Reviewed 8/15/2014

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael E. Mann

Dispatches from the Front Lines
Michael E. Mann
Bill Nye (Fwd.)
New York: Columbia University Press, November 2013




ISBN-13 978-0-231-15255-6
ISBN-10 0-231-15255-8 423pp. SC/GSI $19.95

Before he delves into the contentious period that followed the publication of his team's climate proxy data work in the 2001 IPCC AR3, Michael Mann reprises for us the early phase of his professional career. Then, in the mid-1990s, he entertained the possibility that current climate changes might depend in large part on cyclic natural variations. With other researchers, he sought to discover evidence for such variations in proxy data — taken from study of tree rings, coral reefs, ice cores — to learn how temperatures varied before direct measurements were done.

My postdoctoral research was aimed at developing and applying a new statistical approach to the problem of proxy climate reconstruction. Seeking to improve upon previous efforts, I wanted to reconstruct surface temperatures not just for individual decades, but also for individual years. Moreover, I was interested in reconstructing the underlying spatial patterns of temperature variation, not simply average trends over large regions like the Northern Hemisphere or the Arctic. Reconstructing these spatial patterns would not only tell us where it was warm or cold in any particular year, but also would give us insight into the workings of the climate system. It was these patterns that could tell us about the long-term role of the El Niño phenomenon, for example, or the wiggles in the track of the jet stream from year to year called the North Atlantic Oscillation. How were these patterns influenced by external factors such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar output? It was questions such as these, rather than the effects of humanity on climate, that I was seeking to address.

– Page 42

Therefore we get a compound irony: Added to the absurdity of people who know nothing about science challenging the work of climate scientists, we have the absurdity of charging Dr. Mann with setting out to fabricate evidence for human-caused global warming when he started out to do the opposite.

Dr. Mann provides us here a fairly complete account of his career in science, including the colleagues he worked with and the university he was affiliated with at various times. He goes into a great deal of detail on the science, particularly his development of principle component analysis (PCA) and later, more superior techniques. Reading this can be a hard slog, but understanding it is necessary to explain why the scientific critics of his work are mostly wrong.

Then we come to the unscientific critics of Dr. Mann's work — and of climate science in general. The author discusses such critics throughout the book, but his coverage of them really gets going in chapter 8, where he recounts his encounters with congressional contrarians.1 I found his documentation of these encounters gratifyingly complete; he names the names and points the blame. And there is plenty of blame to point out, because the campaign of spurious challenges to mainstream climate science is unprecedented in its persistence, its intensity, and in the number of people involved. The peak year for that campaign is probably 2009. That was when hackers, as yet unidentified, stole thousands of e-mails from a vulnerable backup server at the University of East Anglia in Britain. These e-mails were carefully scrutinized for damaging disclosures, and those deemed most damaging were published in advance of the next climate conference, scheduled for November in Copenhagen.

It is instructive to examine this episode closely, for it is paradigmatic of the entire campaign. In the final analysis, what it reveals amounts to almost nothing to be concerned about. One scientist called for the deletion of e-mails requested under Britain's FOIA laws; that was poor judgment. But there was no deletion of data, no suppression of scientific papers purported to debunk all or part of the mainstream consensus. Scientific papers were refused publication, but because they were of poor quality. Despite what the Denialists insist, no mainstream scientist is happy about the prospect of climate change. If any valid evidence against that prospect were found, it would be heralded around the world and its discoverers would almost certainly be awarded a Nobel Prize along with as much wealth as anyone could reasonably want. But if you're hankering for a wager, bet against such evidence turning up any time soon.

Dr. Mann does examine Swifthack, and other events around the same time, very closely. He covers a great many events, because there are a great many to cover, and this part of the book (Chapters 13 & 14) is arguably somewhat tedious to read. But it is also important to read, and I feel Dr. Mann does a fairly good job of diminishing its tedium. Also, anyone who finds it tedious to read about this time should consider how tedious it must have been for Dr. Mann to live through.

I'll sum up by saying that this is not the book to read if you want a general understanding of climate change. However, if you seek to understand the continuing campaign against climate science, this is the go-to source. I was puzzled by some omissions. For example, although the author discusses attacks against John Houghton and Rajendra Pachauri, both chairs of the IPCC at different times, he never mentions the removal by the George W. Bush administration of Robert Watson, a climate scientist who was its chair before Pachauri.2 There are as well minor errors of fact, some grammatical errors and a few clumsy phrases. But none of these defects diminishes the book much. Dr. Mann's writing in the main is clear, accurate, and readable. He provides abundant endnotes (118 pages of them), a Glossary defining 18 terms, a Selected Bibliography with 16 titles, and a good index. I consider it a must read, give it my highest rating, and judge it to be a keeper.

1 These include encounters with the arch-Denialist (as I call him) Senator James Inhofe, who for years has insisted that climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." (He even wrote a book titled The Greatest Hoax.) Other congressional contrarians mentioned by Dr. Mann — Republicans all — are Joe Barton, Lamar Smith, David Vitter and California's own Dana Rohrabacher.
2 Dr. Watson was removed in 2002 at the behest of the United States. Evidence suggests that the impetus for his removal came from the American oil industry.
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