“The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”
by Michael E. Mann
Columbia University Press, 2012
Climatologist Michael Mann’s new book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” tells an all-too-familiar and all-too-American story of the betrayal of science by greed, willful ignorance and manufactured doubt. As Mann notes in a chapter called “The Origins of Denial,” his experiences since the 1998 publication of the now-famous hockey stick graph of the second millennium global temperature record by Mann and collaborators Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes (known as “MBH98”) uncannily mirror those of Rachel Carson, Herbert Needleman, Paul Ehrlich and other scientists whose work made them enemies of America’s most powerful industries. If it is curious how closely the “climate wars” resemble previous clashes over the risk of pesticides, lead, asbestos, and smoking, it is also curious how surprised and unprepared Mann was to find himself in the crosshairs of shadowy billionaires, shady think tanks, and unscrupulous pseudo-scientists.
To put it another way, perhaps the most curious thing about “Hockey Stick” is that it is not really about climate change at all. Atmospheric science is never far from the foreground of Mann’s narrative, which contains refutations of his critics that are as detailed as they are impassioned. But the pages of “Hockey Stick” contain just as many political cartoons as charts of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and reconstructed Holocene temperature trends. Beneath the climate science lies is a personal narrative about the initiation of a mild-mannered lab rat into the scummy and distinctly “post-truth” world of high-stakes politics, in which Todd Akin can serve on a congressional science committee, a presidential candidate can unironically announce that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers” and in which there is a semi-ironic coinage, “truthiness,” for the watery gruel that substitutes for hard fact and logic. Global climate change, you might say, is merely the background scenery in a political bildungsroman tracing Mann’s career arc from young scientist at Yale (where he received his PhD the same year MBH98 was published) to bruised, world-weary crusader against the petro-lobby and its vast disinformation machine.
“Hockey Stick” recounts many of the flash-points in the climate wars beginning with the publication of the MBH98 graph that was later made famous by Al Gore in the “elevator scene” from the 2004 film “An Inconvenient Truth” and that has become a kind of mascot of the climate wars. One key episode related by Mann is the controversy that erupted in 2003 over a paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas in the journal Climate Research purporting to refute the MBH98 temperature reconstruction. The Soon and Baliunas paper prompted Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe (who called climate change the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” and talked about pursuing criminal sanctions against scientists involved with the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, whose Third Assessment Report in 2001 Mann helped to author) to convene a congressional hearing at which Mann was called to testify. In the hearing, Inhofe depicted the Soon and Baliunas article as a death blow against climate science when in fact, shortly before the hearing, several editors of Climate Research had resigned in protest over the specious paper. At the same time Texas congressman and energy committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (who famously apologized to BP after the 2011 Gulf oil spill) threatened to subpoena Mann’s personal e-mails, and called for a congressional report with the sole purpose of attacking the validity of Mann’s research; riddled with errors, this 91-page report was later revealed to have been plagiarized from “climate denial” websites. Inhofe and Barton’s over-reach may have left them looking like fools, but never before had an individual scientist undergone such blatantly political intimidation by sitting members of the United States Congress. This is one area where Mann’s story of persecution looks even more egregious than the treatment of Rachel Carson (who was hounded and humiliated by the chemical lobby while dying of cancer, but at least got a respectful reception at congressional hearings in 1963) and other forebears of scientific martyrdom.
Mann takes pains to say that there are both Democratic betrayers (from coal-producing states) and Republican defenders (the now-retired upstate New York Republican congressman Sherwood Boehlert, who blurbed the book) of scientific truth, but if you are inclined to believe that the party of Theodore Roosevelt has been hijacked by an anti-science, Ayn Rand-worshiping cult, you will find plenty of corroborating evidence in this book.
The climate wars reached an apex — or nadir, depending on your perspective — when a series of private e-mails between scientists affiliated with the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia was hacked and illegally leaked to the press in November 2009, in an episode that became known as “Climategate.” Climate skeptics giddily pounced on a handful of ill-conceived and poorly-worded phrases, wrenched them completely out of context, and launched a new front in the climate wars. Mann, whose name appeared in some of the stolen e-mails, found himself again at the center of attention. He became the most eloquent and visible counter-puncher, cementing his status as “the leading defender of his scientific field against political attacks,” as science journalist Chris Mooney has called him. Mann found himself the subject of death threats, virtually limitless abuse on the Internet (try googling “Mann-made global warming”), and attempts to have him fired from his job at Penn State (a writer at National Review compared Mann’s actions to the scandal surrounding Penn State football coach and child molester Jerry Sandusky). Mann lays out the evidence that Climategate and its aftermath were orchestrated to look like the crack-up of climate science and a subsequent grassroots backlash; in fact it was a phony scandal kept alive by huge infusions of cash from the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing Pittsburgh millionaire famous for sponsoring witchhunts against Bill Clinton. All this was occurring just as the Koch brothers were helping to orchestrate the “grassroots” tea party movement.
It is easy and sometimes convenient to forget that scientists are people, too, with coping strategies, defense mechanisms, and sometimes short fuses. To the extent that “Climategate” was a scandal at all, it was a product of the bunker mentality that climate scientists have adopted in response to the kind of constant harassment and intimidation that “Hockey Stick” vividly depicts.
ClimateProgress blogger Joe Romm has called Mann the “most vindicated man in America,” which is gratifying praise for anyone with a target permanently affixed to their back; but this Clark Kent-by-day, climate-science-Superman-by-night never sought a role in the climate wars. It was a role thrust on him, and he has come to embrace it: as a founder and contributor to the popular science blog RealClimate.org, as an active presence on twitter (almost three times as many followers as the IPCC), as a frequent guest on television programs around the world. If Mann seems a little uncomfortable with the self-promotion required to champion scientific truth in a post-truth age, he also understands that it comes with the territory.
Ultimately what makes Mann’s book useful is that in the rapidly expanding literature about our warming world there are plenty of books about the science of climate change by scientists and non-scientists, and plenty of books about the politics of climate change by non-scientists, but few if any books about the politics of climate change from the perspective of a scientist in the field. Mann has taken ample advantage of his front-row seat in the climate wars to fill that void, giving us a disturbing glimpse into an important and sadly enduring aspect of our fraying political culture, namely the degradation of science by manufactured doubt. The assault on science by special interests and their sometimes unwitting enablers is not a new feature of our politics (2012 is, after all, the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring”), but with atmospheric CO2 concentration nearing 400 parts per million, and events like superstorm Sandy exposing the enormous vulnerability of our coastal cities, the stakes may be higher than ever before.