Climate Denialists Would Be Remembered as Villains, Says Mann

Mark Twain's advice: never fight with a pig or argue with a fool


Nature's Edge Notebook #31

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Interview with Climate Scientist Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars"

Conducted by Bill Blakemore in New York's Central Park 4-19-12:

Some of Mann's main points and charges in Part 3 include:

- Whose job is it to explain the gravity of the climate crisis?

- Mark Twain on why never to fight with a pig or argue with a fool.

- There's no place in democracy for "bad faith assaults on science"

- Dishonest views of a small number of science deniers should not set policy

- President Obama won't let his excellent climate team play

- Fossil fuel interests - coal and oil companies - and funded private interest foundations are behind efforts that have meant the president doesn't feel he has political backing for action on climate.

Mark Twain advises not to argue with denialists… but Mann names some names.

Transcript Part 3 (of 5):

Blakemore: Before we go a little further to this question of "overall tipping point," what did you learn about mainstream media journalism? ABC, NBC and CBS, to be specific?

What have you learned about what our strengths and weaknesses may be, from your point of view, of what you think we should be?

Mann: Well, you know, I've met so many great journalists - science and environmental journalists - over the years, and I have a very high opinion of the journalism community, and in particular the environment and science journalism community.

And unfortunately, I think to some extent that community has been a casualty of sort of the changing structure of our media. I know that The Weather Channel, for example, got rid of their Forecast Earth team a few years ago to cut back their budget … CNN got rid of their entire science and technology team - Miles O'Brien and his team some years ago…

So I think that, you know, while there are some great journalists still out there on the beat, there has really been a movement away from traditional science and environmental journalism… And stories that perhaps used to be covered by journalists with training and background in this area and are increasingly covered, for example, by political journalists.

Blakemore: I am not an environmentalist - I'm not trying to slow down global warming one second or save a single species… and I say that in advance of having to say that, from my point of view as a professional journalist who is just trying to report what's happening, it strikes me that this is a grave crisis.

(Michael Mann nods)

That you scientists have been telling us for some time that this is a grave crisis with hundreds of millions of people dying or in the position of being climate refugees by the middle of the century if we don't… if we, the human race, don't take it over.

(Michael Mann nods)

Now, of course, journalists are loath to say things like this because we need to protect our credibility… But you all have been telling us this increasingly for the eight years that I've been focusing in this so far.

(Michael Mann nods)

And if this is such a grave crisis, how do you think we should be - whose job is it to tell us about this grave crisis? Whose job is it? Whose job is it?

Mann:You know, I do believe that we scientists have a role to play, to do the best job that we can to communicate the science and the impacts of climate change as clearly as we can. I believe it is the role of the scientists now - not to prescribe policy, but to inform the debate over policy.

The discourse over what to do about this problem has to be informed, an honest and accurate assessment of the scientific evidence. And so scientists have a role to play here. Of course, the media has a role to play.

Blakemore: Let me ask you about that phrase. "The media" are many different kinds of things - purveyors and politicians and some journalists. Which part of the media? Because the "media" are just physical things, and every profession uses the media, so let's be specific.

Mann: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when I was growing up, you know, I'm old enough to remember… You know, my family was gathered around the TV screen, and sorry to say, watching CBS nightly news. We were watching Walter Cronkite, and at the end his newscast he would say, "And that's the way it was" on April 18 th … and everybody knew that that's that the way it was.

We accepted the facts - we could agree upon the facts, and you know, people had room for the opinions, but they didn't have room for their own facts… And we seem to have evolved to a point in the public discourse where, frankly, there are news outlets that are dedicated to arming climate change deniers with their own set of false facts to justify their continued denial of the reality of human caused climate change. I think it's a dangerous development.

Blakemore: Any particular channels you're thinking of?

Mann: (Laughs) I like not to name names, but I think we probably all know some of those… You know there's a network that has been devoted to presenting false information to the public about the issue of climate change.

Blakemore:Very interesting. What is your instinct, in this case, in not naming the name? I myself, when I'm reporting on the climate denialists, rarely, if ever, name them. I'm interested in what your reasons are - that you rarely, if ever, name them.

Mann: Well, you know I don't think we need or want to sort of head down that road of seeming like we're engaging in ad hominem attacks, because that's not what it's about.

Blakemore: You, in fact, have one of the great quotes in your book, in fact - a proverb about arguing with a fool. I forget what the quote is, but it's some old proverb like 'One reason not to argue with a fool is people who are watching won't be able to tell the difference.'

Mann: I think it might be Mark Twain, and it's, "Never argue with a fool because onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."

And that's right… and, you now, there's another expression, you know: "Don't get in a mud fight with a pig because you both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

And it is true that to some extent the discourse has been debased by the fact that to confront climate change denial sometimes we, you know, scientists even find ourselves in sort that mud pit of arguing out the science with those who don't appear to be engaged in a good faith discussion.

Blakemore: You, in fact, have quite a quote in your book. You say: "Widespread, bad faith assaults on science have no place in a functioning democracy." That's quite a strong statement. Isn't democracy all about free speech?

Mann: Absolutely. Good faith free speech, and not… And sure, you know, people are entitled to say what they want… But we shouldn't be basing policy on the dishonest views of a small number of people who refuse to accept the facts as they are evident.

And so sure, people have the right, I suppose, to lie… But we certainly shouldn't be basing policy on lies.

Blakemore: Back to the question of whose job is it? What about the government? What about the president? It seems to me that you scientists, around the world, have been telling…

Let's take that first: You're not speaking just on behalf of some scientists - climate scientists in America or, in fact, all of the half-reasonably credible climate scientists in America. What you're saying is the same thing that the climate scientists around the world are saying.

Americans tend to be sometimes a little bit inward looking, but there are your counterparts in all of the other developed countries… who are all saying and finding the same things, right?

Mann: Oh, absolutely. I mean we're talking about the consensus of thousands of scientists around the world… And the National Academy of Sciences - founded by a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln - in response to a request by ex-president George W. Bush who asked the National Academy to look into whether or not the science was sound, whether climate change was real, and they looked into it, and they evaluated the work of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, which had come under criticism because it's affiliated with the United Nations, and there are some who believe that maybe they had some sort of agenda.

So, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed what the IPCC had to say, and what they said was, 'They got it right.'

And it isn't just the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It's the National Academies of Science of all the major industrial nations around the world. So, we can't bury our heads in the sand. I mean, the science is solid. The problem is real. We can have a good faith debate about what to do about it.

Blakemore: But again, I run into this sort of like parallel universe thing: On one hand, you climate scientists around the world - I see one list of 17 National Academies of Science - say there is a grave crisis coming now, in the coming decades - while today's toddlers are making their way into middle age…

(Michael Mann nods.)

…that we'll see horrors on the planet by mid-century if we don't figure out how to stem it… And we nod our heads, like you're nodding your head now…And it's a smiling day here, with the sunlight out…And yet, this disinformation campaign revs up, and intimidates more and more, and seems to get away with it. What… something is wrong here. I can't put my finger on it, and I've been trying for eight years. Why is it… Where is the failing here? What is the job of the government?

Forgive me for asking a naïve question, but it seems to me you all are presenting to us a reality - which the public by the way, is beginning to believe more even than you might think, listening to it… You scientists are presenting to us a reality of a grave crisis facing humanity.

A security crisis: It's about nothing so much as national security, international security, and financial security.

(Michael Mann nods throughout.)

Mann: Absolutely.

Blakemore: Now it seems to me that the job of protecting us, most of all belongs to the president, to the governments of the world on this. Do you agree on this?

Mann: I do. And you know, I think the president… President Barack Obama appointed wonderful people to cabinet level positions of authority on matters of science policy, and so… You know, John Holdren he appointed to head up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jane Lubchenko to head up NOAA, Steven Chu to head up the Department of Energy, Lisa Jackson - EPA…

And I was asked about this a few weeks ago during the NCA tournament… And the analogy that I used was that, you know, it's like President Obama appointed this all-star basketball team, but he wouldn't let them go out on the court and play…

Blakemore: Why?

Mann: … (that's how it's felt.) I think there… Just as we scientists have been subject to this massive assault by a disinformation effort, a well funded, industry-funded disinformation effort to discredit us, to intimidate us… the same thing I believe, is happening, you know, at a larger scale. And I believe that the Obama administration probably decided they didn't have the political capital to fight this massive disinformation campaign with huge amounts of special interest money running commercials across the nation aimed at disinforming Americans about the challenge we face, about the energy choices that we should be talking about.

Blakemore: So, when you say "special interest," you mean fossil fuel money?

Mann: Fossil fuel interests.

Blakemore: Coal and oil companies?

Mann: Yes, and increasingly …

Blakemore: Peabody Coal and ExxonMobil and others, to name some names in this case?

Mann: Well, although increasingly it's actually private interests like the Koch brothers, K-O-C-H, the Koch foundations that have been funding many of these groups.

Blakemore: But, wait a second. I've seen David Koch's name on all kinds of science programs on PBS. They're funding a lot of science. Is that part of a smoke screen?

Mann: Well, some might say that they're talking out of two sides of their mouth. Because on the one hand they do appear to be currying favor with the public by funding certain humanitarian efforts and providing funds to the Smithsonian Institution and to PBS.

But at the same time, they're spending far larger amounts of money in funding groups like Americans for Prosperity, whose purpose is to try to confuse the public about the reality of climate change and the nature of the real challenge that we face.

Blakemore: So, I've got a question. I can't help but wonder, what will happen to these people who have so vigorously funded this "intimidation campaign" - as the temperature goes up and as it becomes manifestly obvious to everyone - as it is to most people already - that this is a grave crisis, and that they have been trying to slow down the reparations of it.

Mann: Well, you know, on the one hand, I suppose we might imagine that, you know, we'll look back at them as, as … as villains … and you know, we will look back … History will not judge them kindly.

But that would be a hollow victory… because if they're successful in delaying action on this problem, then they will essentially have ensured the suffering of millions of people - of our children and grandchildren - and a degraded planet.

And so that would be a hollow victory. And that's why I think many of my colleagues and I feel that we need to do the best job that we can to cut through that disinformation campaign and let the public know what the science actually has to say, what the threat really is. And ultimately that's why I wrote my book - to try to convey that message.

READ PART 4 : Unprecedented Crisis for Humanity - But There's Hope (Great danger is an overall tipping point)