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Last month in PLOS ONE, the climatologist James Hansen and 17 coauthors published “Assessing ‘dangerous climate change’: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature.” On 19 January, the Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann, invoking their analysis, published a New York Times op-ed urging scientists to become cultural and political activists.
The PLOS ONE authors say they used “Earth’s measured energy imbalance, paleoclimate data, and simple representations of the global carbon cycle and temperature to define emission reductions needed to stabilize climate and avoid potentially disastrous impacts.” They warned:
Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects. Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice. Responsible policymaking requires a rising price on carbon emissions that would preclude emissions from most remaining coal and unconventional fossil fuels and phase down emissions from conventional fossil fuels.
Mann reasserts scientists’ climate consensus and condemns “irrational rejection of well-established science.” The only “real differences among mainstream scientists,” he writes, “can be found on two fronts: the precise implications of . . . higher temperatures, and which technologies and policies offer the best solution.” But until “the public fully understands the danger of our present trajectory,” he laments, debates about solutions “are likely to continue to founder.”
This is where scientists come in. In my view, it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines. I should know. I had no choice but to enter the fray. I was hounded by elected officials, threatened with violence and more—after a single study I co-wrote a decade and a half ago found that the Northern Hemisphere’s average warmth had no precedent in at least the past 1,000 years. Our “hockey stick” graph became a vivid centerpiece of the climate wars, and to this day, it continues to win me the enmity of those who have conflated a problem of science and society with partisan politics.
Enmity indeed. On 20 January at National Review Online—closely related to the magazine National Review, founded by the late conservative William F. Buckley Jr—National Review’s publisher Jack Fowler attacked Mann as a “global-warming-monger,” his Times piece as “vitriol and sanctimony,” and his message as targeting only scientists who “are more concerned with political agendas than with hard data and the openness to prove theories in the face of challenges.”
At National Review Online, as elsewhere, the enmity isn’t new. In July 2012, NRO’s Mark Steyn—occasional guest host for the radio talk show of the adamant climate-change denier Rush Limbaugh—published a column comparing two men who have been investigated at Penn State: the convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky and Mann, who was exonerated following the incident that climate-consensus disbelievers call “Climategate.” Though Steyn at first distanced himself slightly from the Sandusky comparison, which he had borrowed from elsewhere, he ended with this explicit use of it:
If an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up? Whether or not he’s “the Jerry Sandusky of climate change,” he remains the Michael Mann of climate change, in part because his “investigation” by a deeply corrupt administration was a joke.
That kind of enmity notwithstanding, the “Michael Mann of climate change” now challenges scientists to think deeply about their potential public roles. He asks, “So what should scientists do?” On one hand, he notes, they “have the distinguished former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who has turned to civil disobedience to underscore the dangers he sees.” But this “activist approach has concerned some scientists, even those who have been outspoken on climate change.”
Mann poses, then answers, a further question:
Are Dr. Hansen and his colleagues going too far? Should we resist commenting on the implications of our science? There was a time when I would, without hesitation, have answered “yes” to this question. In 2003, when asked in a Senate hearing to comment on a matter of policy, I readily responded that “I am not a specialist in public policy” and it would not “be useful for me to testify on that.”
It is not an uncommon view among scientists that we potentially compromise our objectivity if we choose to wade into policy matters or the societal implications of our work. And it would be problematic if our views on policy somehow influenced the way we went about doing our science. But there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.
My colleague Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who died in 2010, used to say that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron. Just because we are scientists does not mean that we should check our citizenship at the door of a public meeting, he would explain. The New Republic once called him a “scientific pugilist” for advocating a forceful approach to global warming. But fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for.
If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation—if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.
Mann himself has not remained quiet, of course. For example, as reported here last June, he inserted himself into Virginia’s nationally watched 2013 statewide election. To support Terry McAuliffe, the gubernatorial candidate who eventually won, he vocally opposed candidate Ken Cuccinelli on climate-politics grounds. As state attorney general, Cuccinelli had investigated and litigated about the research Mann had conducted earlier at the University of Virginia—that is, about Mann’s “crime of believing in global warming,” as the sarcastic New York Times columnist Gail Collins put it. A three-minute campaign video by Mann can still be viewed online.
The New York Times’s online science columnist Andrew Revkin has offered thoughts and comments, including from scientists, about Mann’s new challenge. Maybe surprisingly, little else has appeared in the media about it so far.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.