Last month, Climate Reality chatted with world-renowned climatologist and geophysicist Dr. Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, ahead of our recent Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Climate Reality: We see these impacts—these hurricanes, these droughts and heatwaves, and so much more—but among those not there on the ground, well, some still think of climate change as a far-off problem. How do we change that?
Dr. Michael Mann: We've had enough of these events already to expect to see a tipping point in the public discourse and the public consciousness—I sometimes call it the Cuyahoga River moment. That was the moment in the pollution debate when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969 that sort of woke us up to the fact that we had a real problem, and we saw, under a Republican administration, under the Nixon administration, the founding of the EPA, the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. So we acted in response to this galvanizing moment.
My fear is that we now live in this hyper-partisan media atmosphere, where people are increasingly sort of syphoned off in silos and they get their information from media outlets that simply reinforce their preconceptions and biases. If you watch Fox News, you would think that the laws of physics no longer apply and that climate change is somehow a hoax.
These people are difficult to reach because they're trapped in these media bubbles, and we have this sort of rapid 24-hour news cycle, where when you think you've got a galvanizing moment—let's take the example of the shootings in Las Vegas—all it takes is a couple news cycles and we're on to the next shiny object, as far as the media is concerned. And that doesn't serve us well when it comes to confronting these mounting global environmental problems like climate change.
So I think our media culture today creates real challenges and makes it difficult to have that tipping point. Didn't we have that with Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina or the unprecedented California drought? Or the wildfires breaking out in California? Not to mention these unprecedented storms that we've seen in the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast and east coast of the U.S.? Shouldn't that all be enough?
There's another problem that I alluded to: the increasingly partisan nature of our media discourse, where you'll have bad-faith actors out there trying to game the conversation in a way that sort of poisons the well when it comes to talking about these issues. … I sometimes refer to this as the "Doctrine of Sandy Silence"—which is to say, whether it is Superstorm Sandy or the shootings at Sandy Hook, there are special interests who have sought to poison the well by trying to convince the media that those occasions are not the right time to be talking about these threats and these challenges, when in fact those are exactly the times to be talking about those challenges ... It's impaired our ability to move forward on issues like climate change.
Climate Reality: The dangers of climate denial were central to your book, The Madhouse Effect. What's the most important thing you wish you could communicate to climate deniers?
Dr. Michael Mann: It would be this: There's room for a policy debate. And conservatives have every right to be at the table, and progressives should be at the table, as we debate how we go about solving this problem. I'm delighted that there are folks like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, a former congressman, and now an increasing number of Republicans in the climate caucus in our House of Representatives.
There are a fair number of [conservatives] who recognize that. Who recognize that, look, we have to get past this fake debate about whether the problem exists because that is an unworthy debate, and anyone who adheres to the notion that climate change is a hoax or that it isn't caused by us or even that it's not creating problems already is on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history.
There is no longer a worthy debate to be had about whether we have a problem. There is a worthy debate to be had about how we go about solving that problem. And the sooner that those conservatives who continue to deny the reality of climate change accept the fact that it's real and it's a problem, the more likely it is that they'll have a seat at the table when it comes to moving forward on policy to solve this problem.