A Happy Warrior

Climate change deniers attack, but Michael Mann keeps fighting

When Michael E. Mann was just a kid, his uncle handed him “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” a best-selling book that tells the story of a seagull with a passion for flight. Weary of his everyday life, the bird pursues all there is to learn about flying, refusing to follow his flock.

This theme of nonconformity has stuck with Mann throughout his life. In the fight against the effects of climate change, Mann is a scientist-turned-activist who stands out from the rest. A distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, Mann, 52, is one of the world’s leading experts on climate change.

He has testified in front of Congress, published four books and seemingly countless articles and research findings and has befriended other famed science activists, such as Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio.  Mann is interviewed regularly by news outlets around the world, including MSNBC, CNN and the Washington Post, because of his expertise.

But he has also faced adversities. So-called “climate deniers” – those who insist that climate change does not exist – have painted Mann as a villain and a liar, sending him death threats and claiming his research is fabricated.

Despite attacks on his research and his character, Mann has persevered. He speaks out about his findings in lectures around the world and in small seminars he teaches for freshman at Penn State.

“Ninety percent of the battle is being firm and resolute, standing by your principles,” Mann said. It’s “having the confidence of knowing you’re right and that you are standing up for something that’s right.”

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Defined as a change in global or regional climate patterns, climate change has taken the world by storm — literally. With sea levels on the rise, rampant wildfires and numerous devastating hurricanes in the past year alone, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report suggests more dire consequences are on their way as early as 2040.

Earth Day 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the very research that launched Mann into the public sphere. On April 22, 1998, Mann and his co-authors published what is known today as the “hockey stick graph.”

Named after a similar-looking graph depicting the science of ozone depletion by meteorologist and climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, the famed “hockey stick” is a graph displaying climate temperatures from the past millennium.

It shows temperatures generally staying consistent until about the year 1900, when the graph spikes like the blade of a hockey stick. The upturn in the graph shows the immense influence humans have had on the climate over the past century.

The graph has become so much of a part of Mann’s identity that people have been giving him hockey sticks as gifts. He has one hockey stick in his Penn State office that was autographed by the members of the Middlebury College ice hockey team.

Enlarge

hockeyStickGraph
Mann's original hockey stick graph, updated with an overlay of more recent data. Mann's original data is in blue. The hockey stick temperature reconstruction from 1999 (blue) along with the data record (red) and the 2013 “PAGES2k” temperature reconstruction (green).
Credit: Klaus Bittermann Wikimedia
(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Long before talk of climate change and hockey sticks, however, Mann said he was a bit of a problem child growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts. He said he rebelled against authority and would get in trouble for challenging teachers and fighting bullies who were much bigger — something he did simply, Mann said, because he felt it was the right thing to do.

“Ninety percent of the battle is being firm and resolute, standing by your principles,” Mann said. It’s “having the confidence of knowing you’re right and that you are standing up for something that’s right.”

Once, in the fourth grade, Mann found himself in an argument with a school bully. But a 9-year-old Mann stood his ground and talked himself out of the potential schoolyard fight, using diplomatic skills that one day would seem to prepare Mann for a new type of bully — climate deniers.

How ugly has the bullying become? In a 2012 blog post Mann was compared to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach now serving 30 to 60 years in prison for abusing young boys. Read the blog: “Instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.”

Long before the chaos, Mann said he was just a normal kid who liked science. Following his high school interest in computer programming, Mann graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989 with a double-major in math and physics.

It wasn’t until studying theoretical physics at Yale University that he realized his interests lie somewhere else.

Almost by chance, Mann stumbled upon Barry Saltzman, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale, who was using math and science to model the Earth’s climate. Mann ultimately transferred into that department and completed his Ph.D. with Saltzman on climate modeling, graduating in 1998. Under Salzman, Mann looked into what is known as proxy data — such as tree rings and coral — to observe long-term climate variation. Mann said these observations led him to the creation of the famed hockey stick curve.

“Because it was such an icon in the climate change debate, I quickly found myself at the center of that very fractious debate,” Mann said. “And that’s a very unusual place to find yourself as a scientist.”

Climate deniers began gaining traction as the climate change debate became increasingly popular in public discourse.

“Of course, often it has much less to do with science and facts than it has to do with politics,” Mann said. “There’s sort of a code of ethics, of honesty and diligence in science that sometimes finds lacking in our public discourse, especially today, in this world of alternative facts and fake news that we find ourselves in.”

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Dr. Michael Mann from January, 2017. ~ photo by John Beale

In 2009, Mann’s email, as well as that of other climate scientists, was hacked. The emails were carefully chosen to fuel claims made by climate deniers that Mann and other scientists were fabricating and hiding data about climate change research.

And thus was born “Climategate” — the incident that created even more doubt about climate change and the hockey stick graph, confirmed beliefs held by climate deniers and has caused Mann to be known as one of the more controversial climate scientists.

Mann said his reaction to the relentless criticism is one of “disgust.”

“It was disgust with the fundamental intellectual dishonesty of the climate change denial movement,” he said.

Following the email release came weeks of climate denial campaigning — perfectly timed for the days leading up to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Summit taking place that December. It was known as the Copenhagen Summit.

In the heat of the concerted attacks, Mann found himself weaving through various scare tactics put forth by climate deniers.

He once found himself standing behind police tape, barred from his own office at Penn State, after receiving a letter containing white powder.

He immediately contacted the police, and the FBI came to investigate. Colleagues were checked to make sure they hadn’t been exposed to a dangerous substance and samples were sent off to a lab.

What turned out to be nothing other than cornmeal represented something dangerous.

“The more you’re attacked and vilified in the nether regions of the internet, the more of these creatures emerge from the dark,” Mann said. “The ones who are orchestrating these attacks are throwing out this red meat. … It’s all intended to direct all of this hatred and vitriol toward us.”

It was during this difficult time that Mann’s world shifted into defense mode. He received death threats and thinly veiled threats against his family. Politicians attacked him on the House and Senate floors. Op-eds appeared in the Wall Street Journal questioning Mann’s integrity.

Jose D. Fuentes, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, said the motive behind these orchestrated attacks was to discourage Mann from pursuing his work.

“To go on the personal level, you know, that’s the piece that I think is very sad,” Fuentes said. “I know the main motive for that kind of persecution and harassment to actually demoralize, in this case, Mike. Instead of doing work, he is dealing with lawsuits or dealing with these personal matters.”

Mann is a strong believer in the saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” – so much so, in fact, that having the phone number to the local police station hanging on his kitchen refrigerator has become nothing more than part of the job description.

“I know a lot of people in our community who have been subjected to this kind of thing,” said Susan Hassol, friend and colleague of Mann and director of Climate Communication — a non-profit organization dedicated to the scientific understanding of changes in the environment. “But of all of them, Mike is probably the most cheerful. He probably has the best sense of humor in the end. … I’ve seen others become dejected, become practically suicidal — but not Mike. Mike is a happy warrior.”

***

 Mann is in high demand, constantly traveling for presentations, interviews or award ceremonies. While the work is rewarding, Mann said his travels do keep him away from his family.

“There are some regrets,” he said. “Life is full of tradeoffs. I’ve decided that trying to inform the societal discourse over climate change and what to do about it is important enough that you make some personal sacrifices, and that’s certainly one of them.”

Mann spends the little downtime he does have with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. They go on hikes or keep traditions like watching every Marvel movie.

To blow off steam, Mann has a little-known talent up his sleeve — he can play the piano by ear. During an over-the-phone interview in the 20 minutes he had to spare one day, Mann put the phone on speaker and, with the absence of sheet music, played “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift on the upright piano in his living room.

When it comes to movies, some of Mann’s favorites range from “Shawshank Redemption” to “The Princess Bride.”

“I will confess to liking sometimes silly movies, light-hearted movies, feel-good movies,” Mann said. “It takes you to another world, another parallel universe where things are simpler and better, and we somehow don’t have to deal with all the challenges of modern life and modern civilization. Sometimes you just need an escape. ‘The Princess Bride’ is a tale that provides that.”

He’s recently reread a book by one of his heroes, astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Mann called “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” a “cautionary tale for what happens when we have a civilization that becomes disconnected from an understanding and literacy of science.”

It is Mann’s understanding of the dark side of public discourse that causes him to be protective of his family and close friends. He has built a firewall between his life in the public sphere and his private life.

“We all sort of need at times to have a world available to us where we can leave the confines of our professional lives,” Mann said. “I work hard to maintain that boundary. I have friends who I interact with as friends, and not as ‘public figure Michael Mann.’”

When he’s not being “public figure Michael Mann,” he can be found educating younger generations on climate change.

“There are some regrets,” Mann says. “Life is full of tradeoffs. I’ve decided that trying to inform the societal discourse over climate change and what to do about it is important enough that you make some personal sacrifices."

Mann co-wrote a children’s picture book — “The Tantrum that Saved the World” — to communicate climate change in a way that educates and empowers children to make a difference. Since 2007, he’s been teaching a freshman seminar at Penn State — “Climate Change and Political Societal Impacts,” which explores the scientific evidence underlying questions such as “How certain are we that human activity is altering Earth’s climate?” and “How much more warming might we expect over the next century?”

Mann enjoys the course so much that he co-wrote a book to go along with it: “Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change.”

During a class in early November, Mann is soft-spoken and laid-back as his students watch “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Al Gore documentary about global warming. As students eat the leftover Halloween candy Mann brought in for the class, he often pauses the film to point out key information or provide students with updated research.

When the movie ends, he asks for opinions and thoughts on the documentary, eager to hear responses.

While the class is quiet, a few eager students engage in conversation with their professor about the rising water levels in Florida as well as how the recent 2018 midterm election results could influence climate change legislation.

***

 In early October, in Flint, Michigan, Mann sat beside a PowerPoint slide that read, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” He was one of nine guest speakers at the “Climate Matters Collaborative Journalism Workshop” at the 28th annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Wearing a lavender button-down shirt and black blazer, Mann blended in with the crowd of journalists, meteorologists and climate science communicators, yet it quickly became clear he was not like the rest. Throughout the seven-hour workshop, Mann’s research was repeatedly mentioned by all the presenters.

During his own presentation, Mann told the story of the hockey stick graph he has told time and time again. He cracked jokes, answered questions and stayed away from scientific jargon.

It’s no coincidence Mann knows how to work a crowd.

“Mike is one of the really rare breed who can be both a great scientist and a great communicator,” Hassol said. “He does what I try and tell all scientists to do: Be clear, concise and compelling.”

Part of that charm comes with his demeanor.

“He has a wicked sense of humor,” said Jenni L. Evans, professor of meteorology at Penn State. “He enjoys a joke, and it’s not a joke at someone else’s expense. I think he’s known for speaking out about things and being very tough, and I think the point is when he’s off-duty, that he’s not as tough. He enjoys funny things and being with people.”

Fuentes said he toes the line between being a personal friend and a professional colleague to Mann. Before they both ended up at Penn State, the two worked together as assistant professors at the University of Virginia.

“I would even say that all the professional societies have greatly benefited from his work because he has translated all his own personal experiences as to how to do outreach, how to communicate science in a manner that policy makers or even regular audiences understand his messages,” Fuentes said.

Hassol said Mann has introduced her to other scientists in whom he sees communication potential.

“And boom,” Hassol said, “a new climate communicator will be born out of the science community. So, Mike is always thinking about how to extend his reach in that way, too — to bring other people, to deepen the bench, if you will.”

Fuentes said Mann is doing pioneering work and serves as a role model to scientists around the world, because he is not satisfied with simply having his research published in scientific journals.

“When we publish our own research articles, we are mostly publishing in a language that is only for our peers,” Fuentes said. “That has to change. Part of the reason why we are in this predicament right now is that very few people actually understand climate science …. Mike has been a pioneer in the sense that he has written articles for many news outlets, he is on TV all the time explaining these ideas in a manner that people understand — he doesn’t bring jargon along.”

Regardless of Mann’s fame, Fuentes said he hasn’t seen his character change. The only thing that has changed is Mann’s availability.

“We used to have coffee twice a day when we were young,” Fuentes laughed. “Now, I get to see him probably once a month. The reason is, if you ask me, ‘Where is Mike right now?’ I’d say he’s probably giving a talk somewhere. That’s the price we all have to pay.”

Michael_Mann_001
“Mike is one of the really rare breed who can be both a great scientist and a great communicator,” Susan Hassol said. “He does what I try and tell all scientists to do: Be clear, concise and compelling.” ~ photo by John Beale

 ***

Even with Mann’s many challenges, his colleagues can’t recall a time when Mann’s strength has faltered.

“I remember that day when I came in and there was yellow tape across the door,” said Raymond G. Najjar, Jr., professor of oceanography in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at Penn State. “I think he was remarkably cool about it and I would say that that characterizes his response to a lot of controversy. He’s also a fighter. If he gets intimidated, you don’t really know it. … He’s very steadfast, I find, and has a remarkable amount of poise.”

Najjar said he admires Mann because he doesn’t quit. Since the creation of the hockey stick graph, Mann hasn’t slowed down.

“I’m not sure I would be able to handle all of that and stuff that has nothing to do with the day-to-day work of a scientist and professor, which is pretty consuming in itself,” Najjar said. “Still, he seems like he’s writing a paper in the top scientific journals — several of them a year — you know, and I would be thrilled if I could get one of those in my career. He’s a very impressive scientist and a very impressive individual. His character is pretty remarkable.”

Mann said he is humbled by his colleagues’ comments. He said he can think of no greater privilege as a scientist than to be at the forefront of climate change science.

“Suppose I never did leave theoretical physics, and I went on to study the theory of liquids and solids,” Mann said. “I probably would have avoided that public scrutiny and the attacks and the vitriol. But I would also be a fairly obscure scientist. To do it all over again knowing what I know now, I would probably make the same choices.”

Since Donald Trump became president, climate denial rhetoric has become increasingly normalized, Mann said.

In an age of alternative facts and fake news, climate deniers have been given a platform to feel entitled to their own “facts,” making it increasingly difficult to have a good faith debate about policy, he said.

Weaved throughout the negative messages Mann still receives today lie those quiet reminders that he is fighting for something that matters — messages sometimes shown through the many hockey sticks Mann has received as gifts since the iconic graph’s debut.

“All it takes is one authentic, kind message,” Mann said. “It’s almost, ‘Thanks for doing what you do. Thanks for standing up to the bullies.’ Those are the really rewarding comments.”

Mann likes to tweak a quote from Bill Nye when describing the goal of his work: “We should all be trying to change the world for the better.”

Just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the scientist-turned-activist continues to set himself apart from the crowd no matter the adversity — and he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

“I will be doing what I’m doing until one of two things happens,” Mann said. “We finally break through and we do what’s necessary to act on climate, or I drop dead trying.”

~ 1.25.2019

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