Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Into the lion's den: respected climatologist survives attempted mauling unscathed

Climatologist Michael Mann is barely able to hide his incredulity
as he fends off asinine attacks in Washington on March 29, 2017.

Last week's Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing in Washington should have been a sober discussion about the latest findings on climate change and the direction the U.S. should take towards mitigating the damage.
Instead, it was about as productive as a World Wrestling Entertainment match. Lots of melodrama and smackdowns with no real winners, but one very real loser: the truth.
At the bottom of the scrum was Michael Mann, a mild-mannered paleoclimatologist who works with proxy data to map historic temperatures. He and his colleagues produced a graph in 1998 that took the world by storm. It was dubbed the "hockey stick" graph because the sharp upward turn in the past century or so resembles the blade of a hockey stick.
An extended version of the graph was incorporated into the Third Assessment Report by the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. And that report was memorable for concluding with reasonable certainty that humans are warming the planet and that it is a major cause of concern.
Mann's graph became an instant touchstone of controversy, particularly after former vice-president Al Gore employed it to great effect in his film "An Inconvenient Truth."
It became a primary target of contrarians, most of whom were and still are backed by the oil and gas industry for whom global warming is, indeed, inconvenient.
A handful of doubters attempted to shoot down the graph by either questioning its statistical methods, or suggesting the extent of current warming is not an anomaly. While a couple of flaws were uncovered, the essential science behind the graph remains robust.
Many still think today the graph has been exposed as a fraud. Mann has appealed to courts in at least two instances to defend his reputation.
But the hockey stick has actually been reinforced at least a dozen times by scientists using their own analytical methods.

Original hockey stick graph (blue - MBH1998) compared to Wahl & Ammann reconstruction (red).
Instrumental record in black (
Wahl 2007).
I suspect many of us who watched last Wednesday's hearing did so mostly for the entertainment value. It was clear from the start there would be no progress made. In fact, it was clear well before it started, since chairman Lamar Smith had already played his hand at a Heartland Institute event only days earlier.
The institute's so-called annual conference on climate change is, in fact, a cheerleading session for like-minded deniers. When Smith took the floor to list the three contrarians Mann was to face, the Heartland audience cheered loudly. Then they booed when Mann's name was announced.
“That’s why this hearing is going to be so much fun,” a grinning Smith told them.
The love-in was witnessed first-hand by journalist Jeffrey Mervis, writing for the journal Science. When Mann brought it up at the hearing, Smith clumsily tried to shrug it off.
"That is not known as an objective writer or magazine," he said, as if one of the world's most respected science journals was no more credible than the National Enquirer.
Mann stood by his statement. In fact, he went out of his way to emphasize what a ludicrous exercise the hearing was. After all, 75 per cent of the panel — Judith Curry, John Christy and Roger Pielke Jr. — represented a paltry three per cent of scientists worldwide who still challenge the overwhelming consensus that climate change is real and primarily caused by human activity.
Throughout the hearing, Mann was the only one who delved at any length into actual scientific findings. It was usually in response to some asinine theory thrown at him by this or that representative.
It wasn't easy. He faced a steady stream of well-worn myths: ice caps aren't melting (yes, they are); climate models are inaccurate (if anything, they're too optimistic).
Among the long-debunked talking points raised was the one that scientists were all predicting an ice age less than 50 years ago. If they thought the Earth was cooling then, why should we believe them now?
In fact, the idea was not at all prevalent among the science community. It gained traction among the public after magazines such as Time and Newsweek published stories based on these outlier predictions.
Not only that, but the science behind them was not altogether unfounded.
A Sidney Harris cartoon
from the 1970s.
An article to Skeptical Science highlights how ice age hypotheses centred on concerns about aerosol concentrations such as sulphur dioxide. Some felt — for good reason — that increasing levels could block sunlight reaching the Earth.
Air pollution was causing other problems as well. It was affecting health and causing environmental damage (see: acid rain). So several countries enacted clean air legislation and airborne pollution started to decrease.
Unfortunately, greenhouse gas production didn't.

Few of the science deniers on last week's committee really cared about such facts, of course. They were more interested in bluster and bombast.
California Republican Dana Rohrabacher gave perhaps the most Oscar-worthy performance when he railed against those "people" who were maligning poor Chairman Smith and other eminent scholars like those flanking Mann on either side.
"Especially at a time when those who disagree with the mainstream are being brutalized into silence this type of hearing is vital to hearing the fundamental arguments," he growled, slowly raising his voice.
Brutalized? Seriously?
"Unfortunately, from the get-go, we have heard personal attack after personal attack after personal attack coming from those who are claiming to represent the mainstream of science," he barked.
One can imagine how Mann must have felt being portrayed as the villain rather than the victim — after enduring years of ridicule, slander and vexatious litigation from high-ranking Republicans and anti-science cranks trying to push their agendas.
But no. Pity the poor deniers.
The best part? Rohrabach went on to spew a litany of incoherent untruths about climate change: that it's only about CO2 (the greenhouse effect also involves other heat-locking gases); that there's been a lengthy "pause" in warming (not quite, and warming has continued apace); and that the term "climate change" was coined by retreating scientists in the mid 2000s to underplay the notion of global warming.
The latter myth is especially nonsensical. G.W. Bush pollster Frank Luntz admitted years ago that he was the one who encouraged the Bush administration to use the term "climate change" because it sounded less ominous. Even then, it's astounding Rohrabach and others have failed to notice that "climate change" is incorporated into the very name of the IPCC — an agency founded in 1988!
I've added the Rohrabach segment here. It's especially revealing to watch contrarian Judith Curry pick up on his cue of playing the victim, rather than correcting him on his ridiculous misunderstandings.

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