In mid-October, Climate Reality chatted with world-renowned climatologist and geophysicist Dr. Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, ahead of our recent Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Because we had a long and fruitful conversation on topics ranging from galvanizing climate moments and extreme weather to the Paris Agreement and much more (and because we want you to learn as much as we did), we’ll be bringing you the conversation in its entirety, with new installments each Friday for the next few weeks.
Below, Dr. Mann discusses why he, one of the world’s foremost climate experts, chose to study climate science in the first place and how he came to embrace his central place in the global climate conversation.
Climate Reality: What drew you from the fields of physics and mathematics and into the field of climatology?
Dr. Michael Mann: I would like to say it was my desire to change the world and to advance the cause of environmental stability. But in fact, it was simply an interesting area of science to me. I was in physics, and it was a tough time in physics. There was a loss of funding around the time of the super conducting supercollider. And when it didn’t get funded, this was in the late 80s and early 90s, that meant that physicists were looking for other problems to work on, [and] I was getting funneled into an area of physics that I just wasn’t that excited about.
So I literally opened up the catalog of applied science at Yale University, where I was a graduate student, and leafed through the catalog to see what other areas of science there were folks at Yale working in where I could use the math and physics skills and knowledge that I’d attained to work on an interesting problem. I saw that there was an individual in the department of geology and geophysics who was using math and physics to model earth’s climate, and that sounded like a fascinating problem to me. So I went and talked to him – his name was Barry Saltzman – and as they say the rest is history.
“Scott Pruitt has violated the public faith by acting on behalf of polluting interests rather than the people he is supposed to represent.” - Dr. Michael E. Mann
What is your proudest achievement?
I guess it would be receiving the Stephen Schneider Award this year, for climate communication. It’s an award that is issued by Climate One, which is a program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club in California. It honors Stephen Schneider, who was a good friend of mine and one of the greatest climate scientists of all time, but more than that he was a wonderful science communicator.
He was really the voice of our community to the public. I was honored to know him as a friend and as a mentor. We lost him way too soon; he passed away back in 2010. And there is now an award given in his honor to recognize other scientists who are doing our best to fill the very large shoes that were left behind by Steve. Scientists who, like Steve, do climate science and advance our scientific knowledge, but who also place value on communicating the science to the public and to policymakers.
I sort of was forced into the public spotlight – it wasn’t really something I chose to do – when our graph, the hockey stick graph, became this iconic graph in the climate change debate. I tell the whole story in another book of mine, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. I suddenly found myself in the spotlight because of this graph that we published, and it wasn’t what I signed up for.
When I double majored in applied math and physics at UC Berkley, when I went off to study theoretical physics at Yale University, and then ended up going into climate science, I didn’t think I was placing myself on a path that would lead me into the center of one of the most contentious partisan political debates that we’ve ever seen. But that’s where I found myself because of the work that we published.
And while I was initially reluctant to be in that position – it’s not why I became a scientist; I just wanted to do science; I wanted to be left alone doing science – I’ve ultimately grown to embrace that role and to recognize that it’s really a blessing to be in the position to be able to inform the larger conversation about what may be the greatest challenge that we’ve ever faced as a civilization. I consider myself honored to be in a positon to do that.
Naturally, to be recognized for those efforts, it was extremely meaningful for me.
Be The Voice
Dr. Mann’s embrace of his high-profile role in the climate dialogue shows that he realized something more and more people are discovering every day: When your world is in danger, you’ve got to speak up.
The Environmental Protection Agency designed America’s Clean Power Plan to accelerate this shift and cut the dirty power plant emissions driving climate change. But now, fossil fuel interests leading EPA want to repeal the Clean Power Plan and take us back to the dark days of dirty energy.
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