Michael Mann at #CCL2016: ‘We hold the future in our hands’

Michael Mann

Dr. Michael Mann gives his presentation at the CCL/CCE 2016 conference in Washington.

Michael Mann at #CCL2016: ‘We hold the future in our hands’

Dr. Michael Mann, keynote speaker at Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s 2016 conference, offered a clear message: deciding how to deal with climate change is not about the science, it seems to be about politics, but actually it’s really only about what kind of world we choose to leave our kids.

It’s not about the science

To scientists, climate change is easy and clear: We’re increasing the greenhouse effect which warms the planet, and we know from the observed temperature data that the planet has warmed more than one degree Celsius. We also know the planet is warming from other measurable effects, such as snow cover, tree line elevations, sea surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, glaciers, and more. Most importantly, we now know with certainty that human influence is the dominant cause of current warming.

We Hold The Future In Our Hands

Scientists can project future warming, but their projections depend on assumptions about what pathway society will choose. We could choose actions to cut emissions within a decade, thereby keeping warming under 2 degrees C. Alternatively, we could choose to follow a business as usual path, but then we’ll end up with a different planet.

A different planet won’t just lack polar bears. A different planet will function differently. Humans will experience extreme precipitation events: Rainstorms with floods like those  recently experienced in Texas, South Carolina, the UK, and monumental snowfalls like last winter’s blizzard in Washington. These precipitation events are consistent with climate change theory and model predictions. By our choices, we may turn the Earth into a different planet that will generate longer droughts, unprecedented wildfires, and a new level of heat (like Phoenix’s 118 degrees F, June 19, 2016).

We hold the future in our hands. If we don’t act, we could leave our children and grandchildren a new, different and less hospitable home.

Is it about the politics?

If the science is so clear, and the threat is so dangerous, why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why has there been no action from Congress?

It’s seems to be about the politics.

In 2002, Frank Luntz prepared a memo for those Republicans who were profiting from fossil fuel businesses, and who wanted to ensure we choose to remain on a business as usual course. Luntz warned:

“The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. . .  Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.”

Luntz concluded that these politicians should stress climate change uncertainty in order to prevent the public from understanding that the opposite was true — certainty had grown.

Various Republican science-denying politicians orchestrated attacks on climate science and climate scientists. The Bush White House began censoring climate reports and silencing climate scientists. Meanwhile politicians like Rep. Joe Barton, Sen. James Inhofe, Sarah Palin, Ken Cuccinelli, and Rep. Lamar Smith took turns attacking climate science and scientists. Climate scientists and their work became the punching bags that certain politicians used to advance their personal agenda.

It’s not about the politics

However, these Republican attacks on climate scientists and the science were not really about politics and the implementation of sensible public policy. These politicians harassed, intimidated and abused scientists in order to create a story for the public about the science being questionable, doubtful or uncertain.  The story didn’t have to be “factually accurate” to be effective (in fact, none of the story was true). It was primarily about politicians’ personal career choices rather than good faith discussion of public policy, responsible solutions, and political principles.

Indeed this failure to show good faith did not spread throughout the entire Republican party. Mann talked about his biggest hero from the beginning of this period of harassment: Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (NY), chair of the House Science Committee. According to Mann, Boehlert came very close to saying that Rep. Joe Barton was engaging in modern day McCarthyism. Boehlert’s objections to the campaigns of intimidation waged by his Republican colleagues underscore the non-political nature of the highly unprofessional arguments that certain Republican politicians have used to derail America’s national climate change policy.

Mann concluded that he had no choice about becoming involved in climate advocacy — he was thrown into the fray and ended up embracing advocacy. He emphasized, however, that most scientists are conservative — they just like sitting at their desks looking at data. But because of the attacks on scientists in the last couple of decades, a new generation of scientists is entering the field. While this new generation loves analyzing data, they also are eager to play a role in communicating the science, and using social media to impact public discourse.

Mann chooses to see this as a hopeful development — and it certainly is.

Judy Weiss
Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, MA. She teaches Hebrew Bible to adults, and she is a volunteer climate change advocate with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Boston Jewish Climate Action Network, and the Boston chapter of Elders Climate Action.