It Was a Dark and Stormy Century: And It Just Might Be Our Fault

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Dr. Mann and colleagues graph for the IPCC

Dr. Michael E. Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is on our campus today. Dr. Mann is most well known for the graph you see in the upper left-hand corner. The graph, submitted to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), shows the temperature changes over the last thousand years. If you look closely (or if you click on the graph), you will see a sharp uptick in temperatures starting during and directly after the industrial revolution.

The graph is designed to provide a simple, easy to read measurement that demonstrates anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change based on 1,000 years worth of temperature and climate data using multiple measurement tools.

The graph and leaked emails from members of the IPCC research group thrust Dr. Mann into the political spotlight. Critics of climate change and global warming cherry-picked sentences from emails and willfully (or ignorantly) misconstrued conversations between scientists who had been working together for many years to cast doubt on both the data and Dr. Mann’s professionalism.

It was, in many ways, a picture perfect example of the politics of personal attack writ large on the cultural landscape. Notable climatologists Sean Hannity, Michelle Bachmann, Jim Inhofe, and Sara Palin attacked Dr. Mann’s data while other critics accused him of politicizing climate change. Dr. Mann was called before Congress and dressed down while Senators grandstanded on tv, collecting campaign contributions from Exxon, Haliburton, and Mobile in the backrooms. For his critics, Dr. Mann’s hockey stick became an example of his hockey shtick and they clearly imagined that destroying him personally would discredit his data. (A rhetorical device, I recognize, I employ in this paragraph as well.)

Certainly, there are legitimate questions to be asked about rising temperatures and all science requires peer review. The very nature of scientific inquiry demands that data be reproduceable. When data can be reproduced, we move toward scientific consensus.

And please note that we have scientific consensus on global climate change and global warming. No reputable scientific agency throughout the world denies humanity’s impact on the levels of CO2 and other measures of global warming. The ice caps are melting, super-storms are quickly becoming the norm, and long-term droughts have human fingerprints all over them. The question, at this point, isn’t really if humans have impacted climate change. Groups like 350.org and Dr. Mann aren’t leading some world-wide scientific conspiracy, cooking the data, and tricking people.

The question, instead, needs to be how we balance our needs for fuel, energy, and food within the ecological limits of our planet. Driving hybrids and eating granola can’t be the only answer but doing nothing isn’t really an option at this point.

But what is most fascinating, I think, about Dr. Mann’s story isn’t the coming global climate disaster but the intense and incredibly loud adverse reaction to the scientific data.

In some ways, the reaction to any data that disrupts our livelihood and threatens our way of life reflects an ages old distrust of science and experts. One need only look at popular culture’s presentation of mad scientists and recognize that we have a healthy distrust of people who play with chemicals and the other fundamental building blocks of life on earth. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jeckyll, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Strangeglove: when scientists go bad they can destroy the planet. My guess is we will eventually learn that the zombie strain terrorizing Rick and his crew on the Walking Dead is man-made.

The visceral reaction to the climate change data, I think, reflects some of this distrust. Truly disruptive ideas in the scientific arena have an ability to change the way we see humanity’s role in the universe. Imagine, if you will, living your entire life believing the earth is the center of the universe and our role is pre-ordained, defined by a higher power. When that belief is challenged by science and when the very underpinnings of our moral identity are called into question, we often fight back and reject the change.

In the 21st century, social media, the internet, and an ability to isolate ourselves the echo chamber of like-minded people has also turned too many of us into “experts” in our own minds. We reject scientific inquiry for observational data, forgetting that just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it might not be true. Too many of us forget that our life time, these 70-90 years we walk the planet, are but a small sample of time. Dr. Mann’s data covers over a thousand years. Your memories from 1950 barely register as a trend and just because last year was cold in Topeka, Kansas doesn’t disprove global warming.

But I also recognize that things aren’t so simple.

Andrew Hoffman argues “Climate change is an existential challenge to our contemporary world view.” Multiple polls show us that climate change is poised to replace health care as the essential battleground issue in the coming years because, I think, it challenges our relationship with the physical world. Religion and myth show us as passive recipients of weather and climate. Floods, droughts, hordes of locusts, and other phenomena are “natural” disasters, occurring mysteriously or as a way for God (or the gods) to remind us that they have the power to unleash such things and we don’t.

Except now Dr. Mann and his colleagues are arguing we do have that power, and I think it scares the bejeesus out of some people. But I think it also smells to some as yet another large, international organization trying to define and redefine what it means to be a human being. Well meaning skeptics of climate change sense a loss of power as that “self” is redefined and the power of God (or the gods) is diminished.

Simply put, climate change is both a moral issue and an issue of morality that brings science, religion, and politics into conflict.

Perhaps justly so. As we embark on this conversation, though, it might be nice if we could focus less on the messengers and pay far more attention to the message. Doing so, I think, might help us save the planet and emerge as better people in the meantime.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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