Michael Mann and the Climate Wars

Mark Boslough

Physicist and CSI Fellow Mark Boslough recently interviewed climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann, who will be speaking at CSICon Las Vegas.

Mark Boslough: To anyone who has followed the “climate wars,” your name is a household word. Deniers even coined the phrase “Mann-made global warming” in an attempt to make it synonymous with their belief that global warming is an elaborate hoax. From my vantage point as a scientist and skeptic, you seem to be the person they love to hate more than anyone else except perhaps Al Gore. Why do you think they have they singled you out from the scientific community as their poster child for sustained vilification?

Michael Mann: Well—there are certainly other leading climate scientists who have been frequent targets of climate change deniers. But I suppose there are a few things that are different in my case. For one, I am directly associated with one of the most prominent graphs in all of climate science, the “Hockey Stick” curve that my coauthors and I published back in the late 1990s. That curve became an icon in the climate change debate. It told a simple story—that the warming of the planet we’re experiencing is unprecedented. That made it a threat to fossil fuel interests and, as I detail in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, it made me a direct target of the industry-funded climate change denial machine. The Eye of Sauron was fixed on me. Rather than shrink from the battle, I chose to fight back—by defending my work in the public sphere and by devoting myself to public outreach and education. That no doubt further antagonized climate change deniers. Ultimately, they provided me a platform for informing the public discourse over what is arguably the greatest challenge we have faced as a civilization. I consider that a blessing, not a curse.

Boslough: As you say, you weren’t the only author of the 1998 Mann, Bradley, and Hughes “Hockey Stick” paper that made such an impact. You were just an up-and-coming post-doc and your coauthors were already prominent. I was taking a paleoclimatology course at the time and had never heard of you, but we were using Bradley’s textbook. A couple of years ago I attended a dinner for the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, and two guests sitting at my table introduced themselves as “Et and Al”. They were Bradley and Hughes, and the joke was a reference to their having been eclipsed by you. Do you think you were the main target of Sauron’s initial wrath because you were first author or because deniers mistook you for easy pickings?

Mann: That’s right. Interestingly, much of the focus was on me alone, rather than my two senior coauthors, Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes. I suspect the reason was two-fold. I was the first author and was quoted in most of the media coverage, so I was the scientist most directly associated with the research. But additionally, I was viewed as far more vulnerable to attack, as I was only a post-doc at the time, a far cry from the job security of a tenured faculty position (which both of my coauthors had). The climate change denial machine wanted to bring me down, to destroy my professional career before it even got going, to make an example of me for other younger scientists who might too consider speaking out about climate change. In The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I refer to this as the “Serengeti Strategy.”

Boslough: Seems like this strategy backfired spectacularly in your case. Have they successfully destroyed anyone else’s career? Are they still pursuing the Serengeti method, or did they learn their lesson?

Mann: Well, yes—I like to think the hyenas tangled with the wrong zebra.

But unfortunately, this tactic continues to be deployed. Over the past year, the Republican chair of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, a recipient of considerable fossil fuel money, has initiated a campaign of persecution against leading climate scientists at NOAA and elsewhere, abusing his authority by serving them with vexatious subpoenas demanding their internal email correspondences and other such items, simply because he and the fossil fuel interests who fund his campaigns don’t like the conclusions of their research. This has sent a collective chill throughout the entire climate science community, and it speaks to the fact that the Serengeti Strategy is very much still alive and well.

Boslough: You say they are still going after leading climate scientists. But as I pointed out in my NCSE review of your Hockey Stick book, even hyenas know to attack the smallest and weakest members of a group. Is Smith really trying to destroy these scientists, or is he just trying to waste their time and discredit them in the eyes of his campaign donors and scientifically illiterate constituents?

Mann: Evil is as evil does. The motive, in the end, is personal destruction. It is to make cautionary examples of individual scientists for others who might think about playing a prominent role in the public discourse over climate change. Here’s what will happen to you if you too put your head above the parapet! Now, whether it is the politicians like Lamar Smith, James Inhofe, or Ted Cruz themselves who are driven by this motive, or whether they are just being loyal foot-soldiers of the fossil fuel interests who have this motive is, in the end, in my view immaterial. We must judge them by their actions and we must recognize them for the threat that they represent to society.

Boslough: Maybe there’s a selection bias involved in my perceptions. Am I only aware of the fittest survivors whose reputations within the scientific community were actually enhanced? Are there examples of climate scientists who couldn’t take it and quit? Or is it more subtle, with young scientists dissuaded from entering the field or keeping their heads down in a way that makes them invisible?

Mann: I suspect the real impact of the attacks is more difficult to detect. On the one hand, scientists coming into the field now appear to be more mobilized, more willing to confront misinformation and disinformation head on, more willing to engage in the public discourse, whether through social media or other means. But, what I worry about, are the young scientists we are losing to other fields, scientists confronted by a choice between those areas of science perceived as “safe” (e.g., dark matter, quarks, and black holes) and “unsafe” (e.g., climate change and other areas of environmental research) from attacks by vested interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

Boslough: I’m guessing you had no formal training in how to deal with political assaults on your science and had to learn it on the fly. Can those skills be taught to young scientists who are working in fields that make them vulnerable to attack?

Mann: Indeed, I did not. They don’t train you for this in graduate school science programs. Perhaps we need to add a boot camp experience to our graduate training. Not only can we teach young scientists how to function in the increasingly hostile environment they may find themselves, we must teach them to do so. Fortunately there is growing educational infrastructure for this within the scientific community. At meetings like the American Geophysical Union annual fall meeting (the largest member society in the Earth Sciences), there are now numerous workshops and sessions focused on science communication, the law, and other subjects that are critical to the defense of science from politically or ideologically-motivated attacks. It’s unfortunate that this is now part of the job description of doing science, but it’s a good thing that scientists are recognizing this and rising to the occasion. The stakes are simply too great—we cannot lose the battle against the forces of unreason and inaction. The silver lining is that we are now creating a whole generation of scientist communicators who are not only doing great science but are effectively communicating the science and its implications to the general public.

Boslough: Did I hear that you have another book coming out?

Mann: The Madhouse Effect represents a collaboration between myself and the Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist of the Washington Post, Tom Toles. We attempt to use humor and satire, as embodied in Tom’s cartoons over the years (and a number of new cartoons exclusive to the book) to ridicule the absurdity of modern day climate change denialism. There is no better tool than satire to expose hypocrisy, and nowhere is there greater hypocrisy than the ongoing campaign by fossil fuel interests and their hired hands to deny the well-established science of human-caused climate change. Indeed, climate change denial would be humorous if the stakes weren’t so great. The book takes the form of an annotated compendium of Tom’s cartoons, which we use to explore everything from the fundamentals of science and how it works, to the scientific evidence behind climate change, the predicted impacts, the campaign to deny climate change, the hypocrisy of denialism, the dangers of geoengineering, and, finally, the path forward. Ironically enough, we end on a cautiously optimistic, forward-looking note.

Boslough: Since this interview is for a conference of skeptics, I have to ask one more thing. Why do some members of the media still refer to individuals who reject the scientific method and mainstream climate science as “skeptics” even though they embrace the pseudoscience of denialism? How can we educate the general public about what skepticism really means?

Mann: Yes—this continues to irk many of us. We need to restore the term skeptic to its rightful place in the scientific discourse. In the Madhouse Effect, we mock—with a great new Tom Toles cartoon exclusive to the book—the laughable manner in which climate change deniers attempt to claim the mantle of Galileo, when they are the very opposite of Galileo, or Einstein, or any of the great paradigm breakers in scientific history. Galileo was a talented, well-trained, mainstream scientist, versed enough in prevailing scientific thinking to identify subtle holes therein. He wasn’t a crank, so poorly versed in the science that he didn’t understand the basics—that’s what most climate change deniers are. Faux skepticism, i.e., denialism masquerading as skepticism, is another one of those aspects of the climate change debate that is so absurd that satire and ridicule is really the only way to address it properly. And that’s what we do in The Madhouse Effect.

Mark Boslough

Mark Boslough is an impact physicist. After a 33-year career at Sandia National Laboratories, he is now affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory and is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.