Mad About Science Denial? This Book Is For You and your Uncle Bob!

Michael Mann has a specialty or two. Climate simulation modeling, analysis of proxy data, the study of global teleconnections, Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures over historic time scales, etc. A while back, Mann's research interests and activities converged, I assume by some combination of design and chance (as is often the case in Academia) with a key central question in science. This question is, "What is the pattern of surface warming caused by human effects on the atmosphere, including changes in greenhouse gas concentration and other pollutants?"

Mann and his colleagues essentially solved that problem in 1998, with the publication of a study looking at tree ring data, ice cores, and direct measurements of the atmosphere and the ocean surface, to estimate "surface temperature" of the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere. NASA, NOAA, and other agencies already had a temperature record going back into the 19th century, about a century of data. But since human effects started way before that, and since there is a lot of non-human caused variation in the system, the only way the basic pattern of surface warming, and the relative role of human effects, could be ascertained was by extending that record back several more centuries. Mann and his colleagues did that.

What they did was to turn this graph:

What scientists used to think. This is not far from what is now known, but much less detailed. What scientists used to think. This is not far from what is now known, but much less detailed.

Into this graph:

The results of several scholars' work, including and mainly Mann and Hughes, summarized in a key IPCC report.  This science clarified our position in the natural system we are so dramatically changing, and won the teams who did this work a Nobel Prize. The results of several scholars' work, including and mainly Mann and Hughes, summarized in a key IPCC report. This science clarified our position in the natural system we are so dramatically changing, and won the teams who did this work a Nobel Prize.

Ironically, that first graph is from the oil industry, a report by ExxonMobil to be exact. Scientists generally knew that greenhouse warming was a thing, but these ExxonMobil scientists hid their research in order to ... well, you can guess their motivation. (And you thought they were just about oil!)

So, that should have been about it. A major question was clarified and science marches on.

But there were two other things that happened after that. One makes total sense, and is a good thing. The other is mad. Mad as in madhouse.

The first thing was clarifying the science even more. Mann and colleagues worked mainly on the Northern Hemisphere because that is where much of the data lived. They were not using all the proxy data that would eventually become available. The record had to be pushed even farther back in time. The direct surface measurements needed to be reanalyzed a few times by different people, using different approaches, in order to understand it better. And so on.

Also, climate needed to march along a bit, as it turns out. The years since 1998 or so have seen dramatic changes in surface temperature, and dramatic effects of warming.

So that all happened, and our understanding of climate change is much refined and pretty darn good, with a few interesting and important questions remaining. But we know enough to confirm several times over the existential nature of the problem.

But something else happened at the same time.

Your curmudgeonly old Uncle Bob got mad at the climate data because, well, it seemed like it was Environmentalism which is all Hippie and Communist and stuff. Your cousin the developer and your other cousin who works at the power plant got mad because it became clear that modern civilization's present day technologies for making and using buildings, making and using vehicles, and making and using energy, were the cause of an existential crisis. So they got mad about being blamed, even though they weren't really being singled out. And all the energy producing corporations, stock holders, and their ... well, their wholly owned souls such as members of Congress, Republicans, talk show hosts, and, to bring it full circle, your curmudgeonly old Uncle Bob, all got mad because addressing climate change would ruin the American Dream.

The American Dream, by the way, is this: You are a poor slob living in dirt. Them something happens and the dirt is gone but somehow you are still filthy. Filthy rich! Every American would become filthy rich if only ... if only Mike Mann would shut up and go away.

So, this second thing that happened involved intense harassment, often bought and paid for, of climate scientists, active opposition to truthful and honest science, and the organic development of what Mann and his coauthor Toles refer to as a "Madhouse."

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 3.57.34 PMMann has been in the middle of the conversation about climate science, the needed energy transition, and the denial of climate science, for years now. (See his first hand historical account of the first half of that journey.) He's also a great communicator of science. So, he's one of the best people to tell the story of climate change.

Mann has done this before a couple of times (notably, see this DK publication authored by Mann that summarizes the IPCC report). And now he's done it again.

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, by Michael Mann and cartoonist Tom Toles, consists of Mann's account of climate change, the denailism industry, the fight between science and anti-science, the energy transition, and all the important nuances of the problem. Well written and easily understood, an excellent and very current expose of the whole thing. And, along side all this, the cartoonish stylings of cartoonist Tom Toles.

One of the topics Mann deals with in this new book, that has not been dealt with enough, is the Breakthrough concept, especially as related to geoengineering. To quote from the text:

Many of those who advocate against taking action when it comes to dealing with the underlying problem—our ongoing burning of fossil fuels— have instead turned to possible technosolutions for counteracting climate change that involve other massive interventions in the Earth system: geoengineering. In some ways, for the free-market fundamentalist, geoengineering is a logical way out because it reflects an extension of faith that the free market and technological innovation can solve any problem we create, without the need for regulation.

Unsurprisingly, even many rather level-headed captains of industry, such as Bill Gates, have embraced the concept along with techno-Pollyannas, such as Bjorn Lomborg and the Breakthrough Institute. Price on carbon? Nah, the market doesn’t need it. Renewable energy? It’s a pipe dream. Massively interfering with the Earth system in the hope that we might get lucky and offset global warming? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

One of the important Stages of Science Denial (and there is a whole chapter on the stages in The Madhouse Effect) is to assume that this problem will be solved with one great technological advance.

We might have some helpful technological advances, but most of the key advances have already happened and now need some fine tuning. The laws of physics can't be broken just because we want them to be. It takes energy to separate Carbon from Oxygen, and we get energy by combining the two (if we start with the right molecules). We can't suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere and make it solid without either spending more energy, or violating the laws of physics. And at the scale we are talking about here, we can't store the gas in some safe place. The bottom line: We have to keep the fossil fuel in the ground, and use the widely available, abundant, clean, inexpensive, and by the way, very cool alternative sources of energy that already exist but that don't happened to be owned by the Koch Brothers.

Check out The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. It is available for pre-order as of this writing, but will be available for actual reading around Labor Day on line, and in print, ready to ship by mid September.

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Thank you for calling it "Science Denial", rather than "Climate Science Denial".

Science doesn't work on the cafeteria plan. You deny one part, you're denying all of it.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 24 Aug 2016 #permalink

One of the important Stages of Science Denial (and there is a whole chapter on the stages in The Madhouse Effect) is to assume that this problem will be solved with one great technological advance.

Even if laws of physics could be broken, the people who make the quoted assumption overlook the fact that with industry steadfastly not working on these issues, and governments cutting or eliminating funding to the researchers in the relevant areas, the breakthrough they hypothesize can't occur. Brilliant! (on their side: sucks for reality).