Interview: Dr. Michael Mann, Climate War Veteran

If there was a medal for fighting the climate war, Dr. Michael Mann should probably get one. In the last decade he has been at the front lines of the fight over climate change, most noticeably as the researcher who created one of the symbols of this war, the hockey stick graph, as well as one of the heroes of the Climategate scandal. Now he has a new book coming out, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, describing his experience as a target of the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to sow doubt and thwart action on climate change.

Last week I met Dr. Mann for an interview at the Sustainable Operations Summit in New York. In an interesting coincidence, the New York Times (NYT) published an article two days earlier on a new survey showing that a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter and last year’s blistering summer were likely made worse by global warming. One of the paragraphs caught my attention in its attempt to present the climate change debate:

“A large majority of climate scientists say the climate is shifting in ways that could cause serious impacts, and they cite the human release of greenhouse gases as a principal cause. But a tiny, vocal minority of researchers contests that view, and has seemed in the last few years to be winning the battle of public opinion despite slim scientific evidence for their position.”

Triple Pundit: Dr. Mann, what do you think about this vocal minority?

Dr. Michael Mann: That’s what book is really about. It’s about this massive disinformation campaign that has been funded by fossil fuel interests, advocates for the fossil fuel industry, front groups and organizations that have sought to manufacture this fake debate about whether or not climate change is real.

3p: Is the fact that even the NYT seems to be a bit cautious when it addresses climate change part of problem?

MM: This article was written by Justin Gillis who is a really good journalist and I think he’s been covering this issue very well, but unfortunately it has been all too common for journalists to treat the issue of climate change as if there are two equal sides in the debate, when that’s not an appropriate way of covering issues that are fundamentally scientific in nature, when there is right and there is wrong.

I think in part that’s because there is so much pressure…there really is a machine, a very organized machine out there to make sure that when the NYT runs an article about climate change, you’ll be sure they will get thousands of angry emails from climate change deniers denouncing their (NYT) acceptance of the hoax of climate change. Ultimately their business model relies on advertising and so even the NYT is sensitive to that.

3p: Do you think what we have is more of a communication problem rather than a scientific one?

MM: Yes. Sometimes you’ll hear critics say we can’t act until we’re certain, until there’s proof, but science doesn’t work that way. In my book I note that proof is reserved for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. Scientists are skeptics by nature – there’s never been such thing as proof in science, but there’s the weight of evidence and we act on the weight of evidence. Why is it that when it comes to climate change, where there is as much scientific consensus about the reality of human caused climate change as there is about any scientific proposition, critics demand absolute proof?

3p: Do you think that reframing the issue of climate change into terms people can better relate to like health can help?

MN: I think we should be honest with the public that if we want to preserve our climate for our children and grandchildren we do have to transition away from fossil fuel. The point that I do make though is that I think we can frame it in terms of certain larger issues like competitiveness because the rest of the world is moving forward on renewable energy and China sees that that’s the future, and by us not doing so ourselves, we’re falling behind the rest of the world in terms of competitiveness.

3p:  Looking back, if you knew at the time you began your climate change research what you know now about everything you went through, would you choose to do something else?

MM: I would not. Despite the fact that I have been subject to attacks and efforts to discredit me and my science for more than a decade, it led to me being in a position to tell the story and that’s why I wrote the book, as a vehicle to talking about human caused climate change and the threat it represents. To be in a position where I can inform the public discourse on this vital issue, perhaps the greatest challenge that human civilization has faced…I can’t imagine anything more important that I could be doing with my life.

3p: What are the lessons readers will take from your book?

MM:  There’s still time to solve the problem. Some people think that we passed the tipping point and they’ve reached this point of despair, and that’s a very dangerous way to look at the problem because despair and denial are often only little distance apart. And so I think it’s very important to people to realize that there is still time to avert dangerous changes in our climate, but there is urgency to it. So we do need to get on it now and we can’t tolerate this continuation of this bad faith debate about whether the problem is real. We need to move forward with the solutions.

[Image credit: Columbia University Press]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as welll as the sharing economy, open innovation and sustainable business models. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the relationship between sharing economy and resilience, design intelligence, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyle.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.