Besieged by Climate Deniers, A Scientist Decides to Fight Back—Plus Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Interview
RING OF FIRE: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Interviews Michael E. Mann
Re-posted with permission from Yale Environment 360
As scientists, we are used to having our work questioned.
Anyone who has ever attended a scientific meeting knows that scientists are hardest on themselves. When we present a new research paper at a conference, colleagues often interrupt us with sharp, pointed questions. Those questions are asked in good faith, in an attempt to make our work better and advance scientific knowledge.
But scientists who work on climate change are increasingly finding our work questioned by politicians and ideologues who simply don’t like our findings. Too often, politicians start with their conclusion, then work backwards to find the evidence—any evidence, regardless of its quality—to back up their preferred policy positions. And the fossil fuel industry is happy to fund those who attack our work, because our research has pointed to the burning of their products—oil, coal and natural gas—as the primary drivers of climate change.
For more than a decade, I’ve found myself targeted and attacked by political interests who feel threatened by some facts my colleagues and I uncovered about our changing climate. We have received menacing e-mails, including anonymous death threats. I’ve received a package containing an Anthrax-like white powder (the FBI fortunately determined that it was a hoax), and someone threw a dead rat on the doorstep of another colleague. And as the political conversation around climate change has become more polarized, the attacks have intensified.
Now, however, my colleagues and I are fighting back, a task that is made easier because the findings that have made us the targets of climate change deniers have only been further validated as CO2 levels continue to rise and the world continues to warm. This is also true when it comes to the research behind the so-called “hockey stick” graph, which is what first prompted attacks on me and my colleagues.
That graph, unveiled in a 1998 paper, showed global temperatures level or decreasing for 1,000 years (the shaft of the stick) and then spiking upward in the past century (the upturned blade.) Those rapidly rising temperatures tracked increases in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, which coincided with the world’s growing use of fossil fuels.
For better and worse, our graph became an icon of climate change because it was relatively easy to understand. That made it a threat to opponents of dealing with global warming, who invested significant time and resources attacking our research. At first, my colleagues and I responded as we would to any scientific question. We evaluated the claims about our data and methods and responded in the scientific literature. But instead of questioning our claims in good faith, our critics approached the hockey stick like a politician approaches a piece of legislation he or she doesn’t like. Their goal was to dismantle our findings, regardless of the facts. By 2005, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), one of the biggest recipients of fossil fuel funding in the House of Representatives, sent my colleagues and me letters demanding that we open our professional and personal lives to an investigation from his committee.
These attacks obscure the bigger picture. Climate science is like a vast puzzle. Individual papers like ours are a single piece of that puzzle. Scientists are still filling in pieces the puzzle, but we can see a relatively complete picture of our climate that tells us the Earth is warming, human activity is the cause, and that we are locking in substantial rises in sea level, increasingly intense heat waves and floods, and threats to global fresh water and food resources as we continue to burn fossil fuels.
But politicians and ideologues try to make climate science out to be a house of cards. Remove one card and the whole thing falls down. The hockey stick papers, they decided, must be one of those cards and their response was to attack our research and challenge our integrity. In my book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”, I refer to this as the “Serengeti strategy,” wherein predators look for what they perceive as the most vulnerable animals in a herd.
In 2005, U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York) had the courage to stand up to Joe Barton. Boehlert asked the National Academy of Sciences—an institution created by Abraham Lincoln to advise the government on scientific matters—to evaluate the “hockey stick” and related studies. The academy found our conclusions to be valid and appropriately understood them to be one piece of the puzzle. In fact, dozens of “hockey stick” studies using different data and methods have verified and extended our original findings in the past several years.
Barton took a different tack. He commissioned a statistician from George Mason University to produce a report for his committee to misrepresent our research. When the National Academy of Sciences issued its report validating our findings, fossil fuel industry allies in congress like James Inhofe (R-OK) falsely claimed that study disproved our findings.
Other politicians have followed suit.
Sen. Inhofe has named me and 16 others scientists as people he’d like to investigate if he again gains control of a committee in the Senate. Inhofe has just published a book detailing the “global warming conspiracy” he believes is behind climate science research. As a climate scientist, I can assure everyone that my colleagues and I simply aren’t that organized.
Like Barton, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued a subpoena in 2010 demanding personal correspondence from me and dozens of other scientists from my time at the University of Virginia. Thankfully, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Association of University Professors, and several free speech organizations urged the university to fight Cuccinelli’s demands, and the university did. Cuccinelli lost his case before the Virginia Supreme Court last month. While we don’t know how much Cuccinelli’s office spent on this witch-hunt, the university spent more than $600,000 in private funds defending scientists’ right to privacy.
Inhofe and Cuccinelli both drew their inspiration from an incident in November 2009, when climate scientists had their emails stolen from the University of East Anglia and misrepresented through a coordinated public relations campaign orchestrated by a who’s-who of climate denial front groups. Why attack the University of East Anglia? It is one of four major government and academic centers that track global temperatures. Again, the Serengeti strategy at work: no matter that all the data from these four institutions tell us the world is rapidly warming, and that numerous independent investigations later concluded that the scientists whose e-mails had been hacked, including mine, had not engaged in fraud or scientific misconduct.
Despite these attacks, reality is catching up to our national conversation about climate change, and it is becoming harder to deny what the science has been telling us. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports in 2007, new scientific findings have indicated that global warming is generally worse than we thought. Carbon emissions are higher than the IPCC projected, Arctic sea ice is melting at a faster-than-expected clip, and observed and projected sea levels are increasing. At the same time, advances in climate science have more definitively linked climate change to an increasing likelihood of many types of extreme weather events.
Many local and state governments are prudently preparing for a changing climate and have also adopted policies that can drive down greenhouse gas emissions. But for other vulnerable regions, climate change isn’t on the agenda or is considered verboten for ideological reasons.
The price of politicizing science is high. In addition to the distraction it creates, it exacts a personal toll on scientists, taking time away from our work, our friends, and our families. If it’s any comfort, I’ve told colleagues who’ve faced similar attacks that they should wear it as a badge of honor. But my greatest fear is that it might discourage younger scientists from entering areas of research that vested interests have declared to be “off limits.”
Luckily, scientists are increasingly standing up for themselves. Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor at the State University of New York, was disturbed by the legal battle being waged over scientists’ personal emails in Virginia. He kicked off a fundraising effort that led to the creation of a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which aims to help scientists foot the significant legal bills that can add up when they are attacked by ideologues. Mandia, along with a John Abraham, a physics professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, also helped create a Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which connects journalists with scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has redoubled its efforts to defend climate scientists. It organized academics in Virginia to speak out against Cuccinelli’s investigation and has helped scores of scientists improve their ability to communicate with the media and policymakers—skills that simply aren’t part of many scientific educations. Scientific societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union are also condemning attacks on their colleagues and helping scientists communicate their work in a difficult media and policy environment.
Widespread, bad-faith assaults on science have no place in a functioning democracy. We should be able to have a national discussion about climate change that is informed by a shared understanding of the scientific facts generations of researchers have uncovered.
Scientists realize the stakes are high. People are hungry for information about what climate change means in their backyards, and scientists can help ensure that local decision-makers have the information they need to protect their constituents. Of course, more broadly, our “constituents” are our children. The decisions we make today about climate change will go a long way in determining the type of world they inherit from us.
In the wake of the manufactured East Anglia scandal, I was on vacation with my family in the Florida Keys. My four-year-old daughter was entranced by the mangrove forests, the dolphins, and the coral reefs, with their exotic and colorful fish. I couldn’t bear to tell her that climate change and an increasingly acidic ocean are slowly killing the reefs, that increasingly destructive hurricanes would subject them to further insult, and that projected sea level rise over the next century and beyond could submerge vast regions of the Florida Keys.
What to do about climate change necessarily involves questions about economics, fairness and policy. But it also involves ethics. We are making decisions today that will impact the world our children and grandchildren inherit. What sort of legacy do we want to leave them?
Climate scientist Michael Mann, who has faced years of attacks from climate-change skeptics, has written about his experiences in his recently published book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”. He explains here why he believes bad-faith assaults on science have no place in a functioning democracy and why the truth about global warming will inevitably gain wide acceptance.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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