The tenacious climate scientist “defending the truth” against deniers

By Renee Lewis / Source TRT World

Leading climate scientist Michael E. Mann wasn’t looking for proof of man-made climate change while he worked on his PhD at Yale University in the late 1990s — but he and his co-authors found exactly that.

Mann was actually just looking into natural climate variability, but one part of his thesis involved what are known as “paleoclimate proxy records” — things like tree rings, coral, and ice cores. Studying those resulted in a curve on a plot that looked like a hockey stick, demonstrating that global warming in the past century was bigger and occurred at a faster rate than anything in the 600-year historical record they studied. The results were later extended to an effort to track climate change over a 1,000 year period.

The hockey stick was featured in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, and quickly became iconic in the climate change arena.

It also made Mann and his research a favourite target of climate change deniers — something that caught him off guard initially but which helped mould him into the effective science communicator he is today.

“I wasn’t prepared for the vitriol and the sort of caustic nature of the larger public discourse over climate change,” said Mann, who is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.

Classical training in physics didn’t prepare Mann for the kind of debate and “bad faith attacks” attempting to discredit his research that followed. He said many of them were funded by the fossil fuel industry itself.

“Upton Sinclair said it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it,” Mann said, adding that this is what he is dealing with in terms of the fossil fuel industry funded effort to discredit climate science research including his own.

Fighting the good fight

Mann chose to respond to the attacks on his research by becoming even better at communicating what climate scientists know about global warming to the public, media and policy-makers.

“In the process of defending oneself against attacks, one is forced to become an effective communicator,” Mann said.

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