Few scientists would be willing to climb back into the cockpit of controversy as often as Michael E. Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist and current Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, whose research on the causes of climate change contributed to the Nobel Prize awarded to the IPCC and Al Gore.
In his explanation to the National Academy of Engineers, who met in Cleveland yesterday, how he’s managed the fierce criticism of work—like his ‘hockey stick graph’ that illustrates the incontrovertible link between concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a heat trapping gas produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and the 1 degree (Celsius) rise in global temperatures—Mann invoked a scientific truism that has served as a flak jacket.
“If you’re wrong, science has this self-correcting machinery,” he said about the peer-review process of comparing contemporary temperatures with those hundreds of thousands of years ago seen through scientific methods such as collected ice core samples from the North and South Poles.
“The climate system is complex. Hopefully, you do it right, and you get better agreement with the (computer) models.”
Mann added that climate scientists have been conservative in building their models. Arctic Sea ice, for example, is melting at a much faster rate in real terms than predicted by models from a few years ago.
“The ice shelves are very dynamic,” he said. “If they get destabilized, the edges collapse and the inland ice surges out to the ocean.”
The resulting 1 foot rise in sea levels, in tandem with more moisture evaporation, have contributed to the intensity of storms like Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey which caused billions of dollars in property damage. Climate models have shown a six foot sea level rise is possible by the end of this century, if business as usual—the sourcing of power for buildings, transportation and food systems—does not shift to low and no carbon emitting technologies.
“A 30 year event like Sandy, where New York experienced a 12 foot sea surge, could be a 3 to 4 year event,” Mann said.
Like an experiment gone horribly wrong, adding more than 400 parts per million of carbon to a system like the earth’s atmosphere and oceans is producing results that accord with principles like thermodynamics, a field that stretches back 200 years, Mann said.
“We would be stumped if we couldn’t explain (climate change with physical sciences).”
“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” Mann adds, pointing to a Pentagon report. “It takes existing tension like the drought in the Middle East and helps give rise to (extremist groups like) ISIS.”
“It’s going to be a lot more expensive not to do something.”
Mann discussed solutions. Given the mounting evidence, he showed real resolve in addressing the recent back tracking, including the United States’ pull out of the global climate accord signed in Paris. Handling the threat of climate change by debating it (or blaming “giant boulders falling into the sea” as one Senator did recently) is “unworthy,” he says.
“We need to move on to the worthy debate of what to do. If we don’t act to stem the problem at the source now, through a market-based solution, we will exceed our adaptive capacity. We are going to need market incentives to move us off fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy.”