Climate science: Denialism deciphered

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
538,
Pages:
34–35
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/538034a
Published online

Dave Reay enjoys a wry history of US climate-science obfuscation.

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy

Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles Columbia University Press: 2016. ISBN: 9780231177863

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As an iconic climate-change image, the 'hockey-stick graph' by geophysicist Michael Mann — showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years — is up there with the greats. Others include the Keeling curve of changing atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations and the 'boiling frog' metaphor from Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Mann's figure (from a seminal paper: M. E. Mann et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 759762; 1999) appears in 'Climate Science 101' lectures the world over; was a touchstone of the 2001 third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and still elicits invective from deniers (S. Lewis Nature 483, 402403; 2012). Who better than Mann, then, to explore the history of climate-change denial, and its politics, personalities and implications?

Illustration by Eoin Ryan

The Madhouse Effect is a breezy, engaging read, interspersed with wry illustrations courtesy of cartoonist Tom Toles of The Washington Post. It offers many excellent insights into life on the front line battling US climate-science obfuscation. We learn about the cadre of contrarian scientists routinely rolled out to cast doubt on issues such as ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change (as well as second-hand smoke and the dangers of pesticides). We read of the television, radio and Internet 'shock jocks' who chase ratings by giving equal weight to scientific consensus and denialist rhetoric. The power of vested interests in US politics and implications for state and federal action on climate change are made abundantly clear, with Mann an amiable, if rather despairing, guide.

He begins with an overview of the scientific method, the science of global warming and key uncertainties — such as feedback mechanisms, whereby warming can itself boost greenhouse-gas emissions and so cause even more warming. He and Toles then explore the “six stages of denial”, ranging from 'it's not happening' through 'it's self-correcting' to 'geoengineering will fix it all'.

Where this book shines is in its exploration of the debate in the United States, and a veritable who's who of denial. As the November presidential election looms, it's useful to learn about key players' stances. Unsurprisingly, most of the contenders for the Republican nomination when the book was finished back in July emerge as outspoken critics of climate science and international action. The party's current candidate, Donald Trump, wants to renegotiate or leave the 2015 Paris climate agreement joined by President Barack Obama in September, and has called climate change a hoax. But Mann suggests that several candidates were influenced by cryptic political and financial forces in the fossil-fuel industry, which apparently bankroll denialist activity and lobbying to protect their interests.

The authors discuss how Republican senator Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma) is waging a “war” on climate science by using hearings of the Senate environment committee that he chairs to try and debunk climate change. Mann's writing is subjective in places — such as when discussing former Virginia attorney-general Ken Cuccinelli, an erstwhile alleger of data manipulation, now an oyster farmer on an island threatened by rising sea levels. But he generally manages to avoid score-settling.

In 2009, Mann's work was caught up in the 'Climategate' scandal (nature.com/climategate). This was the unauthorized release of more than 1,000 e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK — many containing private correspondence, some to or from Mann. Excerpts were published by climate sceptics to smear scientists and cloud public and political judgement. Mann gives this seismic event just a couple of pages. He explains briefly how the e-mails were taken out of context and that references to a “trick” used to “hide the decline” referred simply to a trick of the trade: combining direct measurements of global temperature with proxy estimates. Given that Mann was bombarded with threats and abuse following Climategate, a fuller exploration — as in Fred Pearce's The Climate Files (Guardian Books, 2010) — would have been good to see.

Despite the political tensions, Mann and Toles strike a positive tone in the final section. They highlight action being taken at community, city and state levels, and the potential of the Paris agreement to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change. And they find hope in the power of individual choice to shift the most recalcitrant hangovers from our carbon-intensive history. Their key recommendations are for each of us to support renewable energy and carbon pricing, to vote for politicians who do the same and to stop equivocating on climate science.

As Mann points out, denialists are not likely to read this book. For climate researchers outside the United States, it is an eye-opening primer (despite its baffling references to baseball stars) on the vested interests with which their US colleagues must do battle. For a wider readership, it makes clear just how high the stakes are. If tackling climate change is indeed a war, then Mann and Toles have certainly earned their stripes. I salute them.

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  1. Dave Reay is chair in carbon management and assistant principal for global environment & society at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and author of Nitrogen and Climate Change.

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