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There is nothing controversial about the work of climatologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. His innovative research helped recreate the Earth’s historical temperature record and separate the noise of natural weather fluctuations from the steady signal of real climate change. As such, Mann has played a significant role in the development of the overwhelming scientific consensus—the planet is warming and human activities are responsible.
It’s another story in the realm of politics, where Mann, an affable scientist, has been dragged into the fray by diehard climate change deniers. He was a central figure in the trumped-up “climategate” scandal, accused with other scientists of fraud by conservative bloggers and pundits before being vindicated by eight separate independent investigations. He was later the subject of an “academic witch-hunt” by former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli until a circuit court judge ruled that Cuccinelli had provided no “objective basis” for his crusade.
But if Mann began as an unwilling combatant in the public debate, he has since become a fierce defender of scientific discourse. He’s currently suing for defamation the National Review, right-wing columnist Mark Steyn and the Competitive Enterprise —a libertarian think tank dubbed “a factory for global warming skepticism” by The Washington Post that has received funding from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Arch Coal, among others.
Mann believes that climate change “skepticism” could not exist if the public had a better understanding of how science works—if they got that climatology is based on the same scientific method as any other field of knowledge.
BillMoyers.com spoke with Michael Mann, and here are six things he’d like you to understand about the scientific consensus on global warming.
1. Climate Scientists are the Real Skeptics
Mann: Too often we allow the forces of anti-science, the forces of denialism, or contrarianism, to somehow frame their position as one of skepticism. But denying mainstream, well-established science based on arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny, that’s not skepticism. That’s pseudo-skepticism.
Real scientists embrace skepticism because that’s what moves science forward. That’s the self-correcting machinery, to use the language of Carl Sagan, which keeps science on this inexorable course toward a better understanding of the way the world works. If your ideas are wrong, if your theories are wrong, if they don’t hold up, if the data don’t support them, if other studies don’t come to the same conclusion, then science moves on, and it searches for a better answer. Scientists are always trying to find holes in each other’s proposed ideas, or in their own proposed ideas.
2. The Science of Climate Change is Based on Many Sources of Data and Many Different Methodologies
Mann: This is what attracted me to climate science. I started out as a theoretical physicist. But then I was captivated by the fact that there were scientists who were using physics and math to model this amazingly complicated system that we call the earth’s climate. I realized that there was an opportunity to work on this incredibly interdisciplinary problem that involves the physics of the atmosphere and the ocean and the ice sheets and the way they all interact with each other, and their interaction with incoming sunlight and the outgoing heat energy from the surface.
There’s also biology. You have to understand Earth’s carbon cycle, the balance of carbon in the atmosphere and ocean, which involves living processes. There is important chemistry; the chemistry of greenhouse gases, the geochemistry of the oceans.
So this has become, in my view, one of the most interdisciplinary science problems that exists and that’s part of what makes it so exciting.
3. The Models Have Proven Accurate
Mann: The science isn’t based only on a bunch of climate models, we also have a lot of observations. We can test the principles against what we see in the real world.
Some people claim that climate models can’t be trusted because they haven’t made successful projections. That’s just dead wrong. Climate scientists have a very strong track record of having made predictions like how much cooling we would expect after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, back in 1991. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies successfully predicted the cooling that would be observed using a climate model. Hansen also successfully predicted two decades of warming in advance, using a climate model back in the 1980s that was quite crude.
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