Michael Mann: The climate scientist who the deniers have in their sights

He didn't court controversy, but is happy to make use of it

He is one of the most vilified men in the highly vilified field of climate science, yet Professor Michael Mann is surprisingly jolly. Despite being the focus of a brutal campaign orchestrated by the fossil-fuel industry and senior politicians within the US Republican Party, Mann's cheery stoicism is positively infectious.

"I've been the focus for attack by those who deny the reality of climate change for so long that it almost seems like forever," the professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University says. "I'm a reluctant public figure, but I have embraced the opportunity to communicate the science."

Mann became a chief target of the climate change contrarians for being the outspoken author of an iconic graph of global warming science known as the "hockey stick" – the most politicised graph in science, according to the journal Nature.

It was the hockey stick that generated much of the opprobrium heaped upon climate scientists as a result of the "climategate" emails stolen from the University of East Anglia and leaked on to the internet two years ago. Indeed, many of the leaked emails were copies of correspondence between the UEA team in the UK and Mann and his colleagues in the US.

Mann believes the theft of the emails was not the work of a random hacker, but part of a sophisticated campaign. "It was a very successful, well-planned smear campaign intended ... to go directly at the trust the public had in scientists," he insists. "Even though they haven't solved the crime of who actually broke in, the entire apparatus for propelling this manufactured scandal on to the world stage was completely funded by the fossil-fuel front groups."

The hockey stick graph appeared to demonstrate how world temperatures had remained fairly steady for several hundred years before shooting up at the end of the 20th century, just like the straight blade jutting out from the shaft of an ice-hockey stick (the analogy doesn't quite work with a curved field hockey stick).

The original study was published in Nature in 1998. Within five years, Mann had become the focus of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the entire field of climate science by rubbishing the hockey stick – a term coined by a colleague rather than Mann himself. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe picked up the hockey stick to beat climate science, famously declaring in 2003 that "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people".

Mann became the target of Freedom of Information requests and was served with a subpoena by Republican Congressman Joe Barton demanding access to his correspondence. This was followed with a further subpoena from Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican Attorney General of Virginia, and yet more FOI requests from industry front-organisations, notably the American Tradition Institute.

Climate contrarians argued that Mann and his colleagues were concealing their research methods because they had something to hide. In reply, Mann insists that he has been as open as he can about data and methodology, but the aim of these requests has more to do with intimidation than openness. "What they are trying to do is to blur the distinction between private correspondence and scientific data and methods, which of course should be out there for other scientists to attempt to reproduce.

"I think it's intentional and malicious. It's intended to chill scientific discourse, to intimidate scientists working in areas that threaten these special interests," he says. "It's the icing on the cake if they can also get hold of any more private correspondence that they can mine and cherry pick. It's a win-win for them." Why an obscure graph published in a scientific journal should enrage so many people has been the subject of much internet conspiracy (or genuine scientific debate, depending on your point of view).

The original 1998 hockey stick study by Mann and his colleagues did in fact emphasise the tentative nature of estimating past temperatures before the invention of accurate thermometers.

Faced with a lack of formal temperature records before the 19th century, they attempted to use "proxy records", such as ice cores, tree rings and changes to coral reefs. Because of the nature of the approach, their graph showed large error bars, which were drawn even wider apart the further back in time they went.

Many, indeed most climate scientists have argued that the hockey-stick graph is not central to the case for the role of man-made pollution in exacerbating global warming, and the prospect of dangerous climate change. But it has nevertheless become the iconic smoking gun for both sides of the debate, showing either that we are living through unprecedented temperature increases, or that we are being duped by the biggest scientific hoax in history.

"When we first published our Nature article in 1998, we went back six centuries," Mann says. "A year later we published a follow-up going back 1,000 years with quite a few caveats. In fact, the caveats and uncertainties appeared in the title, and the abstract emphasised just how tentative this study was because of all the complicating issues.

"It's frustrating that to some extent all of that context had been lost and the result has been caricatured. Often the errors bars are stripped away, making it appear more definitive than it was ever intended."

But if the aim of the climate contrarians was to browbeat Mann and his ilk into submission, then it clearly hasn't worked. He is publishing his own book on the hockey stick controversy later this year and he shows every sign of continuing the battle. "Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight," he warns.

A popular target: What critics say...

"Dr Mann's hockey stick graph is based on suspect data. Others have shown that random numbers can be put into Mann's algorithm, and they always produce a hockey stick graph."

Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's Attorney General who wants to prosecute Mann for fraud.

"How many more times does it need to be shredded and splintered before the eco zealots who gather to froth and foam at warmist sites like Real Climate accept that their flimsy theory has been falsified beyond credibility?"

James Dellingpole, Blogger on the hockey stick graph

A life in brief

Born 28 December 1965

Education Undergraduate degrees in physics and applied maths, University of California at Berkeley, MS degree in physics, Yale University, PhD in geology & geophysics, Yale University.

Career In 1998 Mann, Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes compiled the "hockey stick graph" of global temperatures since 1400, based on analyses of ice cores, tree rings and other historical data, which showed a sharp rise in the late 20th century. A version of the graph in 1999 showing temperatures from 1000 featured prominently in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report in 2001.

Awards In 2007, Mann and hundreds of other scientists who contributed to the IPCC report were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines