Defending the Science of Climate Change

Dr. Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. He was a lead author of the chapter “Observed Climate Variability and Change” in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report published in 2001. Mann has been at the center of the so-called Climategate controversy over a set of hacked, stolen, or leaked e-mail messages and has been further attacked in connection with a denialist campaign to delegitimize the IPCC. (Thanks go to the Web site ClimateScienceWatch for the above introduction and for a transcript of Dr. Mann’s interview by science journalist Chris Mooney on the Center for Inquiry podcast Point of Inquiry, from which this interview is condensed.)


Chris Mooney: Do you have any ideas about what could have been done differently in responding to the stolen e-mails controversy?

Michael E. Mann: Yes, I think there is now a growing awareness on the part of the scientific community—the climate science community in particular—that we have to be far better at defending ourselves and our science against disingenuous and dishonest attacks. The side that is issuing these attacks, our detractors, are extremely well funded; they are extremely well organized. . . . It’s literally like a battle between a Marine and a Cub Scout when it comes to scientists defending themselves. . . . We’re not public relations experts like they are; we’re not lawyers and lobbyists like they are—we’re scientists; we’re trained to do science. So it’s a classic example of asymmetric warfare, and that’s really the way we should think about this.

Mooney: I do agree there’s an existing infrastructure in place in terms of conservative think tanks. . . . But I think there’s a different factor that isn’t preexisting and is new, and I think it’s that the blogs have gotten a lot more powerful.

Mann: . . . The antiscience industry has fully exploited the resources made available by the World Wide Web. It isn’t coincidental; it isn’t like that’s a new organic thing that’s emerged from grassroots anti–climate-change activists. It’s Astroturf . . . much of what might appear to an outsider to be organic, to be grassroots, is actually connected, funded, manned by those connected with the climate-change denial movement.

Mooney: But we don’t have any proof of that, do we?

Mann: Well, we do have some proof . . . we can check the IP addresses of those who make comments at RealClimate, and we’ve seen people coming in from fossil-fuel industry corporations or coming from lobby groups in Washington, D.C., who are connected with the climate-change denial movement. So actually, you can sometimes confirm that.

Mooney: Do you find that climate-change denialism is responsive to data and factual arguments, or is it ultimately a faith position or one based on ideology—political, economic, religious—rather than on a genuine skepticism about the quality of the data?

Mann: It’s a good question. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I think there are some who are genuinely skeptical, meaning that they don’t believe the evidence supports the conclusion that humans are influencing the climate. I would argue that they’re misinformed and perhaps misguided, but they may believe that in good faith. . . . On the other hand, I believe that there are many who are essentially serving as shills for the fossil-fuel industry. . . . But the bottom line is that what should be informing the discussion is legitimate science—peer-reviewed scientific research, not the opinions of bloggers or the attacks of politicians with extreme views.

Mooney: It’s been a pretty dark hour for climate science with “Climategate” and all the attacks on the IPCC.

Mann: I think that many of us didn’t believe it would ever come to this. . . . The scientific case for the reality of human-caused climate change has been clear now for several years. . . . There are many in the scientific community, perhaps in the policy community as well, who thought, somewhat naively, that in the end the science would carry the day, that the strength of the scientific consensus would be enough to lead those who might have doubted the reality to concede, yes, that the scientific evidence for the reality of human-caused climate change is solid.

I always felt that there were special interests who had way too much invested in protecting the fossil-fuel industry and, despite all the talk a few years ago about “the debate being over,” that they were just lying dormant. . . . So this didn’t surprise me at all. . . . I guess what we all underestimated was the degree, the depths of dishonesty, dirtiness, and cynicism to which the climate-change denial movement would be willing to stoop to advance its agenda. That’s the only thing, I think, that surprised many of us.


Dr. Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. He was a lead author of the chapter “Observed Climate Variability and Change” in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report published in 2001. Mann has been at …

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