Famed scientist considers climate change denial in the age of Trump

With the election of Donald Trump, denial of climate change has reached the highest level of U.S. government. “We’ve returned to the madhouse,” says pioneering climate scientist Michael Mann, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State.

Mann spoke at the University of Vermont's Ira Allen Chapel on Thursday, October 10, 2019 to address what this policy of denial means for today’s politics and the future.

Winner of the AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award and the Tyler Prize—and renowned for his work on the famed “hockey stick graph” of spiking global temperatures—Mann reviewed the evidence of climate change, and identify efforts by special interests to confuse the public and attack science. He’ll also explain why he’s optimistic we can avert climate catastrophe.

UVM science writer Joshua Brown spoke with Mann to learn more about his views and what he might have to say to UVM students and scientists about their role in the momentous conversations and battles over our warming planet:

How are climate change politics different now than they were before the Trump era?

Just before Donald Trump became president, cartoonist Tom Toles and I wrote a book, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. At that time, we were criticized by some colleagues who said: “Why are you writing a book about climate change denial? We're past that now. From here on, it's all going to be about solutions and action.” There was a false complacency—we can now see, of course—because we went on to elect the first climate-change-denying president.

He’s not only averse to acting on climate, but literally dismissed it as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. So we are certainly still very much in the madhouse, where the chief executive of our nation is in denial that the greatest threat that we arguably face even exists.

And yet, I'm cautiously optimistic about some developments. We do see a number of Republicans now moving in the direction of acknowledging that climate change exists and moving onto the worthy debate about what to do about it.

And the youth climate movement is a positive development. We're seeing powerful activism on the part of children and college students who recognize that they must become part of the discussion about policies that will determine what sort of world they will soon live in. So younger folks have seized the narrative and re-centered the larger public conversation where it needs to be: not just about science or politics or economics—but about our ethical obligation to not leave behind a degraded planet for future generations.

Many University of Vermont students are actively involved in the fight against climate change. What's your message to them?

They're doing what they need to be doing! Keep going. The paralysis in our politics is partially a product of the lack of engagement by young people. If they don't get out and use their voices in every way possible, then we're going to get politicians who are in the hip pocket of fossil-fuel interests rather than politicians who are willing to do what's right for all of us.

There’s strength in numbers. Demonstrations and marches are empowering because you see your friends, your colleagues—and you realize you're all in this together. We need them at the ballot box too. Now it's about organizing and making sure that voters get out. That’s what needs to happen if we are to combat the forces of denial and delay.

You're famous for being a scientist who has unveiled some of the essential dynamics of climate change. How much is climate change the primary problem versus being just a symptom of other deeper troubles in the human experience?

That's a great question and it alludes to an answer. Climate change denialism is symptomatic of a much larger problem, which is the loss of faith in our public discourse and in our politics. Our political process has been captured by moneyed interests with an agenda that does not align with the interests of the public. So, if we do have a larger problem, then the solution to the larger problem is the same one: participating more deeply in the political process.

UVM has a robust research community working on a range of questions about climate change—from applied public policy to basic science. When you talk with other scientists, what do you suggest to them about their stance on public engagement and activism?

We tend to compartmentalize things as scientists. When we wear the hat of the scientist, we're in the lab, crunching numbers, writing up articles, advising students, attending meetings. That’s the way we do science. And then there's this other thing that we do: being citizens. Well, you know, it turns out that the science that we're doing has real-world implications, policy implications. If we don't help to inform those larger conversations then we leave behind a vacuum that can be filled by voices who don't have the public in mind.

In 2014, I wrote a New York Times op-ed, “If You See Something, Say Something” about the importance of scientists stepping up and participating in the larger conversation. I don't think scientists should have to apologize for being advocates for an informed policy discussion. In my own efforts, I shy away from trying to dictate what policies should be made to solve our climate problem. Rather, I see my role as making sure that those discussions are informed by objective assessments of what the science has to say and what the risks are.

Scientists who choose to participate in the public sphere have to be comfortable with that role. It’s certainly fine for some scientists to stay in a laboratory, stick to only doing science. I know some scientists who absolutely shouldn't be out there trying to communicate to the public!

But there is a role for those who have an inclination to do so—and that should be encouraged and recognized. We tend to compartmentalize and yet it's impossible to build a strict firewall between our identity as scientists and our identity as citizens. So it's a matter of being open about what role you’re playing. Sometimes you’re speaking about the science that you do. Other times, you’re weighing in as a citizen who cares about the planet, and his or her children and what we’re leaving behind. We don't leave our citizenship at the laboratory door.

We're still citizens and we have a right to speak out about what we think the implications of science are. And, what we have to say can be informed by our expertise in science. For example, some scientists are especially well-equipped to discuss risk. It’s a matter of finding your own voice. Don't try to be Carl Sagan. Be who you are, because authenticity is critical. What conversation could be more important—so what’s your role?

Michael Mann’s lecture is part of the Dan and Carole Burack President’s Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Vermont and is sponsored by the Department of Geology, with support from the Gund Institute for Environment, the Environmental Program, the Consulting Archeology Program, the Geography Department, and the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.


Joshua E. Brown