Denialism, Hockey Sticks, Climate Wars, and Radicalism

Today I went to Dr. Michael Mann's talk at the Penn State Forum, "Confronting the Climate Change Challenge." It was a talk meant to prelude and outline his forthcoming book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. In it, he laid out the scientific case for climate change, the validity of "the hockey stick" and climate change models since James Hansen's in the 1980s, and the subsequent valid predictions climate scientists have made. Depending on our fossil fuel choices, we will have different futures.

Already we have a world where gardeners, hikers, hunters, anglers, and farmers already see climate change in North America. Species of plants and animals are migrating north for warmer temperatures. Others, ill-adapted for a warmer world including polar bears and walruses, are being selected out. The world is changing and it's getting plainer and plainer to see. It's common sense for attentive people to see.

But common sense is exactly what seems to be lacking, especially by people who claim to be at the front of the The Common Sense Movement, a coal industry front group that bought ads on local radio attacking Mann's credibility and climate science (see here). This group joined dozens of other industry astroturf groups (fake grassroots movement) and public relations moves by the merchants of doubt to scientize politics. It is, as Mann noted today, a way to "wage politics as usual...to use science as a political football," including the climate denialism and sought-after political and professional persecution campaigns of current Republican presidential candidates, Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok), Representative Joe Barton (R-Tx), and the Republican Attorney General of Virginia. Mann, in short, has been the victim of a Republican War on Science. Climate science anyway. (David Frum and Kevin Silber have tried to point out that republicans aren't universally opposed to science.)

And it was interesting to hear Mann respond to questions. A lot about dealing with the "merchants of doubt" as Oreskes has called them and combating climate denialism. He dealt with being a political football. With education. With capitalism. Interestingly, he didn't attack capitalism but instead attacked the way we've structured our economy. Capitalism "has been stacked" he said. Toward what? Fossil fuel economics. In so many words, he was referring to sunk costs.

But what some of you might be most interested in was how he discussed shale gas drilling.

He talked about its lower carbon footprint as a burned fuel. It is "cleaner burning" with roughly one half the carbon footprint of coal per btu. However, and I think this might have stunned the powers that be, he cited a study released in the last week that showing that fugitive emissions from shale gas drilling might nullify the carbon benefits of burning natural gas. With 105 times the climate forcing potential over a 20-year span, methane leaked at 4% from shale gas operations demolishes the climate bridge fuel argument. As he seems to like to do, and many academics do for good reasons, he encouraged us to have discussions with evidence before us.

From a more radical sustainability view, some people would find Mann's talk a little disappointing. The personal steps he has taken (or at least the stated ones) were technological household fixes like changing lightbulbs and using lower-energy appliances. Don't get me wrong by any means, do it. But given our guest last week Richard Kahn, it seems that deeper and deeper transformations are needed. Mann certainly confronts the status quo of the big fossil fuel industry, but there was no call for a radical restructuring of all society right now. But...and it's a big BUT...he recognizes that climate change is a civilization-challenging issue.

Alarm? Yes. Alarmist? Maybe. Radical? Not really. I'd actually call him pretty calm.

Calm or not. You have to get a picture with a Nobel-Prize sharer.

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