It should be enough to know climatologist Michael E. Mann for his groundbreaking research on global warming. In 1998, he co-authored a study that tracked temperatures in the northern hemisphere from 1400 AD that showed the Earth started to sharply heat up in the early 20th Century. The study, published in Nature, was illustrated by perhaps the most famous graph in science, what became known as the “hockey stick” for how it portrayed the sudden temperature rise of the planet.
That study — and that graph — did not go down easy. Even as the United Nations used the research a few years later in their 2001 report on climate change, Mann and his colleagues were pilloried by global warming deniers. He spent much of the next two decades defending his work in the face of death threats to him and his family; calls for a Congressional investigation; attacks on his character and research known as “Climategate”; and doubts about his motives.
Mann was proven right, over and over. But in the process, he became known for something more than his science. He is now one of the most famous science communicators, explaining to all of us on TV and in popular books what the research says; what it means about how we should live and what we should demand of our leaders; and what the extreme weather we all experience foretells about the future of the earth.
The fight has shifted — it’s no longer possible for any rational person to deny climate change — but it is not over. Today Mann directs his considerable media attention towards convincing climate doomsayers that all is not lost. “Polluters,” he says, “want you to just give up.” Mann will not stand for that.
In September, Mann — for years the director of Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center — will become director of the University of Pennsylvania’s new Science, Sustainability and the Media program, leading Penn’s push to become a leader in climate change communications.
I spoke with Mann a few days before the Senate passed the country’s first significant climate legislation in decades. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Earlier this year, you co-published an article called the Best Climate Science You’ve Never Heard Of, in which you said “the best climate science you’ve probably never heard of suggests that humanity can still limit the damage to a fraction of the worst projections if — and, we admit, this is a big if — governments, businesses, and all of us take strong action starting now.” Why did you feel that was important to say?
This has been an emerging theme. I’ve been in the climate wars for a couple decades now. When we published the hockey stick curve, I became the target of attacks. That threw me into the center of the ring and ultimately I embraced that as an opportunity to communicate the science. So I’ve watched that playing field move over two decades.
The reason I wrote my most recent book, The New Climate War, was because I saw this shift in the tactics away from outright denialism. At this point, there has to be some pathology behind somebody who still denies it — they are so dug in their heels when it comes to ultra-right political ideology, Trumpism, Maga-tism — and those folks are largely unreachable.
“There are some bad actors who would happily fan the flames of doomism, because it takes those who would be the most engaged, those who would be on the front lines, and it puts them on the sidelines,” says Mann.
But there’s still a fair number of people in the “confused middle”, I call them. They’re not ideologically opposed to climate action; they’re just not yet convinced that it’s so bad that we need to do something about it, or think it’s too late and that we can’t do anything about it.
And so, what I call the inactivists, the forces of inaction — polluters, and those who promote their agenda— they’ve turned to these other tactics, and one of them, ironically, is doomism. There are some bad actors who would happily fan the flames of doomism, because it takes those who would be the most engaged, those who would be on the front lines, and it puts them on the sidelines. That is something I’ve really been fighting against.
Look, the reality is, if the science told me that we are f’ed, and there’s nothing we can do about it, I would have to be truthful about that. But the fact is, we can very much do something about it. You’ve got on the one hand, all these people saying it’s too late, we can’t stop the meltdown, we have to plan for the end of human civilization.
Yet, on the policy front, we’re on the verge of truly meaningful climate action here.
I was going to ask you about that. You have said that you feel optimistic about the climate bill [just passed] by the Senate, even though it’s not everything you would have wanted. Why is that?
Well, people that I really trust, who are experts at crunching the numbers — including some folks at Penn in the Wharton School who did some of the research that was drawn upon in that bill — they’ve vetted the numbers and said, it’s real. This would lead to a 40 percent reduction [in carbon emissions], roughly.
That’s great; that’s huge progress, if we can do that. A, it’s not enough; we’ve got to do more than that. So that’s an important caveat. And B, words are easy, right? What we have to see is the actual action behind that. But there’s some real reason for optimism. This is, by far, the boldest climate legislation ever proposed in the U.S. Congress.
I’m intrigued by the name of the program that you are going to be heading up at Penn: “Science, Sustainability and the Media.” That last bit is curious to me.
So that’s where my interests lie these days. I mean, I still do fundamental science; I still enjoy doing that. And part of what I will continue to do is basic climate science. But, in part because of my experiences over the decades, I’ve become very engaged on the communication and outreach front. And to me, one of the really exciting things about Penn, what lured me away from the Happy Valley, is the Annenberg School and Annenberg Public Policy Center, all of that infrastructure for science communication. Annenberg in particular has played such an important role in pushing back against disinformation. I love the fact that factcheck.org originated there. I’ve had quite a few experiences with people there on the issue of climate change.
I really think that the critical piece now is our communication of climate risk to the public and the collaboration that involves, between scientists, science communicators, journalists, etc. Our focus really will be on the nexus of those. There won’t be a lot of science seminars in our series.
Do you find that other scientists are open to your efforts to improve science communication?
You know, I grew up watching Cosmos. Carl Sagan was a trailblazer, frankly, and he was sort of pilloried by many of his colleagues for stooping to dumb it down. He was a popularizer, and he was blackballed, actually, by the National Academy of Sciences. There were others along the way, but just like one or two individuals. Now there’s this ecosystem of science communicators — Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, who’s a good friend of mine — and there’s a lot more encouragement of that, a lot more funding for that, and less of a stigma within the scientific community.
I think that’s in part because of the attacks on the science, which have opened the eyes of scientists to be, like, You know what? We can’t just stay in the laboratory; we’ve got to be out there defending the science and promoting it. And that’s not everybody, right? I have colleagues who are best left alone in the laboratory, trust me; not everybody can be the communicator. We need to provide the opportunities for those who have the inclination. That’s one of the things that I’m really excited about with the younger generation of scientists who really grew up in the social media world. Communication is more natural to them.
Why Penn, and why now?
When I was visiting Penn last October for my official interview, it was Climate Week. And there were just, there was so much energy and passion among the students, and all of these events. And I’m checking the news back at Penn State. And, in comparison, there was almost nothing going on. The demand for moving in this direction is really coming from the bottom up at Penn — it’s the students telling the faculty, telling the administration, we want to prioritize climate, justice, climate action.
It just seemed perfect to be part of that environment. Penn is really working to step up their game on climate, like her sister institutions, which have really led on this issue, Harvard and Yale and Columbia.
I also have a lot of native Philadelphia heritage. My grandparents lived in South Philly, on Ritner Street, when I was growing up. We spent a lot of time visiting them. It was like a second home. And my dad actually went to Penn, my grandfather and my uncle went to Penn. And so there’s some real family history there. So in a sense, it’s a logical place for me to end up. My dad was very excited, you know, I took the position there.
You mentioned your basic climate science research. What is that research now?
The research that I’m doing in a lot of ways informs my outreach and communication. You know, one of the areas that I’ve been working in recently is the impact of climate change on extreme weather events. And, in particular, how climate change is altering the behavior of the jet stream in the summer, so that we get these very persistent extreme weather events.
One of the interesting things about that is, it sort of gets to where critics love to talk about the climate models being imperfect, and we can’t trust them, as if that’s a reason for inaction. But it turns out where the models seem to be wrong is often in the direction of underestimating some of the impacts. This is definitely true with ice sheet collapse, for example.
One of the things we’ve shown is that the climate models are not capturing some of the subtle behavior that is behind these weather extremes. And so I’m looking in more detail at that understanding, and finding if the models aren’t quite up to speed, how we can project the impact on these extreme weather events.
This is important because it’s important for us to be able to say, we would not be seeing this event in the absence of climate change. But also, where are we headed? What do we need? How bad will it get? What do we need to adapt to all of these questions?
The better we can convey the risk we’re facing now, the more likely we will make enlightened choices and render invalid our worst predictions. We are among the few fields of science where we would love to be proven wrong.
“Remember that 70 percent of carbon emissions worldwide come from 100 companies worldwide. We can’t forget that,” says Mann.
I have to ask: Are you a climate change hero in your personal life? How do live your values?
Fair enough. It’s always a delicate issue, in part because the fossil fuel industry wants to frame this as one of individual responsibility. I get into this a lot in my latest book. I talk about the “Crying Indian” commercial [whose tagline is “People start pollution; people can stop it.”]. The Coca-Cola company is trying to convince us we don’t need bottle bills, we just need to pick up those cans.
This type of deflection campaign has been done over and over; the NRA has done that really well — “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” And the fossil fuel industry runs with that playbook. BP energy did the very first, widely-publicized, individual carbon footprint calculator. They want us so focused on our individual emissions that we don’t focus on theirs.
Remember that 70 percent of carbon emissions worldwide come from 100 companies worldwide. We can’t forget that.
Yeah, that includes some state-owned businesses, like Russia’s Rosneft OAO.
The delicate balance is, we should all be the best stewards we can. There are always things we can do to minimize our environmental impact. Many things save us money, make us feel better, are healthier, set a good example…they are all good things to do.
We should do all those things but we shouldn’t allow polluters to convince us that somehow that’s where responsibility stops. They would love to frame this entirely in terms of individual responsibility and continue to work to prevent any policy interventions.
That’s a nice framing, rather than the scolding I feel like we sometimes get from climate change activists.
Yes. You can continue to operate within the system and be working to change that system for the better. I don’t see any inconsistency there. We’d all love to see the decarbonization of the aviation sector, for example; aviation is responsible for only 3 percent of global carbon emissions — it’s a small amount that gets a lot of attention.
Yes, we can cut back on nonessential travel where we can. But I think it backfires if we start telling people you can’t visit grandma for the holidays. We don’t want it to be about austerity; that’s where you get the backlash. The opponents of action recognize that and they play on that. If you watch Fox News, they say things like, They’re going to take away your hamburgers.
We saw that during Covid.
Absolutely. That’s exactly right.
We also saw during Covid that lifestyle changes brought us a slight reduction for a year in carbon emissions, but it didn’t make the dent we need it to. We need to make systemic changes.
Can you talk to me a little bit about your message to cities? Like, what should Philly be doing in this moment?
It’s going to have to be at least on two fronts: There’s the adaptation. Look at the flooding that Philadelphia is experiencing now. We have to build more resilient infrastructure. Frankly, we have a large, very vulnerable population and these are the most vulnerable people when it comes to climate impacts, because that’s where the floodwaters collect. That’s where it gets hottest in the summer. So that’s a big part of it.
But we’ve got to stop digging the hole. So mitigation is the other part. No amount of adaptation is going to be adequate if we don’t stop digging this hole. I think the most important thing we can do is political, and that’s true at the local level, at the state level, the national level. At every level, we need to prioritize climate-friendly policies, that take us off fossil fuels, and move us towards renewable energy, and lead us in the direction of increased energy efficiency. Some of it can happen from the top down [federally]. But much of the progress we’ve made is from the bottom up.
And that’s where there’s some exciting developments here. I remember when Mayor Nutter was mayor here, there were a relatively small number of cities that had taken a real leadership position on climate in their policies. Pittsburgh is one of them. And Philly was one of them. Mayor Nutter was one of those mayors who was saying we’re going to do everything we can. And so when we say we need action at the municipal level, Philly historically has been there.
Penn is often criticized for — and I think they’ve done a better job lately — not being as engaged with the city that they are in, considering all the expertise, like yours, that’s there. Are you going to engage with the City?
I can’t speak for the administration, although my understanding is, the sustainability institute is trying to prioritize some of those town-gown relationships. Penn’s Water Center, I know, is actually very interested in urban flooding problems. So I think there is an effort to connect up.
Certainly, just by virtue of my mission, I will be looking to do that. You know, I want Penn and Philly, a city that I love as a second home, to have that connection. Obviously, I’m at Penn; but I also feel like I’m at Philly. Like, this is part of my mission.
Welcome. I look forward to all the great things you can do here.
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From Michael Mann's Interview with Energie Wende Magazine (Apr 1, 2020). Photo Credit: Amanda Mustard