The Madhouse Effect

Dr. Michael E. Mann

The award winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles have fought at the frontlines of climate denialism for most of their careers. They have witnessed the manipulation of the media by business and political interests and the unconscionable play to partisanship on issues that affect the well-being of millions. The lessons they have learned have been invaluable, inspiring this brilliant, colorful escape hatch from the madhouse of the climate wars.

Curators note: climate-aware designers are constantly challenged to defend the validity of sustainable practices thanks to the pervasive reach of denialism (in the US, anyway). Dr. Mann’s well-argued and entertaining work will arm you to help best counter the arguments of the denier movement, or at least help you preserve your sanity while trying to do so.


Thanks very much for that kind introduction.

When we published this book, The Madhouse Effect, last fall, Tom Toles and myself, a number of colleagues said, “Why are you guys publishing a book about climate change denialism? We’re past all of that. Denial is a thing of the past.” Unfortunately, that was before the latest election. In the wake of this latest election, sadly, we do find ourselves firmly back in the madhouse of climate change denialism. Our book feels far more prescient than it ought to. This is still something that we’re very much dealing with. Despite the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change, there has been concerted effort by fossil fuel industry front groups and their paid advocates to sew doubt and confusion in the public mindset. To confuse the public and policymakers about the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and human caused.

I’m going to take you through the various chapters of the book using some of the key cartoons to try to tell the story.

The first thing that is important to establish, whenever we talk about the science of climate change, is, first of all, how does science actually work? There are far to many individuals who are prominent in our public discourse who present themselves as skeptics. They deny the overwhelming evidence of climate change and attempt to brand themselves skeptics. They like to compare themselves to Galileo. We call that “The Galileo Gambit”. The reality is that if you deny the overwhelming scientific evidence, that isn’t true scientific skepticism. Skepticism is a very important thing in science. It’s what keeps science on the path towards truth. Real skepticism involves holding up all propositions to scrutiny from all directions and making sure that those propositions stand up to appropriate good faith scrutiny. But the indiscriminate rejection of well-established science, based on the flimsiest of arguments that don’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, that’s not skepticism. That’s contrarianism or denial. Climate change deniers on the internet and on our television screens with the megaphone that they have, while they often like to present themselves as modern day Galileos, they’re often just cranks dressed up as Galileo. Which is the point of Toles cartoon.

The evidence is, as I said, overwhelming. No, it’s not 100%. We don’t have 100% certainty about climate change. We don’t have 100% certainty about the theory of gravity. But that doesn’t make it make it safe to jump off a cliff. Yet, with science that is equally well-established—the science of climate change—there are those who would happily take us off that cliff. One of our pet peeves is the way the discussion of the linkage between climate change and increasingly extreme weather events often gets framed in the public discourse. It’s almost a mantra among my climate scientist colleagues. When some massive hurricane or unprecedented rainfall or flooding event, an unprecedented drought, like the ones taking place in California… of course, with intermittent flooding that they’re experiencing, but still, even in the wet winter isn’t enough to take them out of what is now a roughly seven year drought. An unprecedented drought. While it is true that, yes, you can never take any one meteorological event and say with certainty that it was caused by climate change—because there’s always some random component—it’s sort of like the baseball player who took steroids and broke the all-time record for home runs. It would be like his defense being, “You can’t prove the steroids were responsible for any specific one of those home runs that I hit.” That is a loophole that, in this case, you could lose a planet through. Collectively, with the extreme, unprecedented flooding events, unprecedented droughts, unprecedented heat waves, that is the loading of the weather dice by climate change. Statistically, there is a clear relationship. We see the fingerprint of human impact on climate in many of the unprecedented weather events that we’re seeing.

Why should we care? It’s often all about the polar bear. The polar bear has become the poster child for climate change. As I’ll often note, I show a polar bear stranded on an ice flow in every talk about climate change that I give. Because it’s the law. You have to show… well, no, obviously not. But the polar bear has sort of become the icon of climate change. While this cartoon nicely illustrates what a profound impact we’re having on our environment—we’re melting the arctic sea ice, the lowest amount of sea ice on record globally right now—ultimately, yes, the polar bear and the penguin might meet under these unfortunate circumstances. So we are talking about a fundamental degradation of this planet. Of the beauty and wonder, the magnificent megafauna, like the polar bear, are threatened by climate change. But it isn’t just about species. It isn’t just about the wonder of nature. It’s about us as well. The fact that climate change is now fundamentally impacting us when it comes to food and water and land and national security and, yes, our economy. Without a viable planetary environment, we don’t have an economy. Climate change has already reached a level where it is threatening us, in our lives, on a daily basis. It isn’t just about exotic creatures way off in the arctic. It’s about us as well.

There has been a concerted effort, as I alluded to, by fossil fuel interests, and paid front groups and advocates, to deny the reality of climate change. Typically, there’s a very common progression, sometimes called “the ladder of climate change denial”. The various stages of climate change denial. “It’s not happening.” You often hear this claim, that the globe isn’t warming. “Global warming has paused.” Despite the fact that 2014 was the warmest year on record globally. Until 2015, which was the warmest year on record globally. Until 2016, which just came in as the warmest year on record globally. There is no pause in global warming. The only pause is in taking actions necessary to do something about it.

That leads us to the next stage of denial. To the critics who say, “Maybe it’s warming, but it could be natural, right? After all, stovetop temperatures change naturally.” It’s true that climate can change naturally. But what we’re seeing right now is a rate of warming, a rate of increase in the concentrations of these greenhouse gases and a rate of warming of the planet that is unlike any past period on record. And we can actually look at the factors that are implicated. We can take state-of-the-art climate models and subject them to just the natural factors, like volcanoes and changes in solar output. Wen we do that, we find that natural factors should have actually led to a cooling over the past half century. It is, indeed, only the human factor of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations that can explain the warming that we’ve seen.

The next stage of denial is, “Maybe it’s happening and maybe it’s at least partly caused by us, but it will be self-correcting. The problem will solve itself.” Unless you mean we’ll have enough global sea level rise to submerge all of the coal-fired power plants and our other infrastructure, no. The problem isn’t self-correcting. We can literally recreate the conditions that prevailed when global sea level rise was hundreds of feet higher than it is today, when global temperatures were substantially warmer than they are today. We have the ability to create those conditions, not over a time scale of 100 million years like nature does, but over a time scale of 100 years. Far more rapidly than we or other living things can possibly adapt to.

The next stage of denial is, “Alright, maybe it’s not self-correcting, but, hey, it will be good for us, right? After all, melting ice sheets lift all boats, right?” Well, no. The intergovernmental panel on climate change has rigorously assessed the impacts of climate change and there is a consensus among the world’s scientists that if we warm the planet above 2°C—that’s 3½°F—which we’re on course to do just in a matter of decades if we continue with business as usual, burning fossil fuels. Then we will see a fundamental threat, as I alluded to before, to human civilization. Whether it’s food, water, land, health, national security, or our economy, we will see a fundamental threat that would call into question the viability of modern human civilization. So, no. It won’t be good for us.

The final argument is that canon of denialist talking points is, “We took so long to get to this point, after all this debate, it’s too late to do anything, right?” No, it isn’t too late. There is still time to make the changes in behavior necessary to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. But there isn’t a whole lot of time. So there is great urgency in acting.

This war on climate science. The reason that denialism is so widespread is that fossil fuel interests have funded this very cynical effort to call into question the reality of human-caused climate change. Pretty much using the same textbook, the same playbook, that the tobacco industry used in decades past to call into question the overwhelming scientific evidence that their product was leading to lung cancer and other health ailments. The fossil fuel industry has taken the same playbook, many of the same players, many of the same professional climate change deniers who are advocating for fossil fuel interests today were getting paid by the tobacco industry in decades past to deny the science of tobacco products and impacts on our health. Like the last Japanese soldier found just years ago still fighting World War II, no doubt there will continue to be climate change deniers funded by fossil fuel interests as long as there are fossil fuels that continue to be burnt.

There is great hypocrisy in the campaign to deny climate change. There are numerous examples. In the book, we talk about many of them. Let me just talk about one example that’s near and dear to my heart. It involves Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia. Affectionately known as the “Cooch”. That is actually his nickname. Back in 2009, Cuccinelli attempted to subpoena all of my personal emails from the time I was a faculty member at the University of Virginia, using a civiil subpoena. His claim was that since I was working on the science of climate change while I was there, and that’s clearly fraudulent science, this was an appropriate use of the civil investigative demand available to the attorney general. The courts didn’t quite agree. They ended up dismissing Cuccinelli’s subpoena because of a technicality that in his 40 page filing to the court, he had failed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing on my part or on the part of the University of Virginia. So it was thrown out. He appealed it to the state supreme court, which ruled against it a few years ago with prejudice. They never want to see an attorney general come back to the court with something like this again. Cuccinelli ran for governor and lost to Terry McAuliffe, who I actively campaigned with. Cuccinelli is now working on an oyster farm in Tangier island, an island in the Chesapeake Bay that is slowly succumbing to the effects of global sea level rise. I promise I’m not making this up. You can Google this. There really is no hypocrisy like the hypocrisy of climate change denialism.

So, solutions. What can we do about this? Assuming we get past this bad faith debate we continue to have in our politics about whether there is even a problem, and we get onto the worth debate about what to do about it, what do we do about it? There are those who have adcocated for so-called geoengineering. The idea is that we’ll just perturb earth’s climate through some other planetary intervention, like shooting particles into the stratosphere or dumping iron into the ocean to fertilize algae. Or manipulating the global environment in some other completely untested and uncontrolled manner. The title of our chapter is “Geoengineering, or ‘What could possibly go wrong?'”. In my view, it would be misguided to think we can cover up the effect of global warming by some massive planetary engineering project that could easily go awry. The principle of unintended consequence reins supreme when we talk about these sorts of geoengineering solutions. They are convenient to fossil fuel interests, who want to continue polluting. They can say, “We’ll continue to burn carbon and allow CO2 to build up in our atmosphere. But we’ll just offset it through one of these geoengineering approaches. One of these untested, uncontrolled interventions with the one planet that we know can support life.”

It turns out that is a view shared by the individual, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, now the secretary of state in charge of U.S. foreign policy. He is on record as stating that he thinks this is just an engineering problem that we can solve through planetary geoengineering. That’s probably not a very wise solution. The wise solution is to change our behavior to stop that pattern of behavior that we’re engaged in which is causing this problem: the continued burning of fossil fuels. We’ve seen some real progress over the last several years. The monumental Paris agreement that got us on a path. Not of solving the problem in one step, but it got us on a path towards stabilizing warming below those dangerous levels. If you total the commitments that were made in Paris by the nearly 200 countries that signed on to the agreement, those commitments are enough to reduce our carbon emissions enough to get us halfway from where we would be headed, towards a 5°C/9°F catastrophic warming of the planet by the end of the century. Halfway to that 2°C threshold of dangerous interference. It doesn’t quite get us to where we need to go, but it gets us on a path where, with renewed and more concerted commitments in the future, we can now see our way towards stabilizing warming below dangerous levels. The pope, Pope Francis, with his encyclical year and a half ago, helped reframe the discussion of climate change in a helpful way. Because it’s not just about our economy, land, food, water, human health, or any of these other things. Fundamentally, this is about what sort of planet we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. Not fundamentally degrading our planet for future generations. That has helped build a global consensus and, arguably, was an important factor in this monumental Paris agreement.

We face a monumental challenge now. As I said, our book should not have been as relevant as it is. A book that was published last year on climate change denial. I wish that it was irrelevant now. But, sadly, it’s not. We have a president who is a committed climate change denier. Appointed climate change deniers to all of the key positions of science policy, EPA, Department of Energy, and as we’ve seen, secretary of state. He’s appointed a veritable dream team of climate change deniers. We’re likely to have to face an atmosphere of policy inaction at the executive level. We probably won’t see Trump build on the tremendous successes of the previous administration. We have a congress led by climate change denying Republications.

Does that mean there’s no hope? No. It means that we are going to have to see far more progress at the grassroots level. There’s a lot of progress being made at the state level right now. California is helping lead the way, growing their economy while putting a price on carbon and incentivizing renewable energy and dramatically lowering their carbon footprint. Other west coast states have joined in. The New England states have a consortium to put a price on carbon and incentivize renewable energy. We’re seeing a lot of action at the local, municipal, state, and even as states band together. We’re seeing a lot of progress at the global level. We’ve seen carbon emissions come down globally over the last year. The numbers just came in for the U.S. We saw a drop in domestic carbon emissions over the last year. We’re starting to turn the corner without leadership at the national level, from the Executive Branch or Congress. We’re going to need grassroots-up efforts—monumental grassroots efforts—to keep the momentum going. Hopefully, four years into the future, when maybe we see a dramatic shift in the political winds, we will have a more favorable environment at the top level for action on climate change. In the meantime, we have to make sure that we maintain progress in attacking this problem. There’s so much that we can do individually. There’s so much being done at the local level, and as we’ve seen, at the state level. We just have to keep pressure on our policy makers to keep that progress going until we reach a more favorable point in our domestic politics.

I will leave it there. Thank you very much.



Dr. Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute(EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).

Dr. Mann was a lead author on the Observed Climate Variability and Change chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001 and was organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science in 2003. He has received a number of honors and awards including NOAA’s outstanding publication award in 2002 and selection by Scientific American as one of the fifty leading visionaries in science and technology in 2002. He contributed, with other IPCC authors, to the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the Hans Oeschger Medal of the European Geosciences Union in 2012 and was awarded the National Conservation Achievement Award for science by the National Wildlife Federation in 2013. He made Bloomberg News’ list of fifty most influential people in 2013. In 2014, he was named Highly Cited Researcher by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and received the Friend of the Planet Award from the National Center for Science Education. He is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is also a co-founder of the award-winning science website

Dr. Mann is author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications, and has published three books including Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate ChangeThe Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, and most recently, The Madhouse Effect with Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles.
The Madhouse Effect