstruction of how temperatures had varied over the past thousand years (initially the first 600 years and then in a subsequent publications we extended it to the last 1,000 years), but framing the estimates within an estimated margin of error allowed us to begin to draw certain conclusions about the recent warming: that not only is it warming but the warming appears to be unusual in this longer term context.

There were other reconstructions of this sort that had been done in the past and there are many others that have been done since. Our work was part of that larger body of work. I think part of the reason the Hockey Stick became an icon in the climate change debate just has to do with chance circumstances. We published the work in the late 1990s when the climate change debate was really starting to come to a crescendo. the science was becoming increasingly certain with respect to the proposition that we are warming the planet and changing the climate.

The publication of the Hockey Stick curve almost served as an exclamation point. It occurred in the wake of the warmest year we’d ever seen in recorded history, 1998. But that recorded history only went back a century or so. We were able to provide a longer term context. The curve told a simple story. You didn’t need to understand the physics or mathematics of how a theoretical climate model works to understand what it was telling you.

Mann's first version of the 'Hockey Stick' curve, 1999.

Mann’s first version of the ‘Hockey Stick’ curve, 1999.

It portrayed, in a very transparent way, the unusual nature of the recent warming and by inference the relationship that warming has with human activity, the burning of fossil fuels. But ultimately it is the fact that it was featured in the summary of policy makers in the third assessment report of the IPCC in 2001 that secured its status as an icon in the climate change debate. And once it became an icon in the climate change debate, there was a target on our backs.

We’ve had a year of extreme weather all around the world, Hurricane Sandy and so on and so on. What’s your analysis of where we’re at now in terms of climate change?

The scientific evidence is in. There is no serious debate any more, not just about whether climate change is real or it’s due to us, but whether we are seeing the impacts of climate change. The impacts are in fact playing out in increasingly damaging ways, whether it’s Hurricane Sandy which was the largest storm, hurricane (and then hybrid system) that we’ve ever seen, and the lowest central pressure north of Cape Hatteras in the US.

It led to record-breaking flooding in New York City, in part because there was a foot of sea level rise already built into the coastal storm surge, and that foot of sea level rise is in substantial part due to warming oceans. We saw record-breaking drought and wildfires in the western US, which had a hugely damaging impact on our crops, on grain production in the US and food prices. I think we’ve now got to the point where people can see climate change happening with their own eyes, and it becomes increasingly less credible when you hear cable news commentators claim that it’s an elaborate hoax, that it’s not real.

The more recent revision of the 'Hockey Stick' curve (2008)

The more recent revision of the ‘Hockey Stick’ curve (2008)

People are no longer getting fooled by that sort of rhetoric because they’re seeing it play out. Especially older people who’ve been around for a while, who know that things are happening with our weather and climate today that just never happened when they were growing up. I think we’ve reached that point where climate change denial is no longer even superficially credible. That means that opponents of taking action are turning to increasingly desperate measures.

The rhetoric is becoming louder and more acerbic, the attacks are becoming more fierce. They’re not just attacking the science of climate change, they—for example the Koch brothers–are funding attacks against clean energy, against wind, against solar energy.

in my book I talk about the ladder of climate change denial: over time climate change deniers have retreated down this ladder. First there’s no warming … well, OK, there is warming but it’s not due to us … OK, well maybe it’s due in part to us but much of it is natural … OK well maybe most of it is due to us but the impacts aren’t that bad and we can adapt … and so on.

We’re seeing climate change deniers retreat down that ladder, towards a position that it’ll be too expensive to do anything about it so we can adapt, or we can engage in so-called geoengineering. That seems to be where they’re going, they’re withdrawing their troops from the front lines of contesting the science and repositioning them along a new front that has to do with economics and policy. They descend down that ladder slowly.

But the fact is we can’t afford that if we’re going to avert potentially catastrophic changes in the climate. We’ve got to get our fossil fuel emissions under control within a matter of years, not decades.

You talked about how it’s increasingly clear to more and more people that this is what’s happening but is it too late? There seems to be an increasing number of studies coming out that are saying there is no way really that we can avoid 2ºC. What’s your sense? Can we still avoid 2ºC or are we inevitably going to exceed that?

mann_treeringWe can. I would contest some of the studies that argue that we can’t do it. If you work through the underlying assumptions all they are really saying is we won’t have the will to do it. There’s no evidence that it’s physically impossible to avoid 2ºC warming. It is certainly true that with each year of inaction, that curve that describes how soon we have to bring emissions to a peak and how quickly they have to decline, that curve becomes steeper and steeper. It’s now the case that we will have to bring our emissions down far more quickly in the decades. We could have made a soft landing if we had got our emissions in hand a decade or two ago.

The fact is now we really have to undergo that transition quite rapidly and that means we’re going to have to make some difficult choices if we’re going to avoid 2ºC warming. In all likelihood that means keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million CO2. There are almost 400ppm now, so if you do the math it means we’ve got to bring fossil fuel emissions to a peak within a matter of years and begin ramping them down quite dramatically.

That means we have to be transitioning more rapidly to alternative sources of energy. There is an important debate that is going to have to take place about the role that nuclear power will have. The role that natural gas, a so-called ‘transition fuel’, might have in this debate, although there are all sorts of caveats. With natural gas come a whole number of other risks and complications and obviously nuclear power has very serious risks that it poses as well. We were reminded just a year and a half ago with Fukushima.

The fact is, we are now in a position where we have to trade off risks. John Holdren, the Presidential Science Advisor has a good way of framing it: “we will engage in some combination of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering”. The discussion now is really about how much of each of those we’re willing to tolerate, and the relative emphasis we have to put on each of those options.

I talked a while ago to Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Climate Centre. His analysis is basically that we need a 10% cut in emissions starting now. He was quite critical in the interview that I did with him of some of his colleagues where he felt that within the community of climate scientists there were people who were happy to tell our leaders what they wanted to hear or to give a more sanitised version of the reality of things. How easy have you found it to really hold on to telling it like it is when the temptation must sometimes be to say “Oh well it’s not that bad…”?

Obviously we have to balance a number of considerations in the way that we communicate science and its implications to the public. I’ve seen colleagues present such a pessimistic picture that it runs the danger of the opposite of the intended response. Rather than people saying “wow, this is really a problem, we need to do something about it, find a solution, work towards solving this problem”, they just throw up their hands and say “it’s too late to do anything so I’m just going to drive my Hummer and live a profligate lifestyle because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway”.

I think it would be extremely harmful if that was the response we were to see in the public, so it’s important to present optimism where it’s justified, because there are some reasons for optimism here. We’ve faced environmental problems before and mitigated them, dealt with them before they became an even worse disaster, whether it’s acid rain or ozone depletion. So there’s historical precedent for believing that we could be up to the challenge of solving this problem too.

There are important developments that have taken place in the area of renewable energy in recent years. There are credible calculations by scientists from NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) here in the US. About a year ago they published a study that showed that we could likely meet 70% of our energy needs within 20 years or so through a combination of solar and wind energy. Potentially as high as 85% if you begin to factor in geothermal and other renewable energy sources. We can see there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We can see a future a couple decades down the road where we are able to get the energy we need cleanly here in the US and throughout the rest of the world.

The fact is though that we need to build a bridge to that future, and that means making some tough decisions, but there’s reason to be optimistic. We can get there if we engage in a good faith discussion of the risks we need to trade off in building that bridge to a renewable energy future. The problem here in the US and elsewhere is that we’re not having the good faith discussion that is there to be had about the solutions to the problem because we still have politicians who are acting essentially as mouthpieces for fossil fuel-interest who continue to deny that the problem even exists. If we can get past that then there is light at the end of the tunnel. We can see our way to solving this problem before we do indeed commit ourselves to truly dangerous changes in our climate.

In the book you have a chapter called something like ‘The Fight Back Begins’, in the aftermath of ‘Climategate’ [the theft of emails from climate scientists and subsequent well-co-ordinated attempt to argue that they showed a concerted attempt to falsify science and deceive the public, an attempt subsequently discredited]. How is that fight back going do you think? Do you feel in the arguments that the science is coming back strongly and gaining a much stronger foothold?

I think so. I think where you see that most clearly is the way the media treat the issue. Take so-called “Climategate”, which is a terrible term, because in fact the only crime was the criminal theft of the emails! Ironically Watergate was a scandal because of the theft. It wasn’t because of the materials that Nixon found! So there was a cruel irony in the framing. The forces of denial were very effective in framing that issue within the media.

Early on they helped frame the narrative and many in the media just uncritically adopted their narrative. But that was in part due to the fact, as I argue in the book, that there was already a context, an environment where the media was receptive to that contrarian message, perhaps because there was a feeling after the success of An Inconvenient Truth, the coverage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the near saturation coverage of the climate change issue. It’s almost as if there was a sense that the problem had been overstated, exaggerated.

060403_DomCNNL3R1Back in 2005, 2006, many of my colleagues were saying that the debate over the science was over and from here on it was just going to be a matter of debating policy and impacts, and I knew that that wasn’t true. I knew that there would be an opportunity for the forces of denial to retrench. There was this euphoria, a false complacency, within the scientific community. There was also an opportunity among climate change deniers to exploit the fact that the media had almost gone over the top on the way that they had covered the issue – front page cover stories, like Time Magazine with polar bears on the front and ice drifts with huge lettering ‘BE WORRIED, BE VERY WORRIED!’

That almost created a caricature of the climate change issue. And media narratives sometimes become stale. Just saying climate change is really bad, it’s a real threat, people become numbed to the message. And so journalists felt they had to find a new narrative, and that new narrative was one that they ironically had helped create, i.e. that the science had somehow been overstated, that concern has been overstated.

To the extent that had a grain of truth, it would only be because there was some over-the-top media coverage of the issue. But nonetheless that became the new narrative and the pendulum of the Overton Window–what’s acceptable in public discourse–swung back in the other direction. The forces of denial seized upon that. The stolen emails, the bad faith, disingenuous attacks against the IPCC, seizing on a cold winter in the US, as if that alone has anything to do with ongoing global warming and climate change, it all came together as a perfect storm that allowed the forces of denial to retrench. In the book I frame it as a ‘Battle of the Bulge’. It was a last stand. I think we will look back and say that was the last stand for climate change denial.

We’re moving beyond that now, but not without a cost. The cost of that 5 or 6 or 7 years of inaction that was bought with a cynical disinformation campaign potentially translates to billions if not trillions of dollars of losses in the areas of food and water resources, damage to the economy because of severe weather impacts like Hurricane Sandy, the 11 greater than 1 billion dollar weather and climate related disasters we saw in the US in 2011 and even greater damages in 2012. So there was a huge cost to society of having delayed getting control of our fossil fuel emissions. The years of inaction mean it’s going to be much more expensive to deal with the problem now.

It’s deferred maintenance. It will cost us a lot more now because of the more rapid transition we’re going to have to undergo away from fossil fuels. It’s for all these reasons that disinformation campaign by vested interests to delay action was not just a crime against humanity but a crime against the planet. I think we’ll look back at it that way.

Did you start your career with a thick skin, or where did your thick skin come from? When Climategate all started did you feel you had a thick skin at that stage? If not, what was the process of developing one? You would have had to develop one in quite a hurry, how was that?

I think it’s a two-way street. It’s a learning experience for many of my colleagues–I would even say for the scientific community at large–to recognise that this strategy was being deployed against scientists. They had seen it before, with climate scientists such as Steve Schneider and Ben Santer. But nobody had really framed it this way. I tried to do that in my book and when I speak out about this.

I suppose to some extent part of what I’ve been trying to do in my outreach efforts, in my book etc. is to educate my fellow scientists to the fact that, as the journal Nature said, we’re in a street fight with those who are looking to discredit us and our science, who are looking to fool the public. And we have to recognise that these are the tactics that are being used against us. That doesn’t mean that we should be using the tactics of street fighting ourselves, but we have to have effective strategies to combat these attacks.

Again, the best defence is a good offence, so if we can use these opportunities to do positive outreach, to get tout he positive message of what the science has to say, about what we need to do to meet the challenge. If we can turn those situations into opportunities to promote that positive message then not only are we defending ourselves against the attacks, we’re defeating our detractors because we’re actually turning the tables on them.

I’d like to think that we’ve seen some of that in recent years. For example, with the Heartland Institute and the meltdown that they experienced last year when their tactics were exposed to the public, when they got a lot of bad press. Similarly, with the Koch brothers who fund so much of organised climate change denial here in the US.

Obviously here in the US the Murdoch media network is a major player in the climate change denial campaign. But also folks like the Koch brothers. For the longest time they were operating under the radar, and they were getting away with funding front groups engaged in attacks on the science and attacks on scientists and bad faith, propaganda efforts.

For the longest time they were able to do this without repercussions. Over the last few years now we’ve seen media outlets who are willing to expose the climate change denial campaign. You may have seen a series of pieces recently in The Independent by Steve Connor. He won an award last year at the American Geophysical Union for his coverage of climate science and the politics of climate science. He has a series of two or three recent articles, about how these vested interests have been funding a stealth campaign to discredit climate science, and to discredit renewable energy.

There’s another recent article describing how fossil fuel special interests have been paying individuals to protest renewable energy $20 per hour. Its almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. We know its been going on at an even larger scale, but the media is only just starting to catch on. On the internet, in news groups and blogs we know there are individuals who are being paid by vested interests to post contrarian comments, to help create an illusion of a broad-based opposition to clean energy. It’s classic astroturf, and it’s starting to be exposed in a way that it hadn’t before.

There’s a term used in the book a few times, what you call the ‘Serengeti Strategy’ about how people are targeted and picked off one by one. Before that happened did you feel you had that kind of support or did you feel you needed to build a stronger support between everybody and how did you do that?

Mann_HockeyStickClimateWarsI was battle-hardened by that point. I was attacked heavily by the usual suspects – front groups, industry-funded front groups and their paid advocates. More than a decade ago, once the Hockey Stick became an icon in the climate change debate. I became subject to increasingly harsh and disingenuous attacks, not just on my science but on my character.

In that situation you either sink or swim, and fortunately I had friends and colleagues who’d been through this sort of thing before, folks like Steve Schneider and Ben Santer, who were there to give me support and provide advice on how to deal with the attacks. So there was a support network that was there for me. Part of what I’ve tried to do now, now that folks like Steve Schneider are sadly no longer with us, is to provide support and advice to a whole new generation of younger scientists who are being subjected to the same sorts of smears and attacks. I like to think that I’m now part of a new support network for younger scientists.

If you were to give advice to somebody who for the first time sat down and opened an email from somebody being very aggressive and unpleasant to them out of the blue, what would your advice be to them?

It would be don’t reply to that email. That’s the first thing. In fact one of the most important things is to not make early mistakes. One of the tactics used by our detractors is to expose scientists who have never had to deal with anything like this to a sudden onslaught of venom vitriol in the hope they will respond irrationally, will make mistakes, say things they shouldn’t have said in the heat of the moment.

So its extremely important not to react. Don’t do anything rash. Talk to some of your more senior colleagues who may have been through this sort of thing before, and can provide advice about how to defend oneself from the attacks and smears. Use the network of scientists and organisations who are there to help scientists deal with these attacks.

The Union of Concerned Scientists comes to mind. They have been out there over the past few years doing workshops at scientific conferences, writing how-to documents, doing everything they can to assist scientists–especially young scientists–in dealing with hostile circumstances, circumstances that scientists unfortunately increasingly find themselves in, because there are some powerful interests who don’t like the message of our science.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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