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Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

February 28, 2012 |  2:54 pm

Michael-MannClimate change may have dropped off the national political agenda, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. As of January, the Earth's atmosphere contained 393 parts per million of carbon dioxide. And rising.

To understand why that's a very sad number, it helps to know that from the dawn of human civilization until the 19th century, the concentration was about 275 parts per million, and that many scientists believe 350 parts per million is a sort of tipping point: Irreversible impacts and feedback loops start to kick in, and the cost of repairing the resulting damage from such things as sea-level rise and droughts not only skyrockets, the cost of adapting to the changes does too. But we've already sailed past that point. And we're heading inexorably toward another one that's far worse: 450 parts per million, the truly scary level at which 3.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial global average temperatures is locked in. The predicted result: centuries of weather extremes, drought-fueled global famine, mass migration, the vanishing of low-lying islands and territories as sea ice melts away, wide-scale species extinction and other horrors too numerous and depressing to list.

To global warming denialists, the above paragraph constitutes the "alarmist" perspective on climate change. Never mind that it is backed by a wealth of research, the world's most state-of-the-art climate models (whose accuracy in predicting the recent effects of climate change has been repeatedly demonstrated), the national science academies  of the world's developed nations (including the U.S. National Academies), the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other prominent academic and scientific organizations. To the denial set, these groups and individual scientists are part of a global liberal cabal that is scheming to impose its radical environmentalist agenda on the entire planet via government programs to cut carbon emissions; as proof, denialists point to their own research and studies -- typically funded by fossil fuel interests, performed by non-climatologists and published in non-peer-reviewed journals -- that pick away at the scientific consensus. You wouldn't think such an anti-intellectual and grossly irresponsible movement would have much success in the court of public opinion. You would be horrifyingly wrong....

In the U.S., serious congressional discussion of climate legislation pretty much ceased with the onset of the economic slowdown, when job losses turned costly programs to cut carbon into political poison. But it wasn't just the recession that dulled interest in the problem; polls show that Americans in recent years have grown less concerned about climate change and more confused about the science. A May 2011 Yale University study found that 64% of Americans believed global warming was happening, down from 71% in November 2008; and when respondents were asked what proportion of climate scientists believe in the phenomenon, the plurality said it was between 41% and 60%. The real number would be closer to 97%.

How did this happen? In 2010, science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway authored a seminal book, "Merchants of Doubt,"about the denialist marketing campaign, revealing both the strategies used to undermine public attitudes about the scientific consensus and the individuals and groups behind the effort. They showed that the basic strategies were honed decades before anyone had ever heard of climate change, when scientists began learning in the 1950s that cigarette smoke was carcinogenic. The response by the tobacco giants was to hire public relations agencies, which in turn set up research committees to perform studies that would contradict the growing public health consensus. Among the most important figures in this campaign was a prominent but ideologically driven scientist who would also, in the 1990s, lead the charge against the scientific consensus on global warming: Frederick Seitz.

Seitz, a physicist whose work on the Manhattan Project helped the U.S. develop the atomic bomb, went to work for R.J. Reynolds in 1979, directing research that challenged the findings of other scientists who linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer. In the mid-1980s he co-founded the George C. Marshall Institute, which was aimed at attacking an emerging view that President Reagan's anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative was impractical, and is now among the leading conservative "think tanks" attacking climate change theory. Along with other Marshall Institute founders Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg, he began writing reports in the late 1980s blaming global warming on natural factors or criticizing the methodology of climatologists who had demonstrated man-made warming. Another key player in this campaign was S. Fred Singer, who had honed his skills as a denialist by challenging the consensus that chlorofluorocarbons were eating away at the Earth's ozone layer.

The work of such early denialists as Singer and Seitz was widely debunked long ago, but it is still frequently cited on the blogosphere, illustrating one of the many problems faced by those who advocate action against climate change: The science is complex and its advances are published in highly technical scientific journals, making it easy for contrarians to cite old and faulty research that is swallowed whole by a credulous audience who don't really understand the science but are happy to latch onto evidence, no matter how tenuous, supporting their political view that climate change is best ignored. And that's where 2012's most important book on climate change comes in.

Pennsylvania State University professor Michael E. Mann may be the most vilified climate expert since Al Gore (though NASA's James Hansen might be able to challenge that title). He is one of the key creators of the so-called hockey stick climate graph, which became something of a global political sensation when it was cited prominently in the IPCC's third assessment report in 2001. Unlike the dreary statistics of most climate research, the graph was an easy-to-grasp, dramatic representation of the climate problem. Using data from ice cores, tree rings and corals, it plotted global temperature averages for the last 1,000 years, and showed something explosive: mundane ups and downs for nearly a millennium, followed by a dramatic rise starting in the 19th century (the blade of the hockey stick) and leading to global temperatures higher today than ever before since the Norman Conquest. The graph made Mann a scientific celebrity, but it also made him a target.

Rightly seeing Mann's graph as a powerful call to action for environmentalists, the denial machine -- which by the late 1990s had been honed into a powerful tool indeed, with multiple think tanks and industry groups arising such as the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the American Petroleum Institute and many others -- went in to overdrive to fight passage of a climate bill in Congress. In his soon-to-be-published memoir, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars," Mann refers to the tactics used against him and other prominent climatologists by these groups as the "Serengeti strategy:" an effort to defeat the herd by separating and picking off individual members, like lions hunting the weakest zebra on the veldt. Mann was subject to venomous personal attacks (including threats to his family), multiple congressional investigations by Republican lawmakers hoping to subvert the findings of he and other scientists, and a barrage of studies purporting to refute the data in Mann's hockey stick graph.

Mann's book is a fascinating successor to "Merchants of Doubt," picking up where Oreskes and Conway left off by telling the detailed story of his own very recent battles with the denialist machine. Its greatest strength is also its biggest weakness: In countering the many attacks against his work, he must delve into the complex statistical methodology and the arcane details of measuring ancient climate changes using things like coral or ice cores, topics that for the lay reader are about as exciting as reading a chemistry textbook. Yet without understanding these details, it's impossible to understand the scientific criticisms of Mann's work that have been leveled by multiple challengers -- today's successors to Seitz, Singer, et al. In the end, Mann demolishes every one of them -- and unlike his critics, his defense is backed by multiple peer-reviewed studies and the testimony of prominent climate experts.

The hockey stick graph didn't really crack the mainstream news until 2005, when the Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article pitting Mann against his primary critic -- Stephen McIntyre, who today is one of the most frequently cited of the denialist "experts." McIntyre is a former mining industry consultant who, along with right-wing economist Ross McKitrick (who also has no educational background in climatology), published a paper in a non-peer-reviewed journal in 2003 attacking the methodology used in creating the hockey stick. Their paper showed that the so-called medieval warm period of the 15th century exhibited temperatures similar to what we're seeing today -- yet, as Mann explains, they came to this conclusion after having "inexplicably removed from our network two-thirds of the proxy data we had used for the critical fifteenth-sixteenth-century period." In other words, having found data they didn't like, they simply removed it from the equation.

By 2005, McIntyre and McKitrick had dropped their assertion that the hockey stick had been produced using bad data; now they were criticizing the statistical analysis used by Mann and his fellow researchers. The Journal story played up the controversy, and the denialist machine used it to try to debunk not only Mann's work -- a very small part of the evidence on climate change -- but the entire global warming theory. Even today, largely as a result of the Journal story, many denialists believe the hockey stick has been debunked and happily repeat this canard every time the subject is mentioned. Less well reported are the multiple findings from independent experts proving that the McIntyre analysis was flawed. For denialists who don't want to believe this, please see the work of National Center for Atmospheric Research scientists Eugene Wahl and Caspar Ammann, who reproduced Mann's findings using their own computer code. Or please check out the highly comprehensive review of Mann's work completed at the request of Congress by a National Academy of Sciences panel, which upheld the hockey stick's findings while noting that, because of the nature of proxy temperature records, researchers can have a high degree of confidence only that recent years are the warmest they've been in 400 years; "less confidence" can be placed in surface temperature readings from 900 to 1600 AD.

If you're still not satisfied, there is also the IPCC's fourth assessment report in 2007, which devoted an entire chapter to "paleoclimate," compiling the evidence from more than a dozen temperature reconstructions created after Mann's hockey stick -- some going back as far as 2,000 years. The results show extremely wide variations but generally track Mann's graph, showing a notable "hockey stick" effect starting in the 19th century. And if you're still inclined to believe that all of this evidence is the work of radical socialist academics plotting to raise gas prices, kindly take your medication.

Mann's fame has lasted longer than 15 minutes, and it wasn't up when the hockey stick controversy died down. He was propelled back into the headlines in 2009, when hackers broke into the computer system at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and stole thousands of emails sent by and to some of the world's most prominent climate scientists -- including Mann. Dozens of them contained phrases that, when taken out of context, made it sound as if these scientists were purposely manipulating data or trying to prevent contrary research from being published, creating an ensuing scandal dubbed Climategate by the media. Some of the most explosive of these emails were written by Mann.

In his book, Mann takes great pains to explain not only the full context to his own words but those of other researchers who were unfairly tarred by the Climategate scandal. In one email cited by denialists, for example, Mann wrote about the importance of "containing" the medieval warm period in his work, making it sound as if he meant it should be hidden. In reality, he explains, he was simply expressing the importance of containing it within the historic period that preceded and followed it, which is why he thought it was important to go back a full 1,000 years. In the end, despite the histrionic comments from critics that Climategate was "the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming," a series of investigations from the British Parliament, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of East Anglia vindicated the scientists whose emails had been stolen, with none finding evidence of misconduct.

"The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" is a must-read for anybody who follows the politics of climate -- or who cares about the frightening future our failed political system is about to unleash. It's more than just a treatise about the debates of the last decade, as one very recent episode demonstrates.

Mann ends his book on a prophetic note with a chapter titled "Fighting Back." He expresses hopefulness that he and his fellow scientists can turn the tide of public opinion not by remaining unbiased observers on the sidelines, as they have done traditionally, but by taking a more active role in the debate. After many of his colleagues stood up for him during a witch hunt by Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, who was demanding every email, record or document related to Mann during his time as a professor at the University of Virginia, Mann was inspired to believe that scientists working as a team could make a difference. "Something is different now," Mann concludes. "The forces of climate change denial have, I believe, awakened a 'sleeping bear.' My fellow scientists will be fighting back, and I look forward to joining them in this battle."

That's something Mann might want to rethink. Peter Gleick, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient for his work on global freshwater challenges and president of the Pacific Institute, admitted earlier this month to borrowing a page directly from the denialists' playbook. Posing as someone else, he obtained internal documents from the Heartland Institute and distributed them to journalists, a tactic little different from the hack attack at the University of East Anglia that has been decried by environmentalists. Gleick's activism has ravaged his own reputation and given further ammunition to climate deniers, who won't have to look far to find a climate scientist whose political opinions have seemingly overcome his better judgment.

That's why Mann's conclusion is the only sour note in an otherwise highly readable and intelligent book, and why his own growing profile as an activist might come back to haunt him. Scientists, like journalists, really are more credible when they stick to the evidence, report the facts and let society come to its own conclusions. You handle the science, professor Mann; we'll handle the punditry.

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--Dan Turner

Photo: Mann's soon-to-be-published memoir, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars." Credit: Handout

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