He is one of the most vilified men in the highly vilified field of climate science, yet Professor Michael Mann is surprisingly jolly. Despite being the focus of a brutal campaign orchestrated by the fossil-fuel industry and senior politicians within the US Republican Party, Mann’s cheery stoicism is positively infectious.
“I’ve been the focus for attack by those who deny the reality of climate change for so long that it almost seems like forever,” the professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University says. “I’m a reluctant public figure, but I have embraced the opportunity to communicate the science.”
Mann became a chief target of the climate change contrarians for being the outspoken author of an iconic graph of global warming science known as the “hockey stick” – the most politicised graph in science, according to the journal Nature.
It was the hockey stick that generated much of the opprobrium heaped upon climate scientists as a result of the “climategate” emails stolen from the University of East Anglia and leaked on to the internet two years ago. Indeed, many of the leaked emails were copies of correspondence between the UEA team in the UK and Mann and his colleagues in the US.
Mann believes the theft of the emails was not the work of a random hacker, but part of a sophisticated campaign. “It was a very successful, well-planned smear campaign intended … to go directly at the trust the public had in scientists,” he insists. “Even though they haven’t solved the crime of who actually broke in, the entire apparatus for propelling this manufactured scandal on to the world stage was completely funded by the fossil-fuel front groups.”
The hockey stick graph appeared to demonstrate how world temperatures had remained fairly steady for several hundred years before shooting up at the end of the 20th century, just like the straight blade jutting out from the shaft of an ice-hockey stick (the analogy doesn’t quite work with a curved field hockey stick).
The original study was published in Nature in 1998. Within five years, Mann had become the focus of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the entire field of climate science by rubbishing the hockey stick – a term coined by a colleague rather than Mann himself. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe picked up the hockey stick to beat climate science, famously declaring in 2003 that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”.
Mann became the target of Freedom of Information requests and was served with a subpoena by Republican Congressman Joe Barton demanding access to his correspondence. This was followed with a further subpoena from Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican Attorney General of Virginia, and yet more FOI requests from industry front-organisations, notably the American Tradition Institute.
Climate contrarians argued that Mann and his colleagues were concealing their research methods because they had something to hide. In reply, Mann insists that he has been as open as he can about data and methodology, but the aim of these requests has more to do with intimidation than openness. “What they are trying to do is to blur the distinction between private correspondence and scientific data and methods, which of course should be out there for other scientists to attempt to reproduce.
“I think it’s intentional and malicious. It’s intended to chill scientific discourse, to intimidate scientists working in areas that threaten these special interests,” he says. “It’s the icing on the cake if they can also get hold of any more private correspondence that they can mine and cherry pick. It’s a win-win for them.” Why an obscure graph published in a scientific journal should enrage so many people has been the subject of much internet conspiracy (or genuine scientific debate, depending on your point of view).