Leading climate scientist Michael E. Mann wasn’t looking for proof of man-made climate change while he worked on his PhD at Yale University in the late 1990s — but he and his co-authors found exactly that.
Mann was actually just looking into natural climate variability, but one part of his thesis involved what are known as "paleoclimate proxy records" — things like tree rings, coral, and ice cores. Studying those resulted in a curve on a plot that looked like a hockey stick, demonstrating that global warming in the past century was bigger and occurred at a faster rate than anything in the 600-year historical record they studied. The results were later extended to an effort to track climate change over a 1,000 year period.
The hockey stick was featured in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, and quickly became iconic in the climate change arena.
It also made Mann and his research a favourite target of climate change deniers — something that caught him off guard initially but which helped mould him into the effective science communicator he is today.
“I wasn’t prepared for the vitriol and the sort of caustic nature of the larger public discourse over climate change,” said Mann, who is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.
Classical training in physics didn’t prepare Mann for the kind of debate and “bad faith attacks” attempting to discredit his research that followed. He said many of them were funded by the fossil fuel industry itself.
“Upton Sinclair said it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it,” Mann said, adding that this is what he is dealing with in terms of the fossil fuel industry funded effort to discredit climate science research including his own.
Fighting the good fight
Mann chose to respond to the attacks on his research by becoming even better at communicating what climate scientists know about global warming to the public, media and policy-makers.
“In the process of defending oneself against attacks, one is forced to become an effective communicator,” Mann said.
He focuses not on the people who are really in denial, and therefore won’t respond to reason, but those caught in the middle who actually want to know the scientific facts. It’s not always easy to communicate science and debunk the myths of climate change deniers because some of the underlying scientific concepts are complex, Mann said. But he makes a “concerted effort” to do so, and for a good reason.
I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I don’t want us to leave behind a degraded planet for her and her children and grandchildren. - Michael Mann
“It’s really about much larger things, even though what initially got me into the fray was the effort to defend myself from bad faith attacks,” Mann said.
The Madhouse Effect
As part of his effort to communicate climate science to the public, Mann featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 climate change documentary, Before the Flood. On top of teaching and doing research, he does between 300 and 400 media interviews a year in order to take every opportunity to “set the record straight” on the evidence for manmade climate change. He has also written three books. The latest from fall 2016, The Madhouse Effect, co-authored with Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Tom Toles, predicted climate change denial wasn’t going away.
Mann called the book “a bit prophetic” given what’s happened since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed a “dream team of climate change deniers” to his government. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has publicly said he doesn’t believe carbon emissions cause climate change. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobile, was appointed as secretary of state by Trump.
Trump’s appointments and statements about expanding fossil fuel drilling and proposing to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement have created an atmosphere in which climate denial is seeing a resurgence. Amid this upheaval, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron offered American climate scientists refuge in his country and the opportunity to work on solving the problem with French scientists.
Mann said that while he’s appreciative of Macron reaching out to them, and knows that some of his colleagues have become dejected, dispirited and depressed by the situation, he isn’t planning on packing up his bags and making the move to Paris.
“That’s just not who I am, that’s not how I respond to adversity.” He felt there was important work to be done in the US precisely because of those conditions.
“To me, it would feel like leaving the battlefront, going AWOL in the most important battle that we have been engaged in — no, I plan to stay put and continue doing the science I do and continue with efforts to communicate science and its implications,” Mann said.
Mann has received many honours and awards for the work he’s done since discovering the hockey stick curve and showing that natural climate variability doesn’t compare to manmade climate change of the last century — including contributing along with other IPCC authors to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the organisation. He’s also authored more than 200 peer reviewed and edited publications during his career.
These days, he stays busy doing research, teaching at Penn State, and doing public outreach including media interviews, op-eds and commentaries, and engaging with people on social media. He also co-runs an award-winning science website, RealClimate, with NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Climatologist Gavin Schmidt, and found time to lead the Washington DC rally of the national March for Science in April along with his friend and fellow scientist Bill Nye.
An accidental climate scientist
Considering that Mann has had such a prodigious career as a climate scientist, it’s surprising to find out that he never planned on being one.
Now one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists, Mann started out as a physicist, and was working on a PhD in physics in the late 1980s. But it turned out that funding for the area of physics Mann was interested in was drying up, after Congress defunded the Superconducting Super Collider that was supposed to create a lot of jobs in the physics profession. Suddenly, many people in physics were fleeing to other fields. Mann was part of that exodus.
Mann began investigating to see what else he could study at Yale besides physics. He became interested in research in the department of geology and geophysics. They were doing climate modeling to better understand how the earth’s climate system operates. Climate change was part of that. Mann’s decision to study natural variability in the earth’s climate led him down the path he’s still on today. It hasn’t been an easy path, however.
Death threats have been an unwelcome part of his life since releasing the hockey stick model. In one instance, he received a letter full of white powder meant to look like anthrax. Although it turned out to be cornstarch, Mann felt physically threatened.
The climate deniers have aggressively taken aim at his career too. Mann sued two bloggers who accused him of scientific and academic misconduct in 2012. The case is still open. Penn State University and at least six other institutions conducted separate investigations into the deniers’ allegations, but none of them found any evidence that Mann had manipulated data or was guilty of any malfeasance.
Schmidt told Scientific American there was “unjustified attack after unjustified attack” on Mann after he released the research showing the hockey stick curve that clearly showed climate change was man-made.
“Most scientists would have left the field long ago, but Mike is fighting back with a tenacity I find admirable,” Schmidt said.
One way Mann recently fought back against climate change deniers was by testifying at a March hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology - described in Desmogblog.com as a “theatre to stage climate science denial.”
The committee’s chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) invited three “fringe scientists with positions far out of whack with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change” while Democrats filled the fourth spot with Mann, “who had to carry the weight of the 97 percent consensus on climate change while being outnumbered three-to-one,” Desmogblog reported.
Most people would have avoided such a potentially frustrating situation, but Mann said he “welcomed a worthy fight, and that’s a worthy fight to set the record straight — to make sure misinformation and disinformation doesn’t win the day in the highest legislative body.”
Although Mann’s early climate modeling focused on global, rather than regional, climate modeling, now he feels more specific modeling might make more of an impact on the public. One model he’s been working on looks at the combined impact of sea level rise and the strengthening of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, and what impact that will have on the mid-Atlantic coast line, including New York City.
“How often should we expect a Superstorm Sandy to hit New York City? Our research suggests a very sharp increase: Today it is a [once in a] 100-year storm, but with climate change that storm will become something more like a once every three-year event,” Mann said.
“New York is just one focus area — obviously the combined impact of sea level rise and storms has implications for coastal cities around the world,” Mann said.
He’s also looked at how climate change may be impacting extreme weather like heat waves, droughts and flooding events. Mann and his colleagues found that we could see increases in the frequency of all of those extreme weather events, such as the 2011 drought and heatwave in Oklahoma and Texas, and the 2013 European floods.
The worst scenarios happen in a business-as-usual situation — one in which the world doesn’t change its fossil fuel habits. “It’s becoming clear that we haven’t acted fast enough to prevent some of the damaging things,” Mann said.
“Are we going to solve this problem before it’s too late? In some ways, it is already too late,” Mann said. Communities around the world are already being impacted by the effects of climate change, whether residents of the Philippines hit by increasingly frequent super typhoons or Native Americans forced to relocate their traditional homes to higher ground because of rising seas.
We’ve already seen those impacts, and it will get far worse if no action is taken, Mann said.
“I’m confident that we will prevent the most extreme and disastrous climate change impacts from occurring but will we be able to bring carbon emissions down fast enough to avoid some truly devastating impacts? I fear we won’t,” Mann said.
Our response will have to be a combination of mitigation, adaptation, and “suffering,” Mann said.
The Trump effect
Trump has “thrown a little bit of a monkey wrench into the works,” Mann said, not least of all by proposing to withdraw from the global climate treaty signed in Paris last December.
But the Paris deal on it’s own wasn’t strong enough anyway — and only got us halfway there, Mann said.
“We’d still have to ratchet up at the next meeting a few years from now. It’s a challenge but certainly one we can meet,” Mann said. The rest of the world, including top emitters like China and India, are still marching forward towards a cleaner future, even without the leadership of the US.
Not only that, but Trump’s actions have energised people in the US to take action on a state and local level and double down in their efforts to address the problem of climate change. Despite political pressure and attacks funded by the fossil fuel industry, Mann said he will continue to be there communicating the science on climate change to the public.
“I’m driven by the underlying philosophical truth that in the end, truth will win out,” Mann said.
“There’s a saying that the Stone Age didn’t end for want of stones. In the same sense the fossil fuel age will not end for want of fossil fuels, it won’t end because we’ve extracted every last bit of fossil fuel, it’ll end because we recognise it makes no sense.”