Earth Day and the ‘hockey stick’

Two decades ago this week, Michael Mann and a group of researchers published this graph, now dubbed “the hockey stick.” It changed the world, or at least it still could.

It’s the graph that showed for the first time that the earth’s temperature spiked during the Industrial Age.

It was a simple piece of information.

“There is something unprecedented about the warming we are experiencing today and, by implication, it has something to do with us and our profligate burning of fossil fuels,” he said.

Writing on Scientific American today, Mann says he never expected what would happen next.

As the Serengeti strategy has been deployed against me, I have been vilified on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and other conservative media outlets, and subject to inquisitions by fossil fuel industry–funded senators, congressmen and attorneys general. My e-mails have been stolen, cherry-picked, taken out of context and broadcast widely in an effort to embarrass and discredit me. I have been subject to vexatious, open-records law requests by fossil fuel industry–funded front groups for my personal e-mails and numerous other documents. I have experienced multiple death threats and have endured threats against my family members. All because of the inconvenience my scientific findings posed to powerful and influential special interests.

And yet, study after study has reaffirmed his team’s findings. In fact, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows the recent warming is unprecedented over an even longer period of time.

The special interests — oil companies and their politician protectors — are still at it, he says.

Their preferred tactic is to exaggerate the uncertainty in models that project where climate change is heading and argue such uncertainty is a cause for inaction, when precisely the opposite is the case. Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than the climate models have predicted. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets appear prone to collapse sooner than we previously thought—and with that, estimates of the sea level rise we could see by the end of this century have doubled from previous estimates of about three feet to more than six feet. If anything, climate model projections have proved overly conservative; they are certainly not an exaggeration.

Scientists are finding other examples as well. In part as a result of our own work three years ago, there is an emerging consensus—as publicized in recent news accounts—that the “conveyor belt” of ocean circulation may be weakening sooner than we expected. The conveyor delivers warm waters from the tropics to the higher latitudes of the North Atlantic, supporting vibrant fish communities there and moderating climates in western Europe and eastern North America. The earlier melt of Greenland ice, it appears, is freshening the surface waters of the subpolar North Atlantic, inhibiting the sinking of cold, salty water that helps drive the conveyor.

As Earth Day approaches on Sunday, Mann has released another urgent call for action because things are worse than he thought.

  • Gary Leatherman

    this is why we can’t have nice things

    (like a solar/wind/alternative energy powered economy that is just as productive as our current one, but without the side effects)

    • “We'” will be fine. We’re in our later years and we won’t have to suffer the consequences of, well, us.

      It is our generation’s signature characteristic and will be our legacy for the few years the planet has left.

      We have the luxury of being the last generation that can not give a damn.

      • Barton

        sadly, my generation (Gen X) if following that of the previous one in not giving a damn – many of us do, but not enough to effect global change.

        • Veronica

          It’s OK. My Xennial microgeneration is doing a fair amount of heavy lifting

          • Barton

            thanks Veronica!

    • BJ

      I agree, but one small note – but without the side effects – without the same side effects – the solar/wind/alternative energy are not in use enough to know what the global scale side effects might be. I would guess and would bet a whole lot better than the collapse of the climate that humans can live in. But we may find that some of these have worse things that they cause, but I say if we changed once we can change again.

  • MrE85

    I’m at a conference on climate change and health right now. Doing what I can.

    • Al

      Oooo, where at? Climate change and extreme weather have a huge, inescapable impact on the public’s health.

      • MrE85

        The Science Museum. And yes, you’re right.

  • wjc

    Sadly, a lot of humans don’t “believe” in science, even though they see the effects of it i their daily lives. When I started college in 1973, could I have imagined cell phones that would show me a movie or on which I could read or listen to a book? Maybe I could have had some sci-fi fantasies like that. Science (and engineering) made that happen (for good or ill).

    People had better start believing, before their belief becomes irrelevant.

    • MrE85

      It already is.

    • They believe it. They’re just afraid of it and when people are afraid of things, they just do what they have to do to deny it. But deep down, they know.

      • KTFoley

        This week’s Nova piece on Bill Nye the Science Guy seemed to spend a lot of time on the topic of why people believe in things that can’t be subjected to scientific inquiry (not a crime in itself) yet somehow hold them as equally valid theories compared to those that have been (where it careens off track, in my opinion).

        I had to turn it off before it ended but evolution and human-caused climate change were two big examples.

        • // the topic of why people believe in things that can’t be subjected to scientific inquiry

          You mean like the existence of god? That’s a good question. I wonder if it has something to do with the age at which people are forced to accept an assumption? Maybe that’s the hope that still exists, that today’s kids are exposed to the facts and science of climate change .

          • KTFoley

            I guess I’m thinking if people want to debate the existence of god or whether there is such a thing as altruism, that’s perfectly fine. Debate apples to apples. Theological tenet to theological tenet. Go up one side of nihilism and back down the other side of ancient philosophers, pull out some social anthropology and whack it around with the Talmud, let Ayn Rand and Rumi duke it out for the ages.

            But if people want to argue their belief that there were dinosaurs on the ark 6000 years ago against the entire body of paleontology evidence and carbon dating techniques, or claim that the contents of the ice cores in Greenland are irrelevant because they don’t accept the idea that the striations come from years of snow cycles, then that’s a problem. Those are not equivalent.

            This is not The Big Lebowski.

        • Veronica

          We watched that too– well, most of it. We turned it off as well.

          The scene that did me in was when Nye and crazy Arc guy were talking with a 10 year old girl and she said she didn’t think Nye was right, crazy Arc guy was.

          Religion is religion. It’s one topic that can be studied, but the supplanting of science in favor of religion is what’s happening and it’s truly dangerous.

          • As did we – it was so depressing, and we also turned it off early. Some of the most effective actions against climate change that can personally take are to have fewer children and to eat less meat. Religion is a toxic plague that promotes large families and the marginalization of women. Promoting the advancement of women around the world is one of the most effective strategies, but it is a long game.

          • Trevor Henry

            Mr. Tice

            Maybe try to find shared goals and mutual self-interests with others rather than refer to them as a “Toxic Plague.” You may find that helps in your efforts to “Convince” people.

            This is an example from my, as you called it, “Toxic Plague”:



            Laudato Si

          • Catholic education here – and yes, I’ve been to the Vatican. I’m familiar with Pope Francis’s views and laud his progressive stance. But one cannot disregard the policies that for centuries have led to the marginalization of women and the overpopulation of the planet – and these are shared with other religions. Further, the Pope has his work cut out for him, as there is considerable pushback from conservatives in the clergy. Frankly, the world cannot afford to ignore the effects of religions that are out of touch with the reality of overpopulation and how it drives climate change. The single most effective thing we can do to cut carbon is to have fewer children. It’s not even close to feel good stuff like driving a Prius.

  • Erik Petersen

    I think people would be right to quibble that ‘ study after study has reaffirmed his [Mann’s] team’s findings” is not solidly asserted…. And you go on to note the IPCC chooses endorses a different theory.

    • Pat

      Erik quibbles while the world burns.

  • Al

    Once is a fluke. Two is worth investigating. HUNDREDS OF STUDIES IS A DAMN PATTERN.

  • I just had a conversation with one of my friends this morning, an educated man who speaks multiple languages and who is a steadfast denier. He wanted to know how I could explain the growth and recession of polar ice on Mars since there are no humans there, the implication being that all change is “natural” and that humanity’s addition of CO2 to the atmosphere has nothing to do with it.
    Where does one even start? 800,000 year old ice cores that yield air samples that correlate CO2 levels with the planet’s temperature nearly perfectly? The tight correlation of temperature rise and industrial age CO2 that disrupts the 800,000 year old pattern? Explaining the umpteenth time that weather isn’t climate?
    It is truly a lost cause unless we can make climate change appear as an immediate – here right now and affecting us NOW – issue instead of something that will cause sea level rise six feet after all of us are dead. And we have to cut through the cognitive dissonance that makes us cast about for any straw to continue excusing fossil fuels as the cause.
    I suggest discussing the expectation of more severe weather events this summer – make it real. Put it in terms of cost. And push the news about the competitive cost of renewable energy, casting it in the light of energy independence and the securing of a distributed energy supply instead of dependence on a massive grid that could go down and take all of us offline at once.
    One of the most frustrating things about dealing with deniers like my friend is that they really don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear. That’s why making costs and benefits immediate and personal is the most effective strategy.

    • // One of the most frustrating things about dealing with deniers like my friend is that they really don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear.

      The big question is for how much longer do we still have to accommodate them? Why can’t the class just move along and not be slowed down by the kids in the back of the room?

      • We can’t afford to accommodate them, but they vote and their version of government is now in charge. From The Atlantic: “Voting along party lines, the Senate confirmed Jim Bridenstine as the administrator of NASA, 15 months after his predecessor stepped down. Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, has been criticized for his lack of scientific credentials, controversial statements about climate change, and alleged misuse of resources at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.”

        And of course there is Scott Pruitt at the EPA. The damage these two tools can do between NASA and the EPA is immense, and our best bet is turning up at the polls in November. EVERY November – and don’t even vote “R” for dogcatcher. Push back on all of it. Be polite if you can, but be firm about not taking their cr*p.

      • 212944

        “Why can’t the class just move along and not be slowed down by the kids in the back of the room?”

        Because of money and profit and grift and no true accountability for the truly powerful in our society.

        Until a company loses its corporate charter to operate … until CEOs and other executives and even elected officials go to (real) prison and are stripped of their personal wealth for gross misdeeds … nothing really changes.

    • KTN

      It’s because they want proof – and no matter how much proof is offered, they want more. To them, it’s a zero sum game, when in reality the gradations are more telling.
      I have oodles of proof, not anecdotal, but scientific (one only need to read Lee Frelich from the U of M to discern some of that proof). But then the deniers come back with, “yeah, but it snowed in April.

      • That indicates to me that they really don’t want proof. They want affirmation, so it’s back to The world of alternative facts they go.

      • BJ

        yeah, but it snowed in April – except that proves climate change. It’s been snowing more and more in April for the last 20 years. We had what, 6 heavy snows in twin cities in March/April between 1900-1995 – and about 3 from 1995 to today.

        • Gordon near Two Harbors

          Using your logic, you can look out the window and proclaim that the world is flat! Most northern winter have been unusually mild over the past 20 years, and the world as a whole hasn’t had a cooler than average month since 1985!

      • RBHolb

        There is no level of proof that will be accepted. The denialist thinks (or claims he thinks) that unanimity is required for any scientific theory to be valid. As long as he can find someone with a lab coat and a Ph.D to say “Well, I don’t know,” there is a “controversy” and the whole thing is unproven.

        • Gordon near Two Harbors

          I’ve noticed that many, if not most, of those same people also don’t believe in evolution, but do subscribe to some sort of religious beliefs/mythology that can’t be supported by ANY verifiable evidence. Then, when they get some horrible disease they run back to science, knowing that their god won’t heal them.

    • Desertphile

      “He wanted to know how I could explain the growth and recession of polar ice on Mars….”

      Please note you have it backwards: first he must produce evidence polar ice on Mars had grown and receded anomalously.Denialists love to insist science communicators explain that which isn’t happening.

      Mars had a massive dust storm one year, and one pole was partially covered with dust; some scientists thought the lower albedo meant the ice had melted, but the evidence suggests the ice was made darker, and was not melted.

    • jon

      “Where does one even start?”

      Greenhouse effect.

      That is the starting point for any of these conversations.

      You get them to admit that there is a greenhouse effect.

      Next step, you need to get them to agree that greenhouse gases are a thing, this can be confirmed in experimentation, a quick google will give you all kinds of experiments to prove it…

      but since we usually need to so this as a thought experiment, we need to take the long way (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you can get them to buy into greenhouse gases already)… it starts with a black surface in the sun, next to a white service in the sun, a quick demonstration that different materials have different capacity for absorbing and reflecting solar radiation. Heck the very concept of color shows that some reflect different wavelengths of the spectrum better than others. A quick glance upward will show that even air has a color, and thus various gases have a capacity to absorb varying amounts of solar energy.

      Alright, we’ve got the greenhouse effect covered, we’ve got greenhouse gases covered, hopefully it’s not to much of a push here to get that CO2 is a greenhouse gas (again can be confirmed through experimentation) where as some other substances can have the opposite effect of carbon in our atmosphere (say like sulfur as has been measured after volcanic activity lobbed a bunch of sulfur into the air).

      Next up we need to verify the claim that mankind is releasing previously unreleased carbon into the air, usually in the form of CO2… this should be an easy one, point to a car, if they don’t believe you, have them sit in a running car in the garage and let them decide if their engine is turning hydrocarbons into water and CO2, or if that oxygen is still there for human consumption.

      So the basic foundation is laid, the rest is just math. We know how much CO2 is produced from burning hydrocarbons, we know how many hydrocarbons are being purchased and burnt in a given year (roughly, law of large numbers) we know how much solar radiation that carbon is capable of soaking up beyond what the atmosphere previously soaked up from the sun… all that is left is to do the math and see how much more thermal energy is in the atmosphere, and compare it to the results…

      I’ll save you both from having to do the math, here are the results, the heat energy we’d predict the atmosphere to contain isn’t there, or more it was for a number of years, at least pretty close, but recently the numbers have changed (part of it is a failure of accurate measurements more than a change in the numbers). A third factor needs to be figured in to balance the equation… ocean temperature, and ice melt.

      IT takes a lot of energy to melt ice, State change always takes a fair amount more energy than just a temperature change, it’s why we use ice in coolers…
      And the oceans are massive, and water has a very high thermal capacity to begin with…
      And of course what we see happening in the real world, outside of the math, is that the ice is melting, the oceans are getting warmer, and they are all doing so at a predictable rate (given a margin of error for all of the things going on in planet earth we can’t measure or predict at this scale) based off of the well understood effects of greenhouse gases (which dates back to 1896).

      That’s the path to take… force them to acknowledge each component because by itself the idea of a greenhouse gas is not controversial, it’s long settled science with laboratory results to support it, and to support that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.
      The idea that burning hydrocarbons turns them into CO2 and water is also a long settled question, it’s why your car exhaust is humid, and kills you if you breathe it…
      The idea that the hydrocarbons we are burning were previously sequestered in the ground, not a questionable one, oil is mined from reserves in the earth.
      The chain up to this point is all non-controversial… the jump that needs to be made is that the impact of greenhouse gases in the lab applies to the planet.

      People will tell you that mankind can’t have a global impact, the earth is just to big… to that, ask them if england is also big, because they managed to deforest nearly the whole island in the first industrial revolution with some dramatic effects of erosion, and food shortages…
      We’ve managed as humans to change the albedo of the planet by paving as many surfaces as we have, so the notion that we can’t is bunk, we have, we’ve demonstrated that we can, and we are a force to be reckoned with.

      They will say that there are systems in place on the planet to deal with this, which is true, there are, and we are overloading them. the ocean is a giant heat sink, and it can take a lot of heat from the air and store it on the surface (it gets cold below the thermocline) but it can’t store an indefinate amount and continue to work like it has for all of humanity’s existence on the planet…

      They’ll say we can’t destroy the planet, which is true, the definition of planet does not include habitable for human life… and odds of us making it uninhabitable are slim… though a mass extinction event, one that might include humanity, that is in the realm of possibility… a certain reduction in quality of life the number of dramatic weather events increases, including droughts and floods, both of which already tend to kill a bunch of humans on any given event… totally real possibility.

      But the science is sound, greenhouse gases are a thing, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and sequestered carbon is being burned by humanity and the result is a fairly dramatic temperature change for the planet… to look at the cause and the effect and deny a link, while acknowledging that the cause could have that effect is a lot more challenging that denying the outcome by itself. People might still do it, and I’ve no way to debunk them all (well I’ve one way, but imparting knowledge to resistive learners is it’s own challenge.)

  • KTFoley

    On Earth Day in 2018, let’s remember that it’s now:
    – 46 years since DDT was banned in the US
    – 44 years since Gene Likens & the Forest Service reported acid rain in the Adirondacks in Science magazine. This led to an amendment to the Clean Air Act plus other efforts to govern and reduce power plant emissions.
    – 40 years since the EPA started investigating toxic chemicals in Love Canal. This led to the establishment of the SuperFund to clean up these sites.
    – 33 years since the hole in the ozone layer was first reported in Nature magazine. This led to an international treaty to ban the production of CFCs.
    – 29 years since the manufacturer of Alar to voluntarily took it off the market following reports of contaminated apples.

    I’m not sure which generation is being accused of not caring enough about the environment and leaving a dump for their grandchildren, but there’s a little bit of evidence here that people have been raising alarms and making change for decades now.

    The biggest obstacle now seems to be the notion that belief and tests are worthy adversaries in science just like they might be in theological discussions, so that opponents can now just shout each other down on TV and that will provide an answer.

  • Postal Customer

    Part of the issue, of course, is the willingness and ability of certain groups to turn an issue into a public enemy. They’ve done it with climate change, and they’re currently doing it with the Mueller investigation. That takes some skill and organization. And then of course is the complete inability of other groups to defend against it, nevermind going on offense.

  • Barton

    sorry to ask: why do they call it “hockey sticks”

  • I suspect many of those members are actually paying for access to streaming video and downloadable music at no additional charge.

  • Jared

    This sounds pretty sanctimonious. Can’t imagine having something delivered from a warehouse is so much worse than it going from the warehouse to a store and picking it up (over commercialism is another issue). I’d imagine eating meat, flying on planes, driving a personal vehicle would all make a much bigger impact and is much more common. Very “we won’t cut emissions until China does” attitude.

  • JoeInMidwest

    If those idiots like Trump could ever pull their heads out of their a@@es, they perhaps could see that there really is climate change.

  • Trevor Henry

    I care for the life someone created, or will create. That’s a good reason to care for the Earth. So why are there often commentators that immediately attack procreation after reading an article such as this?

    Are fossil fuels the issue, or new human lives? What if society became
    independent from fossil fuels? Would certain voices still bring up

    Why even discuss whether parents have children or not? Why not focus on fossil fuels, and consumerism?

    Comments like that sound like this to me, “I am worthy of my consumption. I will go on living and consuming. You people should stop having babies due to the amount they will consume and destroy.”

    There are such logical fallacies within those types of comments. Where does that logic chain end? Really. I would hope it could end in the mirror.

    Then we could get on with the cooperation and effort it will take to solve these issues.

    • Gordon near Two Harbors

      I think the only problem with procreation is too much of it. No population can expand forever, and over-population is not only a big threat to the natural environment, but to personal freedom itself.

  • There’s no question it’s a consumption economy. Consuming efficiently is a baby step. We need to take baby steps before giant steps are even a possibility.

  • China is actually on pace to cut emissions and lead the world in solar equipment production. According to Wikipedia, “In 2015, China became the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic power, narrowly surpassing Germany.”

    And what’s with singling out Amazon? Have you been in any retail establishment lately that doesn’t stock the exact same products?

  • Amazon’s server farms are indeed huge, but do have a sustainability policy, which is here:

    But yes, we really do need to rethink our consumerist economy if we are going to make real progress.

  • Perhaps. Lots of “free” things are rolled into a final price. Would it be significantly less environmental degradation if the price were separated out? I kind of doubt it. But I think there are other things that CLEARLY would result in less environmental degradation . At this point, we’re not even willing to tackle the possible, let alone the compratively IMpossible.

  • Everything gets “shipped”, one way or another. Less consumption is a better path forward. What constitutes a “false notion”? That seems a dismissive way to avoid the carbon costs associated with every other form of consumption.