Michael Mann Makes His Case
“Probably,” he smiled. “I think they’re probably superfluous, but it’s better to be safe.”
I’ve gone to probably a dozen Penn State Forum lunches in the past five years, and Thursday’s event at the Penn Stater Hotel was the first in which I’d seen a police presence. Three armed campus police officers—one from a K-9 unit—stood outside the packed conference room in which Mann spoke. I imagine they were there to stem any potential unrest after ads appeared on local radio this week urging people to boycott or protest Mann’s speech; I imagine those officers were aware as well that Mann has received death threats because of his work.
Mann, of course, is a climatologist, Penn State professor of meteorology and geosciences, and director of the University’s Earth Systems Science Center. If you know his name, it’s probably less because of his work—including his role in developing the iconic “hockey stick” model for measuring long-term global warming—than the reaction to it. U.S. Senators, state attorneys general, and TV pundits (among many others) have all gone after Mann in an attempt to discredit findings that show the reality and alarming rate of man-made global warming. If he’s not the favorite target of climate change deniers, he’s near the top of the list.
Mann’s speech Thursday was titled “Confronting the Climate Change Challenge,” and like his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, its focus was split between a plain-spoken, fact-based primer on global warming and the political battle that has emerged over the science—with Mann entrenched on the proverbial front lines. Talking about his place in the midst of the conflict, Mann says “political lightning rod” was never among his career goals. “I was a reluctant combatant,” he said. “As scientists, we have no preparation for the situations we find ourselves in. We have to be quick studies. But over time, I’ve embraced that role. I can think of no better purpose to engage myself in.”
I first met Mann about five years ago, when I moderated a roundtable discussion of Penn State experts on global warming. I remember thinking at the time that this unassuming, admittedly nerdy guy—he writes in his new book about skipping the weekend party scene in high school to write computer programs with like-minded friends—seemed an unlikely candidate to be publicly defending the scientific consensus on climate change. But Mann is certain that his work, so thoroughly vetted at this point by colleagues and foes alike, stands up; he’s also motivated. Before taking audience questions for 25 minutes on Thursday, he ended his prepared presentation with an image of his young daughter. “This is an ethical issue,” Mann said. And, clearly, a personal one.
I know it’s nearly impossible for some to put politics aside on this topic, but I think an hour spent listening to a scientist like Mann—one of many at Penn State, including fellow Nobel Prize winner Richard Alley, whom Mann called “probably the best communicator” on climate science—defend his work and his purpose would help. Death threats and constant public challenges to his work would seem an awful lot to cope with for someone who didn’t believe deeply in its validity and importance.
Ryan Jones, senior editor