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Michael Mann in the studio with NCPR News Director Martha Foley. Photo: Nora Flaherty
Michael Mann in the studio with NCPR News Director Martha Foley. Photo: Nora Flaherty

Noted researcher Michael Mann on the science and politics of climate change

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The U.S. has just experienced one of the hottest, and most extreme summers of weather in its history. But climate change hasn't been much of an issue in this year's presidential race.

Michael Mann is a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who contributed work to the the International Panel on Climate Change that received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He's familiar with both the science and politics of climate change. And he's speaking this evening as part of St. Lawrence University's forum on the issue.

People who deny climate change - and want to prove that it's a fraud - have focused much of their effort on Mann. He joined Martha Foley in the studio to talk climate and politics.

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Martha Foley
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Your talk tonight is titled “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,” which is also the title of your latest book, and we’ll get to the hockey stick, but I want to start with the war part of that. Is there any doubt about climate change? Is it real in your community of scientists?

Yeah. The fact that we are warming the planet and changing the climate: that’s the consensus of the world’s scientists. It’s the conclusion that the US National Academy of Sciences has reached. It’s the conclusion of all of the academies of all the major industrial nations. And all of the scientific societies in the US that relate in some way to the issue of climate change—The American Physical Society, the American Meteorological society, and so on—are all on record as agreeing that we are warming the planet by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

So, after all of that—all of that science, after the popularity of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore movie, now, like, 6 years ago; wow, and given the weather in recent years, are you surprised that you’re still engaged in this argument?

Unfortunately, I have to say I’m not surprised. There has been, for years now, a very well-organized and frankly well-funded effort to confuse the public about climate change. Various interest groups, front groups that in some ways are advocates for fossil fuel interests, have tried to instill in our public discourse this notion that the science is contested, that climate change is not yet a firmly established scientific fact. And that’s—“‘It’s not real science.’

‘It’s not real science, It’s a bunch of guys sitting around, thinking.’

Right. I mean, we have US senators who have declared that climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. And somehow the warming oceans and the melting ice sheets are playing along with that hoax. It’s unfortunate, because there is a good-faith debate to be had about what to do about the problem. But we can no longer have a good-faith debate about whether the problem exists; we can’t just bury our heads in the sands.

There’s been just a storm of global climate news, just in the last two days. The story of the decline in the arctic icecap—it was everywhere, on all the major news outlets yesterday. Top photo on the front page of the New York Times yesterday was a dramatic shot of an open harbor in Greenland with ice, big chunks of glaciers floating by. And NPR reported that our spring snow melt is happening faster than ever before. So, is this worse? Is this happening more dramatically and faster than you guys predicted back in 2001 when you did the International Climate Assessment Report?

Yeah. You know, it’s a great point because my fellow climate scientists and I are often labeled by our detractors as alarmists. We’re accused of overstating the science, of overstating the threat, and if you take a sober look at the science, at what the scientists have predicted and what’s actually unfolded, in many respects, as you allude to, the changes that are taking place are larger and they’re happening faster than what we predicted. And there is no other example that drives that home quite as clearly as the decline in arctic sea ice. Where we are reaching levels of decline of open ocean—open arctic ocean in the summer—nearly ice-free conditions in the arctic that the model said shouldn’t happen for decades and we’re already seeing it. And this is just one of many examples of how uncertainty is not a reason for inaction. You sometimes hear, ‘well, there’s uncertainty about the science, so we can’t act in the face of uncertainty.’ And of course that’s not true in any other areas of life, where we demand absolute certainty to act on something. But in the case of climate change, that uncertainty in some respects is cutting against us. Things are happening even faster than we predicted. And arguably it’s a reason to act even sooner.

Is this a time to talk about the hockey stick? Because your graph, I mean, that’s the visual sort of description of this graph. Tell me a little bit about that.

So, the hockey stick is a term that was attributed by a colleague of mine to a graph that my coauthors and I published more than a decade ago, which attempted to extend the temperature record back in time. We only have about a century of widespread thermometer measurements around the world. So, if we want to get a sense of how climate has changed farther back we need to turn to indirect measures of climates, what we call proxy data like tree rings, and corals, and ice cores.

Things that do go back that far.

Things that extend farther back in time and we can use them to infer how the climate changed in the more distant past. And we published a reconstruction of how temperatures have varied over the past thousand years which showed that the recent warming was indeed unprecedented as far back as we could go, and there was a period of relative warmth about a thousand years ago, sometimes called the medieval warm period, and then a cold period in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries called the little ice age. So, if you think about the trend, it’s sort of this downward trend and you can think of that as sort of a handle of a hockey stick. And, then we have the abrupt warming of the past century and that’s the blade of the hockey stick.

And, it shoots right up, not quite straight but dramatically up.

That’s right, and to levels that exceed anything that we have seen in the past.

So, back to the extreme news and that it’s happening faster than you’d expected. Given that and given that you said you know there is no time to wait to do something, what do you arguing that we do? And, do you have anything hopeful news for us?

I do, I think there was some good news, or news that was at least potentially good news that came out a few weeks ago that US emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 emissions actually went down last year. And that’s attributed in part to the transition from coal and natural gas. Natural gas is not as carbon intensive as coal although it is also a fossil fuel. It may also have to do with sort of an economic activity has been a bit stagnant.

The decline, right?

Yeah, but none the less, what it shows is that these things can change fairly quickly. It is possible to lower our green house gas emissions. When you look at what the science has to say about the path that we’re on and the sorts of impacts we’ll likely see if we continue with business as usual, it becomes pretty clear that there is still time to avert catastrophic climate change but there is an urgency. There isn’t a whole lot of time to get our emissions under control if we are to avert crossing thresholds where we do introduce dangerous changes in our environment.

How much time and how much change, what are our limits here?

Well, most scientists who have studied the impacts of climate change will tell you we probably shouldn’t exceed about 450 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, for every million parts of atmosphere, 450 of them being CO2. Right now, we’re at about 394 and we’re increasing by about 2 or 3 per year. Pre-industrial levels were about 280, we’re at about 394 2 to 3 a year, so we hit 450 pretty quickly if we don’t do something. We need to bring our emissions to a peak in the next few years and ramp them down fairly dramatically.

So, we have a bit of time left, what research are you working on now, what are you excited about now? I mean, I understand that you have been the point man for a lot of this political argument and…maybe you weren’t thinking that when you got into science but what are you doing now?

Yeah, you know I never thought when I studied physics and applied math in college and went on to-

You’d be a PR guy for climate change!

Yeah, you know spending so much time sort of an outreach and at education and it is something that I am passionate about but you know I am a climate scientist too and that is one of the hats that I wear. I have graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, a half dozen or so projects right now that deal for example with looking at climate model projections and trying to understand the implications that climate change might have for example for regional rainfall patterns in the Northeastern US including here in New York, in looking at the potential impact of climate change on infectious disease so we have various projects that look at impacts of climate change, but we’re also doing fundamental research in trying to understand the mechanisms, in particular questions like the El Niño phenomenon: How will climate change influence El Niño? That’s still an unanswered question, there are open questions about that, and that’s some of what we are pursuing.

Michael Mann is a climate researcher at Penn State University who contributed work to the the International Panel on Climate Change that received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s scheduled to speak tonight (Tuesday) at St. Lawrence University Eben Holden Hall at 7:30. The title of the talk is “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”, and it’s the keynote address of a 3-day climate change forum at St. Lawrence called “We’re All in it Together.” You can follow Michael Mann on Twitter @MichaelEMann.

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