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Terence Corcoran: The climate war heating up the bestsellers list


For readers looking for a respite from the murderous horrors of military war, there’s a violence-free but no less important battle taking place simultaneously over the future of climate science and policy. The intellectual conflict over climate change has been raging for decades and shows no signs of ending. As evidence, we take you now directly to the front line of the climate war, where two climate scientists, each backed by troops of supporters waving charts and graphs, are fighting for awareness on the Amazon bestseller list.

Ranked #1 this week in Amazon’s climatology book list is “Our Fragile Moment:  How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis,” by University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael E. Mann. Book #2 on the list is “Climate Uncertainty and Risk: Rethinking Our Response,” by Judith A. Curry, professor emerita in earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

There is no love lost between these two climate conflict veterans. In a previous book in 2021, titled “The New Climate War,” Mann portrayed opponents of his climate science alarmism as puppets of corporate disinformation led by Exxon, and described Curry as a member of a “rogues gallery of climate change contrarians.”

When Curry retired as a professor in 2017, citing the craziness of Mann-driven climate science, Mann is reported to have said that climate science would be stronger without Curry. According to Mann, Curry routinely engaged in character attack, “confusionism and denialism,” and eroded scientific discussion.

Like all wars, the Mann-Curry battle has a history, as documented in 2010 Discover magazine interviews with both scientists under the headline “It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here: The Big Battle Over Climate Science.” One of the conflict zones was Mann’s “hockey stick” temperature graph. Said Curry: “ I think the way that Mann and Phil Jones (the former director of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia, who resigned over the scandal) and those guys were going about it was wrong, not just in terms of ethics. It also backfired.”

The decades-old legend of the hockey stick, its validity and usefulness, slaps the climate puck through the pages of both new books.

In Climate Uncertainty and Risk, Curry carefully takes on Mann’s political and scientific record, including the infamous “hockey stick” graph that he claimed proved that 20th-century temperatures soared like the blade end of a hockey stick after centuries of straight-line flatness. A chapter in Mann’s new book is titled “Beyond the Hockey Stick,” a deeply scientific and complex expansion of his views of the evolution of Earth’s climate over millennia. The short version would be that the current climate episode is comparable to the climate catastrophes that hit the planet over the past 4.5 billion years.

In her book, Curry documents the flaws in Mann’s hockey stick graphic (which were exposed by Canadian researchers Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre in 2005). Again, this is not a battlefield that is easy for the average climate war correspondent to grasp, but the winner of this battle will determine future climate policy.

The real import of Curry’s book is her analysis of the forms of science and economics that are rallied to support extreme policy actions. She also takes aim at Mann’s portrayal of climate skepticism as a product of “fossil fuel companies, who wield power through political influence via financial contributions and propaganda.” As Curry argues her case, the Mann-driven policy options, from drastic carbon reduction to new taxes and controls, are the real source of concern, based as they are on assessments that are dubious scientifically and economically.

Curry calls the current global climate campaign “The politics of scarcity,” which she rightly adds is “not an easy sell, particularly when framed in terms of anti-democracy, anti-capitalism, and degrowth. Making energy less abundant and/or increasing its price is politically toxic unless there is an urgent, short-term need for austerity.”

Which takes us to the heart of Curry’s scientific assessment, which is that there is no urgency. In one chapter, Curry opens a section with a classic 2013 declaration of climate alarmism from Christine Lagarde, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried, and grilled.”

Curry’s scientific assessment runs contrary to such extreme conclusions, which are similar to Mann’s, who wrote in his 2021 book that “our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not taking the measures necessary to avert the largest global crisis we have ever faced. We are in a war.”

Curry disagrees. Again, the science is not easy for non-scientists to grasp, but Curry makes the case that when the real risks of man-made climate change are measured against the real impact of nature-made climate change, different conclusions emerge that do not justify radical changes in the global economy.

A review this week of Curry’s book by Rupert Darwall skilfully condenses her scientific assessments into summary conclusions on the science and on policy. Darwall’s assessment is that Curry “has produced a single-author counter” to the official science produced by thousands of United Nations-funded scientists.

Policy-makers need to renew their understanding of natural climate variability, stop painting climate change as a forever catastrophe, and prioritize adaptation. Curry writes: “Yes, CO2 emissions are a problem and should be reduced, but not as an urgent problem that trumps the need for abundant, reliable, and secure sources of energy for the global population.”

Curry highlights the predictive uncertainty of climate science that stems from the fact that official climate models such as those produced by UN agencies do not take into account natural variability. “There is no precise link between CO2 emissions and global mean temperatures,” writes Curry, in part because of a lack of understanding of natural changes in climate. We need “accurate accounting and projections of natural climate variability from solar variability, volcanic eruptions, and multi-decadal to millennial ocean variations.”

Curry’s view on temperature changes was recently echoed in a new discussion paper published by Statistics Norway. The authors conclude that “the effect of man-made CO2 emissions does not appear to be strong enough to cause systemic changes in the temperature fluctuations during the last 200 years.” The reason: Climate is also subject to major natural shifts in such factors as solar cycles, oceanic fluctuations and the sheer instability of the planetary atmosphere.

Curry says policy alternatives include treating the climate as an ongoing challenge that requires constant change and adaptation rather than lockdown style policies. “Even if human-caused climate change is somehow eliminated, natural climate variability and inevitable surprises will provide ongoing challenges that require continuing adaptation by communities.” In other words, she adds, climate reality requires humility, not policy hubris.

Over in Michael Mann’s side of the climate war, the call is for more action to ward off a man-made disaster equivalent to climate change events millions of years ago that devastated life on Earth.

Mann regurgitates themes from his 2021 book that viewed climate skepticism as the product of disinformation. In his new book, he writes that the greatest obstacle to climate action “is a sustained, massive, billions-of-dollars disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry.” Also implicated are conservative media. He takes a shot at Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. media empire.

While Curry looks at nature-caused climate in a current context, Mann takes readers back to dramatic climate upheavals that took place eons ago. He cites the meteor that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago. It offers a lesson for today. The dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming or do anything in response. “By contrast, we do see the metaphorical asteroids coming our way — and there’s something we can do about them.”

Mann’s conclusion is that the planet has been hit by massively destructive climate upheavals in the past, and humans could be fostering another million-year disaster. The UN climate model scenarios that look at temperature increases of up to 13 degrees Celsius are a warning. “The paleoclimate record places these model projections in a stark context,” writes Mann. The weakness of these models, reviewed by Curry, are glossed over by Mann.

In an excerpt from “Our Fragile Moment” published this week in the American scientific journal Rolling Stone, Mann prattles on about whether people a million years from now might learn that “a civilization like ours extinguished itself through environmental degradation and, specifically, a fossil fuel-driven abrupt warming event.” Then he speculates about whether intelligent civilizations such as ours “tend to sow the seeds of their own destruction through environmental ruination and warfare.”

Maybe the readers of Rolling Stone are inclined to contemplate their futures in terms of tens of millions of years, but in the climate war between time-travelling doomster Michael Mann and earth-bound optimist Judith Curry, the winner of this battle — in my reading — is Judith Curry. She brings hope that climate peace is possible.