How climate change became partisan and weaponized | Interview with Dr. Michael Mann

We met with renowned earth scientist, Dr Michael E. Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University to talk about the “weaponization” of climate science, “climategate” and so much more. Enjoy!

How climate change became partisan and weaponized | Interview with Dr. Michael Mann

Renowned earth scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann discusses the iconic “hockey stick” climate change chart and the threats it poses to powerful fossil fuel interests. He offers insights into the partisanship that makes working together on climate change more difficult, the gradual “weaponization” of climate science, “Climategate,” and his transition from theoretical physics to climate science. Director of the Earth System Science Center for Pennsylvania State University, Mann talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview Transcript

00:01 MM: And I think that right now, the challenge in confronting the climate crisis is symptomatic of some of the larger challenges we have right now in our public discourse.

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00:14 JM: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and AcademicInfluence.com. And today, I’m really excited because on our show, we have Professor Michael Mann from Penn State University in Pennsylvania. And he’s gonna tell us a little bit about the growing controversy surrounding climate change and some of his roles in it. So first of all, Professor Mann, when did you get started? When did you move from theoretical physics and start working on climate change?

00:41 MM: Yeah, thanks Jed, it’s good to be with you. So back in 1989, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major in Applied Math and Physics, and decided to go off to Yale University to study theoretical physics. And after a couple of years into the program, 1992, I believe... It was, what we call, all but dissertation, I had passed my exams, I was ready to start my research. And I had sort of a crisis of scientific identity, which is to say, that I just wasn’t excited enough about the sorts of problems that I was being given, to solve in the physics field at that time. And so I literally, in response to this crisis, this crisis of scientific identity, opened up the catalog of science and applied science at Yale University and started, sort of, flipping through the pages and seeing what else was going on.

01:37 MM: And after one or two dead ends, I ended up talking to a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, who was using math and physics to study Earth’s climate system. And this sounded like a fascinating, big picture, science problem, that I could get excited about. And where I could use the tools, that I had learned in math and physics to work at the forefront of research in this area. It was an exciting time to be getting into the field of climate studies. And so, I didn’t look back, I ended up deciding to work with him, Barry Saltzman, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, doing my PhD in that department, studying Earth’s climate, analyzing climate data and constructing theoretical models of Earth’s climate system.

02:28 JM: Wow, amazing. And when you finished up your PhD at Yale, did you go immediately into studying the Earth’s climate and what capacity were you doing that?

02:38 MM: Yeah, so it’s sort of funny, I ended up starting a post-doctoral fellowship before I had been awarded my PhD. I had defended my PhD, but we did that sort of an accelerated timeframe, so I could start this Department of Energy, post-doctoral fellowship, that I had been awarded to work with some scientists at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I actually grew up. And so I ended up starting that post-doctoral fellowship, after I had successfully defended my PhD, but I didn’t yet have the piece of paper, that came in 1998. And so, I did my post-doc at UMass, working with Ray Bradley, who was a climate expert there, in their department of Geo sciences. And ended up staying on as a research professor until 1999, where I took a position, an academic position, at the University of Virginia, in their Department of Environmental Sciences.

03:39 JM: And was it, while you were at Virginia, that everything sort of blew up with a hockey stick and you on the Internet? Well, when did that all happen?

03:48 MM: So I would say in 1998, a couple of years into my post-doctoral research, my co-authors and I, published the now iconic, hockey stick curve, in an article in the journal, “Nature”, back in April 1998. In fact, it was on Earth Day 1998, April 22nd. And it got a fair amount of media attention and it sort of quickly became, sort of, this icon, in the climate change debate. Because the graph that we published told a pretty simple story. You didn’t have to understand the complex workings of Earth’s climate system, the Physics and the math to understand what this graph was telling us, that there was this unprecedented warming taking place today. And by implication, it probably has to do with us. It coincides with the industrial revolution and the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide concentrations from fossil fuel burning and other human activities.

04:48 MM: And so it became, the hockey stick, describes the shape of the curve. The handle, if you will, is the sort of, moderate cooling, beginning a thousand years ago, into the depths of the little Ice Age. And the blade is the sharp upturn, the warming of the past century, which has no precedent as far back as we were able to go, a thousand years. And again, so it told a pretty simple story and because it told a simple story, it was a threat to some of the powerful vested interests who find the science of climate change, inconvenient, because it implies that we need to do something about the problem, we need to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. And that’s a threat obviously to some powerful vested interests.

05:33 JM: It sure is. Now, had you published that paper, 10 years earlier, do you think it would have been something that our country would have acted on? I hear that back around those days, there was, sort of a bipartisan group, that was trying to do something about carbon emissions, both Republicans and Democrats. So, do you think it would have been a little bit better if it had been discovered earlier?

05:56 MM: That’s a great question. And you know, the hockey stick wasn’t necessarily the critical development in our understanding of human-caused climate change. It was visually very compelling and it got a lot of, sort of, attention. And it’s often been pointed to, as sort of, a central exhibit, in the case for human-caused climate change. But by that time, by the mid-1990s in fact, there was already an emerging scientific consensus that the planet was warming up and it was human activity that was responsible for that. And so, it is interesting that it was sort of... In that period, in the mid to late 1990s, where the attacks on climate science really started to ramp up. Now as you alluded to, there was actually some degree of bipartisan support for environmental policy in general. Prior to that period, Richard Nixon gave us the EPA.

06:57 MM: Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, to ban ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons, George HW Bush gave us Cap and Trade, to deal with the acid rain problem. And so, there had been, in the 80s and even into the early 90s, some bipartisan support, I would say, for market mechanisms for dealing with environmental problems, and that eroded, as the implications of the science became clear. What became especially clear was that, the findings of climate science posed a major challenge to the world’s largest and most powerful industry, the fossil fuel industry, and they chose to use their excessive influence and power and wealth, to engage in a decades-long campaign, to discredit the science, and it’s unfortunate, because it wasn’t always partisan.

08:00 JM: It wasn’t always partisan, but it sounds like had your stuff come out and everybody’s stuff come out 10 years earlier, that would have just sped up the resistance by 10 years, so it would be more... [chuckle]

08:12 MM: I think there’s some truth to that. The opposition really was a response to how clear the science had become. For some time, fossil fuel interests were perfectly happy to entertain the idea that we needed to throw more money at the research, that this was a problem with lots of uncertainty, “Let’s continue to study it. And by the way, we’re happy to support funding of climate science,” as long as the science sort of remained inconclusive, and once the science became conclusive, well, then it was a much greater threat. So I think you’re exactly right, that was the critical development.

08:52 JM: That was the critical... And it wasn’t like with acid rain, where they could change the way they burned coal or switch from coal to natural gas, this was every single thing that they stood for, taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the rest of the world. There was no way around it, at that point, so in some ways, there was nothing they could do about it, that would change the way they could make money, essentially.

09:17 MM: Yeah, it’s a really good point. It’s interesting when you look at, again, sort of past global environmental crises and how we responded to them and the politics of how that came together. There’s this myth that, for example, that the chemical industry was a happy player in the efforts to combat ozone depletion, but in fact, when you talk to scientists who were sort of fighting that battle back in the 1970s, 1980s, there was quite a bit of opposition from industry, because it did impact their bottom line, there were alternatives to these ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons, so that’s critical, there were alternatives that could be used, but they were more expensive. And so, there was quite a bit of give and take, but ultimately I think there was a lot more good faith back then, and industry in the end, did work hand in hand with politicians and scientists and we solved this problem collectively, and that was sort of the history of these global environmental problems.

10:29 MM: I think we’ve entered into a regime, we talked about how, as the science became more definitive and it really represented a challenge to the most powerful and wealthy industry, the fossil fuel industry, but we have to combine that with the hyper-partisan atmosphere, no pun intended, that we now find ourselves in, which makes it so much more difficult for industry and government and policy makers to work together. And I think that right now, the challenge in confronting the climate crisis, is symptomatic of some of the larger challenges we have right now, in our public discourse.

11:10 JM: Yeah. So it’s a combination of it being right to the jugular of the fossil fuel industry. They had no other way to get around it. It was just, their whole life is bringing fossil fuel, carbon up from the ground, and then the climate of discourse had changed. And we interview a lot of political scientists on this program, one of them at Harvard, Steve Walt, said that it was because of Newt Gingrich that weaponized the left and the right and everybody, both on the left and the right, just after that kind of followed suit and started having discourse that was not as productive. And then climate science just got caught in that back and forth volley between the two sides.

11:51 MM: I think that’s right.

11:52 JM: And we couldn’t make the same kind of progress that we did, when the EPA was signed by Nixon, as you mentioned, and things just seemed to work a lot better. We cleaned up our air, we cleaned up acid rain, we changed emission standards on vehicles, all without too much trouble, but this is now a different era.

12:09 MM: That’s right. One more interesting data point to that.

12:13 JM: Yeah. Go ahead.

12:13 MM: Which was on climate specifically, we really saw a remarkable transition in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. And in my book: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I begin one of the chapters with a quote, and I tell you, it’s one of the two candidates in the 2000 election on the campaign trail, and he’s talking about the importance of acting on climate and we’re gonna regulate carbon emissions, and you would be certain that it was Al Gore, but it wasn’t, it was George W. Bush, [chuckle] and it was really during his first term, where there was somewhat of a coup by Dick Cheney, the Vice President, who was very closely tied to the energy industry, to Enron. And they sorta came in, they kicked out Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, former Governor of New Jersey, Republican, who was very proactive on climate and under her leadership of the EPA, carbon was declared a pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Well, the forces of delay and denial and inaction, swooped in, she was out of there within a year, and the rest is history, and then Dick Cheney and the energy industry took over, and they were now in control of energy and environmental policy. George W. Bush himself, was actually on the right side, as was his father.

13:36 JM: Yeah, that’s good to remember. Now, the first time I came across your name, was when the media was abuzz with ‘Hide the Decline.’ So how do you explain that whole uproar, to people who have just heard about it in passing?

13:53 MM: Yeah, so it’s more than 10 years old now, the so-called Climategate affair, and I think there have been so many additional attempts to play that game; climate change critics to take words and phrases out of context and misrepresent the scientists. And we’ve seen that now writ large in our politics, right? Where else have we heard this story? Stolen emails used to impact our politics in a way that’s adversarial, that is adverse to a prominent politician, be it Russiagate and Hillary Clinton, or the politics of climate change and climate scientists and some of the same players, in fact, in Russiagate. Russia, obviously, WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, some of the same players that were involved in that effort to sort of impact the last presidential election were also involved in this earlier episode, which sometimes has been described as almost a test run for what we saw happen in our last election.

15:02 MM: And it was indeed a bad faith effort to take stolen emails and mine from them individual words and phrases like, Hide the Decline you mentioned. That was actually a reference by one of my colleagues, to a well-known problem that they had published on in the journal Nature, about the decline of certain types of tree ring measurements to temperature, their response to temperature declines after the 1960s, and there were various theories for why that happens. It’s known as the Divergence Problem, and it may have to do with other impacts on tree growth like ultra-violet radiation or acid rain. It’s an area still of active inquiry, but it was a completely harmless discussion about how to deal with these misleading data in a graph that this colleague was preparing, and basically he was saying, “I’m not gonna show the bad data ’cause that would be misleading.” So we’re eliminating these particular tree ring records after the 1960s where we know they no longer represent temperatures very well, in this graph that he was preparing for a World Meteorological Organization cover of a WMO report.

16:19 MM: So there were many examples of that, where something that was quite harmless, which was just jargon between scientists, like a trick. A trick is a clever way of solving a problem to a mathematician or scientist, but you can turn around and use that to make it sound like scientists are engaged in nefarious efforts to trick the public. Many investigations later, what we now know is there really was only one act of misconduct, and it was the theft of those emails in the first place. It’s sort of the fool me once. That approach to undermining faith in science, I think is no longer useful, because it was discredited. They had their moment. Organizations took years to fully assess all of these emails and the claims and counter-claims, and to come to the conclusion that there was no wrongdoing. And in the meantime, the critics were able to do damage to climate policy, they were able to sabotage, for example, the Copenhagen Summit of December 2009. And the stolen emails appear just within a month of that summit. Clearly it was designed to hijack and sabotage that important climate summit. And as you alluded to, it set us back, right? There are all of these things that have set us back. If we had acted decades ago, we would be going down a bunny slope though when it comes to the reduction in carbon emissions that we need to avoid catastrophic warming.

17:52 MM: Now instead, we’ve got a black double diamond slope, if you’re a skier. We’ve got a much tougher path to follow. We have to reduce our carbon emissions much more dramatically, ironically, because of efforts to delay action to discredit the science. It set us back and it’s made it more costly now to act, but what will be much more costly will be if we fail to act.

18:19 JM: Wow, well, thank you so much for spending some time with us today to share your thoughts. It’s been truly interesting, and I appreciate you taking the time.

18:28 MM: It was my pleasure. It was great talking with you.

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