Hockey-stick graph creator talks 'Climategate,' 'Denialgate' and resisting schadenfreude

In 1998, a young climate scientist named Michael Mann published a paper that would change his life forever.

The work by Mann, then a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, and his two co-authors sought to reconstruct the past climate hundreds of years into the past, using information from tree rings, ice cores and other "climate proxies" to peer beyond the modern temperature records that began in the 1880s.

The result was startling: a graph that showed global average temperature ticking up sharply during the second half of the 20th century, like the blade of a hockey stick.

To mainstream climate scientists, it was yet another sign that recent warming is unprecedented in Earth's history. To climate skeptics, it was ripe for attack.

In 2005, the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into Mann's work, with lawmakers accusing the scientist of professional misconduct. In 2009, Mann was among the climate scientists whose emails were stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, in an incident now known as "Climategate." More recently, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (R) started to investigate whether Mann violated a little-used tax fraud statute during his tenure at the University of Virginia.

In his new book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines," Mann recounts his tumultuous life in science.

ClimateWire sat down with Mann last weekend in Vancouver at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

ClimateWire: The hockey-stick work was something you started as a postdoctoral researcher. Nature published the initial study on Earth Day in 1998. Then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] decided to spotlight the hockey-stick graphic in the summary for policymakers that accompanied its 2001 report. Do you ever wonder to yourself, would my career be different if one of those things didn't happen?


Mann: You know, I do think about that sometimes. What if I had just stayed in theoretical physics and gone on studying the theory of liquids and solids? Then, obviously, I would've had a much different career. I wouldn't have had to deal with a lot of the nonsense I've had to deal with. But I also wouldn't have had the opportunity to try to engage the public in what may be the greatest -- the science underlying what may be the greatest threat that has ever faced civilization. And so, while I was sort of a reluctant entrant into the public discourse, I have sort of embraced that role and done my best to use it as an opportunity to communicate the science and its implications. Looking back, given the opportunity, I'm not sure I would have done things differently.

ClimateWire: You mentioned in the book and you mentioned just now that the way you deal with climate skepticism and the attacks directed at you has changed over time. Was there a particular turning point where you decided to focus more on outreach, on defending your work and climate science in general?

Mann: I get into this issue in the book about skepticism -- our detractors, I wouldn't reward them with that term. This has become almost a mantra of mine: One-sided skepticism is no skepticism at all.

I think early on in my career I was very much of the mindset that a scientist stays in their lab or behind their computer screen, and you do the science, and you publish it, and it's the responsibility of everybody else to make whatever use of that science they may. Discussions of implications and policy should all be left to others. The scientist's role is just to do science.

And I think it was because of the crescendo of attacks that I was subject to -- I'm not sure I can look back at any one episode, although there are a couple that I do talk about in the book. I do talk about that crescendo. Early on, our work was attacked by [climate skeptics] Fred Singer and Pat Michaels. Not having had any experience with the world of climate change denial, and being a scientist who was raised to believe that people deal with each other in good faith, and arguments are in good faith, and criticisms -- which are very important in science -- are done in good faith, it took me some time to realize that these people are not engaged in a good-faith debate with us. They're trying to smear us and discredit us. I guess I slowly awoke to that.

Early on, I even responded to one of the criticisms. There were a series of criticisms after our first '98 Nature article was published in the World Climate Report, which is Pat Michaels' effort. And I treated that as if it had been published in a peer-reviewed journal. I asked him if I could publish a response, and he did [say yes]. I figured, "OK, well, these guys, they're OK." It took a while for it to sink in that, no, they are not looking to have a fair and honest debate with us. They are looking to discredit us.

I'm trying to think if there was a critical juncture -- I think it was more cumulative.

ClimateWire: You mention in the book the attacks on Ben Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, after he helped write a sentence in the IPCC's 1995 report that said there was a "discernible human influence on climate." You also allude to the attempt by the George W. Bush administration to muzzle NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen. Have you had any particular role models for dealing with the attacks on your own work?

Mann: There are so many heroes that I have. One of the real silver linings in all this is that I've gotten to meet a lot of those heroes. I just had dinner with Bill Nye last week. And he's a hero -- he's somebody who knows the science but who has such an amazing ability to communicate it, and to get people excited about it, and to understand the culture of science.

I think it's so important to understand how science works, because it's so easy to vilify us if you don't understand that we don't get rich on government grants, and you don't get ahead in science by engaging in a massive conspiracy to prove the other person right.

But some role models do come to mind, one of whom I'm going to get a chance to meet this week -- David Suzuki, just a great scientist and a wonderful communicator of science. Carl Sagan, of course, was a hero of mine, one that I didn't get a chance to meet. He passed away before I got into this field. One climate scientist you didn't mention who was an inspiration, for certain, was [Stanford University climate scientist] Steve Schneider. It was very sad when we lost him a couple years ago, not just because he was such a great person and he was a friend, but because he had no equal when it comes to being able to engage the public and explain science and its implications -- to talk about every facet of the climate change problem in a way that is both informed and very open.

[Schneider] came to me early on, in fact. I think I allude to this in the book. When we were under attack, Steve Schneider came to me, and he said, "Well, understand that these attacks that you're being subject to are in fact a testament to the importance of your work, and the fact that it's threatening to some very powerful vested interests. Wear that as a badge of courage. We're behind you."

He didn't use those exact words, but that was the meaning. And that meant so much to me to have someone like him or [former Stanford University president and Science editor] Donald Kennedy or [Stanford University biologist] Paul Ehrlich -- heroes -- come to my defense and actually become friends in the process, along with the support of letters I often get. Emails from people who say, "Keep going. Thanks for what you're doing." That more than offsets all of the bad stuff. It's part of what keeps me going.

ClimateWire: What's the ratio of supportive email to unsavory or threatening email? We've heard a lot about the barrage of unpleasant messages that you and other climate scientists receive.

Mann: You know, in recent months it's been about 10-to-1 on the positive side.

ClimateWire: Is that a change?

Mann: It is. We went through some rough spots in the scientific community, in the wake of the stolen emails and the pointing out of real and imagined errors in the IPCC report. We went through a low point where we were being vilified by our detractors. There was a very well-funded, well-organized smear campaign being run against climate science and climate scientists.

In the ensuing one to two years, all of these various investigations were done, and they all showed there had been no impropriety on the part of climate scientists.

But I think it also woke up the scientific community to the fact that, as Nature said in an editorial, scientists are in a street fight. That doesn't mean we're street fighters; it just means that street fighting is being used against climate scientists by those looking to discredit them. I think it woke up the scientific community, and since then, it's amazing -- AAAS, the National Academy of Sciences, I could list dozens of organizations that have come out with statements in defense of science and scientists. I think that was an unintended consequence.

ClimateWire: After the last IPCC report came out in 2007, there was talk in some policy circles that the science was settled as to whether humans have caused climate change, and the debate should move on to how to cut emissions and develop adaptation policy. But that's not what happened -- the skeptics seemed to come roaring back. Were you surprised by that, or were you waiting for it?

Mann: It's the latter. There was this perfect storm where Al Gore's movie ["An Inconvenient Truth"] came out and the IPCC report came out. They got a lot of good, positive media coverage. There was the Nobel Prize that IPCC won. There was this sort of euphoria that led to a complacency in the scientific community, but also among those defending and trying to communicate to the public, that we had won this war, the climate wars, on the science. And it was now just going to be about policy, adaptation -- that's what we'd be talking about.

And I knew that wasn't true, at least in part because I had been too much of the center of the attacks from the forces of anti-science to believe that they were going to give up that easily. And they didn't. They retrenched. Maybe we saw the Battle of the Bulge, maybe that's what it was.

ClimateWire: There are definitely some policy folks and scientists engaged in this issue who feel discouraged by the way the climate debate is going in the United States. And yet in the book you seem to be talking about Climategate as a turning point and a rallying cry.

Mann: I think it was. The [American Geophysical Union] meeting this last December, the feature award at the awards ceremony was the climate change communication award, which went to my good friend, a wonderful science communicator, [NASA climate scientist] Gavin Schmidt.

AGU featured that award above all others, and I think it was a larger chunk of time was devoted to that award than any of the others. And there were 10 times as many sessions on outreach and messaging and how scientists can be better communicators, and even side events the whole week -- training sessions to help scientists become better communicators.

My interpretation is that many scientists, most scientists, felt like I did at the beginning of my career. That our role stopped at the point of presenting your work at a meeting or publishing it in the literature. I learned over time that we had to do more, because I understood the tactics and the goals of those trying to discredit us.

I think it was the attacks in the wake of the hacked [Climategate] emails that woke up the rest of my colleagues and allowed them to peer behind that curtain and see what some of us had seen already, to exposure of the seamy underbelly of climate change denial. I think that led to a sea change in the way that scientists in my field see our role in the sphere of communication.

ClimateWire: Do you think, at this point, that if you're entering the field of climate science as a Ph.D. student or a young postdoc, you should consider communication to be part of your responsibility -- and that along with that comes dealing with threatening email, at the very least, and at the other end of the spectrum, fraud investigations or Facebook protests?

[Mann was recently the subject of an industry-funded Facebook campaign that asked Pennsylvania State University -- his employer -- to "disinvite" him from giving a talk on campus. The university declined to do so, and Mann delivered the talk on Feb. 9.]

Mann: You know, I think those tactics are beginning to backfire. The moderator at the talk I gave at Penn State thanked the Pennsylvania coal industry for giving them the greatest turnout ever at a Penn State Forum event.

ClimateWire: I read that there were radio ads denouncing your recent Penn State lecture.

Mann: They ran radio ads against me. A front group funded largely by the Scaife Foundations ran attack ads against me in our student newspaper -- I talk about that in the book. I had never heard of that happening before. There were certain things that happened to me that had no precedent. I didn't know how to think about them because they were unprecedented.

I think that a lot of that is increasingly backfiring on our detractors, because it's exposing to the public this very ugly side of those who are looking to deny the reality of climate change, those who are looking to discredit our science.

So I do see a silver lining in all of this. But I do think it's a reality that scientists in my field have to deal with. Not all scientists. Those who choose to be out front on the issue of human-caused climate change, those whose work becomes prominent in the case for the reality of climate change, those who seek to engage with the public and to try to communicate the science to the public -- sure, they will be on the radar screen of this well-organized and well-funded effort to discredit our science.

Fortunately, scientists as a lot tend to be stubborn and cantankerous. We don't tend to take kindly to being misrepresented. We fight back. You're seeing that now. It may be that some of these attacks will simply steel the resolve in younger scientists in communicating and engaging. I see a lot of young climate scientists now on Twitter.

Some of that is a generational thing. But that also tells me that a lot of young scientists value communication and outreach even more than we did in the past.

I think that may be a testament to the fact that this campaign has backfired, and actually energized them.

ClimateWire: Earlier this week, several documents purporting to show budget and "climate strategy" information from the right-leaning Heartland Institute were leaked online. In some ways, it seems like a mirror of Climategate. How do you view that?

Mann: My understanding is that I know the Heartland Institute was challenging the authenticity of one of the documents. But now my understanding, from reading news reports, is that pretty much everything said in that document is independently verified from other documents. So it would appear the charges are true.

I would never support hacking or criminal efforts to get a hold of those sorts of materials, whether it's scientists or organizations funding climate change denial, although my understanding is that they actually sent out those materials mistakenly to an individual who is not part of their inner circle, and that's how the materials came out. So unlike the hacked [Climategate] emails, there doesn't appear to have been any criminal component to these materials getting out. It was basically a whistle-blower, as far as I understand it.

There was a part of me that found this remarkably ironic that this came out right at the time that I'm going on tour and lecturing about my book, because it really does independently reinforce everything, things that we sort of knew anyway, that there are these front groups funded by -- increasingly less so by the fossil fuel groups like Exxon Mobil directly, and more by private fossil fuel interests like Koch Industries.

What was shocking to me was a description of an effort to indoctrinate children in K-9 grades in school with climate change disinformation, with anti-science propaganda. It's outrageous.

I think somebody said, "The curtain has finally been lifted." The public has now been able to look behind and see that seamy underbelly of climate change denial.

There's an irony to the fact that this all happened as I was talking about all this stuff anyway in the context of the book. I've resisted the temptation to feel schadenfreude over this. But I do think it's useful that the public had an opportunity to see what a lot of us already knew.

[Two days after this interview, Mann was part of a group of seven climate scientists who released a letter discussing the Heartland Institute incident. It reads, in part: "Although we can agree that stealing documents and posting them online is not an acceptable practice, we would be remiss if we did not point out that the Heartland Institute has had no qualms about utilizing and distorting e-mails stolen from scientists." Yesterday, climate scientist Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, said he obtained and leaked the Heartland memos.]

ClimateWire: One last question: What's your "elevator speech" on climate change?

Mann: What I'd say to somebody in that 30-second interval I have in the elevator is that the basic physics and chemistry underlying the greenhouse effect and human-caused climate change is irrefutable. Most people don't realize, but we've known about it for two centuries.

Gases like CO2 have a warming influence on the lower atmosphere. We've understood that property of these gases for nearly two centuries. We're increasing them through fossil fuel burning, the globe is warming, and we know that the impacts will be much greater than anything we've seen thus far if we continue on the course that we're on.

While the science is often framed purely in terms of scientific issues, or economic issues, or maybe political issues, it's also deeply an ethical issue, because it's about the planet we choose to leave our children and grandchildren.

We can still preserve the planet we grew up with for them if we reduce emissions, but there's not a lot of time left. We need to act now.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Request a trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines