NS&M Colloquium: Dr. Michael E. Mann Speaks on Climate Change Denial


What is the greatest instance of hypocrisy in modern times? Climate change denial, according to Michael Mann. This climate change activist, researcher and Penn State professor came to campus on Wednesday, Sept. 21 to speak about the ongoing war on climate science. As he sees it, some politicians are sticking their heads in the sand while natural disasters occur in their own states, all to keep taking money from vested interests and to deny scientific consensus.

To Dr. Mann, humor is one of the most effective ways to reach people because it lowers their natural resistance to opposing points of view. Cartoons are also effective, because images are often better for explaining complex concepts than are words. Mann therefore teamed up with Tom Toles, the Washington Post editorial cartoonist, to write a book exposing climate change denial and explaining the science behind his position. He gave his talk to the campus while showing choice cartoons from the book.

The speaker offered a variety of reasons to care about climate change and the struggle against science. He noted that scientific consensus shows multiple types of devastative events flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes have been more frequent and are more likely to occur in the future as a result of climate change. He worries about fundamentally degrading the planet. He believes that the greatest reason to care about climate change, however, lies in ethics.  He asked, “what sort of world do we want to leave to our grandchildren?”

Before talking about the state of anti-science politics in the United States, the professor debunked a few common myths. To those who believe in a pause in climate change, he said, the evidence shows that 2014 was the warmest year on record, until 2015 became the warmest year on record, soon to be surpassed by 2016. He also pointed out that cooling in one geographic region does not invalidate heating in another region – and overall, the world is getting warmer.

The existence of these and other myths are the result of a conscious effort to confuse the public, Dr. Mann asserted. Monied interests would lose profits if they were forced to make environmentally conscious changes, so instead they invest in delaying change.

So where specifically are all these myths coming from? Many anti-climate change think tanks are funded by the fossil fuel industry. Fred Singer, who used to work on “denying the effects of tobacco,” according to Mann, has become a prominent advocate for climate change denial. Dr. Mann termed Singer an “equal opportunity science denier.” He called Rupert Murdoch’s news networks “echo chambers” of denial, and also named the Koch brothers, the largest fossil fuel interest in the world, for having funded organizations and individuals to deny climate science.

It is too late to avoid all the consequences of climate change, according to the speaker, but there remains a path forward. He praised the current presidential administration for executive action and he spoke of the recently ratified Paris Agreement as a step in the right direction.

To college students and regular citizens, Dr. Mann encouraged two types of action to focus on. First is to make good personal choices to cut down on one’s own carbon footprint, and to convince friends and family to do the same.  Mann admitted that individual choices can only account for a relatively small portion of the problem, however. To see everyone’s best interest represented, Mann urges everybody to vote specifically on the issue of climate change. He believes that we need to elect politicians who will push the government to “internalize the cost of carbon” and help “renewable energy compete with conventional sources.”

To learn about common myths and the science behind climate change, Mann suggested visiting www.skepticalscience.com. The website offers cited explanations of each issue in three different levels of detail, so it is suitable for anyone regardless of scientific background.

The lecture was part of the SMCM Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium, a series of lectures on campus that are free and open to the public. Dr. Mann’s was the second lecture of the semester.