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Michael Mann, Off Battlefield, Discussing ‘Climate Wars’

Michael E. Mann sounds remarkably upeat these days considering that he has been under assault for more than a decade by investigations, criticisms, and even death threats for his work as a climate scientist.

Perhaps he’s been buoyed by the fact that the Virginia Supreme Court recently halted State Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s investigation into Mann’s use of state funds for climate research. That case, which was widely viewed as politically motivated, galvanized the climate science community because of the threat it posed to academic freedom and scientific inquiry.

Or perhaps Mann sounds upbeat because he finally has an opportunity step out of the fog of the “climate wars” and discuss his story on his own terms.

In his new book, “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars,” Mann traces the arc of his career from his days as a grad student at Yale University to his present status as a battle-hardened researcher and outspoken public figure on the dangers of global climate change.

While many climate scientists have come under the withering fire of skeptics, some of the toughest fights  have centered around Mann and his research — largely because of a single study that demonstrated that modern climate change is unprecedented in at least the past millenium of Earth’s history.

The famous work that first put him in the skeptics’ crosshairs was the iconic “hockey stick” study. First published in 1999, it was included in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) high-profile Summary for Policy Makers as part of its Third Assessment Report in 2001.

Mann said the scientific results of the Hockey Stick study weren’t problematic, but the graph of the planet’s temperature history — which showed a sharp uptick in temperatures during the past century or so, resembling the blade of a hockey stick — was especially easy for a layperson to understand, and this made it threatening to those who were trying to scuttle attempts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

“... You didn’t need to understand the complicated physics to take away from that graphic the key conclusion that there is something unusual going on with the climate today, and it has something to do with us,” Mann said.

The "hockey stick" chart. Credit: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report, 2001.

According to Mann, he fell victim to what he calls the “Serengeti Strategy.” Much as lions hunting elephants in the Serengeti work to isolate one elephant from the herd as a hunting strategy, Mann said climate skeptics have picked out individual scientists and climate studies to discredit.

He first saw it happen to the late Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, and then to Benjamin Santer, a climate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who wrote pioneering studies that identified the human fingerprint on the climate system. Santer was met with personal attacks and threats from fossil fuel industry-sponsored groups.

After Santer, Mann said, “it was my turn to be sort of the whipping boy for climate change deniers.”

This was part of a much broader effort to discredit findings on man-made climate change in general, Mann said. The way he sees it, and the way he portrays it in his book, the withering criticisms of the Hockey Stick study stemmed from an effort to take down much more than that one piece of research.

“A recurring tactic is to try to disingenuously make it seem like the scientific case is somehow a house of cards that is teetering on one specific finding, and one specific scientist,” he said.

The Hockey Stick’s central findings were upheld by exhaustive congressional reviews and a National Research Council panel, among others.

The latest hurdle that Mann cleared was the Cucinelli investigation. The inquiry sought to determine whether Mann violated Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act when conducting state-financed research, before he left the University of Virginia faculty in 2005. As part of the investigation, Cucinelli sought access to University records concerning state-funded research grants that Mann worked on, as well as correspondence between him and more than two dozen climate scientists at other institutions.

Mann and the scientific community (including some climate skeptics) viewed the investigation as a grave threat to scientific inquiry, and he is relieved to put it behind him. “Nothing good has ever come of situations where powerful interests, be they politicians or the church, have seen the need to censor or to somehow control the scientific process,” he said.

Mann said that had the investigation been permitted to continue, “it would have opened the floodgates for others” to use similar methods to harass scientists whose findings threatened a powerful constituency.

On a broader level, Mann said the scientific community is much more aware now that it is engaged in a “streetfight” when it comes to climate change, as an editorial in the journal Nature described it, and it is mobilizing like never before. In part because of the legal cases directed against Mann, but also cases concerning other researchers, there is now a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. And to help counter media distortions of climate science findings, there’s also a “Climate Science Rapid Response Team."

Whatever is thrown their way, though, Mann says climate scientists must not surrender the moral high ground, something that Peter Gleick, a well-known water and climate researcher at the Pacific Institute, may have done when he deceptively obtained and disseminated internal documents on climate change advocacy efforts from a conservative think tank.

“We’ve got to play by the rules even if the other side isn’t,” Mann said.

All of the attention that has been paid to Mann and his research through the years has provided him with a platform to speak out on climate science and policy matters, which is probably not the result that his critics had intended. “I was initially this sort of accidental and reluctant public figure,” Mann said. “Over time I’m coming to embrace the opportunity it’s given me.”

At the end of the day, he’s optimistic that policymakers will address climate change, which he sees as an ethical issue. “[The] Public is increasingly recognizing that this problem is real and there’s still time” to address it, he said.

That optimism, he acknowledges, seems to catch many people off guard, given all that he’s been through. He even sounds a little surprised himself.