The Embattled Climate Scientist Who Fought Back

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  February 8, 2014

The Embattled Climate Scientist Who Fought Back

Michael Mann: Well funded fossil fuel industry propaganda campaign responsible for shifting public opinion against the reality of climate change
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Dr. Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We're continuing our discussion with renowned climate scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University. He's the author of the book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, which in part details the attacks that have been levied against him by conservatives, for example in The National Review, which accused him of fraud and compared him to the serial child molester Jerry Sandusky for some of the groundbreaking work he's done.

So, Dr. Mann, we know you can't address this ongoing lawsuit. You have had some significant victories in court. So we're looking forward to having you on when this lawsuit has settled and you can talk about the details.

But a lot of these attacks, which have included things like death threats against you, have resulted from your hockey stick chart. Talk about what that is and start from there.

DR. MICHAEL E. MANN, DIRECTOR, EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE CENTER, PENN STATE UNIV.: Sure. Well, a decade and a half ago, while I was still a postdoctoral researcher, still a young scientist, I published this curve, along with two coauthors, that represented our estimate of how the temperature of the Northern Hemisphere had varied over the past 1,000 years.

We only have about a century of widespread thermometer measurements that we can use to estimate global temperatures, so to go further back in time we need to turn to indirect measures of climate that are called proxy climate records, like tree rings or corals or ice cores. These are natural archives that record something about the climate and which we can use to sort of solve this puzzle of how the climate varied in the more distant past.

And when we published these results in the journal Nature and then a followup paper a year later, what it showed was that the recent warming of the past century was without precedent as far back as we could go, at least 1,000 years back in time. And that curve, which showed sort of a gentle long-term cooling trend into the depths of what we call the Little Ice Age, followed by the abrupt warming of the last century, got called the "hockey stick" because of its shape, and the blade of that hockey stick is the rapid warming that we've seen over the past century.

It became a sort of iconic graph in the climate-change debate, and because of that, I, whether I liked it or not, became a central figure in the larger debate over human-caused climate change. And in particular, groups, front groups, industry-funded, paid advocates, those who seek to deny that climate change exists because they find the implications of the science inconvenient in terms of what it says about the need to transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels, well, they engaged in a full-frontal attack to try to discredit me and my coauthors, and thus their hope was to try to discredit this iconic graphic, the hockey stick, as if the entire weight of evidence for human-caused climate change relied on a single graphic published by a single set of three authors a decade and a half ago. And of course that isn't the case. There are numerous independent lines of evidence that tell us that global warming is real, it's caused by us, and that it represents a threat if we don't do something about it. But because this graph was so iconic, there was a cynical effort by climate-change deniers to try to go after me, to try to go after this graphic, so that they could claim that they had discredited the case for concern over human-caused climate change.

NOOR: Talk about what the impact has been of these industry efforts on public opinion in the U.S. about climate change. From my understanding, the U.S. kind of stands alone in the public's understanding or belief in climate change, and especially, even if climate change exists, what mankind's role in--the role of industrial emissions is in creating that climate change.

MANN: Yeah. I mean, and it isn't coincidental that it's those countries that have the largest fossil fuel industries--the U.S. being one of them, Australia being another--where we see this extremely well-funded effort to discredit climate change. It's literally a machine. It's an extremely well-organized, well-funded effort that is promoted through think tanks and industry front groups and hired guns, scientists with seemingly impressive credentials who have been bought off by fossil fuel interests and are now serving as advocates for them by attacking their fellow scientists, by attacking the science of climate change.

This is the same tactic that was used decades ago by the tobacco industry. Rather than accept the science was in and that tobacco products were having this adverse impact on human health, they chose to try to bury the scientific evidence. They chose to attack the scientists who were bringing to light the connection between their product and adverse impacts on human beings.

Well, we have the same thing here now, except that we have a different industry, the fossil fuel industry, that is seeking to deny the relationship between its product--fossil fuels--and the health of our entire planet.

NOOR: I wanted to get your response to a recent New York Times article. It's titled "Industry Awakens to the Threat of Climate Change". And, you know, they cite various multinational industries, like, for example, Coke and others, who have increasingly acknowledged climate change exists because their production and processing has been impacted. And it talks about how corporate leaders and politicians gathered at the World Economic Forum at Davos to begin to address these issues. But do you think this is overstated? Do you think corporate leaders as a whole have really awoken to this threat and this urgency, and not just [incompr.] bottom line and not just the effects on their profits?

MANN: Yeah, well, I think we see a battle taking place right now in the business community. There are those industries that are just looking at their bottom line and recognizing that climate change is going to have an adverse impact on their industry. The reinsurance industry in particular, they are the ones who are going to have to pay out the claims. They're the ones who have to insure the insurers who have to pay out claims when we continue to see, like we have over the past few years, literally more than $10 billion weather- and climate-related disasters a year. Hurricane Sandy alone cost more than $60 billion.

If you look globally right now at the toll that climate-related damages are having on our economy, the most credible estimate, from a fairly large group of economists who have studied this problem, is that we are currently spending about $1 trillion of global gross domestic product a year. It's a 1 percent tax on our global economy. That's huge. It's a huge tax on our global economy. And it will get much larger if we commit to greater and more damaging climate changes.

So the reinsurance industry recognizes that this is a problem and that we need to do something about it. It's hurting them already. The national security community, the U.S. military recognizes that climate change is the greatest security threat that we face in the decades ahead. The Pacific Navy commander has said that our greatest national security challenge in the decades ahead is climate change, because it creates conflict, because it creates more competition for diminishing food resources and fresh water and land. So you have quite a few groups, industry groups and institutions like the national security community, that have in good faith recognized that this is a challenge that we need to meet.

But on the other hand, you have, unfortunately, some very cynical fossil fuel funded organizations who are continuing to deny that the problem even exists. And, obviously, we cannot have a good-faith discussion about what to do about the problem if some of those at the table refuse to recognize that the problem even exists.

So I think there is some progress that's taking place, and more and more business groups and industries are recognizing that climate change is going to hurt their bottom line and we need to do something about it. But we still have some bad-faith actors at the table as well, in the form of some fossil fuel interests and some of the groups and organizations that they fund. And so we're sort of seeing right now a developing battle of the titans. On the one hand, you have the fossil fuel industry, or at least some fossil fuel interests who are going to fight tooth-and-nail against any regulations of carbon emissions. But you have the rest of the business community that increasingly sees that we need to do something about this problem.

And it's my hope--and I remain optimistic that it is those better angels, that it is those voices that will win out in this ongoing debate.

NOOR: And I guess between those two juggernauts we have the future of humankind that they're sort of playing with and gambling with.

MANN: Absolutely.

NOOR: Dr. Michael E. Mann, thank you so much for joining us.

MANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

NOOR: Dr. Mann is the author of The Hockey Stick and Climate Wars and he's a renowned climate scientist.

You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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