The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

Throughout all the years of public disputes about climate change, arguably no scientist has taken as much flak as Dr. Michael Mann. This mild-mannered paleoclimatologist is frequently accused of fraud, incompetence, scientific malpractice, Communism, and orchestrating a New World Order. These charges have been proven baseless time and time again, but the accusations continue. Dr. Mann’s research on climate change is inconvenient for those who wish to deny that current global temperatures are unusual, so he has become the bulls-eye target in a fierce game of “shoot the messenger”. In “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines”, a memoir of his experiences, Michael Mann finally speaks out.

The story begins quite harmlessly: an account of how he became a scientist, from childhood curiosity to graduate work in theoretical physics to choosing climate science on a whim out of the university course calendar. For those who have followed Dr. Mann’s research over the years, there is some great backstory – how he met his coauthors Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes, the formation of the IPCC TAR chapter about paleoclimate, and how the RealClimate blog operates. This book also filled in some more technical gaps in my understanding with a reasonably accessible explanation of principal component ananlysis, a summary of millennial paleoclimate research before 1998, and an explanation of exactly how Mann, Bradley and Hughes’ 2008 paper built on their previous work.

Dr. Mann’s 1998 paper – the “hockey stick” – was a breakthrough because it was the first millennial reconstruction of temperature that had global coverage and an annual resolution. He considered the recent dramatic rise in temperatures to be the least interesting part of their work, because it was already known from instrumental data, but that part of the paper got the most public attention.

It seems odd for a scientist to downplay the importance of his own work, but that’s what Dr. Mann does: he stresses that, without the hockey stick, the case for climate change wouldn’t be any weaker. Unfortunately, his work was overemphasized on all sides. It was never his idea to display the hockey stick graph so prominently in the IPCC TAR, or for activists to publicize his results the way they did. Soon the hockey stick became the holy grail of graphs for contrarians to destroy. As Ben Santer says, “There are people who believe that if they can bring down Mike Mann, they can bring down the IPCC,” and the entire field of climate science as a result.

Michael Mann is an eloquent writer, and does a fabulous job of building up tension. Most readers will know that he was the target of countless attacks from climate change deniers, but he withholds these experiences until halfway through the book, choosing instead to present more context to the story. The narrative keeps you on your toes, though, with frequent allusions to future events.

Then, when the full story comes out, it hits hard. Death threats, and a letter full of suspicious white powder. Lobby groups organizing student rallies against Mann on his own campus, and publishing daily attack ads in the campus newspaper. Discovering that his photo was posted as a “target” on a neo-Nazi website that insisted climate change was a Jewish conspiracy. A state politician from the education committee threatening to cut off funding to the entire university until they fired Mann.

Throughout these attacks, Dr. Mann consistently found trails to the energy industry-funded Scaife Foundation. However, I think he needs to be a bit more careful when he talks about the links between oil companies and climate change denial – the relationship is well-known, but it’s easy to come off sounding like a conspiracy theorist. Naomi Oreskes does a better job of communicating this area, in my opinion.

Despite his experiences, Michael Mann seems optimistic, and manages to end the book on a hopeful note about improvements in climate science communication. He is remarkably well-adjusted to the attacks against him, and seems willing to sacrifice his reputation for the greater good. “I can continue to live with the cynical assaults against my integrity and character by the corporate-funded denial machine,” he writes. “What I could not live with is knowing that I stood by silently as my fellow human beings, confused and misled by industry-funded propaganda, were unwittingly led down a tragic path that would mortgage future generations.”

“The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” leaves me with a tremendous empathy for Dr. Mann and all that he has gone through, as well as a far better understanding of the shouting match that dominates certain areas of the Internet and the media. It is among the best-written books on climate science I have read, and I would highly recommend it to all scientists and science enthusiasts.

“The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” will be released on March 6th, and the Kindle version is already available.

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