Book Review: "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" by Michael Mann

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Nov. 22 2013 8:00 AM

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

"The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" cover
"The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars": Documenting the attacks on reality.

[Like a stealthy (but festive) zombie, the holidays have once again shambled upon us. Every now and again over the next few weeks I’ll be putting up a review or recommendation for a gift idea I think you’ll like. Past endorsements include Chris Hadfield’s book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Living on Earth”, and a joke book I wrote with Zach Weinersmith called “27 Nerd Disses: A Significant Quantity of Disrespect”.]

The Earth is warming up.

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It’s an easy sentence to write, and to read. It also has the added factor of being true.

Yet those five words are attacked, slandered, misrepresented, stomped on, and just plain denied all the time by a small but dedicated (and in some cases, sadly powerful) cadre of people and interests. And they don’t stop with just the words: They also attack the messengers of those words, including the scientists who determined the world is heating up in the first place.

Arguably, none has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous denial as much as Dr. Michael Mann, a climatologist and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. Mann has studied the climate for over 20 years, and in 1999 he and some colleagues published a paper that would go on to shake the world. In it, they showed that temperature in the northern hemisphere had been slowly dropping for centuries…until the 20th century, when suddenly the temperature rocketed up. The break was so sudden and obvious that this graph became dubbed “the hockey stick” due to its shape.

hockey stick diagram
The original "hockey stick" graph; the shaft is the slow downward trend on the left, and the blade is the sudden modern jump in temperature on the right.

Graph by Michael Mann, from the book

And that’s when things really heated up for Mann himself. He was attacked, viciously, by fossil fuel industry leaders and those they influenced, including politicians and “think tanks”. The story is as astonishing as it is face-palm-worthy, which is what makes “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” (also available in paperback and on Kindle) written by Mann, such a great read.

He deftly talks about his own experience in science, how he got involved in climatology, and how that very quickly became a career more in defending the reality of his work from those who would stop at almost nothing to besmirch it. He has been attacked by sitting Congresscritters, received death threats, and most recently been the subject of an execrable witch hunt by the former (and thankfully now currently unemployed) Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

In the book, Mann goes over the science of global warming, written for the intelligent layman, showing the multiple lines of evidence indicating our planet is in trouble. As a scientist myself I found that fascinating, but it was the description of the attacks on both Mann’s science and his character I found, paradoxically, both appalling and enthralling. In the end, Mann’s work has withstood the test of fire, having been exonerated and supported by his fellow scientists (who have independently confirmed the hockey stick results) as well as by multiple inquiries into the attacks against it. He also talks about the ridiculous “Climategate” manufactroversy, and his role in it.

I strongly urge anyone interested in science, politics, and climate change to read Mann’s book. The new edition has a foreword by Bill Nye that’s worth the price of the book alone (Nye opens with, “If you like to worry about things, you are living in a great time.”), and “Hockey Stick” has also been updated to cover what’s happened over the past year or so since the book was originally published.

The Earth is warming up. Climate change is real, just as real as the attacks on Mann, and we cannot ignore either.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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