Famous Climate Scientist Keeps Optimism Amongst Alarm Bells

"I know that the problem of climate change seems nearly insurmountable to many people ... "

For most people worried about climate change, the last few weeks have been alarming.

Two devastating and unprecedented hurricanes rolled through the Atlantic Ocean, bringing flooding and winds modern meteorologists had never witnessed. In the western United States and abroad, forest fires and drought continue to destroy swathes of land and crops. 

For many keen observers, it appears mother nature is sick — and getting sicker. But climate scientist Michael E. Mann, who has garnered media attention in film and online, is keeping his optimism. 

"I know that the problem of climate change seems nearly insurmountable to many people in their daily lives, but it's important for us to realize that we can solve this problem," Mann told A Plus. "First, by engaging in activities and actions that reduce our own use of energy ... and also working to inform the larger discussion and to hold our policy makers accountable for policies that will incentivize the transition away from the burning of fossil fuels towards renewable energy."



Cars submerged in Texas during hurricane Harvey. For hurricanes like Irma, formed in the Atlantic, climate models have high confidence that future storms will drop more rain and will have higher winds.
Cars submerged in Texas during hurricane Harvey. For hurricanes like Irma, formed in the Atlantic, climate models have high confidence that future storms will drop more rain and will have higher winds. Shuterstock / michelmond

Currently working as a professor at Penn State University, Mann's profile grew considerably after Hurricane Harvey, when he explained in an informative Facebook post exactly how climate change — particularly the warming of the oceans — made Harvey one of the most devastating floods in human history.

But it wasn't his first time in the spotlight. 

Mann was featured in Leonardo DiCaprio's climate change documentary after being in the center of a controversy when he was accused of manipulating data to produce the well-known "hockey stick graph" that showed a frightening rise in temperatures over the last 1,000 years. 

Mann's work was independently verified and he was widely vindicated, but returned to court again after outlets like the National Review refused to remove allegedly libelous claims against Mann's integrity. After losing several rulings, the National Review tried to change its lawyers and argue in a Washington D.C. appeals court that their claims Manning falsified data were protected by the First Amendment. In December, the D.C. appeals court ruled the case could go ahead, saying "if the statements assert or imply false facts that defame the individual, they do not find shelter under the First Amendment simply because they are embedded in a larger policy debate."

Efforts to silence Mann have been worrisome for the scientific community, but not as worrisome as the actual science. Mann says there are a few specific developments he's come across in his research that are more alarming than others. 

"Principle among them is the finding within the last couple of years that we have already started to melt the Antarctic ice sheet, enough ice that could ultimately give us 10 to 14 feet of sea level rise," he said. "In many respects, the impacts of climate change may be worse than we estimated just a few years ago."

While Mann acknowledges we're already seeing the effects of climate change now, he also knows things could get significantly worse — especially if people don't take action. Fortunately, he does think there are some positive signs on the horizon.

"We have seen global carbon emissions plateau over the past few years, that means they're no longer rising," Mann said. "We have to bring them down steeply towards zero if we are going to avoid dangerous warming of the planet. But there are some signs that our efforts to incentivize renewable energy and move away from a carbon economy are paying dividends."

Hurricane Harvey 2017, flooding in North Hill Estates off East Cypresswood in Spring Texas, a couple miles north of Houston.
Hurricane Harvey 2017, flooding in North Hill Estates off East Cypresswood in Spring Texas, a couple miles north of Houston. Shutterstock / MDay Photography

While improvements might be happening, they are sometimes tough to see. The reality, according to top researchers from NASA, is that things will get worse before they get better. Even if we are making strides now, those dividends won't be seen for another 15 or 20 years — much like we're seeing the outcome of actions that are decades old now.

That creates an additional challenge: how to engage a population that doesn't believe in human-caused climate change, or doesn't think that we can do anything about it. 

"It's not a matter of belief," Mann said. "Science is about looking at the evidence and the evidence is very clear. In fact, the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle, we are seeing them play out in real time on our television screens and on our newspaper headlines ... the only question left to debate is how we tackle this problem."

Cover photo courtesy of Michael E. Mann

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