Michael E Mann is one of two climate scientists who have been awarded the 2019 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.
Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University in the US and one of the most famous climate scientists in the world, is the man behind the infamous “hockey stick” graph, which came out in 1998 and for many became the first piece of understandable data that showed the effect humans were having on the climate.
The graph and Mann himself became lightning rods for climate sceptics and fossil fuel backers, thrusting him into a role of public persuader. For the past 20 years, he has tangled with politicians, Twitter users, and the occasional Russian hacker to help explain what, exactly, is happening to our climate.
He spoke with Cosmos from State College, Pennsylvania, in the US. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Cosmos: In some ways, it seems like we have hit a tipping point for talking about climate change. The New York Times recently called it 2018’s “topic of the year”. From your vantage point, do you think that’s true? If so, why?
Yes, I do. It’s a confluence of a few different things, one of which is the unprecedented summer of weather extremes that we saw. There were unprecedented heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and superstorms that played out at a global scale, and I think drove home the reality that climate change impacts are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time on our television screens and on our newspaper headlines, and our social media feeds, and so I think people are getting it.
I have certainly been focused, as many of my fellow climate science communicators have been, in trying to help the public and policymakers connect the dots and understand that this is the face of climate change. These unprecedented damaging weather extremes have been exacerbated by climate change and so climate change is not a distant and far-off threat. It is something that is impacting us now, adversely, where we live today.
But we have been seeing these things – every year, hotter and hotter – for a while now. You think it’s really just about people experiencing it on the ground?
I think there are a few things going on. First of all, the unprecedented weather. It is no longer this distant, almost theoretical construct. It is something very real that people are feeling.
And I think the public is getting it. They are expecting more from their policymakers. They are demanding, increasingly, that politicians focus on this issue. Look at the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has made climate change a featured part of her political identity. Her message is really connecting with younger folks. Politicians are actually seeing that you can win by campaigning on climate change.
And the reality is that there are developments in the science as well. We are increasingly able to connect the dots scientifically, to talk about how climate change is exacerbating weather extremes. We can identify the role that climate change is playing with events like hurricanes Harvey and Florence and the California wildfires.
Is a change in the way that we view climate change and the way that we talk about it going to keep us from those apocalyptic scenarios that we’re all kind of worried about?
All of these threads have come together in an almost perfect storm, if you’ll forgive the pun, that is creating a potential tipping point in the public consciousness.
There’s a race between two tipping points. The tipping point of the public consciousness, which we want to see, and the tipping point in the climate system that we don’t want to see and that we’re coming perilously close to. For example, the melting of major ice sheets and the global sea-level rise that would entail.
It’s a race between our ability to mobilise the public and policymakers to action and the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change we will see the further we go down this road of fossil fuel burning. That’s really the challenge, to turn this ship around as quickly as possible.
But we’re not going to avert all of the dangerous impacts of climate change. If you live in Puerto Rico or California, just about anywhere around the world – Australia is dealing with unprecedented summer heat right now, devastating heat and flooding events. Some bad stuff is already happening.
The challenge here is to avert as much of that damage as we can by bringing carbon emissions down as quickly as possible, by transitioning to renewable energy as quickly as possible.
You mentioned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She garnered some attention from both sides recently for saying we have 12 years to act before the end of the world. Is that true?
There is a substantial truth to what AOC said. She was really paraphrasing the most recent conclusions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, which basically says that if we are going to limit carbon emissions to below levels that commit us to two degrees Celsius, which would be devastating planetary warming, then we have to bring our carbon emissions down 5-to-10% a year for the next decade.
And a little bit overwhelming. You’ve been talking about this for a while. What is it like for you to give this dire warning all the time?
If I didn’t think there was hope, it would be very difficult. But I do think there is hope. I am cautiously optimistic that we are seeing some change now. Not enough to avert some pretty bad climate impacts, but we’re seeing enough to convince me that we’re getting onto the path we need to get on.
There are no physical obstacles to averting catastrophic warming of the planet. The only obstacles at this point are political ones. And those are surmountable.
How did you get into climate communications?
I sort of came into this, the centre of the fractious debate on climate change, in an unusual way. I am a physical scientist. I double-majored in applied math and physics at UC Berkeley. I went off to Yale to study theoretical physics and then decided to switch into the field of climate modelling to work on what I saw as a fascinating problem of understanding how Earth’s climate works.
And at that time, did you think it was the critical issue of our time?
No. To me it was a fascinating physics problem. The reason I went into science is I loved solving problems. I describe in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars how I became entranced by science and how that journey ultimately led me to somewhere I never expected to be. Little did I know that my interests in math and physics and problem-solving would ultimately lead me to the centre of one of the most contentious societal debates we have ever had.
My PhD thesis was really focused on natural climate variability, not on climate change. Climate change really wasn’t even on my radar screen as I was starting my thesis. As that work progressed, it led us in the direction of using archives of the distant climate past, known as proxy records: the tree rings, corals, ice cores. We can only go back in time about a century and a half with the instrumental climate records. I got interested in what those proxy records could tell us about long-term natural cycles.
It was the process of using those data and using them to reconstruct the past climate that produced this curve known as the hockey stick curve, which shows the abrupt warming of the past century to be without precedent as far back as we were able to go, 1000 years, in our original publication two decades ago.
We published that graph in the late 1990s, when the debate over climate change was really coming to a crescendo. While the scientific evidence was mounting, fossil fuel interests were increasingly using their tremendous financial resources and power to attack the science.
I came of scientific age at that very time, and then we published this article, which became exhibit A in the case for human impact on our climate. You didn’t need to understand the physics of the climate system to understand what the graph was telling us: That there is something unprecedented taking place, and it probably has to do with us. The hockey stick became a symbol in the climate change debate.
I found myself, reluctantly, at the centre of the very fractious public debate.
Over the last two decades, I have come to embrace that role, even though it wasn’t what I set out to do. I can think of no greater privilege than to be in a position to inform this larger discussion about what is arguably the greatest challenge and may be the greatest threat that we face as a civilisation.
You’ve attracted quite a bit of negative attention for being in that position as well. The whole Climategate “scandal”.
Climategate, in hindsight, is very interesting, because it involved hacked emails, and Saudi Arabia and Russia were both involved. WikiLeaks and Julian Assange …
You were really on the vanguard of that whole thing.
In my recent book, The Madhouse Effect, we talk about what played out in the last presidential election. The assault on climate scientists, Climategate, was almost a training ground. It was the same actors and the same mission. Climategate was about trying to distract the public and the policymakers with a fake scandal going into the Copenhagen Summit [also known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference] in 2009, which was the first opportunity for meaningful progress on international climate policy in years.
A compelling case can be made that Russia’s involvement and Saudi Arabia’s potential involvement in the last [US] election was about a half-trillion-dollar oil deal between Russia and ExxonMobil that had been blocked because of the sanctions against Russia.
What’s the first thing that happened under the now-infamous Paul Manafort? They changed the Republican platform to try to get rid of those sanctions. Then Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State. Is that a coincidence?
It was the same players and the same motive and the same disingenuity. In the case of Climategate, there have now been the better part of a dozen investigations in the US and the UK, and they have all come to the conclusion there was no impropriety on the part of the scientists whose emails had been stolen. The only wrongdoing was the criminal theft of the emails in the first place.
The science that we are doing is a threat to the world’s most powerful and wealthiest special interests. The most powerful and wealthiest special interest that has ever existed: the fossil fuel industry.
They have used their immense resources to create fake scandals and to fund a global disinformation campaign aimed at vilifying the scientists, discrediting the science, and misleading the public and policymakers. Arguably, it is the most villainous act in the history of human civilisation, because it is about the short-term interests of a small number of plutocrats over the long-term welfare of this planet and the people who live on it.