Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth Systems Science Center, has long been at the forefront of scientific research into climate change and its causes, putting him squarely at the center of debate that has swirled around the issue.
His work has been heavily praised by colleagues and attacked by politicians. His studies on human’s influence on greenhouse gasses resulted in the now infamous “hockey stick” graph, which raised alarms about the unchecked emissions that release those gasses in the atmosphere.
In his most-recent book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (2012, Columbia University Press), Mann looked at the growth of consensus on climate change and human activity and the politics and special interests that drive attempts to disprove it.
At a recent workshop on climate change in Beaufort, Mann talked with Coastal Review Online about the potential effects of climate change on the N.C. coast, arguing that it is time to get past debating long-settled science and focus on solutions, especially ways to be more resilient in the face of the changes ahead.
When it comes to climate change and sea-level rise what do you see as the big overarching issues on the N.C. coast? What’s really jumped out at you at this conference and during your other visits to the state?
Mann: Just the vulnerability, the very large amount of coastline here, where there are large populations of people who have lived here for several generations. It’s part of their history. It’s part of their culture and that’s fundamentally threatened now by sea-level rise, by the increasing intensity of hurricanes that strike our coastlines. It really sort of brings it home. This is where the rubber meets the road. I’m a climate scientist. I go around talking about the science, I talk about the impacts often in a theoretical framework, but here is where you really see it playing out.
At the workshop, we’ve looked at living shorelines and other mitigation strategies for sea-level rise. Do you see some rays of hope that there are ways North Carolina can cope with sea level rise?
Mann: Yeah. I think it’s still quite clear that if you look at the best science we have now about the climate changes that have happened, the sea-level rise that has taken place and the sea- level rise that may continue to take place in response to the greenhouse gasses that we’ve already put into the atmosphere, we’re going to be dealing with a certain amount of climate change, we’re going to be dealing with a certain amount of global warming and a certain amount of additional sea-level rise.
Right now, the projected changes that we are committed to still fall within the range of what we can view as our ability to cope, our adaptive capacity. We have a certain level of resilience and there are ways, [such as] living coastlines, that we can manage our coastlines to increase our resiliency and provide some degree of protection against the changes that we’re already committed to.
The real problem is if we don’t do something about the problem, if we don’t do something to stem the tide and lower our carbon emissions and turn the corner. Then, if you look at the projections of several feet of sea-level rise, that starts to take us outside of that range of adaptation, the range of what we can adapt to and what other living things and what the ecosystem can adapt to.
So we face a critical decision now. Our future is still in our hands. Our destiny is in our hands. Are we going to embrace a renewable energy future, where we keep climate change, global warming and sea-level rise within a copable range or do we exceed that range? It’s up to us.
When you think about this state and some of its challenges — hurricanes, storm surge — and the change in policy direction from an emphasis on renewables to an emphasis on fossil fuels and potential offshore drilling what goes through your mind?
Mann: Well, naturally it’s disappointing. There’s been a remarkable transition underway around the rest of the globe. You see counties like China and India embracing the renewable energy future. The rest of the world has recognized that this is the direction. The growth industry of the 21st Century is going to be green energy and the rest of the world is moving in that direction. It’s unfortunate that in some places here in the U.S., we’re moving in the wrong direction and we’re falling behind in terms of our competitiveness.
Just a few years ago, North Carolina was a leader in solar and the development of wind. My understanding is that the majority of folks in North Carolina are not happy with that change in direction. Those decisions have been made at the highest levels of state government, but my understanding is that change in direction isn’t popular with the citizens of North Carolina. My hope is that that means we’ll see a shift in the wind, so to speak, in the near future and a return to embracing the direction the rest of the world is moving in terms of renewable energy.
Michael Mann discusses climate change’s effects now and in the future.
You have taken a lot of hits. There’s been a lot of blowback on your work. Is there still room for questioning the science on climate change or do we now have enough information to get beyond that?
Mann: The world’s scientists have spoken on this. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences — founded in the 1800s by Republican president Abraham Lincoln — and every scientific society in the U.S. and around the world has weighed in on this. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the globe is warming, our climate is changing, and it’s due to human activity, fossil-fuel burning and other activities, that are increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere; and that the impacts are already threatening us and our environment and that the threat will be far greater if we don’t do something about it. That is literally the consensus of the world scientists. That isn’t being debated.
There is still a worthy debate to be had about what we do about that, how we meet that challenge. That’s the debate we ought to be having — what sort of policies can we put in place both to increase our resilience with respect to the changes that are already going to take place, that we’re already committed to and can’t stop, and to make sure we can prevent those additional changes that we still can. That is worthy of debate, and there’s room at the table for people of all political persuasions. I think some of the more positive developments recently are conservative Republicans who have come to the table and said “Look, the science is clear, climate change is a problem, let’s make sure our principles, our free market principles, are part of this discussion.”
That’s the debate we’ve needed to have.
Some people in this state still say there isn’t a problem or that we can’t do anything about it. Are we in a situation where doing nothing — riding it out — is even a choice?
Mann: No, it’s not. First of all, we’re going to have to adapt. There’s a certain amount of sea-level rise that’s baked in. It’s going to happen. We’re going to have to adapt to that. We’re going to need to take all sorts of measures, such as living coastlines and other things, to increase our resiliency to those changes.
But more than that, if we continue with business as usual with burning fossil fuels through the decades ahead and through the next century we will create a fundamentally different planet, a degraded planet. We’ll see that in our lifetime. But more than that, we’ll be leaving behind a fundamentally degraded planet for our children and grandchildren, and that’s just wrong.