Is It Time for Climate Scientists to Get Political?

After the National Review compared him to a convicted child molester, climatologist Michael Mann decided to fight back. He encourages his colleagues to do the same.


In a still from An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore stands next to a graph projecting climate change. (Lawrence Bender Productions)

Science has never really been the detached, apolitical world we sometimes imagine it to be. Just think of Galileo. But in the era of climate change, the politicization of science has reached an entirely new level.

No one knows that better than Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State and helped to create the famous "hockey stick" graph, which shows a dramatic spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide beginning during the Industrial Revolution. In recent years, Mann has become a primary target for those seeking to deny the science of climate change. His work has been investigated (and subsequently upheld) multiple times, his emails hacked (as part of the so-called "Climategate" scandal) and subpoenaed, his life and his family threatened.

This summer, when the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review compared him to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky and accused him of academic fraud, Mann decided to take action. He filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the two organizations and some of their employees, accusing them of defamation.

Mann sees the lawsuit as simply a part of the changing responsibilities of a climate scientist -- in this politically overheated environment, he argues, it's not enough anymore to simply do research. While others discuss ways to make science less partisan, Mann says it's time to recognize that, whether we like it or not, science is now a thoroughly political front.

What do you hope to achieve with this lawsuit?

Ultimately, this is about saying, "enough is enough." For more than a decade, vested interests and those who work for them have been trying to discredit me in a cynical effort to discredit the science of climate change. They want to attack this iconic graph that my coauthors and I published more than a decade ago, and to go about it by going after me personally. I've developed a thick skin. But at a certain point, I think you have a responsibility to your fellow scientists, to the scientific community, to stand up against these sorts of dishonest assaults.

Why file a lawsuit instead of using some other tactic or response?

There is a right to free speech in the United States; I, like all of my colleagues, value that. It's essential -- it's part of what makes this a great country. But, as the law recognizes, there's a limit to free speech. You can't make baseless and reckless accusations of fraud against scientists.

The allegations that have been made against me by climate change deniers--by industry-funded front groups -- for more than a decade have been shown to be baseless. The National Academy of Sciences reviewed our work and affirmed our conclusions; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed our conclusions. In response to allegations of misconduct against me and my various colleagues, the inspector general of the National Science Foundation found that they were baseless and dismissed the case. So the highest scientific authority in the land has definitively spoken to this. The allegations of my detractors -- of fraud, of misconduct -- are completely without any foundation, and they're libelous.

Describe some of the ways these accusations have affected your life.

I've had prominent fossil fuel industry-funded politicians try to have me fired from my job, to have me investigated by Congress. The Tea Party attorney general from Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, issued a subpoena for all of my emails with more than 39 different climate scientists around the world. It was rejected by the lower court and then by the state Supreme Court. I and other climate scientists have seen our email addresses and personal information published by prominent right-wing media figures, who directed people towards us to write us threatening letters and emails.

It's been a constant distraction that I've had to deal with for more than a decade while I continue to try to do what it is that I love doing--which is science, and educating and advising the next generation of scientists.

Was climate science always so politically charged?

The furthest thing from my mind was ever finding myself in the public sphere participating in some huge societal debate. It's not why I went into math and science. It was only when our research yielded this curve, the hockey stick that I found myself suddenly in the crosshairs of climate change deniers. In my book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I describe the transition I underwent from a pure science nerd, happiest in the anonymity of my lab, to somebody who recognized that there's a need for scientists to do more than just their research.

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Brooke Jarvis has written for Salon, Grist, and YES! Magazine, where she's a contributing editor.

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