This episode is not about climate change. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, we talk with Nobel Prize winner and Penn State Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael E. Mann about his journey through the climate wars over the past two decades and the role that experts have to play in moving out of the lab and into the spotlight to defend the scientific process.
Doing so is more important now than ever, he says, as corporation-funded think tanks continue to churn out information that deliberately sows skepticism among the public about our role in climate change. But it does beg the question: How do square the idea that in a democracy, everyone’s vote is equal but everyone’s opinion is not?
Mann was part of the team that created the now-infamous hockey stick graph that showed how quickly the rate of warming on the planet had accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century. In the 20 years since graph was published, he’s had his email hacked, been called to testify before Congress, and been hounded by Internet trolls long before social media existed.
He chronicled those experiences in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Despite it all, he’s more passionate than ever about spreading the good word about science and cautiously optimistic that things might turn out ok after all.Discussion/Reflection Questions
Michael: Even today when there is cause of pessimism in the area of climate science, we are seeing progress on this issue at the state and local level. Also, we’re seeing progress on this issue of climate science in the private sector where corporations are taking it upon themselves to improve their practices. For example, when Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement, state and local leaders joined a pledge signifying there were still on board with the initiative. Given all of these efforts, we would still likely meet the goals under the initiative regardless as to whether we officially leave the agreement or not. However, meeting the Paris agreement is not enough to control global temperatures below dangerous levels. In order to accomplish this, we’ll have to do even more. However, we are starting to see a positive bend downward in global temperatures.[9:00] In an era of government gridlock, we’ve seen an increase in private activism from companies and individual activist. Can you speak more to this?
Michael: This is perhaps the primary reason for optimism. In this atmosphere of hostility towards fact based discussion and action, we’ve seen a rebirth of citizen engagement on this issue. The science march in DC is a good example of this. We can’t just sit back after publishing the articles and let the government sort of figure it out. That doesn’t work anymore.[10:30] You talk in your book about scientists having to come out and be advocates of facts. Can you speak more about that challenge?
Michael: I would have been happy to have been left alone in the lab doing what I love to do, which is scientific study and solving problems. The last thing on my agenda was the idea that I’d get in the debate over human caused climate change. It is not what I signed up for. However, whether I liked it or not, I was thrust out into the public arena when we published the hockey stick graph. It is an uncomfortable place to be. Partly because this isn’t what we’re trained for. We are trained to live in a world where facts and logic rule the day. When you leave this sphere, the rules of engagement are completely different. Here, facts and logic don’t play the same role as they do in the field of science. Here, rhetoric wins over logic. If you’re going to succeed as a scientists in this political sphere, you have to adapt how you convey information to the public in an adverse atmosphere. Over time, I’ve become comfortable in this role.[14:00] What is the Serengeti Strategy? How was it used against you and then how did you turn it back against those who disagree with you?
Michael: It is an analogy for how critics of climate science attack those who stray from the pack of climate science. I coined that phrase after a trip to the Serengeti where we say a group of Zebras lined up side to side. Our guide informed us that this is a strategy for confusing predators. With a wall of stripes, the predators don’t have a single target to lock in on. Essentially, it is a defense strategy. The critics know they can’t take down something like an entire government panel on climate change, but they can single off a particular scientist and go after them.[16:45] At any point during the attacks you experienced did you question what you were doing?
Michael: I was very confident in our science. Also, the fact that dozens of other studies have supported our original findings, I’m even more confident in the work we were doing at that time.[17:30] In light of the Serengeti Strategy, is there a belief within the scientific community that you have to sort of present a unified front?
Michael: I don’t think so. There is robust within the field about different approaches to study and to solving the problem. Scientists spend most of their time arguing about advancing the science between what is known and what isn’t know. It is by disagreeing and challenging popular opinion that advances and new discoveries are reached. This is also how people get funded. However, this is often used by opposition to argue that we’re just in this for the money. That is just not the case.
Another important thing to point our is the significant of a scientific organization coming out with a definitive statement about the impact of climate change. Usually, the scientific communities strays from such strong statements. The fact that there is enough agreement from a diverse field for an institution to make this statement is something people should take note of.[20:40] Do you have an opinion on the idea that in a democracy all votes are equal but opinions are not?
Michael: There is an attack on expertise and fact based debates. While this is a new issue broadly speaking, this is something we in the climate science community have been dealing with for years. All of the tools used against our research years ago are the same ones we’re seeing be employed today along a broad range of topics at the national level. What I think we’ve seen is that the environment around discrediting our work has metastasized to infect our entire body politic.[24:00] What do you think is the treatment or cure for some of the problems we’re seeing in fact based debate nationally?
Michael: Ultimately, the only real solution is democracy and the democratic process. This includes people getting out to vote. If we allow special interests to continue to outweigh the voters, we’ll see a continued push back against our efforts.[26:00] Can you speak about a time where you saw someone’s opinion on climate science change after speaking with you?
Michael: There have been some great examples. An employee of the AEI, which is a Coke brothers front group, came to the realization that he had been fighting for the side of evil. He is still a republican, but he is now trying to be on the right side of the science. I’ve come across many skeptics, which is not inherently a bad thing. All good scientists are skeptics. However, being skeptical in the fact of overwhelming evidence is not good skepticism. There have been many instances where I’ve had people come to me after a lecture and tell me that they are a least questioning their prior position. This is all we can ask for. We can’t want to replace one sort of evangelism with another. We want people to be able to critically evaluate the evidence. We have to help them to be able to do that.
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