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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

America’s Climate Denial Madhouse

Air Date: Week of December 30, 2016

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Time is running out on humanity’s chances to slow impacts on the climate, says Michael Mann (Photo: Kathryn Hansen / Nasa, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Although science has reached firm conclusions about the reality and dangers of human-induced climate change, many politicians and other leaders continue to live in denial of the grave threats of climate disruption to our modern way of life. In a new book, The Madhouse Effect, Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann addresses the widespread persistence of global warming denial in America with the help of cartoonist Tom Toles and discusses policy options with Living On Earth Host Steve.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. At the turn of the year, it seems appropriate to look ahead and look back, since Janus, the Roman god who faced both directions, gives us the name January. And though winter cold has settled over us in the northern hemisphere, when we look back we see that 2016 was a year of record warmth, even though those who question or deny climate science dismiss those findings. Among those trying to set the record straight is the distinguished climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He’s also the author, along with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles, of a recent book, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy”. Professor Mann, welcome back to Living on Earth.

MANN: Thanks, Steve. Always great to be with you.

CURWOOD: So here we are the end of 2016. Where are we in terms of the climate? How fast are things shifting, and what signs do we see?

MANN: Well, you know 2014 was the warmest year on record for the globe until 2015 came in, it was the warmest year on record, and now 2016 will be the new warmest year on record, and it'll beat the old record by a substantial amount. Here in the US, we've had the second warmest year thus far on record. So, when you hear climate change critics say well, global warming, it's stopped -- No, it hasn't. It's proceeding on course. The warming, if anything, is accelerated. The impacts are no longer subtle.

CURWOOD: Give me a little detail on a couple of these phenomena that you find particularly striking.

MANN: Well, in Louisiana earlier this year we saw one of these thousand-year events. What does that mean? It means that we don't expect rainfall amounts as large as what we saw there more often than once in a thousand years. And yet we've seen at least a half dozen of these thousand-year events. In the case of Louisiana, it was record rainfall associated with a system that wasn't even a tropical cyclone. Normally when you get record rainfall, it's because of a huge hurricane or tropical cyclone. In this case, the storm wasn't even a tropical cyclone, and yet it gave us enough rainfall to set new records in Louisiana - a thousand-year rainfall event. And we've seen similar things in West Virginia, Arizona, South Carolina and I could go on. The bottom line here is that the atmosphere is warmer than it was, that means it holds more moisture than it used to, that means that when conditions are conducive to rainfall you're going to get more of it.

A depiction of the climate skepticism that Mann says pervades to this day. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

CURWOOD: At one point in your new book you say time is not on our side to address the climate crisis. What do you mean?

MANN: There's a certain amount of what we call inertia to Earth's climate that's sort of like a steaming locomotive. You slam on the brakes. It's still going to go another mile down the track before it stops because it's got all this mass. It takes a while to slow down. The ocean is sort of the same way. The climate system is same way. The ocean will continue to warm for another half-century even if we slam our foot on the brakes right now, i.e., even if we were to go cold turkey on fossil fuel burning right now, and what that means is that if we are to avert catastrophic climate change and some scientists will point to two degrees Celsius, that's 3.6 Fahrenheit warming of the planet, that's sort of the level of truly dangerous irreversible changes in climate. If we don't dramatically bring down our emissions over the next decade, then we will likely commit to warming the planet more than that amount. We will commit to the worst impacts of climate change.

CURWOOD: You and I both remember Steve Schneider the scientist at Stanford University who was such a leader on climate science.

MANN: Indeed.

CURWOOD: And in a typical lecture Steve would say, "How many of you have fire insurance?" And everybody in the crowd who owned a home would typically raise their hand. And then, he'd ask the folks how many had had a fire and a few were there. On this business of the two degree limit, how are the odds of that being successful in stemming catastrophic climate change compared to, say, the risks of having a fire in one's home?

The book warns of the perils of high-tech fixes for the climate crisis. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

MANN: Yeah, that's a great question because we buy fire insurance for our homes even though the likelihood of us encountering a fire in our home over the course of our lives is quite small - a single digit percent chance that we'll ever encounter something like that happening – and yet we pay money now every year because we know that in the event that that were to happen and we hadn't hedged against it by taking out insurance we would potentially fall victim to catastrophic impacts on our own lives. And so the irony is in the case of human-caused climate change, we're talking about likelihoods of 80, 90 percent or even higher that we will enter into a catastrophic regime if we don't dramatically bring down our carbon emissions right now. So, as you note, Steve Schneider was very effective in the way that he framed this issue as sort of a planetary insurance policy that we should be taking out right now.

CURWOOD: Specifically, Professor Mann, how does this two degree limit, how much protection does this offer us? I mean, what are the odds even if we keep it to two degrees we would have a problem?

MANN: Well, and that's another very important point because that is...that's the number that scientists have sort of settled on as when we enter into the "red zone", that is the worst impacts of climate change. But if you talk to ranchers in Texas or Oklahoma who have suffered through the worst drought on record a few years ago or people in California that are dealing with the worst drought in at least a thousand years, if you talk to the residents of New Jersey and New York City who suffered through Super Storm Sandy, if you talk to folks in Louisiana who suffered record flooding earlier this year, people who lost their homes to wildfires, if you talk to people in Bangladesh who are dealing with flooding now, the people of Miami Beach who are dealing with so-called nuisance flooding, you don't have to wait for storm now to get flooding in the streets of Miami. You just have to wait for an especially high tide because of the effects of global sea level rise. Well, for all those people, catastrophic climate change has already arrived. Climate change is already having a devastating impact on their lives, so arguably we shouldn't allow any additional warming. But there's a certain amount of additional warming that we are already committed to. It's that locomotive, it's the Titanic... turning the Titanic to avoid the iceberg. We're likely to see another half a degree Celsius, nearly a degree Fahrenheit additional warming of the planet even if we stop burning carbon right now. So we're already unfortunately committed to some pretty dangerous and damaging impacts of climate change. It is just a matter of how bad we’re willing to let them get and most scientists who've looked at the impacts, the risks, the costs have said two degrees Celsius, three-and-a-half Fahrenheit is clearly too much.

CURWOOD: In your book, you have a chapter dedicated to the perils of geoengineering. What are some of the worst-case scenarios you see as science experiments in this new field?

MANN: Yeah, the alternative title of the chapter is "Geoengineering, or What Could Possibly Go Wrong," and the principle of unintended consequences really reigns supreme when we talk about the so-called geoengineering. What we're talking about here are massive interventions with the Earth system that involve shooting things into the atmosphere, particles up into the stratosphere or dumping iron into the ocean, or putting mirrors into space to reflect sunlight or interfering with the climate system, with the global environment in some unprecedented and untested way. And a lot of the supporters of geoengineering are, I would call them, they're not climate change deniers except you could say that they're perhaps engaged in the kinder gentler form of denialism, which is not the outright denial of the science of climate change or our role in warming the planet, but, well, it won't be that bad and if we stop burning carbon it's going to hurt our economy. Well, destroying the planet will hurt our economy much more than that. When you look in detail at these schemes, in many cases they could make us much worse off than if we hadn't engaged in these interventions at all.

CURWOOD: So how much room if any do you see for perhaps a project of geoengineering used sparingly and with careful regulation?

MANN: Yeah, and I'm glad that you asked that follow up because we talk about this in the book. There are some relatively safe forms of geoengineering and the ones I've mentioned could be extremely unsafe. But there is technology that has been developed to basically create the equivalent of super trees, so plants and trees, they take carbon out of the atmosphere when they photosynthesize and they bury some of that carbon in the root systems. But a lot of that carbon that they bury near the surface in the topsoil, much of that carbon decomposes and goes back into the atmosphere. Well, what if we could create the equivalent of trees that are a million times more efficient in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere then an actual tree and they don't give the carbon back up to the atmosphere to decomposition through rotting? We capture it all and we bury it somewhere deep under the surface of the Earth where it will stay for a long time. That's relatively safe. It would be really expensive, but you know what would be more expensive? Catastrophic climate change.

CURWOOD: Many cartoons in the book. There's one that caught my eye. There are all these flames and in one corner it says “California wildfires”. Houses are lit. And then there's a hole. Well, the creature coming up through the hole who's got a long tail with a big spike at the end of it, a pitch fork and horns. And this creature says, "If this is global warming, I'll take it."

MANN: Yeah, that's right, and I believe that that creature... this was during the Bush years and there's a little bit of resemblance to the president we had at the time and I think it was a commentary on the denialism that prevailed during the last Republican administration of George W. Bush administration.

CURWOOD: Are you saying that the devil is not in the details, but in the denial?

MANN: I didn't say it, but now that you say it I would probably assent to it. I think that you could make that argument. So are our better angels. Our better angels are in, you know, all of the messengers out there who are trying to take us forwards.

The book features incisive critique of prominent climate deniers. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

CURWOOD: Michael Mann's new book is called "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy". We will be back in a moment.

[MUSIC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcXQcsAOx0I, Edgar Meyer with Bela Fleck, “Ziguenerweisen”]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and from a friend of Sailors for the Sea, working with boaters to restore ocean health.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcXQcsAOx0I, Edgar Meyer with Bela Fleck, “Ziguenerweisen”]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’re back now with Penn State Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Michael Mann. He has a new book called “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy”. Now, famously, Professor, your emails were hacked and used by opponents of action on global warming to discredit climate science. It kind of sounds to me somewhat like the hacking during the recent election, don't you think?

Tole’s cartoons comment on how the Obama administration dealt with climate issues. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

MANN: Well, yeah, you know, those stolen emails -- and this was used to derail the Copenhagen Summit back in 2009 where all these emails were stolen, and words and phrases were taken out of context to try to make it sound like climate scientists were admitting that climate change is a massive hoax. It was all ridiculous. It was all a matter of just taking words and phrases out of context, misrepresenting what the scientists had to say. Now, several years later and nearly a dozen investigations later, there was no wrongdoing that was found on the part of the scientists. The only wrongdoing was the criminal theft of the emails in the first place, and it's almost eerie how closely that particular episode resembles the hacking of our recent election. We now know by Putin, by Russia, where they did exactly the same thing. They broke into servers, stole emails and misrepresented them and attempted to use the stolen material to derail, not an international climate summit, but a presidency of a potential president, Hillary Clinton, who would've been proactive on climate, who said that she would build on the progress of the Obama administration in recent years. And instead, of course, and experts say, perhaps because of the hacking of our election, we elected a climate change denier in Donald Trump, who has a very close relationship with Russia and Putin. And the argument has been made that we now have this collaborative effort to allow Russia and the US to increasingly tap into the remaining respective petroleum reserves and continue us on this course of continuing dependence on fossil fuels, continuing burning of carbon and worsening of climate change. So there are so many ways in which the two episodes were remarkably similar. It's worth noting that the stolen emails were hosted on a Russian server.

A cartoon featuring the devil that was suggested by some to resemble George W. Bush. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

CURWOOD: And talk to me more about the war on climate science. How are things now compared to the past?

MANN: You know, there are those colleagues of mine, friends of mine, pundits, who when we published this book earlier this fall said, you know what, a book on climate change denial is sort of irrelevant today, we've moved beyond that. Little did we realize how prescient the book would seem in the context of the way things have played out in not just the UK election, the Brexit vote, but in the election of Donald J Trump. Suddenly climate change denial and delay is sort of back in style. We now encounter climate change denialism, an agenda of inaction on climate change in all of our branches of government now, in the Congress and in the presidency. It's worrying at a time when we need to be accelerating this transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. We now have a president and a Congress who will work closely with him under Republican leadership to basically take us backwards, back towards our dependence on fossil fuels at a time when the rest of the world is moving ahead and understands that we need to get off fossil fuels.

CURWOOD: So, how would you rate President Obama's efforts, and I note that there's a cartoon in your book that shows that Mr. Obama succeeding with healthcare, succeeding with Wall Street reform, but the planet underneath is literally crumbling. Why is that cartoon there?

MANN: Yeah, I personally think that President Obama should be lauded, should be thanked for the efforts that he made to act on climate. Let's remember that he made healthcare sort of his first priority and expended a fair amount of political capital in fighting that heated battle in his first administration, and arguably didn't have the capital left to fight the climate battle. But he did recharge that capital when he won reelection and he devoted his second term really, I would argue there's no issue that he placed in higher priority than climate change in his second term. We still had a Republican Congress that not only was intransigent on climate policy, they were led by climate change deniers. So there's no way we were gonna see a Congressional climate bill. That meant that there wasn't a legislative sort of avenue to pursue when it comes to climate action, but we do have the executive branch, and he used the executive branch to pass the Clean Power Plan.

CURWOOD: Now, Professor Mann, some critics would say, well, how well did Mr. Obama really do in the face of a study that shows that the Export-Import Bank made loans and guarantees for some 75 fossil fuel plants overseas, and those plants are emitting more carbon than the reductions that are projected from the Clean Power Plan.

MANN: It's a fair point, and by no means can we say that even under his leadership that we have a perfect executive branch policy on climate. There's so much work that remains to be done. There was a limit to how much he could do, but he certainly was trying to move us in the right direction, and it depends on the metric that you use. Yes, we're exporting a lot of our carbon emissions right now. And China is doing some of that as well. They're decreasing the building of coal fired power plants domestically, but they're actually building them in other countries. So we need to take a more holistic approach to how we evaluate progress and there is a lot of work that still is left to be done. But there's still a feeling that we were headed in the right direction and that a Clinton administration would've continued on the trajectory. Now we have to deal with a very different playing field.

Coauthors Tom Toles (left) and Michael Mann (right) with their implements of choice. (Photo: Cartoon by Tom Toles)

CURWOOD: And in the meantime we need to stop burning fossil fuels and cutting trees, huh?

MANN: Yes, and unfortunately, our carbon emissions come from every sector of society, every aspect of our lives. So, it's our diets, it's our energy consumption, it's our transportation, it's our manufacturing. Everything we do, and because of that there is no magic bullet and that's why it's a hard problem to crack.

CURWOOD: Before you go professor, why did you create this book along with political cartoonist Tom Toles?

MANN: Well, our politics has become so contentious and we've reached a point where people feel like they're entitled to their own facts when it comes to matters like climate change, regardless of what the scientists have to say. We have this sort of deep partisanship, and there is sort of a tendency for people to trap themselves in a media bubble that reinforces their misconceptions and preconceptions. If you listen to Fox News, if you read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, if you follow Breitbart News, you're convinced the climate change is a massive hoax intended to make climate scientists like myself rich. Now it sounds laughable, but there are a large number of people who believe that and increasingly it's difficult to reach them and increasingly they don't see climate change as an issue of policy or economics or environmental health. They see it as a matter of ideology. It's part of their tribal identity, they're told, to deny climate change. If you're going to be a good conservative, you have to deny climate change is even happening, and it's very difficult to reach those people. But one thing I think we have learned in recent years is that there is this amazing potential for comedy and satire to sort of reach across some of these boundaries. When you frame something in a humorous way it sort of leads to people sort of dropping their defenses a little bit, sort of finding a side door. Comedy is sort of a side door, and I believe it's why our hardest-hitting commentary today in our media comes from the Stephen Colberts and the Samantha Bees and the Bill Mahers. Comedians seem to have a certain amount of license to talk about the toughest, most contentious issues.

CURWOOD: What's funny about climate change?

MANN: Well, it's a sort of gallows humor, I suppose, at times. Tom Toles, in my view, has found a way to make delay and denial and despair funny in an odd way. But without a message of hope, without an avenue forward, gallows humor alone doesn't lead us in the right direction. And so one of the struggles in the book was to find a way to use the humor to go beyond just the exposure of hypocrisy of climate change-denying politicians, but to try to paint a positive path forward at the same time, and I hope we accomplished that. I like to think we did.

CURWOOD: So, what's the best way forward? How much of a difference can the states make in the present situation?

MANN: There's a statistic that most people aren't aware of which I consider striking, and that is even in the absence of any national climate policy because we have a Republican Congress that won't act on climate, won't put a price on carbon which is what we really need ultimately at the national level, but states are acting. I just got back from the west coast, actually had a meeting with [Governor] Jerry Brown just a few days ago who is really leading the way on this issue, and California is sort of this shining beacon at a time of darkness when we face real struggle. Jerry Brown actually said that he doesn't care what Trump does. If Trump starts to defund our climate satellites, California will build them and put them up there. California has the scientists, it has the lawyers. They're going to act. They're going to move ahead. And there's a town, the first town to ever go entirely renewable. All of its energy now comes from renewal energy. There was just a press release that I saw earlier today. Boone, North Carolina. And the Boone is Daniel Boone, and the town is named after him, and he lived in that area. Our great explorers who explored the American frontier centuries ago, well Boone North Carolina is sort of helping us move into this next frontier of getting off fossil fuel energy, and they're getting all of their energy now from renewables, and there are mayors of the largest cities, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, who are on board and acting on climate. So, I actually think along with the rest of the world which is moving ahead, we will still move forward on climate.

Atmospheric scientist Michael Mann directs the Penn State Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Mann)

CURWOOD: Is it enough or will it be in time?

MANN: There is still a chance for us to do enough to limit the impacts of climate change to those that we can potentially adapt to. So we haven't yet committed ourselves to truly catastrophic irreversible changes in our climate that go beyond our adaptive capacity, but we don't have a lot of time left and we do need to make progress over the next few years and we're going to need to find a way to make that progress even with a US presidency which may end up on the wrong side of this issue.

CURWOOD: Penn State Professor Michael Mann's new book is called "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy". Thanks so much, Professor, for taking the time with us today.

MANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.



The Madhouse Effect – Michael Mann’s newest book

More information on ‘Climategate’

Washington Post: Michael Mann wins right to pursue a libel suit against critics who claimed his climate research was fraudulent.

Michael Mann Faculty Profile


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