“Jon Turney on one scientist’s successful efforts to resist the relentless assaults of the denialists”
Planets are much, much larger than people. But our numbers are large, our technology extends our reach and we now affect the state of the Earth. Fortunately, perhaps, we are also moderately observant. Technology extends our reach here, too. So as well as changing the composition of the atmosphere appreciably, we can monitor the effects.
Both are things to wonder at. It is astonishing that an IQ-enhanced primate has attained a level of technical and social organisation where the average global temperature, say, is not only a meaningful concept but also one we can measure. We can even unearth traces of its past trajectory. Also astonishing, if less welcome, is the fact that the same species is raising that temperature faster than at any time in the geologic past.
Wonder, though, is not the foremost response to either of these facts. Fear, doubt, denial, obfuscation, lies, low politics and dirty dealing figure more prominently, alongside hope, missionary zeal, relentless moralising and apocalyptic prophecies.
Michael Mann has been in the centre of this emotional maelstrom. The co-author of papers that offer some of the best readings of past global temperatures, he is identified with the so-called “hockey stick” curve of the book’s title. The plot, of Northern hemisphere temperatures, shows relatively little variation over the millennia (the shaft), topped by a sharp upward trend in the most recent decades (the blade). As a meticulous piece of science that produces a memorable visual signature, the hockey stick – confirmed since its first appearance in 1999 by several independent studies – has featured prominently in efforts to communicate climate science and what it means for us all. It has also evoked repeated, relentless attacks: on the original papers, on climate scientists in general, and on Mann himself.