interview

On Monday I posted the CBS News clip which I felt represented poor journalism by the once famous and even virtuous CBS News Department. Here’s the clip again for your viewing, so that you can see what they did — rather than just mentioning that a defamatory music video had been made about Mike Mann, they showed large parts of the video which were accompanied by the lyrics spelled out.

In this interview I speak with Mike about this news clip, the media in general, and a number of other topics. My feeling is that the takeaway message of what he has to say is that: 1) there is now a war being waged against climate scientists, 2) the scientists are receiving very little, if any, professional media assistance (and I mean from professionals who are used to dealing with combative media, not just university outreach types), and 3) there are no new actions being taken yet to deal with what is obviously a very aggressive attack on climate science.


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NEEDING HELP: Who is coming to the aid of scientists when they get slandered by a major news organization like CBS News?

THE CBS NEW CLIP

RO - What did you think of the CBS News clip — is it the most unfair treatment you’ve been subjected to by the media so far?

MM - Yes. What was disturbing was that in some twisted way those who produced it might have actually thought it was fair. If you read the transcript of the segment it mentions that I had been exonerated of the very charges that were made in that Youtube video they showed. But for someone who was watching that piece, it’s easy to imagine they would not have caught that fact, and instead would have absorbed the entirely false allegations against me that are made in the Youtube video. I was deeply disappointed to see it from CBS, the television network that was once home to Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow and held up as a paragon of journalistic integrity. They turned out to be the network that treated us the most unfairly throughout this whole thing.

RO - Did you file a complaint with CBS?

MM - I contacted producers there and let them know I was very disturbed about the segment, but have not gotten any formal reply to date.

SCIENTISTS DEALING WITH THE MEDIA

RO - So who gives you guidance in dealing with the media?

MM - Well, I have friends, I have colleagues, there’s this website, www.realclimate.org, that I’m involved in along with roughly a dozen other scientists. We bounce ideas off each other, we get advice from each other. The purpose of the website is to try to communicate to the interested public what the science actually has to say and so in the conduct of that site we often discuss matters relevant to how to best explain the science to journalists.

RO - Have you guys ever paid any communication experts for advice?

MM - No, I wish we or I had the money to do that, we’re in this on our own and we don’t get any money… there’s actually no financial compensation that any of us have ever received for doing this, it’s a labor of love. It’s something that we are all very concerned about, the accuracy of the science that we are all involved in, the climate science.

RO - Do you wish at times that you had financial support to help you with the communication dynamics?

MM - Well, I would draw this distinction. I think it’s important that Real Climate remain an effort by climate scientists. It is important that we have an outlet for directly expressing our views or discourse for climate science. Now does that mean there’s a potential role that we’re not fulfilling in communicating science? Undoubtedly. There is a need for others to help with this.

YOUR BLOG, REALCLIMATE.ORG

RO - The reason I ask about Real Climate is that when I made my movie “Sizzle” I interviewed Dr. Richard Sommerville — he over and over again said, “The place you need to go for your information is Real Climate.” And he was right, except that your blog is impenetrable to anyone who is not fluent in the language of current issues in the world of climate science, and it’s just not a readable resource for broader communication, even to people with a science background who want something less that reading 600 comments on a topic.

MM - Yeah, some of our articles are probably more penetrable than others. And some of what we write is technical enough that it is likely impenetrable to the general public, and even likely some other scientists.

ROScience Magazine publishes only heavy duty, hard core research papers, but they also have a section called “This Week in Science,” which is easier for the general public to digest. Given the level of scientific authority of Real Climate, have you ever considered doing a more brief summary of each item for the broader public, which might even summarize the gist of the comments as well?

MM - Yeah, there is absolutely a role for that, and there is a role for someone to take the more impenetrable things that we write and translate those to something that is more amenable to the broader public. And so all those things need to be done. I would love to see someone working with us, taking our content and performing that distillation process you just described.

RO - This is one of the things I don’t understand: why is it that Al Gore was on 60 minutes a year and a half ago saying he’d raised more than 300 million dollars for the mass communication of climate science as a global issue and yet you guys are running clearly the most reputable voice for the climate science world, and you don’t have the resources to convey that voice to a broader audience?

MM - Yeah, I think there are those who can serve in sort of that translation role, in other words to take the sort of stuff that we’re saying and boil that down for public consumption. I think there are a number of non-governmental organizations that do that. For instance if you go to the Union of Concerned Scientists or the Natural Resources Defense Council websites they are in part performing that translation. I would like to believe that some of those folks are indeed following Real Climate, they have enough scientific training to understand the technical content. They have some staff and they have the resources to translate that to a more readily comprehensible public format. There isn’t enough of that, there needs to be more.

RO - And who funds your blog, www.realclimate.org — is it paid for by people who are going to make money off of global warming research?

MM - Hardly. We’re just a group of climate scientists who value communicating our science to the broader public. We receive no compensation whatsoever for the effort, the only thing we’ve ever received is some web space, from a non-governmental organization who offered it to us. They said, “Hey, do you guys want some space to get your message out?” We said, “Sure.” We didn’t want to be attached to any of our individual institutions because it doesn’t reflect our day jobs. So it was perfect for us to have some web space from an independent organization to do the website. But that’s all the outside input we’ve ever had. The content is completely determined by us. All editorial decision-making is by us. We do this in our spare time and we do it for free because we care about it.

CLIMATEGATE

RO - So how was your Christmas this year? Was it a nice relaxed time?

MM - [laughter] Uh, well, obviously when this “Climategate” thing broke just before Thanksgiving it put a little bit of a damper on my holiday experience. Many of my colleagues and I have spent a lot of time over the ensuing months now, responding to the attacks against us. So, no, it wasn’t the most pleasant holiday experience I’ve ever had.

RO - Did you feel embattled at times? Like in the bunker?

MM - We are in a battle — the scientific community. I mean the climate science community has been in battle for years. There’s an organized, well-funded effort to discredit us. And not just our science, but individuals. There’s been an increasing effort towards, so called “Swiftboating” of individual scientists. Smear campaigns run against scientists for the sole purpose of discrediting them, so as to discredit the science. So I think it is very clear that this is the method of attack that the climate-denial-lobby is using.

THE ANTI-CLIMATE SCIENCE EFFORT

RO - Do you remember the first instance you realized there was this effort at work?

MM - Within a year or so of publishing our Nature article in 1998, our work was being criticized in what I would describe as a highly non-scientific way, on a website called The World Climate Report, that in fact was run by Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, with funding from the fossil fuel industry.

RO - When you spoke with the Senate — was that the next increment in your awareness of it?

MM - I didn’t actually speak at the Senate hearings held by James Inhofe until 2003. By then it was four years after we had published our Nature article and there had been many such attacks against our work on an increasingly heated and increasingly high profile and increasingly well organized level. I had become very much aware of the climate change denial machine because I was an object of their attacks. It came to somewhat of a crescendo by 2003 when the climate change denial effort was really stepping up. There was a memo that had come out — the infamous “Luntz Memo” that basically telegraphed this attack campaign of trying to discredit climate science and climate scientists. It appeared in 2002 and it warned the climate skeptics that there was a closing window of opportunity — that the public was becoming aware of the nature of the scientific evidence showing global warming, and that if the climate change denial lobby didn’t do something quickly they were going to lose their window of opportunity to discredit the science and to forestall policy action. So in those next couple years that effort was stepped up, and we were in the middle of that effort. Of course at the same time there were things going on. In the E.P.A.Christine Todd Whitman, the first EPA Director in the first Bush Administration was basically forced out because the climate change contrarian contingent within the Bush Administration felt she was too proactive in recognizing the legitimacy of the climate change threat. And as we later learned through articles in the NY Times and elsewhere there were various climate change reports produced by government scientists which were being edited and altered by political appointees to downplay the climate change threat. So our own experiences were taking place within the context of a larger anti-climate science effort.

RO - Why do you think Al Gore didn’t make much mention of the skeptics movement in his movie?

MM - Well, you’d have to ask Al in the end, but I think at the time frankly, when that movie came out, there was perhaps a sense that we had moved past the false notion of there being a debate on the reality of climate change. I think in some sense the public discourse had moved past that. In the past there had often been an effort by journalists to find a contrarian to give the other side a quote for every interview about climate change. I think there was a feeling at the time that we were finally moving past this.

RO - And in retrospect do you think the feeling that we’d moved past the debate was naïve?

MM – Absolutely. I can tell you, having communicated to many of my colleagues my deep concern that there was a false complacency. I felt that there was a very dangerous complacency — that the community had decided that the discourse had moved past the idea that there was a debate about the problem. I think many in the scientific community felt that way, and many in the policy arena felt that way. But there were warning signs. Those of us who were looking saw them. There was still a very well-funded, well-organized campaign. Much money and effort had been invested by the fossil fuel industry. They weren’t just going to roll over. So many of us knew that it was coming, and frankly I did warn colleagues about the complacency that they had, their view that the public discourse had moved on, that the discussions would now would be about what climate policies should be enacted — that was misplaced. The debate over the reality of climate change was still alive and well. And now there is such a poisonous atmosphere being created by the climate skeptics — similar in many ways to that poisonous atmosphere we saw last summer in those healthcare town hall meetings — irrational sort of conspiracy-driven lunatics, frankly, entering into the fray — where the discourse has been so skewed to the point where those extreme voices are a substantial component in the debate. It makes it difficult to have a rational discussion. And when you have people who will dismiss the National Academy of Science as some sort of “activist” organization simply because N.A.S. believes in science … then how can you engage the other side in meaningful discourse?

THE IMPORTANCE OF SPEED IN MASS COMMUNICATION

RO - When the story of Climategate broke, the climate skeptics were all over it from Day One with articles linked on The Drudge Report and Fox News. But the science community took days or even weeks to offer up official responses. Don’t you think there’s a problem with quickness of response?

MM - I do. I think that unfortunately this is sort of a classic David vs. Goliath type battle. The science community isn’t organized — it doesn’t have a single politically driven motive, as the climate change deniers do. It’s not organized, it’s not well funded in terms of public outreach in the way that climate change deniers are funded by the fossil fuel industry.

RO - But, with all due respect, I have to challenge you on this point — there is so much money in the world of science, and there is so much money at the foundations, and there is so much money available for this issue of climate change and global warming — as I’ve pointed out repeatedly on this website — Al Gore said he raised $300 million for communicating about climate change — I really have a hard time seeing it as David and Goliath.

MM - Let me put it this way — everything you said is true, but I’m talking about the scientists and their ability to defend themselves and their work. Now there is a lot of money potentially out there in foundations that support public relations campaigns, but none of that, thus far, has filtered down to where there are resources for scientists to defend themselves against attacks. And I think the climate denial lobby recognizes the effectiveness, frankly, of their campaign to discredit scientists.

TALK VERSUS ACTION?

RO - Do you think, post-Climategate, there’s a new realization of the seriousness of this issue of attacking scientists, and do you see any new changes happening to address that.

MM - You’re going to be surprised that I can actually give you one word answers on both — yes and yes. I think there is — perhaps a little late in the game — but better late than never — now there is an awareness that there is a war being fought against the climate science and scientists, and if others don’t step in and assist in that war, their cause could be lost.

RO - What makes you say that you see something new, other than just more talk?

MM - I have to admit, it’s nothing concrete. It’s the sense that I have in talking with colleagues and those in the environmental community who talk with scientists and those in the policy arena who talk with scientists.

RO - But this is the very problem with academics is the tendency to believe in talk rather than action.

MM - Well, yeah. And I think that the talk now needs to be translated to action. Thus far its been all talk, in large part because nobody really believed that the other side would get that nasty and dirty and dishonest, but they have. They’ve crossed that line. And now people are realizing this, and if they don’t step up and assist the scientific community, their own interest in seeing meaningful action to combat climate change could be in jeopardy.

RO - Final pair of questions. Given this cold winter, do you think global warming has ended, and if not, do you think the threat of global warming has diminished in the past few years?

MM - Very simple again — no and no.