“The climatologist is taking on both the fossil fuel lobby and those who think the climate fight is futile.
By Bryan Schatz
“ONE AUGUST AFTERNOON IN 2010, Michael Mann was opening mail in his office at Penn State University when a dusting of white powder emerged from an envelope. At first he thought it was his imagination. “I figured maybe it’s just an old dingy envelope or something,” Mann recalled. His next thought: anthrax.
“Mann bolted out of his office and shut the door, washed his hands, and called the cops. Soon, the FBI arrived. Agents retrieved the letter for testing while Mann was left to explain to stunned colleagues why there was police tape sealing his door.
“Death threats weren’t exactly the kind of thing Mann ’89 had imagined as an undergrad at Cal, when he was first thinking about a life in academia. But his career as a climate scientist had attracted some very powerful and determined enemies. Over the years, he’d gotten used to verbal attacks and idle threats, but this was on a different level. He began to worry about his family’s safety.
“In the end, the powder proved to be cornstarch, but police gave Mann a hotline number just in case. He and his wife put it on the refrigerator.
“Mann’s troubles started a decade earlier. It was 1998 and the young scientist, then a postdoc at UMass Amherst, co-authored a study with the innocuous title, “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries.” Published in the journal Nature that April, the paper aimed to reconstruct Earth’s temperatures going back six centuries. To derive temperatures for the half millennium before the invention of thermometers, Mann and his collaborators relied on “proxy records”—indirect temperature measurements extrapolated from things like ice cores, tree rings, lake sediments, and coral. (Up to that point, researchers had looked at one type of proxy record or another, but no one had synthesized the data in one study.) Their conclusion? Three of the past eight years had been “warmer than any other year since (at least to) 1400A.D.”
“The following year, the researchers extended the study back further, to AD 1000, and found much the same. For most of the last millennium there had been only minor fluctuations. Then, around the turn of the 20th century, temperatures began to rocket upwards as if the planet were running a fever.
“To climatologist Jerry D. Mahlman, the graph of the data looked like an upturned hockey stick—the long period of relatively stable temperatures formed the shaft, the last century’s spike was the blade. The image stuck, and it has been known ever since as the “hockey stick graph,” an easily graspable image that helped make the study both a lodestar and a lightning rod. The Atlantic magazine once dubbed it “The Most Controversial Chart in Science….
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