The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

By Bryan Walker 21/02/2012

It was clearly never Michael Mann’s wish to be embroiled in the public controversy that has been manufactured by the denial industry around his and his co-authors’ work. He’s a scientist first and foremost, the nine-year-old who wanted to know what it meant to go faster than the speed of light, the high school student whose idea of a fun Friday night was hanging out with his computer buddies writing programmes to solve challenging problems, the Ph.D candidate looking for a big-picture problem to which he could apply his maths and physics interests, the post-doctoral researcher wanting to pursue curiosity-driven science. ’When we first published our hockey stick work in the late 1990s,’ he explains, ’I was of the belief that the role of a scientist was, simply put, to do science.’

In support of that belief he eschewed the notion of taking any position regarding climate change policy. But merely doing the science, resulting in the hockey stick graph which showed a rapid and unprecedented global warming in recent time by comparison with the proxy temperature records of the last thousand years, meant that he was catapulted willy-nilly into public attention. And not just attention, but attack and vilification by the denial campaign. The title of his book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines is no overstatement. He has battle scars.  However it’s not a conflict he is prepared to retire from.  He no longer thinks he should avoid communicating the societal implications of climate science. Quite the opposite. He points out that scientists who study climate science and its potential impacts understand better than anyone the nature of the climate change threat. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for scientists to leave the field to industry-funded climate change deniers to confuse and mislead the public and dissuade policy makers from taking appropriate action.

That is certainly what they are intent on doing. Mann recounts the now familiar story of how the tactics used in past industry-funded campaigns denying health and environmental threats have been employed again in the attack on climate science. The denial campaign has been formidably successful in sowing doubt in the public mind and giving the impression of serious differences among climate scientists. Benjamin Santer, Stephen Schneider and James Hansen were among the scientists singled out early for special assault, their integrity impugned and their work dismissed as lacking scientific rigour.  Mann was to join their ranks when the hockey stick graph was given prominence in the 2001 IPCC report. He describes what he calls the ‘Serengeti strategy’ where climate change deniers isolate individual scientists just as predators on the Serengeti Plain pick off vulnerable individuals from the rest of the herd, as if the entire weight of the scientific case for human-caused climate change rested on a handful of scientists.

The suggestion is all the more ridiculous in that Mann consistently makes clear the nature of climate science as a community endeavour. He writes of the science as the fruit of the labours of thousands of scientists from around the world. The hockey stick papers depended on the work of others.  He is at pains to point out that decades of work by paleoclimate researchers ’led to increasingly rich networks of climate proxy data and the introduction of new ways to use such data to reconstruct past climates. My colleagues and I were the beneficiaries of this substantial body of past work.’

Another aspect highlighting the community nature of science is the vigorous challenge of conclusions and methods that is part of the community’s modus operandi. Mann states that scientists are inherently sceptical and science is therefore self-correcting. He points out that arguments have to be robust enough to survive this process of challenge or they fall away. The hockey stick reconstruction is no exception and has received — and survived in its essentials — critical scrutiny from many other scientists. Independent reconstructions by other scientists using different methods and data have been broadly similar to that of the hockey stick. Mann devotes considerable space to addressing the claims of economist Ross McKitrick and blogger Stephen McIntyre that the hockey stick work is statistically flawed, claims which remain staple fare in denialist circles in spite of the wide scientific support for Mann and his colleagues.

The book provides a connected narrative detailing many aspects of the denialist campaign over the past decade.  There was little let-up. Mann records how he was convinced in 2009 that in spite of suffering setbacks the denial campaign was not going to fade away. ’There was too much at stake for the special interests behind the scenes.’  Sure enough disinformation pieces multiplied in the right-wing media. Character attacks against climate scientists were unabated. Phil Jones and colleagues at CRU received a barrage of FOIA demands, as many as 60 in one weekend alone.  The most malicious of all the assaults on climate science, timed for the run-up to the Copenhagen conference, occurred with release of the climategate emails and the accompanying interpretation of malfeasance on the part of the climate scientists concerned. Mann comments that the most disheartening aspect of the affair was the readiness of respected media outlets to give credence to the accusations and innuendo spun by the professional climate change denial machine. Even the Guardian allowed itself to suggest that the scientists were guilty of wrongdoing in journalist Fred Pearce’s sad series of articles.  Climategate brought large volumes of hate email and telephone threats to Mann himself and his family.

In 2010 came the demand from Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli that Virginia University turn over to him every document relating to Mann during his six years on the staff there. Cuccinelli was unsuccessful, but continues to seek ways of pursuing his crusade against Mann. The assault on climate science is far from over. But Mann considers that there has been a change in the readiness of scientists to recognise the magnitude of the threat from denial and to become active in defending the integrity of the science and promulgating the seriousness of what it bodes. He’s certainly not quitting the battlefield himself. In his book he unequivocally espouses the message that if we allow carbon dioxide concentrations to reach 450 parts per million we will have locked in at least two degrees of warming relative to pre-industrial times; this is dangerous interference with the climate system likely to result in devastating sea level rise, more powerful hurricanes, more widespread drought, and increased weather extremes, with adverse impacts on human life and health, animal species, and our environment.

That is the message which the denial movement labours so stridently and so unscrupulously to obscure. Mann testifies to their destructive intent from his own bitter experience, and sounds a clarion call to the defence of science. The book is more than a personal story. Individuals may be targeted but Mann makes it clear that it is no less than science itself which is under assault. The climate wars are not a sideshow; they go to the heart of civilised society.

Gareth adds: Mann talks about his book and the issues it raises in this Youtube video:

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