The Climate Struggle Heats Up

Review of

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012, 395 pp.

In The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, Michael E. Mann offers a personal assessment of the controversies and shenanigans that have surrounded the issue of global warming during the past decade and a half. The “hockey stick” refers to a famous graph, produced by the author and others in 1998 and refined in 1999, that shows the average global temperature during the past 1,000 years spiking upward in the late 20th century, exceeding the levels reached during the Medieval Warm Period. The “climate wars” that followed were largely generated by globalwarming deniers, who sought to discredit not only Mann’s graph but also the scientific foundations on which it rested. Considering the hostile rhetoric of climate-change skeptics and the personal threats leveled against the author and his colleagues, the military analogy is apt. As Mann notes, the late “right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart had ‘tweeted’: ‘Capital punishment for Dr. James Hanson. Climategate is high treason.’”

The “Climategate” issue in question, more properly known as the “Climatic Research Unit Email Controversy,” was the key episode in the larger struggle and thus forms the ultimate focus of Mann’s book. In November 2009, several weeks before the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a computer server at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom was hacked, giving opponents access to thousands of private emails that had circulated among climatologists. Several exchanges that seemingly indicated scientific misconduct soon proliferated across the Web, convincing many right-wing commentators that climate change was little more than a hoax perpetrated by environmental zealots masquerading as dispassionate scientists.

Mann seeks above all to set the record of this incident straight, specifying the actual content of the relatively innocuous and purposely misconstrued messages. As he notes, “Climategate” is a poor label, because it implies that the wrongdoing was at the hands of the scientists and not the hackers—and their supporters—who illegally gained private information and then twisted it out of context to score political points.

Call it what you will, the 2009 email scandal was momentous, turning mainstream conservative opinion in the United States against the very concept of anthropogenic climate change. A mere half-decade ago, the Republican Party leadership not only accepted global warming but also embraced farreaching carbon-control efforts, provided that they remained market-oriented. Today, most GOP stalwarts scoff at the mere possibility of humancaused climate change, regarding all suggested responses as veiled attempts to shackle the U.S. economy. This shift reflects the general rightward swing of the conservative movement that occurred with the economic crisis of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, but the seemingly conspiratorial emails helped propel the transition. In rightwing Web sites to this day, climatechange concerns are commonly dismissed as having been debunked by the “Climategate” revelations. The fact that no fewer than eight scientific committees subsequently examined the scandal and found no evidence of misbehavior is either ignored or dismissed. Party-line thinking, it now sometimes seems, has come to doubt the integrity of the entire scientific establishment, viewing the exoneration of the maligned climatologists as additional evidence of a vastly larger plot.

The passage of the Republican establishment into such antiscientific terrain has troubling implications. Although the conservative movement in the United States has long harbored a fundamentally antiscientific “creationist” wing, until recently its core constituency fully embraced reason and science. A mere 20 years ago, opposition to the scientific method was more closely associated with the far left. At the time, eco-radicals, radical feminists, and anticolonialists castigated science as an inherently violent, “masculinist,” and imperial project designed to dominate nature and control subjugated peoples. Those of us who participated in the mid-1990s conference called The Flight From Science and Reason, devoted to countering this antirational onslaught, found ourselves pilloried by the academic left for supporting a reactionary cause and accepting funds (out of necessity) from conservative foundations. Although hostility to science has by no means entirely evaporated from the left, it has long since ceased to simmer. Today, it is the political right that is inclined to regard science with contempt, with the left acting, although not consistently, as its champion. Such a state of affairs is unlikely to serve the interests of the conservative movement; those who deny science in the end refute reality, a difficult position to maintain in the long run.

The larger significance of the climate wars, however, is largely bypassed by Mann. Yet the book as it stands is still powerful and important, offering a damning indictment of the political campaigns of the climate-change deniers. The author does an admirable job of explaining climatological technicalities and their statistical foundations for a lay audience, and his dissection of the “Climategate” controversy is masterful, establishing the essential innocence of the researchers in a clear and convincing manner. Following in the footsteps of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, Mann also does a fine job of exposing the complex machinations of the denial apparatus, outlining the many connections among foundations, bloggers and other pundits, politicians, and a few “maverick” scientists of varying repute. He also shows how journalists deepen the confusion by framing the climate wars as balanced scientific debates, when in fact virtually all reputable climatologists fully accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Personal excursions

As detailed as Mann’s expositions of climate-research techniques and controversies are, they are still not adequate to fill an entire book. But rather than supplying the necessary bulk by taking on larger political and conceptual issues, he turns in a personal direction. As a result, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is in the end a journalistic-scientific account conjoined with a sketchy autobiography. Unfortunately, the biographical material does nothing to advance the author’s larger arguments.

Considering the personal abuse that he received, it is perhaps not surprising that Mann would have taken his book in a personal direction. Not only did powerful interests try to torpedo his tenure, but both he and his family were physically threatened. One email read, “You and your colleagues who have promoted this scandal ought to be shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” Although such a message might be dismissed as the ravings of a deranged fanatic, Mann shows that it fits into a larger pattern of character assassination employed by many climate-change denialists. In what he aptly deems the “Serengeti strategy,” opponents select individual climatologists for assault, much as lions pick off single zebras, trusting that the naïve scientific community will be unable to mount an adequate defense of its most beleaguered members.

Although Mann’s account of such attacks is powerful and chilling, his larger strategy of couching his arguments within an autobiographical framework was not well advised. Five pages into the first chapter, we are whisked away from compelling issues of science and subterfuge into Mann’s unexceptional childhood, learning, for example, about his fascination with the possibility of faster-than-light travel. What bearing such information might have on the climate controversy is unclear. Thankfully, self-revelation diminishes after the first chapter, although a distracting personal focus pervades the entire text.

One can imagine that the author included such superfluous information at the urging of an editor or agent. “Human interest” is thought by many to be the key to brisk book sales, but to function as promised, the biographical passages must at least be interesting. Pandering to imagined audience desires, moreover, hardly seems fitting for a university press book, which should presumably aim for a higher common denominator.

At times, moreover, Mann also unduly simplifies technical issues, occasionally to the point of error. On page 32, for example, he tells us that, “tropical tree species typically do not have annual growth rings (look at a palm tree stump sometime if you don’t believe this).” Actually, the lack of growth rings in palm trees has nothing to do with their location in the tropics; those growing in temperate northern California also lack annular patterns. Instead, palms have no growth rings because they are monocotyledons that do not produce true wood. Considering the fact that tree-ring data were crucial to the “hockey-stick” climatic reconstruction, such a confused explanation is more than a little troubling.

A wallflower no longer

Although Mann generally sticks to a straightforward narrative of events interspersed with technical explanations and personal details, he does gesture in a broader direction near the end of the book. His main concern here is the proper role of the scientist in public policy debates. Mann claims to have experienced a personal transformation in this regard over the course of his ordeal. He claims that before the climate wars, “taking anything remotely resembling a position regarding climate change policy was, to me, anathema.” Being unintentionally thrown onto the public stage and subjected to personal vilification brought a change of mind: “Everything I have experienced since then has gradually convinced me that my former viewpoint was misguided.” Mann now advocates insistent political engagement by the climatological community.

Mann’s revised position on this matter seems reasonable. The idea of the disinterested scientist single-mindedly pursuing truth while remaining oblivious to wider issues has long struck many as an ideal that can never be fully realized, and one that only the naïve would wholeheartedly embrace in the first place. But despite his conversion to a more activist perspective, Mann still writes as if his views derive entirely from scientific inquiry and rational reflection, uncontaminated by the ideological blinders and self-serving motivations that so distort those of his opponents. Insofar as his personal scientific endeavors are concerned, such strict adherence to the canons of reason most likely does obtain. But The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars strays well outside the confines of pure research into highly contestable political terrain. Here Mann’s own ideological presuppositions guide, and at times deform, his larger arguments.

Consider, for example, Mann’s discussion of what he calls shooting the messenger: the tactic of viciously attacking those who bring accurate but unwelcome environmental news. Mann traces this ploy to denunciations of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). Because Ehrlich’s book, Mann claims, “has ultimately proven prophetic,” condemnations of its “alarmism” by the likes of Julian Simon can only be regarded as early examples of invidious “swiftboating.” This claim is preposterous. Mann sees prophetic insight because The Population Bomb depicted humanity and nature as locked on a “collision course,” a ubiquitous concept in environmental circles at the time that merely formed the backdrop of the book, not its thesis. Ehrlich’s actual prophesy was of an impending global catastrophe, aptly summarized by his famous opening lines:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” That prediction, like almost all others made in the book, was not fulfilled. Taken on its own terms, The Population Bomb can only be regarded as a spectacularly anti -prophetic work.

A more contemporary example of Mann’s ideological blinders is found in his expressed surprise that “even the conservative Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)” denounced Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s “witch hunt against climate scientists.” Even? Because FIRE is a strictly nonpartisan organization devoted to protecting all forms of free expression on U.S. campuses, one could hardly have expected anything else. Merely describing FIRE as “conservative” reflects either willful ignorance of the foundation or fundamental confusion about the meaning of the term. Admittedly, FIRE more often defends right-leaning students, professors, and campus organizations against restrictions imposed by left-leaning administrators than the reverse, but that is only because First Amendment rights on campus are thwarted more often by far-left than far-right restrictive penchants. Denigrating an unwavering First Amendment association because it advocates on behalf of constitutionally protected speech that one disagrees with or finds distasteful can only be regarded as a betrayal of a core value of liberal society.

As his title indicates, Mann sees the conflict over climate change as an intellectual “war,” with the fate of Earth itself hanging on its resolution. As his final chapter demonstrates, he now sees himself a fighter in this portentous struggle, engaging battle with a combative book. The defense that he puts up is strong, and he effectively demolishes many of the bulwarks of his opponents. But his effort remains something of a rearguard action, one that will not likely make much of a difference in the larger struggle. Mann’s passion and his climatological expertise are clearly evident, but his ability to gain a gain a wide readership, much less to sway a broad swath of public opinion, remains limited. Winning the climate wars will require convincing the bulk of the population that global warming presents a grave threat that can be successfully met through public policy reforms. Given its unrelenting partisanship, unbalanced ideological proclivities, and insistence on personal excursions, the role of The Hockey Stick and the Climate War is likely to be circumscribed.

Cite this Article

Lewis, Martin W. “The Climate Struggle Heats Up.” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 1 (Fall 2012).

Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Fall 2012