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Episode 60: Dr. Michael E. Mann

In the first Experts Only episode of the new decade, Jon sits down with renowned climate scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann. Dr. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. His research involves the use of theoretical models and observational data to better understand Earth’s climate system, and his conclusions have put him at the epicenter of the climate movement.

Dr. Mann is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications, numerous op-eds and commentaries, and four books, including: ‘The Hockey Stick’, ‘Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines’, ‘The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet’, and the children’s book ‘The Tantrum that Saved the World’. He is also the co-founder of the award winning science website RealClimate.org. For more on Dr. Mann, visit michaelmann.net.

Listen now:
Full transcript:

Jon Powers:                      Welcome back to a special episode of Experts Only. Today we are speaking with the legendary Dr. Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, and also the director of Penn State’s Earth Science Center. If you follow climate and climate science and climate science issues, you’ve got to know Dr. Mann. He helped publish the original hockey stick theory in the UN report in 2001 that drove a lot of the conversation that we have today around climate, and as a result, became a target of a lot of the folks in the climate denying community, and has helped lead the pushback on not just the science, but the politics and the advocacy and the solutions that’ll help us solve our climate challenges. He’s written several books. You can find them at michaelmann.net including The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, The Madhouse Effect with fellow Buffalonian, Tom Tolls, including a children’s book, The Tantrum That Saved the World. He’s a cofounder of the award winning science website, realclimate.org. Look forward to the conversation.

Jon Powers:                      Mike, thank you so much for joining us at Experts Only.

Michael Mann:                Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

Jon Powers:                      You’ve lived at this intersection of science and advocacy in a way that’s really amazing, unique, and I do want to get into all that, but I do want to step back and just how did you first get interested in atmospheric science, and what led you down that the path of science?

Michael Mann:                Yeah, so I knew from my earliest years, my earliest days that I really enjoyed the world of science, sort of figuring out how things work, and had a proclivity for math and science in high school. Went off to UC Berkeley, did a double major in applied math and physics in 1984, and ultimately ended up beginning my PhD in theoretical physics at Yale University. A few years in, I had passed all my exams, taken all my classes and was ready to do my PhD research and realized that I wasn’t that excited about the projects that I was being given to work on. So I literally had a crisis of scientific identity in a sense. Started flipping through the Yale catalog of science and applied science looking for other opportunities, other researchers where I could use math and physics to work on problem that seemed really fascinating to me that would I could be passionate about, and saw that there was a scientist professor in the department of geology and geophysics who was using math and physics to study Earth’s climate system.

Michael Mann:                That sounded fascinating to me. One thing led to another. I ended up working with him that summer and then decided to stay on and do my PhD with him in the department of geology and geophysics on climate modeling and analyzing climate data. That led me down the path that ultimately would result in the now-famous hockey stick curve. But really, it all started out with almost a random decision to pursue that particular opportunity.

Jon Powers:                      So in that research, as you’re getting into that, and that’s fascinating by the way. We talk to a lot of different guests who end up in these careers that was never intended. I was an elementary education major working in finance now. So was there a point along the way when you were doing your research, whether it be leading up to the hockey stick work that came out of the UN report or others, that there was sort of a light bulb moment on climate change, or was it a gradual chip away that you said, “Oh, this is going to be not just my life’s work, but the generational fight that we need to address?”

Michael Mann:                Yeah, so great question. When I first pursued the paleo climate work that led to the hockey stick curve, the inspiration for that work actually wasn’t climate change. My PhD research wasn’t really focused on climate change. It was actually focused primarily on understanding natural climate variability, natural cycles, so it was our interest in understanding long-term natural cycles that led to me analyzing these so-called proxy records, these paleo climate archives like tree rings and corals and ice cores, because they can take us farther back in time. The instrumental record is confined really only to the last century and a half roughly, and if we want to understand how the climate varies on longer timescales, we have to turn to these alternative natural archives that we call climate proxy data. So my interest in those data was to be in a position to better identify these very long-term natural cycles.

Michael Mann:                But in the course of using these data to reconstruct past climate patterns, we were ultimately led to this conclusion that the work really did have profound implications for the issue of human-caused climate change. The hockey stick curve that resulted from that work demonstrated that the recent warming that we’ve seen really is unprecedented as far back as we can go, and that obviously had some pretty deep implications for the larger societal discourse and debate, often a very contentious debate. This was in the late 1990s. We published the original hockey stick curve in 1998 and a follow-up study in 1999. At this time, climate change was becoming increasingly politically contentious. We published this work at that pivotal moment where climate change was rising to the level of being one of the most contentious societal issues that we’ve ever had to deal with. It was sort of, if you like, a perfect storm of this work being published just as the climate debate, no pun intended, was really heating up. Was really heating up, yeah.

Jon Powers:                      Yeah. In preparation, I went back and looked at the nature article you wrote in 1988 and of course in the UN report that really began to, maybe for lack of a better term, institutionalize the hockey stick. For folks that aren’t aware, you should go to Michael’s website, which is michaemann.net, and you can find those series of books and articles that sort of led up to the work we’re at today. One thing we talk about a lot in the show, and I fully believe we’re actually living in a climate moment. If you take the work that you’ve done, really starting over 20 years ago, the UN reports, obviously Al Gore’s work on Inconvenient Truth, and then we hit the possibility of a climate piece of legislation in 2012-2013. I’m sorry, 2008-2009. When that sort of fumbled, because the politics were, for a whole series of reasons, went away.

Jon Powers:                      There was a moment in Washington where I was working the Pentagon, you couldn’t even say the word “climate change.” Now we’ve got the amazing Greta going in front of our folks here in Washington and actually pointing to the science in a new way again and saying, “Look, this is not up for debate anymore.” You’ve lived that entire spectrum. How do you view where we are today, not so much the politics. I want to get to the politics and advocacy, but in terms of that the science discussion around these issues.

Michael Mann:                Yeah, indeed. This is the of the central topics in the book that I’m working on right now, which is about the evolution of the climate change debate. You alluded to one critical factor that is really leading to a pretty dramatic shift in this discussion, and it’s the youth climate movement and Greta Thunberg and the other youth climate protesters who have really helped re-center this debate on issues of intergenerational ethics. This isn’t just about science and the economics and policy analysis. It’s about the future of the planet, what sort of world we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. At the risk of overusing the metaphor, I think this is another example of a perfect storm where you had the rise of the youth climate movement at the same time that we’ve had these absolutely unprecedented extreme weather events, super storms, wildfires, floods, heat waves that play out in real time on our television screens, in our newspaper headlines, and our social media feeds, and have really sort of elevated climate change to the public awareness of climate change.

Michael Mann:                This isn’t just about polar bears way off in the Arctic. It’s about disasters that are playing out in real time and doing real damage and destruction and causing, in some cases massive loss of life. The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle, and so we’ve seen that come together with the youth climate movement. Also, frankly, the sort of evolving politics when people like AOC were brought into office in the midterm election, and there was this huge influx of young legislators who are passionate about this issue. It led to, for example, the advancement of the Green New Deal, which, and now we’re getting into the politics of it. Which my view is we may not see, ultimately, the passage through Congress of anything that looks like the Green New Deal, but what it’s done is dramatically moved the window of discourse where conservatives are recognizing that if they don’t get away from the stale and outmoded debate about whether climate change is real and join the meaningful conversation about what we do about it, they may get left behind at the station.

Michael Mann:                They may be left with a heavy-handed regulatory approach to dealing with the problem that is anathema to them ideologically, so that’s actually ironically bringing at least some conservatives to the table now, who are advancing the sort of climate solutions that are consistent with their political ideology. To me, that’s a good development. It’s a critical development, because there’s a worthy debate to be had about climate policy. There isn’t a worthy debate to be had about whether climate change is real, human-caused, and a problem.

Jon Powers:                      Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. I feel like post President Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, if there’s a positive that came out of that, you had 60 of the Fortune 100 stand up and put in place renewable energy goals. You have a cultural revolution underway that’s forcing and holding accountable folks towards those efforts, whether or not the current Republican leadership of Washington wants it or not. You’ve got millennials in that party driving change in a way that’s never existed before. Regardless of the “deniers” that have been fighting us for so long on these issues, no, now the question is how do we navigate without the federal government for the time being and hopefully soon with the federal government, some real solutions to move ahead.

Michael Mann:                Yeah, absolutely. I see it as a very exciting time. Some people see it pessimistically. They look at the fact that we have a climate change denying president and no meaningful climate legislation on the horizon right now. But we’ve got a major election now, the presidential election in about a year, and we could see a real opportunity for progress on this issue in a relatively short period of time if people get out and vote and vote on this issue and make their voices heard. There’s a real opportunity here.

Jon Powers:                      We saw this summer for the first time actual climate debates happening in town halls, whether it achieved what any of us want, I’m not sure, but the fact that that’s even happening is a stride. So this gets us to the politics, and I do want to make sure to point out that you’ve become a real champion and advocate on and on how to communicate these issues, which really for a lot of folks in the science community isn’t a standard practice, right? They do their work, and they want the facts to prove out. But you’ve seen first-hand, even at the level of getting death threats, the importance of politics here. When did that really … I mean The Hockey Stick of the Climate Wars outlines it in a book format, but what was personal growth there that you realized that it wasn’t just enough to do the homework.

Michael Mann:                Yeah, thanks. Well, I suppose that the seed was planted in me very early on. I was a big fan of Carl Sagan. I learned about science. I learned to love science from watching The Cosmos series back in the early 1980s. It got me excited about science, and Carl Sagan became sort of a role model to me. Sagan was perhaps the first scientist at least in recent generations, the first sort of public figure scientist, a scientist who not only did science but left the ivory tower, the laboratory, to communicate the science to the public and policymakers. He wasn’t afraid to weigh in when he saw policy relevance to the science that he and others were doing, and of course played a critical role in raising awareness about nuclear winter in the mid 1980s. Ultimately, his efforts led to the deescalation between, at the time, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, and the U.S. under Ronald Reagan. It led to a treaty to deescalate nuclear arms.

Michael Mann:                I suppose I had that seed planted in me early on, that notion that there is a role for scientists to play in the larger public discourse to inform critical areas of policy that are informed, that must be informed by science. But there was another sort of critical component there; despite that, I don’t think I would’ve pursued such a path if it were not for the sort of specifics, my own journey, which I’ve alluded to already when we published The Hockey Stick in the late 1990s. This became sort of like an iconic symbol in the climate change debate, and I found myself at the center of these larger efforts to undermine the public confidence in the science and to attack the science, to attack scientists like myself.

Michael Mann:                So I found myself at the center of efforts by fossil fuel industry groups and the various organizations, think tanks, front groups and paid advocates that they support, who were really focusing their attacks on the effort to discredit the iconic hockey stick curve, under the sort of cynical viewpoint that if they could just discredit this one graph. That somehow the entire weight of evidence for human caused climate change would come crashing down like a house of cards, which isn’t the way science works. There are many independent, pillars of evidence for climate change, and it wouldn’t have really mattered whether or not we’d ever published the hockey stick. But because it was a potent symbol, they felt that if they could discredit that symbol, they could claim to discredit the entire case for concern.

Michael Mann:                So whether I liked it or not, I had to choose. Was I going to retreat into the laboratory and shun the exposure, or would I embrace it? Needless to say, I chose the latter, and I suppose it was part of my constitution to not back down from a worthy fight, a worthy battle. It’s probably ingrained in my personality, so those things I think came together. Then I recognized that I had an opportunity to play a critical role in this conversation about what is arguably the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced as a civilization. I feel absolutely privileged to be in a position to do that, even though it’s not what I signed up for. I would’ve been perfectly happy being left alone in a laboratory crunching numbers, running models. That’s why I got into science. That’s what I love doing, but no regrets. This has created an opportunity for me to play a larger role, and I’ve embraced that.

Jon Powers:                      So with that in mind, I’m glad you’ve embraced it and you’ve really become a champion. I recently interviewed Anthony Leiserowitz from Yale, his communications efforts around the program. I’m actually on the Board of the Environmental Defense Fund, EDF Action Group trying to advocate more. How do we, as a movement … We don’t have an American Petroleum Institute for Climate or Renewables, right? We’ve got a bunch of desperate, or maybe disparate is a better term, organizations that don’t do a great job of sort of centralizing their support and giving someone like you the cover and need to keep pushing these forward. What do we need as a movement now, or do you see it sort of coming together that there is sort of a centralized focus to drive our policies forward?

Michael Mann:                Yeah, thanks. There is an asymmetry in this battle. One side has massive amounts of money and can hire the top strategists and can basically have essentially unlimited funds at their disposal to manufacture this massive disinflation campaign that is the campaign to deny climate change and/or delay at the very least action on climate, which is where we are now. Outright denial has become increasingly difficult, because the evidence is just too plain to see to the person on the street. This book that I’m working on, Winning the New Climate War, is about the evolving nature of the climate war as it moves away from outright denial of the science and onto other equally pernicious and nefarious ways of trying to maintain the status quo, keep us keeping us addicted to fossil fuels, blocking efforts to decarbonize our economy.

Michael Mann:                So my feeling is that despite the fact that there is this massive disparity in terms of the level of organization and resources and funds, the fossil fuel industry, the most powerful, wealthiest industry on the face of the earth on one side, and a bunch of scientists and environmentalists and other folks who don’t have those sorts of resources. But we do have a secret weapon, and that’s scientific truth. I like to think that that still matters even in the fact challenged atmosphere that we now find ourselves, the era of fake news, true fake news, disinformation, industry funded disinformation posing as news, and alternative facts. That represents a challenge. That having been said, what we’ve seen as a response to the bad faith assault on science, 10 years ago, the Climategate Affair, literally to the day almost, this effort by fossil fuel interest to use stolen emails to try to misrepresent and discredit scientists to create doubt going into the critical 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

Michael Mann:                Well, as the forces of denial and delay have become increasingly desperate … I’ll use that word … in their efforts to block action on climate, that their methods have become increasingly underhanded in a way that has antagonized and mobilized a sleeping giant. Scientists as a whole are not activists. They prefer to just be left alone doing their science, but because of the assault on science by climate change deniers, fossil fuel interests who’ve been sort of sowing this, who had been attempting to manufacture fake controversy and mislead the public and policymakers on this issue, you’ve seen scientists rise up.

Michael Mann:                Especially the younger generation of scientists who have grown up in the social media world and are very media savvy and are very passionate about not just doing the science, but communicating it and fighting back against intentional distortions of the science. So we have this sort of army of younger scientists who are really passionate about not just the science but the science of science communication, and that, frankly, is one of the things that makes me optimistic, that this generation is using its talents to communicate in novel new ways to find. The forces of denial and delay are having a really hard time fighting back against them, because they’re not trained in the modern day methods of communication.

Jon Powers:                      Are there any specific sort of next generation leaders you see coming up in the science community? I think about Leah Stokes on Twitter or some others that are out there that obviously have the tools behind them professionally, but then are also doing the work that you’ve, I think, lead with, which is communicating these issues out that people should be paying attention to.

Michael Mann:                Yeah, you mentioned Leah. Absolutely. She is right in that group. Jesse Jenkins who is now at Princeton, I believe. These are folks in the policy arena, but there are also some younger climate scientists as well. The names, of course, they’re going to escape me right now.

Jon Powers:                      Of course.

Michael Mann:                But there’s a whole cadre of younger climate scientists who are very active on the communication front on Twitter, but also doing interviews and public lectures and engaging with the media and using all of the lever arms that we have available to our ourselves to communicate to the public and policy makers. Again, I could try to name a specific names, but there’s so many that I wouldn’t be able to name them all. There’s a whole generation of scientists who see their role as a scientist in a different way from the generation that I was part of, where science is not finished with the publication of a peer reviewed article. Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated to the public and policy makers. That’s not the view of every single scientist, and it shouldn’t be. There’s scientists who that isn’t their forte. That isn’t their strength, but there are a whole bunch of scientists now who have the proclivity and interest in participating in the larger public discussion. That combined with the youth climate movement and the shifting politics on this issue are reasons for cautious optimism, despite all of the hurdles and challenges that we still face.

Jon Powers:                      So one more to add into a chapter for your next book is actually the market mechanisms that are beginning to move into climate. You have real serious capital investors like BlackRock and others who are following the leadership of series. We’ve got to get to $1 trillion a year in energy investments to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. We’re about at $350 million today. How do we quadruple that? We work in capital, but there’s a lot of folks in this space that the tides are turning, and we’re seeing real capital move to really accelerate the solution set that are real and in front of us. They’re no longer a wishlist of stuff we need to do. We know what we have to do. Before we-

Michael Mann:                Yeah, I’m glad-

Jon Powers:                      Oh, go ahead. Sorry.

Michael Mann:                I was just going to say, over the last couple of years I have participated in a number of conferences with leaders from the finance community. To me, that’s really exciting that the world of finance sees itself as playing a major role in this transition. They’re not granola crunching environmentalists. These are people from the business world who nonetheless recognize that if we allow our planetary environment to be destroyed, if we permit unchecked climate change, it’s going to hurt your bottom line no matter who you are. Whether you’re an individual or a company or a corporation, planetary degradation is going to create a very bad business environment. The finance community recognizes, or at least there’s an enlightened segment within that community that recognizes that and is taking a leadership role. I want to thank you for being part of that effort to mobilize that community on this issue.

Jon Powers:                      No, I appreciate that. I’ll say as the Green New Deal came out, I helped articulate a piece on why Wall Street’s actually ready to finance us and ready to go. It doesn’t have to be government dollars to get it done. So I want to ask you a final question I ask all my guests. If you could go back to yourself when you were in Amherst, Massachusetts getting ready to go off to school and you could sit down and grab a coffee or have a beer with yourself, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Michael Mann:                It would be to follow your heart.

Jon Powers:                      Oh, that’s great.

Michael Mann:                For scientists, for those of us who are trained in science and mathematics, it’s tempting to think of life is just something that you map out, almost like an equation, and so people are sometimes surprised when I say that. But when it comes to our larger role in society and being part of an effort to do something important to preserve our planetary environment, I think it’s important to not just think with our minds, but think with our heart. What feels right? What feels like the right thing for me to be doing with my life? I asked that critical question during the sort the heat of all of the attacks against me early on in my career. I had to do some soul searching.

Michael Mann:                In the end, I decided, as I alluded to before, that what felt right to me was to embrace this as an opportunity, even though it was going to take me in a completely different direction from the one I thought I had mapped out when I double majored in applied math and physics at UC Berkeley and went off to Yale University to study theoretical physics. I didn’t think that path was going to lead me. I couldn’t have imagined that it would lead me to where I am, but I have no regrets. In the end, I listened to my heart, and that’s what I think we need to do sometimes.

Jon Powers:                      Dr. Michael Mann, thank you so much for joining me, and thank you for your leadership on these issues.

Michael Mann:                Oh, right back at you. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Jon Powers:                      It was an honor to have Dr. Michael Mann on our show. You can find more of his writings at michaelmann.net. He’s got a series of books that should be in all of our bookshelves as we look to really solve our climate change challenges. I want to thank our producers, Nicole Waddington and the hard work that she’s put in prepping for these interviews, as well as Carly Battin. You can find more episodes cleancapital.com. As always, please submit your thoughts for future guests, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Jon Powers:                      Thanks for listening. In today’s conversation, find more episodes on cleancapital.com, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation, and finance with you.