I recently read Professor Michael Mann's book "The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars". There are several reviews of the book online, a couple of examples being Shawn Lawrence Otto's review at The Huffington Post and Jeff Masters' review at Wunderground. However, I found the book compelling, engaging and valuable on several fronts and felt it was worth making a few observations here. If you are a person who is not entirely familiar with the recent history and politics of climate science, it offers a highly readable and informative summary that captures some of the progress and setbacks over the last two decades or so. Mann's passion for climate science comes through very well in the book and in the process he also addresses in some detail the following aspects of climate change.
I. Scientific Process, Climate Politics & Denialism
2) The right role of true skepticism in scientific inquiry - and how this differs from the practice of climate change denial (or climate denial) that uses a combination of (a) a veneer of skepticism, (b) often incompetence in basic statistics and (c) the use of deliberately misleading data
- Mann cites several examples in his book; a perusal of blogs like Deltoid, Skeptical Science, Open Mind and others provides interminable, yet dark, amusement on this front
3) The slow but gradual evolution of scientific knowledge, a process that is self-correcting and generates better understanding over time
- Mann offers many interesting examples from the climate change field contrasting them with the typical demands of the blog/media/news cycle that might immediately trumpet a new research paper as if it almost single-handedly destroyed the scientific consensus, without waiting for the time-intensive scientific process to peer assessment, correction and learning
4) The role of the key players in the fossil-fuels sector - whose future assets, fuel reserves and stock prices are at significant risk if meaningful climate change policy actions are taken - and that of other ideologically aligned wealthy donors in funding climate denialism
5) The deplorable, often personal attacks on climate scientists who publicly speak or write about the serious manifestations and consequences of climate change through willful misrepresentation of their or others' work and/or false accusations of fraud or misconduct
- As Mann shows, these attacks are usually fronted by certain politicians (usually Republicans close to the fossil fuel industry), a handful of scientists who are typically not climate science experts, and often by denialist writers, bloggers and pseudo-scientists. Mann also suggests that the manufactured controversy has often coincided with time periods when the U.S. Congress was poised to pass climate change legislation - thereby making it easier to kill such legislation.
- The attacks and their consequences are examined in much detail given Mann's personal experience and the character assassination campaign he and some of his peers have faced over the years; he particularly explores the controversy over the "hockey stick" and the Climategate episode
- Mann makes reference to another excellent, must-read book on this particular topic - "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway
6) The increasing use of blogs (e.g., RealClimate) by climate scientists to communicate the science to the public and media, and push back in real time on false, distorted or misleading presentations of climate data
II. Science of Climate Change
7) The role that various natural (e.g., solar activity, volcanoes, various oceanic oscillations that operate over multi-year, decadal, multi-decadal or multi-century periods - such as the multi-year oscillation called ENSO or El-Nino/La Nina) and human-induced/anthropogenic factors (CO2, sulfur dioxide - SO2, etc.) play in influencing global warming and climate change
- Mann walks readers through how different factors can affect climate and temperature in different ways, thereby providing a nuanced discussion of climate change and warming, which is often missing or understated in websites arguing against the evidence for anthropogenic global warming
8) The role of temperature proxies - such as tree rings, ice cores, lake sediments, etc. - in the estimation of local, regional and global average temperatures in past centuries and millennia when accurate temperature measurements were not available
- In particular, Mann devotes considerable effort to explain the famous "hockey stick" graph (which has since been independently validated by both the National Academy of Sciences as well as recent work by NOAA's NCDC) and discusses topics such as the so-called Medieval Warm Period, urban-heat island (UHI) effect, and others which play an important role in climate change debates
9) The use of statistical frameworks such as principal component analysis (PCA) in the understanding of underlying phenomena and variables driving temperature changes
Mann's book tries to cover all that and more and does a really nice job overall in giving the reader an expansive view of the nuanced subject of climate change, while passionately conveying the real urgency of acknowledging the dangers of ongoing and future warming and the need for immediate action. I highly recommend this book.
In terms of where the book could have been improved, I would suggest the following thoughts for Mann and other climate scientists to consider. Unless someone is an avid follower of the field of climate change and global warming, it is difficult to grasp the nuances and subtleties inherent in understanding climate, weather and the variables that can cause them to shift. I think Mann's book can be further improved, perhaps in his next edition, by more explicitly delving into common points of confusion for people I have talked to, such as:
- Dueling reports of record heat and record cold (recent examples): This confusion might persist because typical discussions on global warming, even by scientists, fail to adequately inform people that warming refers only to averages and that record heat and cold can co-exist in a warming world as long as record heat events significantly outnumber record cold events as the average temperature rises
- Reports attributing certain seemingly contradictory climatic and meteorological events to global warming (e.g., less snow v. blizzards, flooding v. drought, etc.): It's important that scientists invest more time in developing communication to explain how both droughts and severe flooding could result from warming, that both blizzards and reduced snow can be a consequence of warming, etc.
- Why seemingly modest increases in global temperature (e.g., 0.8 degrees C) should result in significant increases in extreme events: It wasn't until the excellent work of Hansen et al. in 2012 did a clear framework become available to average readers like me to explain to others that a small shift in averages can lead to a large increase in probability of 3-sigma, 4-sigma and beyond temperatures, which in turn can lead to more extreme events over time, relative to past experience
- Lack of clear understanding of the role of additional factors that cause otherwise CO2-influenced temperature changes to be non-monotonic: The recent work by Skeptical Science is very welcome in this context but it is rare to see scientists use simplified means of communication on such an important topic
Additionally, I would like to urge Mann and his colleagues/peers to invest more time in discussing & explaining the role of the potent greenhouse gas methane (CH4) and the pros and cons of migrating our energy use from fuels like coal to natural gas, especially given the increasing concerns of methane leakage during natural gas extraction.
Finally, while I very much like blogs like Real Climate, climate scientists need to do a better job of communicating their findings and implications in plain English. Again, Skeptical Science is doing a fantastic job on this and newer initiatives like Climate Communication are welcome and overdue but scientists need to be more tuned to this need going forward.