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Michael Mann, From The Trenches Of The 'Climate War'


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Just last month, leaked memos, allegedly from the Libertarian think-tank The Heartland Institute, surfaced on the Internet. The memos revealed a plan to reshape the discussion about climate change as taught in classrooms.

This is the latest battle in the war over climate change, a war that my next guest, climatologist Michael Mann, knows all too well. After all, he's one of the originators of the famous hockey stick graph. He's has hid personal mail, email hacked. Remember Climategate in 2009? He's been the subject of legal investigations. He's even received death threats, and now he's written a book about his life as one of the most vilified climate scientists.

It's called "The Hockey Stick And The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines." Dr. Mann is also director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, and a member of the IPCC that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007. He joins us from Honolulu. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, Ira, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: Are you on vacation?

MANN: No, I'm actually at a conference in Hawaii. We're actually discussing problems - the current state of the art in the field of paleoclimatology.

FLATOW: So your book is just - is filled with just climate wars, over and over again. Give us an idea of where we stand in that battle.

MANN: Sure. Well, you know, for really more than two decades now, there has been an effort by vested interests, and some of the groups that advocate for them, to try to discredit the science underlying human-caused climate change. And in many cases, that effort has taken the form of character attacks against scientists themselves. And I have found myself at the center of those attacks.

FLATOW: Now, you say that you're a reluctant entrant into this. And in fact, one of the lessons that you mentioned that you learned, in this book - and if I may paraphrase an old saying - it's that you don't bring a knife to a gun fight.

MANN: Right. Well, sure. You know, I came into the field of climate science as a physicist who was interested in finding novel problems where I could apply the tools of physics and math to work on some scientific problem, sort of a big-picture problem that was really interesting and might have some real-world implications.

And so I got interested in the science of climate change. And what I found, as our work became prominent in the debate over human-caused climate change in the late 1990s, when we first published that hockey stick graph showing how unusual recent warming is in a long-term context, what I realized was that many of those who were seeking to disagree or discredit that research were not engaging in sort of the good-faith rules that scientists engage in when we challenge each other, when we try to disprove each other, when we try to move the science forward.

And that process, that sort of good faith give-and-take is part of the true skepticism that helps move science forward. And it took me a while to realize that many of those who were looking to discredit not just me but the entire science of human-caused climate change, weren't playing by the rules.

FLATOW: Yeah, in fact you say: It is clear that the scientific community is, at present, ill-equipped to deal with direct assaults upon its integrity.

MANN: Well, that's right. As a scientist, when you're trained as a scientist, you're trained to believe that when somebody challenges a finding, they're doing so based on, you know, like I said, some good-faith reason to do so: some logical reasoning, some solid data, some argument to support their challenge of your work.

And that's - and science should be that way. You need that give-and-take. But unfortunately, scientists are ill-equipped to deal with those who, like I said, don't play by the rules; they are more than happy to make disingenuous and sometimes, frankly, quite dishonest allegations and arguments against the scientists.

FLATOW: Well, how do you better equip them, then?

MANN: Well, we have to - the journal Nature recently editorialized on this. In fact, it was a couple years ago now. They said that scientists - climate scientists - have to recognize that they're in a knife fight with those who are looking to discredit them.

And we can't play by the rules of knife-fighting ourselves because, you know, science is about being honest, about following the data and your hypotheses, where they lead you, by changing your, you know, conclusions when led to do so by the data.

So we can't engage in the dishonest tactics that those looking to discredit us may be willing to engage in. But we can try to become better communicators of the science; try to find novel ways to explain to the public the fact that the science is solid, that this is a real problem. We can't just bury our heads in the sands and pretend it doesn't exist. And there is a good-faith debate to be had about what to do about this problem.

But there can no longer be a good-faith debate about the reality of the problem and unfortunately, there are still those who are trying to have that debate.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Robert(ph) in Cincinnati, hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROBERT: So I'm in Cincinnati. It's about 64 degrees here, and there are thunderstorms in early March, and there are flies in my kitchen. And so I firmly believe that there are climate changes taking place. But I read about Fritz Vahrenholt recently, a German scientist and a father of environmentalism in Germany, who has come out of the closet and said that he can't take it anymore, that he does believe that the global warming is not taking place. Are you familiar with his work at all, or...?

MANN: I've heard something about that, and this happens very often. You'll have - sort of mavericks come out and disagree with the mainstream findings of science. And there's actually a role for that in the history of science. Like I said before, it's important to have this good faith give-and-take, and to challenge each other. That's part of the self-correcting machinery that keeps science moving forward.

Now, what is unfortunately the case is that in the public discourse, we often give so much weight to individuals. You know, those who seek to discredit the science of evolution like to personalize it, like to make it sound like it's all about Charles Darwin, and they'll call it Darwinism to do so when in fact, you know, we don't believe in the theory of evolution, we don't accept the theory of evolution because of Charles Darwin. We accept the theory because thousands of scientists over the past 150 years have reaffirmed the findings of him and other early scientists who contributed to our knowledge.

And that's the way science works. You know, it isn't the - some who look to make it sound like scientific conclusions are far more flimsy than they are, they'll build it up to be like a house of cards. They'll make it sound like the science is a house of cards, and if you remove just one of those cards at the bottom, it all collapses.

That's not the way science is. In the area of climate change, and with regard to the fact that humans are warming the planet and changing the climate, that's much more like a puzzle where we have filled in most of the puzzle. There are still some missing pieces, and at this conference I'm at in Hawaii right now, we're debating, for example, how climate change will influence the characteristics of the El Nino phenomenon. That's still not a settled matter.

But that's one of the pieces that's missing from the puzzle. But most of the puzzle is filled in, and there's no way we could rebuild that puzzle in a way that it would change the bottom-line conclusion that if you increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - like we're doing - the planet is going to warm. And that's what it's doing. And if we continue on this course that we're on over the next century, we will see far larger and potentially damaging impacts ahead of us.

FLATOW: Why has it become such a political, polarizing issue?

MANN: Well, you know, it's - I think because fossil fuels - oil and natural gas and coal - are at the base of our global energy economy. I mean, we are fundamentally addicted to fossil fuels. And there are, you know, powerful, vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry and various groups, ideologically driven groups, that work, you know, advocate for them, who understandably don't want to see that change because they benefit greatly from the status quo.

So they have been fighting hard to try to convince the public that the science is overblown, that if it's not the elaborate hoax that Senator James Inhofe likes to claim it is, it's at least so grossly uncertain that we shouldn't be making any changes in behavior. And that's simply not the case.

I mean, the science - the basic science of the greenhouse effect is nearly two centuries old. There's no way that it's possible to continue burning fossil fuels and not warm the planet the way we're doing. But there are those who would like us to believe that it's not a problem, and that we should continue with our reliance on fossil fuels rather than incentivize alternative energy sources and slowly move away from that addiction to fossil fuels.

FLATOW: People keep asking - and we've had, we've talked about this over and over again - what could I read, or how do I answer back people? What do I say to people who don't believe in it?

MANN: Well, the first thing that you say is that it's not a matter of belief. You know, you're entitled to your own opinions, as one politician famously once put it - but you're not entitled to your own facts. And unfortunately, somehow in the debate over climate change, or the debate over the theory of evolution or a lot of these - sort of these very contentious areas of science and the intersection between science and policy, it seems that there are those who feel they're entitled to their own facts, facts that are inconsistent with, you know, what the vast majority of scientists across the world have established.

And so I think we have to get away from this idea that in matters of science, it's, you know, that we should treat discussions of climate change as if there are two equal sides, like we often do in the political discourse. In matters of science, there is an equal merit to those who are denying the reality of climate change who are a few marginal individuals largely affiliated with special interests versus the, you know, thousands of scientists around the world. U.S. National Academy of Sciences founded by Abraham Lincoln back in the 19th century, all the national academies of all of the major industrial nations around the world have all gone on record as stating clearly that humans are warming the planet and changing the climate through our continued burning of fossil fuels.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to give you a chance to sell that to David in Troy, Michigan. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAVID: I'm looking at a graph from the Greenland GISP2 ice core temperature for the last 10,000 years. I'm not disagreeing with the climate change idea. I'm just disagreeing with his facts that we're causing it, because about 3,000 years ago, it was - we lost - started losing about four degrees C and then we had little - in the many dark ages, around 1000 A.D., we had medieval warming that went back up - it looks like about a degree and a half C. And then it came back down in the little ice age to 1905, and then it just started climbing back up again.

Looking at the overall graph for the last 10,000 years, we've been in the cool area for the last 152, 150 years, and it's just now starting to climb back up again.

FLATOW: Let me get an answer to that.

MANN: Yeah. Unfortunately, the gentleman has his facts just about all wrong, and there are great websites where you can go and get reliable information about the science of climate change, whether it's the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration or the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences. There's a great website called Skeptical Science that has sort of a list of all of the various myths about climate change that have become commonplace in sort of among those who deny the reality of climate change and the actual scientific responses.

So with regard to the issues of, you know, Greenland and what the Greenland ice cores tell us. Actually, there's been some discussion here at this conference I'm at about what we can learn from the Greenland ice cores. And we can learn quite a bit. We can look at isotopes in the ice cores. The oxygen isotopes, they tell us something about the air masses, the temperatures of those air masses at the time that that ice was laid. And so that's just one example of the kinds of information that we actually use to try to piece together this puzzle of how the climate changed in the past.

Unfortunately, you can't get a very good estimate of the average temperature of the Earth by going to one location, especially a location like Greenland where there are so many processes that can actually have a regional influence on the climate there. But if you look at the collective evidence, there are few things that are quite clear. We are raising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere now to levels that we haven't seen in at least 700,000 years and probably more than a million years.

And if we continue on the current course that we're on, by the end of this century, CO2 levels will reach a level that we haven't seen for tens of millions of years.

FLATOW: All right. Let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars." What else?

MANN: So we also know from various types of these paleo archives, not just ice cores, which give us some information from the polar regions and the few high elevation sites in the tropics. But corals - coral records that tell us about the tropical oceans, tree rings that tell us what's going on in the terrestrial regions of the Earth. And when we put all that information together, we can get a reasonable estimate of the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for a timeframe of maybe the past 1,000 to 2,000 years and before, if we go back any further, there aren't quite enough of those records to really get an estimate of what the average temperature of the entire hemisphere was.

But when we go back 1,000 to 2,000 years, it's quite clear. In fact, there are now literally dozens of studies, they use different methods, different data, and they've all come to the same conclusion that the warming that we're seeing now is unprecedented in - as far back as we can go.

FLATOW: Is there any way to talk about this in this political season to question candidates or what to ask them or - if your mind is made up, this is what I've always found in our history here. If your mind is made up, Dr. Mann, you can show them as many graphs as you want, and no one is going to change their mind about...

MANN: Yeah. You know, I often try to frame this because we so often talk about it, I think to our detriment, entirely as if it's just a scientific problem or maybe a policy problem and maybe a problem of economics, of cost-benefit analysis. But we don't talk often enough about the fact that this is fundamentally a problem of ethics. It's about the legacy that we want to leave our children and grandchildren. The fossil fuels that we're burning, the emissions resulting from our behavior today are influencing the climate for decades and even centuries into the future.

And what that means is that we are currently at a point where, depending on what we choose to do, if we choose to stay on the course that we're on, we are going to be leaving our children and grandchildren a fundamentally different planet than the one that we grew up on. And to me, that's a deeply ethical problem. And so, you know, it doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. You know, the - our children and grandchildren whether they're Democrats or Republicans alike will suffer the consequences if we continue on this course that we're on.

And so we have to begin, you know, turning the ship. It doesn't mean that we suddenly stop all burning of fossil fuels, but we have to slowly incentivize non-fossil fuel-based sources of energy and get away from this current reliance on fossil fuels that is raising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to what can reasonably be described as dangerous levels.

FLATOW: All right. Dr. Mann, thank you very much.

MANN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Michael Mann is author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines." We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk to the director, one of the actors of the new production of "Galileo" right here in New York. So stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.