The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines
(Photo courtesy Conor Alwell)
Is the hue and cry over climate change similar to the bitter controversies surrounding the deleterious effects of smoking decades ago?
This was an intriguing question raised by Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, in his September 5, 2012, lecture on the George H. Cook Campus.
Mann, Penn State professor of Meteorology and Geosciences and director of Penn State's Earth System Science Center, spoke about his latest book to an audience of approximately 200 students, faculty and members of the public. His lecture was sponsored by the Rutgers Climate and Environmental Change Initiative, Rutgers’ Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the School of Arts and Sciences and the Discovery Initiative of the Office of the Executive Dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
The term "hockey stick" is used to describe in simple terms a chart of how the average temperature of earth has changed over the last 1,000 years, demonstrating the link between temperature rise and the increase of fossil fuel use from industrialization. It was first reported in the scientific literature in 1999 in a paper in which Dr. Mann was the lead author but has become an icon in the climate change debate since its inclusion in the 2001 Third Assessment Report by the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change.
Since then, the work of Mann and his colleagues has often been attacked by those attempting to discredit the evidence. Just as the tobacco industry battled critics of smoking, so too are opponents of curbing carbon emissions targeting climate scientists. Mann referenced the work of political consultant Frank Luntz, who worked with the Bush Administration in 2002 to reframe "global warming" as "climate change" – the latter a term Luntz believed to be less worrisome to the public.
According to Mann, Luntz’s advice ran like this: "The public could become convinced that there is a fossil fuel problem, and they would demand action. So Luntz counseled his clients to inject controversy and doubt about the science regarding the effect of fossil fuels, much as the tobacco industry attacked critics of smoking."
Although Mann and several of his colleagues were specifically singled out by critics, including some prominent U.S. legislators, he has stayed resolute and urges that talk about climate change must move away from whether or not it’s happening, towards developing and implementing policies to solve the problem.
In our current path, he says, "with business as usual… we would be leaving our children and grandchildren with a very different planet – one, for example, that would experience an ice-free Arctic in the summer."
He points out that "if there is a silver lining in the attacks against me and other scientists, it is that there is an awakening of the public and of the many scientists who are beginning to speak up." He adds that the role of the scientist has undergone a dramatic transition. In the past, a scientist might have thought that his or her job was done when the findings were sent to a journal for publication.
"Now I frankly believe that scientists have a strong role in informing the public with an honest assessment."
Mann’s conclusion: There can be a worthy debate about what to do about the problem, "but we must abandon the debate that there is or is not a problem. We cannot keep our heads in the sand. The decisions that we make today about our fossil fuel practices will have profound implications for our children and grandchildren.
"It is a deeply ethical issue."