In 1999, a team of climate scientists published a paper showing global temperature records over the past one thousand years, illustrated by what has come to be known as the ‘hockey stick graph.’
“Little did I realize that with the publication of those papers, whether I liked it or not, I was gonna find myself at the center of this raging societal debate about climate change and what to do about it.”
So remembers Michael Mann, lead author of the paper, and the recipient of this year’s Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Communication, presented by Climate One.
The award honors the memory of Dr. Schneider, a climatologist and one of the founding fathers of science communication, who died suddenly in 2010. He was also, fittingly, a mentor of Mann’s – and someone who, having lived through similar attacks, was uniquely qualified to help him weather the firestorm of vitriol that followed the papers’ publication.
“He explained, look, you know what this means is that you're having an impact,” Mann recalls. “Understand this isn't about you -- you’re hurting their client, fossil fuel interests who are not happy about the implications of your science.
“And I think if it were not for that tutelage and that support, I'm not sure I would've made it through that period.”
Make it through he did – and wrote a book on the experience, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.” And he even got some support from unexpected quarters.
“If it were not for the fact that there were influential Republicans who came out at a time when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, who knows what we would been in store for,” says Mann. “So it's important to realize that there are politicians of good faith on both sides of the aisle.”
Mann also believes that the climate skeptics are losing support among the general public – and for good reason.
“The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” he says. “People are feeling them and seeing them in their daily lives. And I think that's making a huge difference when we try to communicate to the science and its implications to the public.”
He relates the story of an airline pilot he met on a flight, who wanted to share his observations from the cockpit.
“He was convinced that he is seeing the impact of climate change on aviation, on turbulence in the atmosphere,” Mann remembers. “Changes in turbulence that are unusual in his career. And that he thinks are a manifestation of climate change.”
“It's just absolutely heartbreaking to see some of the disasters that are befalling the planet,” says Jonathan Foley, who heads up the California Academy of Sciences. He cites deforestation, food and water insecurity, energy systems and public health as examples of climate-related issues.
“It hits me very, very hard personally to think that we’re gonna be the first generation in history to leave the next generation a planet that’s worse off and a society that’s worse off. And we’re doing it deliberately, because we knew better. We were told for fifty years this is an issue, and we just chose to ignore it.
“So we have to do better.”
Mann agrees that, even as a scientist, sometimes the clinical gets personal.
“Sometimes it sort of hits you in a way that’s very unexpected, you don’t see it coming,” he says. “You spent so much time dealing with sort of the down in the trenches science of analyzing model output and looking at observations…and every once in a while it all comes together and you realize this isn't just a theoretical problem.
“What we’re talking about is the threat of leaving behind a fundamentally degraded planet for our children and grandchildren…I have a 12-year-old daughter. And there are times when it just all comes together and I realize that it's about her, and it's about her children and what sort of planet are they going to inherit from us.
“We still have the opportunity to make sure that we don't leave behind a degraded planet for future generations,” Mann continues. “But the window of time, the window of opportunity that we have to do that is shrinking.”
The Schneider Award is presented by Climate One, and underwritten by Michael Haas, and Tom R. Burns and Nora Machado.
– Anny Celsi