Skip to main content

Climate scientists and smear campaigns

By Michael Mann, Special to CNN
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
The famed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, actually glaciers, are retreating rapidly. Many scientists blame global warming.
The famed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, actually glaciers, are retreating rapidly. Many scientists blame global warming.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Climate scientist Michael Mann says he was target of nasty campaign to discredit his work
  • Mann: Attack against scientists was funded by fossil fuel industry, anti-science ideologists
  • All accusations proven false, he says, but it galvanized scientists to counter misinformation
  • Mann: Poisonous politics must not hijack the conversation about climate change

Editor's note: Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty, holding joint positions in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with other scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

(CNN) -- Imagine you are sitting in your office simply doing your job and a nasty e-mail pops into your inbox accusing you of being a fraud. You go online and find that some bloggers have written virulent posts about you. That night, you're at home with your family watching the news and a talking head is lambasting you by name. Later, a powerful politician demands all your e-mails from your former employer.

It sounds surreal. But it all happened to me.

What was my offense? I worked on climate change research that indicated the world is a lot warmer today than it was in the past. Because that research caught the public's attention when it was released in 1998, I became one of dozens of climate researchers who have been systematically targeted by a well-funded anti-science campaign.

Ironically, as these attacks have grown, the scientific facts have become ever clearer. Climate scientists know the world is warming and human activity -- particularly burning coal and oil -- is the primary driver. The idea of addressing climate change threatens some people in the fossil fuel industry. And a vocal minority of corporate interests and their ideological allies are spending a lot of money to hijack the public debate about climate change.

Michael Mann
Michael Mann

I call all this the "scientization" of politics. Attacks on science and scientists are an effort to advance a political agenda, not an effort to better understand science or the risks it uncovers. The tobacco industry did it when scientists linked cigarettes to cancer. The lead industry tried to discredit a scientist who found that lead exposure hurt children's cognitive abilities.

Now, it's climate scientists' turn.

In the most infamous episode, somebody stole thousands of e-mails and documents from leading climate researchers, including me. They cherry picked key phrases from the e-mails and published them out of context, like a black-and-white political attack ad with ominous music. Fossil fuel industry-funded groups gleefully spread the e-mails online and badgered the mainstream media into covering the "controversy" they had manufactured.

It was no accident that this happened on the eve of a major international climate change meeting. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, was the first to call for an investigation.

The dozen independent investigations that did follow -- all of which exonerated the scientists -- got much less media coverage than the original nonscandal. Last year, the inspector general of the National Science Foundation found the charges against me were all baseless and reaffirmed mainstream climate science.

Larger political factors helped sink the climate change talks. But the stolen e-mail "scandal" has lived on. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (also a candidate for governor) cited it in his demand from my former employer -- the University of Virginia -- for all my documents and e-mails dating back several years.

On March 2, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in our favor -- a Pyrrhic victory considering all of the money and resources wasted that could have been invested, for example, in measures to protect Virginia's coastline from the damaging effects of the sea level rise it is already seeing.

These attacks have prompted me to tell my own story in a new book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines." Before it even came out, a coal industry front group ran radio advertisements condemning my employer, Penn State, for allowing me to speak on my own campus. Later, a former tobacco industry apologist offered $500 to anyone who would ask me a challenging question at another talk and provide him with video.

This is a silly -- and indeed, dangerous -- way to have a climate change debate in this country. What keeps climate scientists working away in our labs and in the field, is that we keep uncovering more evidence of how climate change will impact our planet and our lives.

In the face of these attacks, scientists are doing more to speak out, forming a Climate Science Rapid Response Team to connect scientists with journalists and a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to help scientists defray legal costs. Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists are redoubling their efforts to defend scientists and advance public understanding of climate change. And scientific societies are starting to do more to help their members deal with the poisonous political environment around climate change.

I first tackled climate science as a graduate student in theoretical physics, looking around for a topic that would be worthy of a lifetime's work. Attacked both professionally and personally, I became a reluctant public figure in the climate wars. And now, as the father of a 6-year-old girl, I want to make sure the planet we leave her is at least as beautiful and healthy as the one we grew up on. At the very least, our nation's political and business leaders deserve to have a debate about her future that is grounded in reality.

My daughter, and all of our children, deserve no less.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Mann.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT