Michael Mann's work as a press critic began in earnest a decade ago. Ahead of the 2009 international climate-change summit in Copenhagen, hackers stole email correspondence between Mann and other climate scientists from a computer server at the University of East Anglia. Climate-change deniers used portions of the emails, freed from context, to attack the credibility of Mann, whose “hockey stick” graph charting the rapid rise of the Earth’s
temperature since industrialization would become an emblem of the climate fight. Coverage of what news outlets called “Climategate” saved space for Mann’s critics; such choices emphasized conflict out of all proportion with the scientific consensus on a warming planet. In The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, his 2012 book, Mann called such false balance and sympathetic framing “a sweet victory for climate change deniers.”
Though multiple investigations upheld the integrity of Mann’s research, such vindication took years. Mann has vigorously contested misinformation concerning his work and climate science on social media as well as in the courts. In 2011, Mann filed a defamation claim in a British Columbia court against the Frontier Center for Public Policy (FCPP), a Canadian think-tank, and Tim Ball, a former geography professor, after Ball suggested in an interview that Mann should be imprisoned. In June, the FCPP settled with Mann and apologized for its characterization of his work. Last month, after Ball’s lawyers cited their client’s poor health and his website’s low ranking, a judge dismissed the case, for delays he attributed to Mann. (The judge also noted the two parties’ “dramatically different opinions on climate change,” which the court did not address.) Mann then took to Twitter to counter climate-denial sites that spun the dismissal.
Mann, a climatologist who directs the Penn State Earth System Science Center, spoke with CJR last week, one day after The New Yorker published a widely derided climate-change column by Jonathan Franzen. (Writing in her “Heated” newsletter, journalist Emily Atkin called Franzen’s take “the most brilliantly unintentional fossil fuel industry propaganda I’ve ever read.”) Mann talked about the lessons learned by newsrooms since “Climategate,” and the new pitfalls that await reporters covering the planet’s most important story. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This year marks a decade since news coverage of what many news outlets called “Climategate.” What gains have journalists made in their coverage of climate science and global warming since then?
We’ve seen a pretty dramatic move away from the false balance that we used to see, where every news story about climate change had to have a contrarian, a climate-change denier, representing the other side—as if there’s equal weight on the side of science and science denial.