Michael Slate Interviews Scientist Michael Mann:

“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impacts of climate change”

April 23, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is a transcript of an interview on The Michael Slate Show with Dr. Michael Mann, a Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University with joint appointments in the departments of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He is also Director of the Penn State Earth Systems Science Center and author of several books, including his most recent work, The Madhouse Effect. The interview, conducted on April 7, a couple of weeks before the worldwide March for Science, has been edited slightly for length.

* * * * *

Michael Slate: The situation facing the planet and all of humanity in relation to the climate is dire, and that’s putting it very simply. And it’s growing worse by the day. Give people a capsulized understanding of where things are at now.

Michael Mann: We are literally just seeing the tip of the veritable iceberg when it comes to the impacts of climate change because there is probably another half a degree Celsius, nearly a whole degree Fahrenheit, warming that is still in the pipeline. That is to say, even if we stop burning carbon right now we would see that additional amount of warming. And already, just from the warming that has occurred, the impacts from climate change, as I like to say, are no longer subtle. We see them play out now literally in the 24-hour news cycle on our television screens and our newspapers: many of the extreme weather events we see here in the U.S. over the last year or two—unprecedented floods, droughts, the list goes on—we can see the fingerprint of human activity now on those events.

Michael Slate: The science itself is under brutal attack now.

Michael Mann: It’s rather ironic. You don’t see concerted attacks by industry front groups when it comes to cosmology, black holes, the theory of gravity, organic chemistry. There are no lobbies that exist to discredit scientists in those fields. But when it comes to climate change, the findings of the scientific community have proven inconvenient to some powerful vested interests, to fossil fuel interests, who don’t like the implications of what we are finding; namely that we have to get off our addiction to fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy and non-carbon energy. That, of course, is a threat to their bottom line. They are profiting greatly from our current addiction to fossil fuels. They have used that immense power and wealth to wage what is arguably the greatest disinformation campaign in the history of human civilization: the campaign to deny and attack the science of climate change.

“I have one very powerful weapon, the truth”

Michael Slate: You were also recently part of a panel that was set up in Congress around this—they had the three chuckle-heads that were in there, and then they had you. They were presenting this as a “panel of experts.” You had to sit over there and look at these guys, and it was literally like looking at the Three Stooges!

Michael Mann: There is a great John Oliver segment that I think really cuts to the chase in the way that this is a sort of false portrayal of debate. The way that this Congressional committee—in this case, the chair of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, is a climate change denier whose largest source of funding is the fossil fuel interests. He invited three contrarians and one mainstream scientist. That was me. When, in fact, if you look at the actual scientific literature, when you look at publishing scientists, 97 percent or more of scientists in this field actually agree with the consensus that I described at that hearing, and a tiny minority have the sorts of views that were represented by the three contrarian witnesses. So, while in reality it’s 97 percent, in that House hearing, the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists was represented by 25 percent of the witnesses. That is the sort of distortion that is intended to make the public and policy makers think that there is a debate about the science of climate change, when there is none in the legitimate scientific discourse.

That having been said, I had one very powerful weapon, the truth! And by all accounts, the Republican majority and their witnesses faired very poorly because they don’t have the truth on their side. They weren’t prepared; they didn’t make cogent arguments because there aren’t cogent arguments to be made against the reality of human-caused climate change. So, I think in the end, truth and facts prevailed despite that fact that the hearing was really intended to sow doubts about the science, basically to justify an agenda of inaction by Congressional Republicans and our Republican president.

Michael Slate: One thing it brought up to me was something you wrote about a while back, which was called “The Serengeti Strategy,” and I’d like you to talk about that, because it seemed to be very evident in what they were trying to push up there.

Michael Mann: Absolutely. In my book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I recount an experience back a couple of decades ago when I was at a scientific conference in Kenya and Tanzania. I had a chance to go out to see the Serengeti and the amazing creatures that roam the Serengeti, and one of the striking scenes that I saw were zebras standing back to back, to form a wall of stripes. That’s how they avoid being targeted by predators, by lions, by sort of blending into the background. And if one of them gets isolated, they become vulnerable.

So, I used that analogy to describe the way that climate change deniers, Congressional climate change deniers holding show trials to attack climate scientists like myself, or the various op-eds in conservative-leaning newspapers that target individual climate scientists like myself for ridicule and condemnation, that is intended to isolate. They know that they are up against a wall of facts, a wall of consensus, so all they can hope to do is try to pick off one of those zebras and make an example of them, right? Attack one scientist and try to send a message to all the other scientists that if you speak out about the reality and threat of climate change we’re going to come after you, too. I think it is very clear that that is the message that they’re trying to send to the scientific community. I, for one, will have no part of it and that is why I was there, to defend the mainstream science of climate change and to make sure that misinformation and disinformation did not rule the day.

Michael Slate: You did a very good job of it. One of the critical arguments is your insistence and other scientists’ insistence on examining both natural and human causes, and that seems to drive them up the wall. They try to present everything as, “Well, it’s all natural causes, and there’s ebb and flow.” But you’ve argued that there’s natural and human causes, and human causes are actually playing a huge role in what’s happening in the world today.

Michael Mann: That’s right. It’s sort of a false dichotomy, this picture they depict where it’s all or nothing. Either it’s all natural variability or it’s no natural variability. Or more to the point, that it’s all natural variability and very little human impact, which is, of course, not what the facts indicate.

So, there’s this effort to magnify, to exaggerate the role of natural variability—to make it sound like, “Hey, you know, there’s natural variability. There’s no way we can tell if we’re really changing the planet. Climate change is natural anyways. So, why should we care about this?”

It’s so wrongheaded. It’s wrong on the facts, and it’s an extremely misleading argument anyway. First of all, the warming that we’ve seen we know is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the increase of carbon in our atmosphere. Our best effort to estimate the impact of natural factors—volcanoes, small but measurable changes in the brightness of the sun—those natural factors have actually acted slightly to cool the climate a little bit over the last half century. Human caused greenhouse warming has completely overwhelmed that small natural cooling trend and in fact given us a very substantial warming trend.

So, we are literally most likely responsible for more than 100 percent of the warming that we have seen, because we actually overcame a small natural trend that was in the opposite direction. It’s a temporary trend, and eventually would turn around. But over the last half century, it’s actually been in the opposite direction, and we’ve warmed as much as we have in spite of that.

So, natural causes can’t explain the warming. In fact, they go in the wrong direction. And when you point to uncertainty—because that was the other topic that they tried to insert into the discussion, to emphasize the existence of uncertainty—well, uncertainty cuts both ways, despite what Lamar Smith and his witnesses tried to tell observers. Uncertainty actually is a reason for taking even greater action, because it can cut both ways, and in many respects, as we start to resolve some of the uncertainty, we’re finding that things are actually worse than we originally thought. We’re losing sea ice in the Arctic faster than we thought we would—we are seeing the disappearance of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The loss of ice from these two major ice sheets is well ahead of where the models said we should be. So, they are already contributing to sea level rise, ahead of schedule.

So, uncertainty is actually cutting against us. In many respects, the uncertainty, as we resolve it, we’re again learning that things are happening even faster than we had originally predicted. So, it’s a reason to act even sooner. It’s a reason for more concerted action, just the opposite of what the critics would like you to think uncertainty means here.

Michael Slate: As you were talking about that, I was thinking of what you were talking about a minute ago, the “hockey stick” graph. Because if you look at that now, it’s probably so much bigger than that antiquated picture you have in your book.

Michael Mann: [Laughing] Right, yeah. The so-called blade of the hockey stick, which is the modern warming, with each year, that blade gets longer, and we enter into even more unprecedented territory. We just saw the third consecutive warmest year on record. And so, to those who say, oh, global warming, it’s slowed down, it’s stopped, of course that’s nonsense. We’ve seen, for the first time on record, three consecutive record-breaking warm years, and along with that, the unprecedented rash of extreme weather events—floods, droughts, heat waves. We are seeing the impacts of that warming in the extreme weather that we are increasingly dealing with here in the U.S. and around the world, and that creates all sorts of problems, not the least of which is conflict, and the sort of conflict that drives societal instability, like the Syrian uprising, which ultimately precipitated terrorist groups like ISIS. That had at its root unprecedented drought in Syria that forced rural farmers into the cities where there was more competition for resources. That led to conflict—an instability that we are now dealing with in the form of international terrorism.

Melting of Arctic Ice—Cause for Great Concern

Michael Slate: Let’s talk about the ice melting. I just recently had on the show Josh Willis...

Michael Mann: Yeah. Great scientist.

Michael Slate: Yeah, he is. He’s been doing a lot of coverage of—it’s OMG, Oceans Melting Greenland—and he’s been talking a lot about the melting of Arctic ice, and even more, the melting of huge ice sheets. Let’s talk about that some more, because that’s something you’ve delved into, too.

Michael Mann: Absolutely. The melting of the sea ice is one thing, because sea ice can sort of come and go. It tends to form, a lot of it, in the winter, and then it melts back in the summer. And at least in the past, there’s always been some sea ice that persists through the summer, and that’s critical, because unique creatures like the polar bear rely on that environment. And we see now that environment disappearing. But, here’s the good news. If we turn the thermostat back down, the Arctic sea ice comes back. So, that is not what we call a tipping point. We don’t think we’re going to go past the point of no return if we can bring our carbon emissions under control and ultimately cool the planet back down, then we can bring back the Arctic sea ice.

Now, here’s the thing. Arctic sea ice is ice that’s floating on the ocean to start with, and so when it melts it doesn’t raise global sea level. But when you melt continental ice sheets, that’s ice that’s stored on land and that will increase global sea level. And here’s the other problem. When you start to melt the great ice sheets—the Greenland Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the large chuck of the Antarctic Ice Sheet that’s most susceptible to melting—once you set that in motion, it is very difficult to stop it. There is a tipping point, and we may have crossed the tipping point now where we’ve warmed up the climate enough that we’ve set in motion the destabilization of most if not all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—enough ice to give us 10 to 14 feet of sea level rise.

That may be baked in. We don’t know how long it will take for that to play out. But we may have ensured that that will happen no matter what. Even if we tried to turn the thermostat back down, those processes take on a life of their own. And once they get going, it’s almost impossible to reverse them.

So, the real worry, in fact, is the fact that we’re seeing the loss of ice in the major ice sheets decades ahead of schedule—sooner than the climate models said we should see it. That is a cause for great concern.

“Trump has literally turned his back on science”

Michael Slate: Now, entering into it all, Trump. Trump’s plan—you called it a middle finger to science. Let’s talk about that.

Michael Mann: I don’t remember saying that, but I would agree with it. If I did say it, I stand by it. Yeah. Trump has literally turned his back on science in this country. He’s defunding science in general, but especially science that’s inconvenient to the funders and the special interests that rule his campaign. Most of his cabinet members, the people he’s appointed to key positions, have ties to the fossil fuel industry, or the Koch brothers, the largest privately owned fossil fuel interest. So, the fox is not just guarding the henhouse, but running the henhouse at this point when it comes to issues like climate change.

It’s sort of a worst-case scenario from a domestic politics standpoint to have such an anti-science president. Donald Trump is trying to undo all of the achievements of the previous administration when it comes to dealing with climate and when it comes to studying the problem of climate change, working together with Congressional Republicans who have very much the same agenda, the Koch brothers driven agenda of gutting environmental protections and basically de-incentivizing the move toward renewable energy and doubling down on subsidies for the continued mining of fossil fuels, and the continued destruction of our environment. It’s sort of a worst-case scenario.

Fortunately, we’re just one country. The rest of the world is moving on, moving away from fossil fuel energy toward renewable energy. It’s clear that is the direction the world is moving, and at this point, it’s simply a matter of whether we get on board, or we get left behind.

Michael Slate: There’s something I’d like you to riff on.

Michael Mann: Sure.

Michael Slate: It’s from a scientist named Ardea Skybreak, from her book, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters. I was very moved by this and I wanted to hear your thoughts: “When people are deprived of a scientific approach to reality as a whole, they are robbed of both a full appreciation of the beauty and richness of the natural world and the means to understand the dynamics of change not only in nature but in human society as well.”

Michael Mann: Amen. I think that’s a wonderful statement, and I think it underscores something: that science is not just about solving specific problems, working out the solutions to mathematical equations, or mixing things together in test tubes. It’s really about how you look at the world. It’s about taking a fact-driven approach to how you look at the world. So, while it has implications, obviously, for how we do science, it has implications for how we view our place on this planet and in this universe. I think that’s part of why you see scientists now getting political, because they understand that that place is now threatened.



Volunteers Needed... for revcom.us and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.