WOOSTER, Ohio — Ask Michael Mann what he thinks about the global warming controversy, and he’ll likely respond by saying, “What controversy?” The professor of meteorology at Penn State University and one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change erased any lingering doubt about the planet’s escalation in temperature with a compelling presentation at the 32nd annual Richard Osgood Lecture last week at The College of Wooster.
“From a scientific point of view, human-caused climate change is not controversial,” said Mann before a near capacity crowd in Gault Recital Hall of Scheide Music Center. “We’ve known about the “greenhouse effect” for nearly two centuries — and we know that human activity is responsible for increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases. That’s all you need to know to understand that human-caused climate change is a reality.”
Mann unwittingly found himself at the center of the debate when he published research about a major spike in temperatures, illustrated by a graph that resembled the blade of a hockey stick pointing upward at an almost 90-degree angle. His findings were met with skepticism by some, outrage by others, particularly politicians from states that rely heavily on the production of fossil fuels. One of the more vitriolic attacks came from Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who actually subpoenaed Mann and 16 other scientists on suspicion of fraud, even though the integrity of their data was beyond reproach.
“Human-caused climate change is irrefutable,” said Mann. “Our planet has warmed by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by more than a hundred parts per million since the dawn of industrialization. By mid-century, that could increase to .45 parts per million, causing dangerous and irreversible climate changes. The recent warming that has taken place is unprecedented. If this continues, we will be talking about a fundamentally different planet.”
So, if the science is so clear, why has there been no action? The reason, according to Mann, is politics, or what he referred to as the “scientization of politics” — the use, or abuse, of science to counteract the facts.
A watershed moment in this odyssey occurred in 2002 when Republican Party strategist Frank Luntz issued a memo to fossil fuel interests suggesting that there was a “window of opportunity” to challenge the science. Those with vested interests in the continued use of fossil fuel began to attack mainstream science by launching a campaign of misinformation. The objective was to cast doubt on the data and persuade the public that there was no scientific consensus on the issue, so there would be no need to change the status quo. It was similar to the strategy used by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on reports about the negative health effects of smoking.
Fossil fuel advocates, like Barton and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, went on the offensive, assembling a cadre of paid advocates to refute the findings of Mann and others. For a while it worked, but Mann and his colleagues found allies in some unexpected places — namely the Republican Party. Sherwood Boehlert, a longtime moderate from New York, was one of the more outspoken Republicans. He warned his colleagues that they were in jeopardy of becoming known as the “anti-science” party. Former presidential candidate John McCain also spoke out against Barton and his “campaign of harassment.”
Of course, not all Republicans were on board. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, authored an op-ed in The Washington Post, in response to the alleged manipulation of data and destroying of records during the Copenhagen Climate-Change Summit in 2009. In the end, it turned out to be a “witch-hunt” and even a form of “Modern-Day McCarthyism,” according to many observers.
Since that time, however, the global warming debate has appeared to cool down, at least a few degrees, and Mann is optimistic that people on both sides will get past what he termed a “bad-faith debate.” As for solutions, Mann said, there is no magic bullet. “Our transition from a reliance on fossil fuels should be done gradually, not cold turkey.”
In closing his illustrated presentation, Mann posted a photo of his young daughter at an aquarium near Pittsburgh. In the background, a polar bear can be seen diving below the surface of a glass-enclosed display — a priceless Kodak moment that symbolized a new window of opportunity. “We must frame the issue as one of intergenerational ethics,” he said. “The decisions we make today will have a profound impact on the planet our children will inherit.”
Mann’s presentation must have resonated with the audience. In a nearly 30-minute question-and-answer session, there were no hostile proclamations or dissenting voices. People finally seemed to be getting the message.
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