Michael Mann interview: Denialists are waging “asymmetric warfare” against climate science


The climate science community is beginning to push back in the face of concerted attacks on the integrity of climate science. In a recent interview with science writer Chris Mooney, one of the most frequently attacked researchers—Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann—defended the fundamental scientific evidence on human-caused climate change and addressed issues of the ‘Climategate’ e-mail controversy. He pulled no punches in characterizing the problem of the global warming disinformation campaign and the dilemma with which it confronts the science community. See Details for partial transcript and links.

Dr. Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.  He was a Lead Author of the chapter on “Observed Climate Variability and Change” in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report published in 2001.  Among many other distinguished scientific activities, editorships, and awards, Mann is author of more than 120 peer-reviewed and edited publications. That includes, most famously, the 1998 study that introduced the so called ‘hockey stick,’ a graph showing that modern temperatures appear to be much higher than anything seen in at least the last thousand years.  With his colleague Lee Kump, Mann also recently authored the book Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. Finally, he is one of the founders and contributors to the prominent global warming blog, RealClimate. More information about his research and publication record can be found here.

Mann has been at the center of the so-called ‘Climategate’ controversy over a set of e-mail messages that were hacked/stolen/leaked from a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, and has been further attacked in connection with a denialist campaign to delegitimize the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. See Climate Science Watch’s Archives by Date for a listing of, and links to, our numerous posts since October 2009 related to this set of controversies.

Chris Mooney, one of the best writers on the collision of climate change science and politics, among other subjects in the nexus of science and society, co-authors The Intersection blog. He is a 2009-2010 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and the author of three books, The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

The audio of Chris Mooney’s interview with Michael Mann was posted February 26 at Point of Inquiry. Thanks to Chris for permission to post our partial transcription from the audio.

During the interview, Mann discussed a range of topics, including climate science issues and the ‘Climategate’ controversy. The following transcript is of a portion of the interview that starts at about 29:15 and deals with the global warming disinformation campaign:

Mooney: [A questioner asks] Do you have any ideas about what could have been done differently in responding to the stolen e-mails controversy?

Mann: Yes, I think there is now a growing awareness on the part of the scientific community—the climate science community in particular—that we have to be far better at defending ourselves and defending our science against disingenuous and dishonest attacks. The side that is issuing these attacks, our detractors, are extremely well-funded, they are extremely well-organized.  They have basically had an attack infrastructure of this sort for decades.  They developed it during the tobacco wars. They honed it further in efforts to attack science that industry or other special interests find inconvenient. So they have a very well-honed, well-funded, organized machine they are bringing to bear now in their attack on climate science.

It’s literally like a battle between a Marine and a Cub Scout when it comes to the scientists defending themselves.  We obviously don’t have the resources, we don’t have the experience, we haven’t been trained, we’re not public relations experts like they are, we’re not lawyers and lobbyists like they are – we’re scientists, we’re trained to do science.  So it’s like a classic example of asymmetric warfare, and that’s really the way we should think about this.

Mooney: I do agree there’s an existing infrastructure in place, in terms of conservative think tanks that have been fighting on the climate issue for a long time, and I think they need to be responded to. But I think there’s a different factor that isn’t pre-existing, and is new, and I think it’s the blogs have gotten a lot more powerful. And it depends, but they’re not necessarily part of that same old infrastructure. Something else is going on with this really energized anti-global-warming movement on the web. 

Mann: I think what’s happened is the anti-science industry has fully exploited the resources made available by the World Wide Web. It isn’t coincidental, it isn’t like that’s a new organic thing that’s emerged from grassroots anti-climate-change activists. It’s Astroturf, it’s just like Astroturf campaigns that are talked about in other contexts. That’s all we have here, I think what we have is an effort to exploit that resource, to exploit the World Wide Web. I would imagine that much of what might appear to an outsider to be organic, to be grassroots, is actually connected, funded, manned by those connected with the climate change denial movement. I think that a lot of the comments, the more informed and clever responses, attacks, criticisms that one sees on many of the newsgroups—Internet news sites and comment threads and blogs—I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those who are participating in those comment threads are professionals.

Mooney: But we don’t have any proof of that, do we? Certainly I’ve had my suspicions, when my blog gets overrun, as it very often does, by the climate change denial machine. But I don’t have any proof.

Mann: Well, we do have some proof. We’ve seen, for example, IP numbers coming in—we can check the IP addresses of those who make comments at RealClimate, and we’ve seen people coming in from fossil fuel industry corporations, or coming from lobby groups in DC who are connected with the climate change denial movement. So actually, you can confirm that sometimes.

Mooney: I would like to see more of that because I feel that this is part of that whole outrage against Obama, and the Tea Party-ism, and the stirring on the political right as well. But clearly it’s a hard-fought battle, and I agree that the warfare is asymmetric. One question is, can the scientific community fight harder or must it draw the line somewhere? I mean, you have someone out there like Mark Morano, who’s incredibly effective at doing what he does—his website is Climate Depot, it has very high traffic. The science community does not have its equivalent. The question is, should it, or is that crossing some kind of line?

Mann: Well, it’s the old line about getting into a fight with a pig—you’ll get dirty and the pig enjoys it. There is some truth to that and I think there’s a delicate line to be crossed between being a scientist and defending yourself in a way that is appropriate as a scientist, and wading into territory that you ought not to be wading into—you know, getting down in the mud with some professional climate change denier like Morano.

There does need to be—those who have reason to want to defend the science, to defend the scientists, in the policy community, in the nongovernmental organization community, there are many who care about science and who are deeply disturbed by the growth of anti-science, the attacks against climate change, the attacks against evolution, I could go on down the list. Those forces seem to be better organized and ready to go to war with the forces of anti-science. The scientists can’t do it—scientists aren’t trained to do it, they’re not equipped to do it, they don’t have the resources to do it—but others who have some stake in this debate, who do have those resources, and who are better organized, need to step up.

Mooney: [A questioner asks] Do you find that climate change denialism is responsive to data and factual arguments, or is it ultimately a faith position or one based on ideology—political, economic, religious—rather than on a genuine skepticism about the quality of the data?

Mann: It’s a good question. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I think there are many different flavors of climate change contrarians, or deniers, or skeptics. Skepticism is a good thing—in science we should all be skeptics. And I think there are some who are genuinely skeptical, meaning that they don’t believe the evidence supports the conclusion that humans are influencing the climate. I would argue that they’re misinformed, and perhaps misguided, but they may believe that in good faith. So there are certainly individuals, scientists, policymakers, who fall into that category. 

On the other hand, I believe that there are many who are essentially serving as shills for the fossil fuel industry, who are doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, and are not engaging in good-faith debate, good-faith discourse, but are simply looking for a way to malign the science and the scientists and to advance a policy agenda. So, different people coming to this with different motives.  But the bottom line is that what should be in informing the discussion is legitimate science—peer-reviewed scientific research, not the opinions of bloggers or the attacks of politicians with extreme views. The climate change policy discussion should be informed by what legitimate science has to say.  Unfortunately, I think there are too many who are trying to insert politics into the process.

Mooney:  It’s been a pretty dark hour for climate science with ‘Climategate’ and all the attacks on the IPCC. The skeptics are clearly out for as many scalps as they can get, including yours, and probably mine after this show airs.  How do you think we’re going to come out of this? What do you look to when you want to feel hopeful?

Mann: I think that many of us didn’t believe it would ever come to this. In other words, the scientific case for the reality of human-caused climate change has been clear now for several years. Now that doesn’t mean that the science is done, or that there is no uncertainty, or that we have all the answers we need. There is much that we still need to learn and there are many significant outstanding uncertainties. But we do know enough to know that human-caused climate change is a reality.

There are many in the scientific community, perhaps in the policy community as well, who thought, somewhat naïvely, that in the end the science would carry the day, that the strength of the scientific consensus would be enough to lead those who might have doubted the reality to concede, yes, that the scientific evidence for the reality of human-caused climate change is solid.

I was always a bit skeptical. I always felt that there were special interests who had way too much invested in protecting the fossil fuel industry, and despite all the talk a few years ago about quote-unquote ‘the debate being over,’ that they were just lying dormant. The forces of anti-scientific disinformation were lying dormant, but they would be back. So this didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I fully expected, in advance of the Copenhagen Summit, that we would see an increase in the number of attacks. 

I guess what we all underestimated was the degree, the depths of dishonesty, and dirtiness, and cynicism to which the climate change denial movement would be willing to stoop to advance their agenda. That’s the only thing I think that surprised many of us. …

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Mooney’s last question asked about how to come out of this on a hopeful note, but Mann’s response leaves that hanging. He is right in characterizing the current attack on climate science as a kind of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ – a concerted, predatory political attack of a kind that the science community is ill-equipped to counter, except by playing its appropriate role in defending and advancing science. There is more that can and must be done to combat the disinformation campaign than what the science community alone can do. Those who care – in the policy arena, the public interest community, the educational community, the media—who can see what is happening, and have skills and resources to act effectively, need, as Mann says, “to step up.” 

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