by Michael E. Mann
(Columbia University Press, New York, 395 pp., 2012)
The topic of global climate change has become one of the hottest global issues for over a decade now, figuring prominently in U.S. politics, and leading to many international conferences on how to contain it. As a scientific debate, the facts were resolved over a decade ago. Survey after survey over the past decade have shown that roughly 95-99% of scientists who publish peer-reviewed research in climate change agree that global climate is changing rapidly and that humans are to blame. This is a level of consensus in science similar to that supporting gravity, plate tectonics, big bang cosmology, quantum physics—or evolution. Yet for reasons having nothing to do with science (i.e., religion or ideology), there are powerful vested interests in the United States that don’t like the “inconvenient truths” of evolution or big bang cosmology (creationists) or climate change (libertarians and free-market conservatives, backed by the fossil fuel industry). They are determined to fight scientific consensus by any means necessary. In contrast to Canada, or any major industrialized nation in Europe or in eastern Asia (including Japan, South Korea, China, and others), the U.S. is the only nation where science deniers (creationists and climate deniers) comprise any significant part of the population, and have a lot of influence in a major political party, so they can prevent any political action on the issue.
All of this is vividly described in Michael Mann’s book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Mann was the senior author on the famous “hockey stick” reconstructions of the past few centuries of climate, so called because a plot of changes in average temperature shows a steady linear trend over the centuries, then suddenly shoots upward in the past century. This gives the plot the shape of the blade of a hockey stick. The first part of Mann’s book describes his relatively quiet life as a graduate student in physics at Yale. He then switched to paleoclimate as a more interesting set of problems to focus on for his Ph.D. research, followed by a post-doc at the University of Massachusetts. During this time, he and his collaborators developed a technique for summarizing the dense record of climate change proxies from abundant tree rings with the sparser records from corals, ice cores, and lake sediments—and then connecting those to the past century of actual measured temperature records. As he carefully and clearly explains, you can’t just mix them all together, or the most abundant record (tree rings) will dominate the signal. He used a common multivariate statistical method, principal components analysis (PCA), so that each signal can be analyzed separately and then combined with equal weight. Mann then discusses how the original “hockey stick” plots of 1998 went back only 500 years into the past. As their data and methods were scrutinized and criticized by the scientific community, the proxy for climate got better, the error bars smaller, and the time range of the data began to reach back to over 1000 years ago. In addition, several other independent groups of researchers did their own analyses of the available data to check whether Mann et al. were right, and came up with a similar-looking “hockey stick” every time.
This is the way science is supposed to work: interesting or provocative new idea is proposed, but it must pass muster through peer-reviewers of a journal first. Once it is published, the idea will be criticized and scrutinized by the skeptical scientific community. If it has withstood all these criticisms and checks by qualified researchers, it becomes more broadly accepted. But as the second half of the book demonstrates, this is not the way it works in the public arena, especially in politics. Mann describes how the large edifice of conservative think-tanks and denier websites was set up to challenge the evidence of climate change, all bankrolled by money from oil and coal interests, and conservative foundations like the Scaife Foundation and the Koch brothers. These deniers began harassing climate scientists as far back as the early 1990s. When the Mann et al. (1998, 1999) “hockey stick” curve was published, he became their bête noire. The “hockey stick” was such a clear and powerful icon of the exceptional increase in temperature in the past century. Mann then describes the gut-wrenching stories of the major assault on science mounted by these deniers, a sordid story guaranteed to disgust anyone interested in science or truth. Through a handful of contrarians with strong ideological biases, there were many attempts to discredit the work of Mann and other climate scientists. As the author showed, most of these “scientists” simply don’t have a clue about what they’re doing, and made childish mistakes or misinterpretations of the data. These are easily pointed out in peer review, so they never pass muster and most of these papers end up published in the deniers’ house journals. The mistakes range from simple and stupid things (like not knowing that radiocarbon dates “B.P.” or “before present” means “before 1950”, or reading the data wrong) to more subtle things like McIntyre and McKitrick’s mistake of looking at the wrong principal component (which is weighted heavily on the yearly “noise”) instead of the PC that shows the long-term trend. Mann describes how contrarian Richard Lindzen of MIT is continually claiming he’s debunked global warming—but all he’s demonstrated is that he is good on focusing on factors that favor his biases toward cooling, but never looking at the feedback loops that tend to amplify warming.
By and large, though, the assault on Mann and other climate scientists doesn’t come from scientists playing by the rules. It comes from bloggers and right-wing media and political hacks whose sole job is to create “doubt” in the public mind, so that no progress can be made. They include Marc Murano, author of the “swiftboat” strategy against John Kerry in 2004, whose specialty was creating a smear campaign of lies to undermine the political standing of his opponents. These deniers range across a wide variety of other right-wingers who don’t care about unbiased scientific reality, but only blunting the understanding of the scientific consensus so a significant part of the American public is confused and uncertain. Mann describes the nasty slimeball tactics of these people in detail. He calls it the “Serengeti strategy”, where the predators pick off a vulnerable prey animal at the edge of the herd. In his case, the deniers don’t deal with the original data at all. Instead they persecute individual scientists with assaults on their character, lies about their science, huge demands for them to waste time and resources revealing every bit of data they have and every email they send, and even frequent death threats and envelopes of deadly toxins—all designed to intimidate and harass scientists in a given field who don’t want their lives, and the lives of their families, turned upside down. Fortunately, Mann has a strong character and the support of his fellow scientists, so he has apparently survived the worst of it. The latest attempt was the misguided attack by Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, famous for his attempt to push various right-wing causes (including trying to cover the breast of the cartoon sketch of the goddess “Virtue” on the state seal). Cuccinelli tried to demand all of Mann’s records, data, and email while he was at University of Virginia on the grounds of fraud and misuse of grant funds (luckily, Mann has moved to Penn State, safely out of his reach). Just a few months ago, the courts rejected Cuccinelli’s fishing expedition to harass Mann, an event that occurred after the book went to press. Even more scary, Cuccinelli is the GOP candidate for Governor of Virginia, although his numerous blunders and extreme positions seem to have hurt his standing in the polls.
The book’s events finish in 2010, just after the GOP took over the House of Representatives and began their quixotic attempt to prevent climate change legislation from moving forward. Although it’s too early to declare this war over, it appears from recent polls that the nasty tactics and smear campaigns of the deniers have backfired. People are now realizing that the campaign against science was all about politics, with no real interest in respecting truth. Ironically, climate scientists keep reminding people that individual short-term weather events (such as heavy winter snows) are not the same as long-term changes that constitute climate. But the extraordinary heat waves and drought of the past few years, the record temperatures of 2009 and 2010, and especially Superstorm Sandy, have tilted the scales. A poll taken just after the 2012 election showed that 68% of Americans now regard climate change as a “serious problem,” up from only 48% in 2011, and 46% in 2009. A few weeks later, another poll found that 80% of Americans accept that climate is changing (compared to 73% in 2009), and 57% say the U.S. government should do something about it. And the most recent poll found that even a majority of GOP voters accept that climate change is real and that the government should do something about it (even if their leaders are still climate deniers)!
For anyone who wants an insider’s account of the climate wars, as well as a good description of how science works and is self-correcting (in contrast to the world of politics), this is an outstanding and riveting book. As a scientist who has published extensively in the fields of evolution and climate change, it scares the heck out of me that my family and I might be subjected to the same sort of harassment and intimidation and death threats. But it is encouraging that people like Mann stuck by their guns, and have withstood this pressure. It now appears that the attacks by ideologues no longer have the power to destroy careers that they once did. Now if we could only get the political will to face the reality, and work closely with the rest of the world (all of whom have accepted the truth) to mitigate the problem.