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Mann: 'Climategate' Designed To Distract Public, Policymakers

on July 14, 2010 10:49 AM

Ask Michael Mann, and he'll tell you without hesitation:

"Climategate," the recent affair involving climate scientists' stolen e-mail correspondence, is a "fake scandal."

He believes it was a "well-organized, well-funded and highly orchestrated (effort) ... to cherry-pick, misinterpret and control" personal e-mail messages, Mann told this month.

"It was really, many of us feel, a campaign by the climate-change-denial industry to distract the public and distract policymakers at a time when they should have been focused on doing something to confront the challenges posed by climate change," he said.

The controversy emerged in November, when computer hackers illegally accessed servers at the University of East Anglia. They retrieved thousands of e-mail messages sent among some leading climate researchers, including Mann.

He is a Yale-educated professor of meteorology at Penn State, especially well known for documenting temperature patterns in Earth's history.

Critics alleged the e-mails illustrated that Mann, along with his colleagues, had tried to distort data and manipulate the global dialogue on climate change.

The e-mails and the criticism of Mann hit the public eye just before a high-profile conference on climate change, held in December in Copenhagen.

But academic investigations, including one at Penn State, have cleared Mann of any wrongdoing. Most recently, an independent commission in Britain last week announced that it found no evidence of research misconduct.

Mann, speaking with, said the timing of the e-mails' release, in November, was not surprising. "We have seen these sorts of attacks before, always timed to coincide with a public, prominent event or a key summit, he said.

What was surprising, he said, is "the depth of the intellectual dishonesty to which the climate-change-denial movement was willing to sink in this particular case.

"They don't have the science on their side, so they resort to smear campaigns and disinformation," Mann said.

And "unfortunately," he went on, "there were enough willing parties in the mass media that allowed them to successfully wage that campaign of deception."

Mann referred to a variety of skeptical "front groups" and websites -- like the former Greening Earth Society -- that have been funded through oil-industry and other sympathetic sources, such as ExxonMobil and the Pittsburgh-based Scaife Foundations.

In the new-media environment, Mann said, the buzz generated by such front groups can provoke parrot-like coverage from the mainstream news media, including broadcast networks and major national newspapers.

That intense public scrutiny, he believes, is part of a deliberate effort to intimidate scientists, to keep them from speaking out.

Same goes for the threats made against against climate scientists around the world, including Mann himself, he said.

He didn't want to talk in much detail about those threats, but he did say that Penn State police "have been extremely helpful and responsive."

"It's clear that they take these things seriously," Mann said. "They care about the well-being of the faculty and employees. That's been very reassuring."

While public skepticism about climate change has increased in recent months, he said, polls show that the uptick isn't related exclusively to the so-called Climategate affair. 

Instead, "it (also) appears to be tied to the fact that we had a cold winter. ...

"It had to do with natural events (that played) to a managed, well-ordered effort to sow the seeds of skepticism," Mann said.

A poll conducted at Stanford University last month found that about 74 percent of Americans believe that human activity is warming the planet, down from 84 percent in 2007.

Still, Mann said, he thinks the hot summer bearing down on North America is likely to "raise awareness even more" about global warming. The year 2009 was Earth's second-warmest year on the modern record, according to a NASA analysis.

Overall, Mann appears to take the Climategate ordeal in stride. He called it a "teachable moment." With part of his mission centered in outreach, he said, he has a duty to address "these manufactured controversies."

But "I'd rather be engaged in the positive message of what we know from the science of climate change," he said, "and the implications of that."

Earlier coverage: Penn State Probe Clears Mann of Wrongdoing In 'Climategate'

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