Book review: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines by Michael E. Mann
Price: US$18.22; Kindle US$9.99; NZ$33.34
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (March 6, 2012)
Most readers have watched nature programmes hosted by David Attenborough. So you are familiar with scenes where predators will work together to target a single animal in a herd. If they can isolate it they will usually make a kill. If not they will go hungry.
You have seen it with Arctic wolves attacking oxen and African lions attacking zebras. Over recent years we have also seen it with politicians attacking climate scientists.
Michael Mann calls this the “Serengeti strategy:”
It “is a tried-and-true tactic of the climate change denial campaign. The climate change deniers isolate individual scientists just as predators on the Serengeti Plain of Africa hunt their prey: picking off vulnerable individuals from the rest of the herd.”
Mann is an authority on this phenomena – he has seen it from the inside, as a victim, for over a decade. Now he has written up his experiences, and the lessons drawn from them, in this new book appropriately called “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.”
The “Hockey Stick”
In a sense Mann was a inadvertent victim of the climate denier campaign. His work had more to do with natural climate variation than human caused effects. As he puts it: “I felt that natural climate variability might be more important than some scientists thought. Indeed, it was that very assumption that motivated my Ph.D. research topic.” But in the process of researching the history of past climate changes, earth’s paleoclimate, he produced an “icon” of the climate change wars – the “Hockey Stick.” This research was included in the 2001 IPCC Report – and the “Hockey Stick” image, a record of the global and hemispheric temperature record over the last 600 years (in its original form), made it into the Summary for policy makers.
The personalisation of attacks on Mann over the “Hockey Stick” was also misplaced because he was not making any claim about human causes of global warming:
” I was always very careful not to claim that our work could firmly establish a human role in the warming. To draw such a conclusion based on our work alone would necessarily buy into the classic logical fallacy of “correlation without causation.” We had established correlation—the anomalous warming that we documented coincided with the human-caused ramp-up in greenhouse gas concentrations—but we hadn’t established causality.”
Mann’s record was based on proxy measurements (estimations of temperature from tree rings, ice cores, etc.), as well as, for more recent times, instrumental measurements. It did show changes attributable to natural events – which you would think would make the deniers happy. But it also showed very graphically, the global warming that has occurred over the last half century. This appeared to be quite anomalous over the last 1000 years. In fact, it was most likely to be greater than that which had occurred during the so-called “Medieval Warm Period.” The deniers could not forgive Mann for that finding – they had worked hard to convey the impression that global temperatures were actually higher then than they are today. (To some extent deniers have relied on regional temperature estimates – Mann’s estimate are for hemispherical and global temperatures). The iconic “Hockey Stick” threatened the climate denier’s icon – The Medieval Warm Period!
The McKittrick/McIntyre attack
The book describes controversy around The Hockey Stick – some of it based on genuine science, some derived from contrarian and denier attacks often financed by the fossil fuel industry.
One attack, much quoted by climate change deniers and contrarians, is that of right-wing economist Ross McKittrick and Stephen McIntyre (a self described “semi-retired minerals consultant” with close ties to the energy industry). Published in a then controversial journal Energy and Environment it claimed Mann had made fundamental mistakes in his statistical procedures. Their own analysis could not reproduce the “blade” of the hockey stick – that is no recent warming could be found in the data.
As Mann explained, this was a result of their own faulty analysis and their mistake was pointed out in subsequent published and refereed replies. Inevitably Mann’s description of the statistical analysis is technical and may be beyond some readers. But he has worked hard to make his description understandable and it is worth persisting because so much undeserved credit has been placed on McKintrick and MacIntyre’s paper. The scientific rejection of their work has of course not stopped the deniers who till this day claim that the M&M paper had discredited The Hockey Stick.
This work was used to denounce Mann’s work in the US House of Representatives. Republic Joe Barton, then head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, launched a specific investigation of Mann’s work. (Joe Barton became well known five years later for his infamous apology to British petroleum over the fact that the Obama administration was holding it accountable for the oils spill the the Gulf of Mexico).
Mann describes the political manoeuvring that went on around this House investigation. Particularly useful is his description of the Wegman report, set up by Barton to vindicate the work of McKintrick and McIntyre. It is constantly quoted by climate change contrarians – despite the fact that this report, and other work by Wegman and his students, has been criticised for plagiarism.
However Barton got a lot of political flack for his anti-science manoeuvring and Sherwood Boehlert, Republican chair of the Science Committee, commissioned the US National Academy of science to review the science behind the Hockey Stick. Their authoritative report Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years largely vindicated Mann. Of course, have a read of climate denial books like Ian Wishart’s Air Con and you will find no mention of National Academy Report – only the Wegman’s report is used to perpetuate the lie that Man’s work was found faulty (see my review of Wishart’s book – Alarmist con).
And, as Mann points out his work has been validated by over a dozen other independent reconstructions of the paleoclimate temperature record.
I have previously discussed the way climate change deniers have lied about the Hockey Stick in Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of “hockey sticks”.
Several times in this book Mann outlines the scientific approach to understanding reality. He uses the term “good faith science” – I think it is rather descriptive in this situation. Scientists welcome good faith criticism – doubt and scepticism are central to the scientific process. But the “scepticism” and attacks on climate science by vested interests and contrarians is quite different. It is not a “good faith” criticism. It is motivated, distorted, cherry picked and very often dishonest criticism. The so-called “climategate scandal” typifies this approach. Stolen emails between climate scientists were cherry picked in an attempt to discredit the science.
The climate denier frenzy, and the investigations which cleared the scientists involved of any wrong-doing are now history. But scientists in general were rather taken aback by all this. They started to pay attention to these and other anti-science campaigns and debated the need to be proactive in communicating their science and combating the distortions and attacks.
I think the recent legal attempts by Virginia Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli, to get correspondence and emails relating to Mann and his research are one of the worst acts of the climate denial movement. Because it smacks of McCarthyism. Cuccinelli was on a “fishing trip” – which required him to assert that Mann was guilty of fraud – without any evidence. Like the McCarthy persecution this sort of mud sticks and its aim was obviously to intimidate scientists.
After a prolonged legal battle the Virginia Supreme Court has now ruled that Mann’s documents cannot be subpoenaed by Cuccinelli (see The chickens are hatching). But his attempted precipitated action from scientific bodies in defence of Mann and other scientists victimised by such persecution.
A positive conclusion
This book concentrates on Mann’s story. His research and the resulting attacks and persecution by the climate change denial political machine. It has valuable information debunking the denier mythology created around the “Hockey Stick.” There are also interesting background details clarify things like the strange position taken by the Institute of Physics at the UK parliamentary investigation of the climategate email issue (see Institute of Physics in hot seat).
But don’t expect new information on the funding of the climate denial network and links with the fossil fuel industry and politicians. Mann relies on the excellent research of others here – and references the books Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels and Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway.
Apart from the valuable background history the book provides I think its main value is the positive spin it provides, particularly in the final chapters. These discuss the reaction of climate scientists, and scientists in general, to the attacks on the science and the profession. The final straw appears to have come with the McCarthyist political attacks on Mann and other climate scientists. As Mann describes it – the bear has awoken. Scientists are finally recognising they cannot continue to ignore these attacks,. They are starting to fight back.
“The attacks against climate scientists by politicians like Senator James Inhofe and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli were now being identified by prominent media outlets for the witch hunts they were. . . . I believe that the climategate attacks represented a turning point for my fellow climate scientist colleagues and how they viewed their role in the public debate. These latest attacks will fade from memory, and new ones will undoubtedly be launched to take their place. But I suspect that the change in heart among climate scientists regarding their role in the debate will be enduring.”
The book is also a good read. For anyone interested in the subject, with a bit of background knowledge, Mann’s reiteration of the public events, together with his knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, makes the book a real page turner.