"We need to adapt… changes are coming no matter what"
The publication of your emails with East Anglia University climate scientist Phil Jones at the end of 2009 may have undermined UN climate talks in Copenhagen a few weeks later. Was the timing deliberate?
We know the thieves had access (to the emails) for several months and were clearly waiting to release the stolen materials at a time when it would have maximum impact. Essentially they tried to de-rail the Copenhagen climate summit – there’s no question in my mind. There was a campaign to use out-of-context snippets from the emails to try to mislead and confuse the public about the evidence for human-caused climate change. It was smear campaign intended to scuttle any progress by distracting the policy makers and public with spurious allegations. There wasn’t enough time to respond. In the two years following, there have been more than a half dozen investigations in the US and UK and in every case they have found no impropriety on the part of the scientists.
Has much damage was done?
I think history will look at these attacks against climate scientists as one of the mostly deeply unethical public relations campaigns we have ever seen. It was not only a crime against humanity, but a crime against the planet, to the extent that the assault set back progress in confronting climate change by several years. There is a real cost incurred for future generations, for our children and grandchildren who are going to suffer the consequences.
Your ‘hockey stick’ graph has been highly influential in outlining the reality of global warming – can you explain what it is?
We only have about 100 years of widespread thermometer measurements that document the warming of the past century. To address how climate has changed in the longer term my co-authors and I needed to turn to other information – tree rings, corals and ice cores. We were actually interested in questions unrelated to climate change, looking at the El Nino phenomenon had varied in the past and how climate had responded to large volcanic eruptions. But we were led to the inescapable conclusion that recent warming was without precedent. What our graph showed is relatively warm conditions about a thousand years ago, then a slow decline as we enter the period we might call the Little Ice Age. Then the abrupt warming of the past century, like the blade of the hockey stick. I characterize myself as an accidental and reluctant public figure in the debate, because the graph took on a life of its own.
It became important to science-based policy, but also attracted the interest of those determined to remain unconvinced about man-made climate change.
Yes, I was subject to a barrage of attacks from those looking to discredit our work – they saw it as a powerful symbol of the evidence for human-caused climate change. The saw the need to take down that icon and to take me, as the lead author, down in the process.
Why were you reluctant to get involved in the debate? A natural shyness?
Well, I was interested in science from as early as I can remember. In high school I was a sort of science nerd. My idea of a fun Saturday night was hanging out with a few of my computer nerd friends, writing programmes to solve interesting problems. When I went to university I still wanted to work using computers to solve interesting science problems. I was driven by natural curiosity to work on big picture problems and only wandered accidentally into this minefield of the debate over human-caused climate change. Over time I’ve learned to embrace the role I have. Now I can’t imagine devoting my life to anything more important than trying to educate the public about this issue.
Do scientists need to get better at discussing their findings and ideas in public? What role should climatologists have in shaping policy?
Scientists are uneasy about wading into the arena of politics and public policy. As someone trained as a scientist, who thinks like a scientist, it’s outside of my comfort zone. But either we allow ourselves to be misrepresented or we fight back, and I’ve chosen to fight back. Scientists have to step up and make sure we’re not misrepresented by the vested interests. The problem (of climate change) is real – there are serious threats looming, and we need to have a good faith discussion about transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels. I do believe we need some kind of incentive structure to wean ourselves off that reliance, but I’ll let the politicians and policy people draw up a way of doing that. I don’t believe it’s my role to advocate for particular policies, so I’m not out there saying ‘We should pass this kind of carbon tax’.
Your book details the work of privately funded, climate change-denying think tanks. Was it surprising to find congressmen and state attorney generals also attacking and ‘investigating’ your work?
I’d like to say it’s surprising that people like that have engaged in witch hunts designed to intimidate climate scientists, but frankly it’s part and parcel of an ongoing campaign of vilification fought by vested interests. What’s especially distressing is that we could be having a legitimate debate on what to do about climate change – the right incentive structures, which policies to pursue and so on. But unfortunately prominent US politicians want to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to accept climate change is real. One of the heroes who came out to defend us was Sherwood Boehlert – the Republican chair of the House of Representatives Science Committee (until 2007) – who condemned the actions of his Republican colleagues.
There does seem to be a growing number of US pastors and churches taking on climate change as an issue of “creation care”. Does this give you hope?
Yes, it’s been a bright light in all of this. I very recently gave a lecture to a group of school children in Washington DC, Bishop O’Connell High School - one of the largest Catholic schools in the area. It was a wonderful experience. I’ve been so encouraged that there a lot of people in the faith community who are very passionate about this issue, who see it as an issue of stewardship of our planet, and who also see it very much as I see it – as a matter of inter-generational ethics, concern over what kind planet we leave our children and grandchildren. It makes me more upset that there are some out there – the corporate right - who have tried to co-opt the religious community for political gain.
Some people are now talking of a post-collapse society. Can you see the rhetoric in the environment movement turning towards the idea of adaptation to inevitable climate change?
We’ve talked mostly about the need for mitigation to decrease our emissions and to try to abate some of the threats. In fact, we’re already committed to a certain amount of future warming and a certain amount of future climate change no matter what we do. We’ve already locked in changes to the climate system for decades to come, even centuries. We’re going need to adapt. Changes are coming no matter what we do. There are no uncertainties that we are warming the planet and changing the climate – that’s accepted science. But there are real uncertainties about precisely how much future warming we might see depending on our emissions pathway, and about the precise impacts of different temperatures and drought patterns and hurricanes and so on. So we could be having a good faith debate on these uncertainties, and thinking about them in making wise policy as far as adaptation is concerned. I wish it was the discussion we were having in the US now, rather than whether climate change is happening or not.
Are you optimistic the US will catch up to the kind of debate going on elsewhere in the world?
We’re somewhat behind in the US and we’re missing out on what the rest of the world is doing. China is moving ahead us in terms of investment in non-fossil fuel energy. They and others are going to be benefiting from new technologies. Meanwhile we’re stuck in the mud. But I do see a change in the wind. In the US we’ve been seeing record-breaking warmth over the winter and people are wondering, ‘What’s going on?’ People are recognizing the problem is real and isn’t going away and they’re going to hold policy-makers accountable. It’s not too late to do something about the problem. There’s no reason for despondency, but there is reason for a sense of urgency.
Michael E. Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines is available on Columbia University Press, £19.95 (£16 as an ebook)
Interview by Adam Forrest