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).
Not too long ago, belief in climate science wasn’t a political issue. Honestly! As recently as the 2008 U.S. presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican candidates professed belief in the threat of global warming, and each advanced policies designed to curb U.S. carbon emissions. Senator John McCain had even co-sponsored one of the first congressional bills to create a carbon cap-and-trade system. And it wasn’t just McCain; Mitt Romney, runner-up for the GOP nomination last time around, supported a regional cap-and-trade program while he was governor of Massachusetts. There was still a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans on the severity of the climate-change threat and on how ambitious carbon-cutting policy should be, but at least there was a general agreement that global warming was a real thing.
Not anymore. With the exception of Jon Huntsman — who barely registers in polls — you can’t find a Republican presidential candidate who unequivocally believes in climate science, let alone one who wants to do anything about it. Instead of McCain — who has walked back his own climate-policy realism since the 2008 elections — we have Texas Governor Rick Perry, who told voters in New Hampshire over the weekend that “I don’t believe manmade global warming is settled in science enough.” And many Republicans agree with him: the percentage of self-identified Republicans or conservatives answering yes to the question of whether the effects of global warming were already being felt fell to 30% or less in 2010, down from 50% in 2007-08. Meanwhile, liberals and Democrats remained around 70% or more.(See pictures of the effects of global warming.)
That’s deeply troubling. It’s one thing when people disagree on the effectiveness of different approaches to fix a problem; it’s worse when they refuse even to believe that a problem exists — despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that says it does. One of America’s major political parties has, in effect, adopted denial as policy. How did we get here?
“We also have to recognize that there is a very intelligent, well-planned effort to deliberately try to muddy the waters on this issue”
“Facts are not political. Facts cannot be changed to suit your opinion. Facts are what the natural world is telling us is happening, and just because you don’t like the facts, you can’t say they’re not real and certainly not malign or try to destroy the credibility of the messenger”
e360: You see the unequivocal changes in the climate, and yet public opinion polls show we are at a low point of public concern about climate change. What do you think scientists and people in the conservation community can do differently to try to mobilize public opinion?
Hayhoe: I’d really like to know the answer to that question myself. The reason I do climate science is because it has a very practical application: We have a very narrow window of time to do something meaningful about this issue, and that window is closing. Every year we go without a binding climate policy to reduce our emissions shrinks the chance we have of hitting lower emissions targets. So we’re taking away our choices. By not making a choice, we’re forcing ourselves into the higher scenarios.
I do a lot of outreach and speaking to audiences that are skeptical about climate change, and I’m trying to understand, what are the barriers? There are barriers at many different levels. I would say first of all that climate science is very complicated — that what is happening here in a place I live is being affected by something half a world away, such as how changes in Arctic sea ice affect what we’re experiencing in Texas. These things are not easy to understand.
In the U.S., we look out our windows and usually the grass is green and the sky is blue and the air is fairly clean and we can turn on our tap and get nice clean water. So the urgency of the issue is not in front of our eyes. Whereas if you go to people in Kenya, who are facing unprecedented drought and crop failure because the patterns they depended on have changed over the past 30 years; if you go up to Alaska, where villages are crumbling and falling into the ocean and have to evacuate because of this, you don’t find the same level of skepticism regarding the reality of the issue — and also whether we should do something about it — because they see it with their own eyes. Whereas here in the continental U.S. we are not seeing things with our own eyes that we can directly connect to climate change. So it lacks that personal motivation because we have many other immediate concerns.
Another issue is that climate change is a vast and daunting issue. It is easier to deny the reality — and that’s actually the first stage in coping with such an overwhelming issue, to deny it. If you’re given a diagnosis of a horrifying and terrible disease, the first thing you would say is, ‘Is it really true? Let’s get a second opinion, a third opinion.’ So it’s a very natural response when we’re faced with a huge, overwhelming issue that we personally feel there’s not much we can do about, often it’s easier psychologically to deny it than to acknowledge our own culpability in contributing to the problem, as well as our own sense of helplessness in solving it.
We also have to recognize that there is a very intelligent, well-planned effort to deliberately try to muddy the waters on this issue. And I think this effort has been very successful in part because of the two other reasons I just gave.
e360: Given those tremendous barriers, what are some strategies that might be a bit more effective in mobilizing opinion and action?
Hayhoe: I think that as a scientist my personal mission is to dispel some of the myths that we’ve been fed, and by ‘we’ I mean the community at large and especially the more conservative community. So what I’ve found is that when I take the time to really talk with people, they do have really good questions: How do we really know that climate change is happening? How do we know it’s not the sun or a natural cycle? How on Earth do we think humans can change something as big as our planet? And if we can answer those questions respectfully, with good, solid answers, that’s where you start talking about the issues we just discussed: Issues with water, flooding, coastal storms. Climate change is already exacerbating issues people are familiar with, so then they can understand why it’s important to them. From a grassroots perspective I think it’s very important to recognize that people still need more information, they need correct information, and then often when people are given correct information they can be counted on to recognize that this is an issue we need to take into consideration.
This issue, though, has become increasingly polarized and the politicization of science and facts is horrifying. Facts are not political. Facts cannot be changed to suit your opinion. Facts are what the natural world is telling us is happening, and just because you don’t like the facts, you can’t say they’re not real and certainly not malign or try to destroy the credibility of the messenger. So in that sense, as a scientist, I feel like my calling is to try to communicate the truth of this issue and the reasons why we as individual citizens should care about it, because of our own lives and the lives of the people that we know and love and the places that we know and love. I’m an optimist, so I have faith in the average person to be able to make good decisions.
We cannot afford to wait until the full effects of climate change become known and say, ‘Oh, this is not the future I really wanted, can I just kind of roll back time a few decades and knock all that carbon dioxide out of the air and make some different choices?’ It’s kind of like being on the operating table waiting to get quadruple bypass surgery and at that point saying, ‘You know what, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll exercise, I really will, I’ll cut back on those steaks and hamburgers.’ We can’t do that.