Saturday, February 11, 2012

Long live the hockey stick! Climate science fights back.

The new book by Michael Mann tells the story of the reconstruction of past temperatures called "the hockey stick" because of its characteristic shape. Despite the propaganda campaign against climate science, climate scientists are standing their ground and fighting back.

Repeat something a sufficient number of times and, eventually, people will believe it, no matter whether it is true or not. It is one of the most effective tricks of propaganda and it has been used more than once against science, for instance in the demonization of the "Limits to Growth" study. During the past few years, it has been applied repeatedly, even obsessively, against the "hockey stick," the reconstruction of past temperatures on which Michael Mann and coworkers had been working from the 1990s.

It is rare in the history of science that a single piece of experimental evidence has been the object of so many attempts of demolition. Yet, all the serious reviews of the original data have basically confirmed the initial results. Being unsuccessful in demolishing the science, the attacks have moved against the scientist, Michael Mann himself, who has been subjected to an unbelievable denigration campaign, defamed, insulted, and even physically threatened. Recently, the campaign against Mann has targeted his new book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars", with a large number of negative reviews and derogatory remarks which appeared in the reviews of the book on the Amazon site. Most of these seem to be the work of web identities created expressly for this purpose, i.e. "sock puppets".

What is amazing in this story is how people are fighting back! If you look at the comments on the Amazon site, you see how the derogatory comments have been overwhelmed by favorable comments written by real people who signed with their names. Climate science is still under heavy attack but, clearly, there is a core of concerned people who care about the future. Science is standing its ground and refuses to be overwhelmed by propaganda. It is a difficult battle but we need to fight it for everybody's future.

At this point, it seems appropriate to me to publish on this blog the interview that Michael Mann had granted to Italian version of the "Cassandra" blog in 2010. Here it is, in English.

From "Effetto Cassandra", Sep 05, 2010

1. First of all, can you tell us something of your scientific career? How did you arrive to study tree rings and paleoclimate?

It was a long and circuitous route. I started out as a physicist and had passed my exams and was ready to go on and do Ph.D. research in theoretical physics. But my heart was elsewhere. I wanted to work on something that had more obvious world-world implications. I saw that there were other faculty at the university I was studying at (Yale University) who worked on applications of physics to the geosciences. In particular, there was a professor (Barry Saltzman) who was working on the problem of modeling Earth's climate. that sounded fascinating to me. I went and talked with him, and he agreed to take my on as a student for the summer. That worked out well, and I ended up doing my Ph.D. with him, in the department of geology & geophysics. My Ph.D. involved studying the natural variability of the climate system (i.e. the natural long-term oscillations of the climate) using theoretical climate models and analysis of available observations. The historical record wasn't long enough to study possible century-scale oscillations. That's what originally led me to turn to climate proxy data, such as tree-rings, corals, ice cores, etc. they could provide a longer-term, if more uncertain, perspective on the evolution of Earth's climate over the centuries. Ironically, my original foray into climate proxy data had nothing to do with climate change per se!

2. At some point, you must have realized that the discussion about the validity of the paleoclimate studies had turned from a scientific one to a political one. Can you tell us how and when you discovered that the dispute had stepped outside the limits of the scientific debate?

Well, after our temperature reconstruction (the so-called "Hockey Stick") was featured in the very prominent IPCC summary for policy makers in 2001, we suspected we would be subject to attack by climate change deniers. And they haven't disappointed. Their strategy has always been to attack the messenger, discredit the science and scientists, and fool the public. We've seen this for decades. Its the same playbook that for example the tobacco industry, the chemical industry, and the pharmaceutical industry have all used to try to discredit science demonstrating potential adverse effects from the use of their product. The fossil fuel industry has taken it to a whole other level however. We literally have the most powerful industry that ever existed on earth using much of their resources to smear the science and confuse the public about the adverse effects to our world of fossil fuel burning. History will look back most unkindly on industry-funded individuals and groups  who sought to intentionally mislead the public about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change.

3. With the great noise about the "hockey stick" and about "Climategate", many people became convinced - in many cases, I think, in good faith - that you are a liar, a criminal and worse. How does that affect your everyday life? For instance, how about your students?

Well, I like to think that individuals engaged in good faith would think no such thing, as even a cursory examination of the facts demonstrates otherwise. But I do think that there has been such a concerted, well-funded smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists by  industry front groups and the far right, that even some reasonable people may be rather confused now about the facts. That of course is the intent of the industry-funded disinformation campaign. Fortunately, I have had much support from my students and colleagues at the University, and scientists around the world, who recognize the smear campaign against me and other climate scientists, for what it is. Of course, there are some ill-informed individuals out there who have engaged in some rather nasty activities, including hateful note and emails, and the like. Unfortunately, its now a fact of life if you're a prominent climate change researcher that you will be subject to these tactics.

4. I think that we - as scientists - must have made some serious mistakes in our communication strategy if deniers have been so successful in attacking climate science. Of course, one of the reasons is that they are led by professional PR people, very good at this kind of campaigns. Yet, I think that the scientific community has neglected communication - would you agree with me on this point? And what do you think we should do in the future to improve our strategy of communication and avoid seeing again such things as Climategate?

Well, I do agree that the scientific community at times has been slow to recognize the concerted, well-funded smear campaign against us and to do something to fight back. In the wake of the manufactured 'climategate' campaign and the attacks against the IPCC, many of my colleagues have now awakened to what we're up against. So perhaps that is the silver lining in all of this. I think in the future you will see far more resources devoted to outreach and communication, including a rapid response strategy to concerted efforts to smear our science and scientists.

5. Scientists often tend to seek public anonymity. They seem to believe that "facts should speak for themselves". Instead, deniers promote themselves as public figures. They may not be nice people, but they know that the message and the messenger cannot be separated and this tactic has been successful. Personally, I believe that this is one of the (very few) things we should learn from them. Do you agree with me? Do you think we should all acquire a better personal visibility?

I do agree. I think we need to humanize the image of the scientist to the public. Too often, scientists are viewed as cold, disconnected, antisocial beings. There are always a few bad apples. But in the vast majority of cases, nothing could be further from the truth. The professional climate change denial campaign has recruited and trained a cadre of charismatic individuals who, though thorough charlatans, are versed in presenting a public face of affability and are quite skilled rhetorically. Scientists are often out-matched when going up against them in debates and other public forums, even though we have objective reality and truthfulness on our side. This problem is now well recognized, and there are many individuals and groups that are trying to deal with it. So I expect much serious efforts to address this problem in the months ahead.

6. Paleoclimatology is a fascinating subject, too bad that it has been so clouded by silly controversies about the "hockey stick". Apart from that; paleoclimatology goes to explore a fundamental point: the relation of human beings with their environment. So, climate change affects humans but also humans change climate. We have plenty of examples in which the collapse of a civilization has been linked to climate change; from the Maya to the Romans, but we still are not able to establish a relation of cause and effect. According to Ruddiman, humans have been affecting climate from the starting of agriculture, but it is also possible that external factors have been at play as well, for instance small changes in the solar output. Of course, this is a field that is still in its infancy, but you are at the forefront of these studies and you could tell us - perhaps - your opinion: do we find a relation between human activity and climate change in the past? Are civilizations brought down by climate change, or do civilizations create the change that destroys them?

Great questions, and I wish I had all of the answers. I think Jared Diamond has perhaps addressed best some of the larger questions here in his book "Collapse". There are many examples we can look to in the past where human's had the ability to exploit and degrade their environment to the point of unsustainability. The destruction of Easter Island through uncontrolled deforestation is one of the great cautionary tales to humanity in this regard. Bill Ruddiman has made a compelling argument that human activity (e.g. rice cultivation and deforestation) might have begun to influence the concentrations of greenhouse gases to the point of having some climate impact several thousand years back. The claim remains rather controversial. What is not controversial is that only within the past century to we have the means at our disposal to change global climate in a dramatic fashion over such a short timescale. It is really the rate at which humans are influencing the climate which poses the greatest threat. Humans and natural ecosystems can adapt to slow change in climate. There is no analog we know of in the past where global climate has been altered as rapidly as we are changing it today. So we are in unchartered waters, engaged in an uncontrolled experiment with the future of civilization and the environment potentially hanging in the balance.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)