The Inside Story of a Climate Scientist Under Siege

Michael Mann reveals his account of attacks by entrenched interests seeking to undermine his 'hockey stick' graph.

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It is almost possible to dismiss Michael Mann's account of a conspiracy by the fossil-fuel industry to harrass scientists and befuddle the public. His story of that campaign, and his own journey from naive computer geek to battle-hardened climate ninja, seems overwrought, maybe even paranoid.

But now comes the unauthorised release of documents showing how a libertarian thinktank, the Heartland Institute, which has in the past been supported by Exxon, spent millions on lavish conferences attacking scientists and concocting projects to counter science teaching for kindergarteners.

Mann's story of what he calls the climate wars, the fight by powerful entrenched interests to undermine and twist the science meant to guide government policy, starts to seem pretty much on the money. He's telling it in a book out in March, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines.

"They see scientists like me who are trying to communicate the potential dangers of continued fossil fuel burning to the public as a threat. That means we are subject to attacks, some of them quite personal, some of them dishonest." Mann said in an interview conducted in and around State College, home of Pennsylvania State University, where he is a professor.

It's a brilliantly sunny day, and the light snowfall of the evening before is rapidly melting.

Mann, who seems fairly relaxed, has just spoken to a full-capacity, and uniformly respecful and supportive crowd at the university.

It's hard to square the surroundings with the description in the book of how an entire academic discipline has been made to feel under siege, but Mann insists that it is a given.

"It is now part of the job description if you are going to be a scientist working in a socially relevant area like human-caused climate change," he said.

He should know. For most of his professional life has been at the centre of those wars, thanks to a paper he published with colleagues in the late 1990s showing a sharp upward movement in global temperatures in the last half of the 20th century. The graph became known as the "hockey stick."

If the graph was the stick, then its publication made Mann the puck. Though other prominent scientists, such as NASA's James Hansen and more recently Texas Tech University's Katharine Hayhoe, have also been targetted by contrarian bloggers and think tanks demanding their institutions turn over their email record, it's Mann who's been the favorite target.

He has been regularly vilified on Fox news and contrarian blogs, by Republican members of Congress, and by the attorney general of Virginia, who has been fighting in the courts to get access to Mann's email from his earlier work at the University of Virginia. And then there is the high volume of hate mail, the threats to him and his family.

"A day doesnt go by when I dont have to fend off some attack, some specious criticism or personal attack," he said. "Literally a day doesn't go by where i dont have to deal with some of the nastiness that comes out of a campaign that tries to discredit me, and thereby in the view of our detractors to discredit the entire science of climate change."

By now he and other climate scientists have been in the trenches longer than the US army has been in Afghanistan.

And Mann has proved a willing combattant. He has not gone so far as Hansen, who has been arrested at the White House protesting against tar sands oil and in West Virginia protesting against coal mining. But he spends a significant part of his working life now blogging and tweeting in his efforts to engage with the public -- and fending off attacks.

On the eve of his talk at Penn State, a coal industry lobby group calling itself the Common Sense Movement/Secure Energy for America put up a Facebook page demanding the university disinvite their own professor from speaking, and denouncing Mann as a "disgraced academic" pursuing a radical environmental agenda. The university refused. Common Sense appeared to have dismantled the Facebook page.

But Mann's attackers were merely regrouping. A hostile blogger published a link to Mann's Amazon page, and his opponents swung into action, denouncing the book as a "fairy tale" and climate change as "the greatest scam in human history".

It was not the life Mann envisaged when he began work on his post-graduate degree at Yale. All Mann knew then was that he wanted to work on big problems, that resonated outside academia. At heart, he said, he was like one of the amiable nerds on the television show Big Bang Theory.

"At that time I wanted nothing more just to bury my head in my computer and study data and write papers and write programmes," he said. "That is the way I was raised. That is the culture I came from."

What happened instead was that the "hockey stick" graph, because it so clearly represented what had happened to the climate over the course of hundreds of years, itself became a proxy in the climate wars. (Mann's reconstruction of temperatures over the last millenium itself used proxy records from tree rings and coral).

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration between The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, and others, dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. Learn more at theclimatedesk.org.

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