Book Review - The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines
Reviewed in The Australian Book Review, July/August 2012 edition by David Karoly
In my recent commentary on The Garnaut Review 2011, I said ‘Climate change is often framed as a number of battles; between science and opinion, between sustainable development and economic growth, between government control and individual freedom...’ (ABR, November 2011). Little did I know that my next review would be of a book about the Climate Wars, written by an active warrior in those battles, and subtitled Dispatches from the Front Lines.
The author, Michael E Mann, is an expert on reconstructing past climate variations from records stored in natural systems, such as the annual growth rings in trees, the chemical composition of water in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, and the chemistry of layers deposited in tropical corals or stalactites from caves. His research has concentrated on documenting and understanding climate variations over the last one to two thousand years by extracting common climate signals from multiple different records, first for the northern hemisphere and then for the whole globe. His graduate study at Yale University in the United States in the early 1990s identified natural long-term variations in the Northern Hemisphere climate, using longer data records and new methods to extract information from the data.
Mann never imagined that his research would push him out of the ivory towers of academia into the cut-andthrust world of politics, commentators, and lobbyists. But it certainly did, and this book describes his experiences over the last two decades as a climate scientist, as a communicator, and as a target of frequent attacks. Mann was subjected to what he describes as the ‘Serengeti strategy’, in which predators ‘look for the most vulnerable animal at the edge of a herd’. In his case the predators were climate change ‘confusionists’, politicians and commentators who wish to confuse the public understanding of climate change science and delay action on reducing industrial emissions of green-house gases.
The reason for these attacks was that Mann led a ground-breaking series of studies in the late 1990s that described Northern Hemisphere temperature variations over the last thousand years and showed that the warmth of the latter part of the twentieth century was very unusual, likely warmer than any time in a thousand years, including the so-called Medieval Warm Period. The graph of the average temperature shows a wobbly but steady decline over nine hundred years followed by an abrupt rise in the twentieth century, a shape not unlike a hockey stick, the label that has been used to describe it ever since. This research was singled out for attack because it clearly showed that the warming in the twentieth century was unusual in the long-term context, and it was one of the figures featured in the Summary for Policymakers of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2001...
This book is well written and tells a remarkable story that is likely to be of interest to a wide range of readers. It opens a window onto the work of a research scientist studying climate variability and climate change, providing glimpses of the mundane activities as well as the excitement of new discoveries. It provides readily understandable details of how past climate variations are reconstructed from a range of natural records, of the techniques used in palaeoclimatology...
One of the fascinating aspects of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is its selection of quotes used at the start of each chapter. They are all very relevant and interesting, but one of my favourite quotes and perhaps the most important one is missing. Charles Darwin, after his own battles over public misunderstanding of his science, wrote in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species: ‘Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.’ Mann finishes the book on a similarly positive note, suggesting that he senses a turning of the tide in the Climate Wars...
By Michael E Mann
9780231152549 AU$43.95 I NZ$53.91
Columbia University Press
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