Michael Mann: The Danger Of Climate Change Denial

by Michael Mann

As a climate scientist, I have seen my integrity perniciously attacked, politicians have demanded I be fired from my job, and I’ve been subject to congressional and criminal investigations. I’ve even had death threats made against me. And why? Because I study climate science and some people don’t like what my colleagues and I have discovered. Their attacks on scientists are part of a destructive public-relations campaign being waged in a cynical effort to discredit climate science.

My work first appeared on the world stage in the late 1990s with the publication of the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which featured what is now popularly known as the hockey-stick graph. Using what we call proxy data – information gathered from records in nature, like tree rings, corals, and ice cores – my co-authors and I pieced together the puzzle of climate variability over the past 1,000 years. What we found was that the recent warming, which coincides with the burning of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution, sticks out like the blade of an upturned hockey stick.

By itself, this finding didn’t indicate that humans were solely responsible for the warming, but it was a compelling demonstration that something unusual was happening and, by inference, that it was probably related to human activity. Over the last few decades, the evidence, based on work from thousands of studies, has become much more robust and conclusive.

Nevertheless, our graph depicting the anomalous warming trend became an icon in the climate-change debate. Since then, I’ve found myself a reluctant, and almost accidental, public figure in the larger discussion about human-caused climate change.

Being caught in the middle of this “debate” has given me an opportunity to talk about the stark reality and dimensions of the problem. As the staid scientific journal Nature put it, climate researchers are in a street fight with those who seek to discredit the accepted scientific evidence, and we must fight back against the disinformation that denies this real and present danger to the planet.

Make no mistake: Skepticism is fundamental to good science. Whenever a conclusion is drawn or a proposition is made, the demand that it stand up to scrutiny is the self-correcting machinery that drives us towards a better understanding of the way the world works. In this sense, every scientist should be a skeptic. Good science responds to good faith challenges, and to contradictory evidence that is presented, and climate-change science should be no different.

Unfortunately, many of the people who call themselves climate skeptics and have attacked my work and the work of my colleagues are not really skeptics at all, but climate contrarians or climate deniers. Their skepticism only runs one way – against studies that point to the reality of a changing climate. They dispute evidence with the flimsiest of arguments, which don’t stand up to the least bit of scientific scrutiny. A recent attack on NASA’s climate scientists by people, including some astronauts, with little to no expertise in climate scienceis a powerful case in point.

With the help of well-oiled politicians, ill-equipped and often complicit media outlets, and vested interests like the fossil-fuel industry, climate deniers have tried to portray the evidence for human-caused climate change as some house of cards – a hoax that’s teetering on a single hockey-stick graph. In reality, the evidence for human-caused climate change is more like a vast puzzle, a few pieces of which come from paleoclimate data like what my colleagues and I studied in our hockey-stick paper.

The climate-change policy debate is often framed purely as a question of science. Science is a necessary part of the debate, but the question of when, how, and if we adapt to climate change and reduce the emissions that drive it is also a necessary part of the debate, and must be informed by economics, politics, and ethics.

By digging up and burning fossil fuels, humans are releasing much of the carbon that had been buried in the earth over the eons into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and other gases. Those gases are acting like a heat-trapping blanket around the planet.

If we continue down this path, we will be leaving our children and grandchildren a different planet – one with more widespread drought and flooding, greater competition for diminishing water and food resources, and national-security challenges arising from that competition.

As a father of a six-year-old daughter, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that she doesn’t look back and ask why we left her generation a fundamentally degraded planet relative to the one we started with.

There’s a tendency for people to be so overwhelmed by the challenge and the threat of climate change that they go from concern to despair. They shouldn’t. While some warming is already locked in, there’s still time to turn the ship around. We can still limit our emissions in the decades to come in a way that prevents some of the most serious impacts of climate change from occurring.

The worst thing we can do is bury our heads in the sand and pretend that climate change doesn’t exist. We can, and should, have the worthy debate regarding what to do about it –a discussion that is sorely needed – from Washington to Beijing and back again.

Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty, holding joint positions in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with other scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He recently published a book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars describing his experiences at the center of the climate change debate.

14 Responses to Michael Mann: The Danger Of Climate Change Denial

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Also relevant

    Climate deniers should be TRACKED and made to pay ‘when the famine comes’, says inflammatory climate columnist

    The Daily Mail seriously has a hard time keeping a balanced coverage. However, the paid deniers really play a risky game, when putting us literally all in harms way.

  2. Doggerelo says:

    A scientist who won the Nobel Prize
    Now finds himself the target of attacks
    That spread false tales and dirty lies

    By people who deny accepted facts
    That global warming is occurring now,
    Because of CO2 from human acts.

    It’s clear some industries will not allow
    The scientific truth to come to light –
    They’ll punish those who dare to tell us how

    We must stop burning coal and make things right
    By trapping CO2 that we release
    To try to mitigate our dangerous plight.

    The peaceful nature of our world will cease
    Once the levels of our seas increase.

  3. glen says:

    The people over at RC have announced that M. Mann will receive the 2012 Oeschger medal this week in Vienna.

    Congratulations, Mr. Mike Mann

  4. Patrick Moctezuma says:

    I think that ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers, among a few others, have executed such a long, well-documented, and well-funded plan of public denial and influence purchasing, that they could open themselves up to being sued exacerbating the effects of climate change.

    Far simpler, however, to simply price carbon, and therefore shrink that industry into oblivion….

  5. Sasparilla says:

    An excellent article and its nice to see Dr. Mann calling the situation out as it is, but ending on a hopeful note (i.e. we can still fix this).

  6. M Tucker says:

    “We can, and should, have the worthy debate regarding what to do about it –a discussion that is sorely needed…”

    We have had the debate. It has taken place in the endless hearings conducted by the House and the Senate. All one needs to do is take stock of the “experts” that Republicans wish to rely on and the actual experts the Democrats wish to rely on. Republicans want to do nothing. Since it is difficult to morally defend a do-nothing stance they take the easier path of discrediting the science. The latest example is the Inhofe book that he promotes at every press conference.

    The outlook for the congressional races is not optimistic for climate change legislation. Right now it seems that Democrats will be lucky to maintain a majority in the Senate. Several pundits say that Republicans have a decent chance of both increasing the majority in the House and actually claiming a Senate majority. Chances are excellent that the only effort that will be made to address GHG emissions will be whatever policy the EPA can enact and whether that policy can endure congressional opposition. If President Obama does not win a second term we will not have even that.

    “We can still limit our emissions in the decades to come in a way that prevents some of the most serious impacts of climate change from occurring.”

    I sure hope so but we will still suffer serious impacts. We are already suffering serious impacts and our tolerance for ‘serious impacts’ is increasing. Those frogs in the slowly warming water didn’t even know what hit them until it was too late. If one party is ideologically opposed to taking any action my feeling is they can delay legislation for many years to come. The most optimistic message I can take from this post is that we have a decade or two before immediate action is necessary.

  7. jk says:

    As I’m reading this, PBS News Hour is also reporting on anthropogenic climate change and interviewing Richard Alley, Penn State geoscientist, about the two-part documentary, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” which PBS will air this week.

  8. Alan Gregory says:

    I served at Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va., for more than a decade until retiring in 2004. Langley, like much of our nation’s military infrastructure in the Hampton Roads region, is barely above sea level. This paper details the threat from sea-level rise:
    Americans had better start listening to scientists like Dr. Mann. And right now.

  9. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice summary, Mike Mann, and congrats on your award, too.

    You and Dr. Hansen are not public figures by nature, which makes your stepping up that much more powerful. A lot of us sleep better now, knowing that you will not give up this fight.

  10. Michael Mann says:

    just want to thank all of you for the kind words and support. It really means a lot. Its been very rewarding to get to know folks like Mike Roddy whose names I recognized from the site, and whom I’ve gotten to meet in person during the past 3 months I’ve been on the road with my “book tour” of sorts. Thanks again everyone :)

  11. Little John says:

    Mike- Thanks for keeping up the good fight. I have an idea for you and your fellow climatologists to ponder. Could it be that the mere presence of 6 billion freakin people, living with 98.6 degree bodies, breathing, eating, and the associated deforestation from our existence, regardless of our fuel of choice, is cuasing the spike? Just something to think about, and a few billion #s to run. Human population will self correct- maybe in our lifetimes…

  12. otter17 says:

    Glad to see your spirits are still high, Dr. Mann. It is saddens me to see some of the things that people have done to scientists in the USA. We will continue to engage climate denial at its roots, namely the politics, economics, and ethics.

  13. psi says:

    “As I climate scientist, I have seen my integrity perniciously attacked…” cue the whining violin music. Dr. Mann,all of what you described is a result of your consistent pattern of violating the basic canons of scientific inquiry and discourse. Remember “hide the decline”?