Climate Scientist Michael Mann: Our Fragile Moment

Climate Scientists Michael Mann (Courtesy)

Climate scientist Michael Mann delivered a powerful talk at a recent UCSB Arts and Lectures event. He had just published his latest book: “Our Fragile Moment – How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis”.

The talk was yet another ringing of alarm bells that we really are running out of time to avert unprecedented disaster on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, he warned against messages of “doom”. He said such messages are just as dangerous as messages of Climate Crisis denial. Either one is a lazy excuse for inaction when action is urgently needed.

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His strategy was to put our current situation in the context of the entire history of the Earth. Here is a handy guide he showed for the full history of the Earth that he covered.

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He started with the most recent 10,000 years. A time when the climate was relatively stable. Coinciding, not coincidentally, with the development of human civilization.

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But now we are leaving that climate stability. That makes this time very fragile indeed.

He then reached back over the 4.5 billion year history of Earth. “Earth ran many experiments” over this span of time. He started at the Archean Eon (4–2.5 billion years ago). During the Archean eon, the Earth’s crust cooled enough that rocks and continental plates began to form.

He explained how “Accidents got us here”. Meaning humans would not be here at all if not for some very lucky accidents.

He notably referred to the event that caused the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event, also known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction. The infamous sudden mass extinction of three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth approximately 66 million years ago. He noted that it was the end of “non-avian” dinosaurs (by some definitions, birds are surviving dinosaurs).

This mass extinction event was caused by the impact of an asteroid in what is now the Gulf of Mexico, near Yucatan. It formed what is called the Chicxulub Crater. The asteroid is believed to have been about ten miles across.

What followed was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. A rise of 4-5 degrees C. This lasted thousands of years. What is happening now is 100 times faster. Yes, the rate of climate disruption now is 100 times faster than the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.

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Mann showed an artist’s conception of a creature called Dryomomys. Our earliest primate ancestor that lived about 55 million years ago. It could fit in the palm of your hand.

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After the extinction event, the surviving animals got small. This is due to the extreme heat of this period. He told a physicist joke that I remember learning as a freshman at MIT. “Imagine a spherical cow.”

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The idea: If you assume that a living thing is roughly spherical you can imagine how much heat it can radiate depending on its size. A living thing generates heat based on its internal volume. But its ability to radiate heat is based on its surface area (how much skin is exposed to the air). You can divide these two numbers and get the surface to volume ratio. For a sphere, that ratio is 3/r, where r is the radius. Meaning that the smaller the size, the higher that ratio. Meaning that if you want to survive in a hot place, you want to be small. In biology, this is called “Bergmann’s Rule”.

These selection factors take many generations to evolve. In our current world, he said this means tens of millions of people dying from rising temperatures.

After that period came the Eocene. The continental plates pushed up mountains. These absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere. Cooling the planet a bit. But it was still what we would call a hothouse climate. What we would call tropical forests covered the Earth.

It took further cooling in the Oligocene to get to ice at the poles and woodlands. The Pliocene was the last time CO2 levels were where they are now. This was the time when primates first developed tools. This is when Lucy lived, about 3 million years ago.

Next came the Pleistocene. This brought ice ages. Large fluctuations in temperature. The Earth’s orbit changes over spans of 100,000 years. The last glacial period was 5 degrees C cooler than today.

This deepest and coolest ice age selected for advanced primates. Animals that could make tools and that could cooperate. They became human. They could hunt together as a team.

We now have 8 billion people that evolved for a climate that is disappearing.

Mann played a bit of the song “Walking In Your Footsteps” by The Police from their “Synchronicity” album:

Hey there mighty brontosaurus
Don’t you have a message for us.
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past.
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb,
Would they say that we were dumb.

It was about how the dinosaurs had no agency. At the time humans faced the threat of nuclear war. Humans do have agency.

Mann returned to the asteroid that hit Yucatan. We know it was an asteroid because of the iridium layer that it deposited around the world. And a diligent search for fossils revealed a place where dinosaurs died in mud at the time of the impact. Preserving the skin of a Triceratops and a flying Pterosaur egg. And an actual fragment of the asteroid.

It was not the physical devastation that killed the dinosaurs. Dust particles were thrown high into the atmosphere. Carl Sagan publicized the idea of Nuclear Winter in an article in Parade Magazine on October 30, 1983. It was a similar phenomenon. Only the smallest animals and/or the ones that could burrow could live in such a world.

Mann jumped back to the Permian–Triassic extinction event, about 250 million years ago. 96% of species on Earth went extinct. This was due to methane. Global temperature rose by 8-11 degrees C. The oceans lost oxygen. He said this is NOT like what is happening today.

He warned against the “Doomers”. The Doomers claim that Siberia is melting and will release so much methane that we are all doomed. Mann said that is not true and it is not helpful.

Mann gave the example of Professor Guy R. McPherson who claims humans will go extinct in ten years. Based on this methane theory. Mann said that we can identify the source of methane in the atmosphere based on isotope analysis. It is not coming from Siberia. It is coming from sloppy extraction of natural gas.

Mann showed a writing from 1982 that very accurately predicted the human-caused warming that we are seeing now. It was from Exxon’s own research! They then began a disinformation campaign to cover it up.

I should note that I first became aware of the Climate Crisis in 1981. And I remember hearing a spokesperson for Exxon being interviewed on the afternoon talk radio show on KGO in the Bay Area. That person was already lying about the problem, claiming that “scrubbers” would take care of the problem.

Mann said that he is not a very good skier. He is maybe good enough for the bunny slope. If we started decarbonizing our energy supply as late as 2000, the curve we would need would be about like a bunny slope. Quite manageable and affordable.

But change has been delayed for decades by disinformation from the fossil fuel industry. Now we need a change curve that is more like a double black diamond ski slope! A huge opportunity cost.

He almost had to miss coming to this talk. Just a few days earlier Santa Barbara Airport was completely closed due to flooding! There is 7% more moisture in the atmosphere now than in recent decades past.

Here is the famous “hockey stick” graph showing the extreme sudden change of the climate in the industrial period of the past 150 years or so.

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We now can do “detection and attribution” of extreme weather events. We can tell that these one in 40,000 year events indeed are caused by humans burning fossil fuels. As certain as smoking causing lung cancer. With a campaign of lies run by some of the same people who ran the tobacco company disinformation campaign.

The latest climate summit was COP26 in Glasgow. Promises were made to hold the temperature rise to less than 2 degrees C. But 1.5 degrees C would already be devastating. And those are promises that are not yet being kept.

We can still stop the worst effects. The obstacles are not about technology. The obstacles are purely political.

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He offered a bit of optimism. A photo of him in the 1980s as a student at Berkeley. At a rally calling on the University of California to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa. After two years, the Regents gave in. Nationwide divestments followed. The apartheid regime collapsed.

In 2020 UC divested from fossil fuel investments under similar pressure.

He talked about how 93% of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is suffering. He estimates that the natural capacity of the Earth is for about 1 billion people. It is currently holding 8 billion. That 8 billion is supported by a certain infrastructure that developed for thousands of years in a certain climate. That climate is changing. If it changes very much, that infrastructure will collapse.

That was the end of his talk. Attendees had to submit questions days in advance. I submitted this one:

“Isn’t every question of sustainability really a question of paying the true cost? By definition, wouldn’t the Climate Crisis be solved if we paid the true cost of our transportation, energy and food choices? Isn’t every question of sustainability really a question of paying the true cost? By definition, wouldn’t the Climate Crisis be solved if we paid the true cost of our transportation, energy and food choices?”

Unfortunately, the system used for this talk was frustrating and infuriating. Ideally, selected questions should have been read quickly and Mann should have had a chance to answer quickly. Instead, an “interviewer” pontificated, commented and wandered off topic so that very few actual attendee questions were asked and answered.

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But Mann was able to make a few more important points. He emphasized that the crisis now is due to the RATE of displacement. Evolution works fine on a scale of tens of millions of years. But we are making dramatic change on a scale of tens of years.

He was asked to speak about a defamation lawsuit that he won. In 2012 a libertarian institute compared him to a child molester. The good news is that he won his lawsuit. The bad news is that it took 12 years.

He was asked when we will reach the “point of no return”. He compared this to walking blindfolded near the edge of a cliff. Do we really need to know exactly where the cliff edge is? Just stop moving toward it!

Every fraction of a degree matters. Sustainability exists on many axes in a multi-dimensional space. We are polluting the air and water and over fishing the oceans. We are deforesting the land. We need to move away from fossil fuels. Extraction of finite resources will reach limits.

He came back to the message that Doing is better than Doom. He said he gets optimism from young people. The talk was held in the big Campbell Hall auditorium. I looked all around and I did not see many young people. It was mostly people my age or older. My wife said she saw some young people all the way in the back.

About a week before the talk I was eating in the University Center dining area. Next to me a young couple were talking at a surprisingly high intellectual level about the legal issues that Trump was facing. It gave me hope that at least some students are engaged in larger issues. I did not want to disturb them.

But when I finished eating I politely offered my compliments on the high level of their conversation. I asked what other issues they were concerned about. The guy thought a minute and offered: Free speech and immigration. The young woman agreed and added “body autonomy”, which I guess meant abortion rights.

I asked if they were concerned about the Climate Crisis. They both literally rolled their eyes in unison. No. Not really. There are other more important and urgent matters. Wow.

Mann was asked whether we had already crossed the 1.5 degree C threshold for devastating effects. He said yes, on certain days. But that is not what matters. What matters is the overall trend line. Again, this is a matter of avoiding unnecessary Doom talk.

But dramatic change is now needed because of all of the delays. The good news is that carbon emissions globally have plateaued. But we need to drop those levels. By half. In less than 10 years now.

He also warned against “techno-optimists” like Bill Gates. These people talk of geoengineering the planet. Injecting sulfides high in the atmosphere. Mann said that is not helpful. We should deploy renewable energy on a massive scale.

Most of the world is still developing. Mann said that it is our responsibility to help them develop with sustainable energy. For our own sake.

I had this argument with a friend as I was writing this article. He said it makes no difference if the US cut its carbon emission to zero because the US is currently causing a minority of global greenhouse gas emissions. We would still face disaster.

The US is still the leading cumulative emitter in the entire world if you look at the full span of recent history. And by far the largest emitter per capita among major nations. But is that even the main issue?

I compared it to living along a river where you get all of your water. Yes, if people upstream are pooping in the river it is not enough for you to stop pooping in the river. But we have the resources to build outhouses for the people upstream so they don’t have to poop in the river. We can do that. But we have to focus on this as the most urgent and important issue of all.

In my view, too many people are focused on whether you are using the right pronouns while the planet is on fire. Yes, get out in the street and protest. But protest for taxing and spending and investing in sustainability energy. For the world. We can afford it. What we can’t afford is the devastation that will come from inaction.

Mann ended by saying that the fate of the Earth most immediately depends on the US presidential election. Biden has done his best to fund sustainable energy and he is prepared to do more. Trump would undo what progress has occurred and would take us backwards.

The fate of the world is in our hands. It is not too late. But we are running out of time.

Here is Michael Mann’s web site:

Here is the web site for future events at UCSB Arts and Lectures:


Written by sbrobert

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    • Exactly. Problem is one side has politicized renewable energy and anything considered “green” such that it’s been tribalized into an “left vs. right” debate. Along with that comes the staunch opposition based on misinformation, lies and fear tactics such as “wind turbine cause cancer,” etc….

      Our environment and our planet’s health and safety is a priority for ALL living things, not just liberals. There is no benefit to keep placing roadblocks in the way of progress in grid scale renewable and other climate saving actions. It’s pure selfishness and greed by the fossil fuel CEOs and their puppets in the government that then spreads misinformation, stale or even flawed statistics and outright lies to the voters.

      I hate to talk about the need to stop the us v them attitude and then say this, but there is ONLY one side slowing and in some cases, attempting to stop altogether, climate safe programs, energy, and other life saving actions.

  1. “He almost had to miss coming to this talk. Just a few days earlier Santa Barbara Airport was completely closed due to flooding!” The airport was built in a slough that floods every few years.
    But the punchline was, “Mann ended by saying that the fate of the Earth most immediately depends on the US presidential election.” Everyone panic, the sky is falling! What can I do? Vote for Joe Biden. Got it.

        • No one assumed anything about you. And this being California, it doesn’t matter that you personally don’t understand how electoral politics works in the U.S. … either Biden will win or Trump will win, like it or not. And it isn’t just about their personal attributes, it’s about their policies and which party they belong do which largely determines which legislation they will sign and which they will veto.

          And you completely misread and misinterpreted what Mann said: “the fate of the Earth **most immediately** depends on the US presidential election”. That’s not a call to action on global warming, it’s an observation that what the U.S. will do about global warming heavily depends on which party wins the WH. It only takes a modicum of intelligence and intellectual honesty to understand that.

            • What’s “turning people off about climate change” is not insults on a comment thread, but rather the misinformation, anti-“green” propaganda and outright lies by conservative politicians as they suckle at the teat of big oil.

              It’s about money and the rapid anti-anything that sounds liberal that’s polluted the minds of half our population and is being exploited by greedy billionaires pretending to be politicians.

  2. As a UCSB geography major, I struggle with how to manage all of the varying scientific opinions out there. Regarding climate change, could all of the other scientists be wrong about Michael Mann? I think not. He mixes known facts with misleading data. He has done more to give science a black eye than any other person in modern times. Even in the promotional video for this lecture he said the recent fire in Lahaina was due to climate change. The media loves him.

    • As a geography major, you seem to have no clue about how science progresses. If your hypothesis is proven wrong by the data, you need a new hypothesis.

      Your “all of the other scientists” consists of about a dozen known cranks, at most.

    • “He has done more to give science a black eye than any other person in modern times.”

      As a geography major struggling with how to manage all the purportedly varying scientific “opinions” out there, you sure are an expert on the entire history of modern science.

      Why do right wingers have to engage in all this cowardly obfuscation? Why can’t they just be up front and acknowledge that they oppose climate science because that’s what their marching orders say to do as good little right wingers? As a right winger you’re committed to doing things the right wing way, which is to claim that there are scientific controversies and to cite right wing sources like NAS, while completely ignoring any actual science.

  3. You science deniers should educate yourself about climate before making a fool of yourself with such ignorant comments.

    Here are some simple primers:

    The falsehoods usually promoted by climate science deniers are refuted by climate scientists here:

    Sea level rise with climate change:

    Human CO2 emissions:

  4. Which “climate science” are we talking about? The politically dogmatic narrative driven through conferences of royalty and the uberrich? Or the reality that humans at all levels contend with day by day? – which primarily through capitalism have given us the bounty that we live with and the opportunity to academically debate these issues. “Climate science” is reality and those knowledgeable recognize that responsible governments academics entrepreneurs and businesses have been working on incrementally for over a century. Yes there are extremes on both ends and in some cases it’s ridiculous, but that’s part of the chaos of change. Other parts are idiotic and I will submit that where it starts to become a qualifying dogma that interferes with the lives of the poor is where the train starts to come off the rails. Electric vehicle mandates is a good example. Without infrastructure for public transit people rely on cars. That is not going to change in California or a lot of the USA because it’s just the most efficient way. At the present time gasoline powered vehicles are far less expensive, far more regulated, more efficient and reliable than electric vehicles, and better for the environment than the EVs that are on the market. And the market is starting to talk. Hertz and consumers are turning away. In just a few years there will be alot of junk Teslas in California that no one will be able to efficiently fix or drive. If you need subsidies to make the market then I would submit that a mistake is being made. These artificially imposed incentives and constraints are a burden on the poor and could become economically unsustainable if the economy is not so strong. It’s complex because some of this incentivizes invention, but in reality that will happen anyway and change will be led by inventors and entrepreneurs and corporations and capital through but not by governments. When the science meets the market then you will have the next paradigm in reality. Probably closer to 2050 but not 2030. Kind of interesting how much of the world’s economic and energy policy flows from conferences restricted to the private jet set that result in popular dogma, taxation schemes and capital flows that mostly keep the poor poor. But that’s been the way of the world for millennia.

    • LONGTIMESB1 Your pompous rant ignores the fact that governments have always picked winners and subsidized those winners. That is how we got in the current mess with fossil fuels and being forced to drive instead of having good public transit.

  5. Thanks, and just fyi you are in complete agreement with my wife and kids who tell me that my pomposity, ranting and a host of other “habits” know no bounds. They call them “bad habits” btw but I say the jury is out on that. Threats of revised appropriations have been completely ineffective in changing their sentiments. I don’t think it’s quite this situation is quite as abstract as some have portrayed, I.e., everything is f***** and “they” did it to us, and those who don’t adhere to the dogmatic absolutist “climate science” of today (which is subject to change tomorrow) are, well, not qualified to have an opinion and deserve to be shouted down in the rudest terms possible. This in contrast to respect for one another, consensus building, and reasonable interaction which is actually going on with many stakeholders engaged and in fact will be the ultimate paradigm because at the end of the day sustainability will triumph – like it did for the past century with the oil powered economy that brought us so much – the bounty of which we continue to enjoy to this minute.

      • Let’s see… from this we got the most advanced society and technology in history and it was actual profits much more than subsidies. Profits that have been reinvested into doing it better, cleaner, more efficiently. Sure there are good examples of bad things that can continue to be flogged until most 25 year olds are scared to even try to have sex because of the risk of bringing a child into “this” world that may just cease to exist on 1/1/2031 because of “your” (our) collective ecological misdeeds. Truth be told we are here today because of what went on before for better or worse and that is history, set in stone, not changing ever.

          • Yes, it’s a work in progress and will advance society. I agree 100%. Soon the technology and economics will meet the needs of the market. In the meantime tossing the current oil based paradigm prematurely and substituting a subsidy hungry alternative has potential to disincentivize and stagnate development of better and more efficient EVs, forcing consumers in the near future to choose among vehicles that are inferior and far more expensive than those available today. Then, how will poor people get to work? By then maybe sentiment will be that those who can’t afford a Tesla shouldn’t be thinking about working in California. Just like those who can’t afford the rent; many seem to think they should just leave.

  6. That the tech and market are coming but not ready for prime time, yet. It’s true that a used Nissan Leaf can be had for 20k and if a 150 mile range and charge time work for you it’s a decent vehicle. Of course you’re aware Nissan is discontinuing the Leaf this spring to be replaced by their new low end EV the Areva that will start at 43k almost 50% more than the low end Leaf and 2.5 times the price of a new Toyota Yaris at 17k. So realistically seems like there’s still a bit of a gap to fill especially related to the low end of the market. Of course as you say, as a “con”, I don’t care. I just want my gardener, cook, housekeeper, nanny, and especially my wife’s hairdresser and waxer (whatever they call them – costs a bunch but worth it) to be able to get here on time. Hummer Omega 150k out the door including the 12k tribute to Gavin a 325 mile range and 60 minute charge time @ 80%. So yeah there’s a 560 and a Gwagon in the garage too. Didn’t Michael Mann do the music for Miami Vice? I loved that show. Getting into the weeds, there’s not much to quarrel with what this Mann says actually. US consumption not a real factor – influence on international deployment of sustainable tech is a key and he’s probably right that Biden would do less harm than Trump from the standpoint of policy influence in that sphere. Carbon powered speaking tours and economic rewards for successful impresarios of the robust Day After Tomorrow literary landscape where pandering anecdotal alarmism to minions buttressed with some cogent observations is a successful formula to sell books and seats. It’s a function of freedom and capitalism and I just love all of that.

      • Not really. Your example reinforces my point as well. “By 2050” is 26 years away and most of it still needs to be validated and built. It will happen eventually just like EV efficiency will improve and they will also eventually figure out how to make sure slaves and children aren’t in the supply chain. Not like you can just flip a switch to sustainable alternative energy. it requires investment and infrastructure. We all gotta live in reality in the interim. i wholeheartedly admire those who live off grid and also admit it’s not for me. And I know what it’s like to be wrong – because I am all the time at home – even when I’m right.

      • You’re right and it’s true and there are other examples that go back further of corporations etc lobbying against things that may not be in their interest. That’s how it actually works in a democracy and in the world energy market – different parties have different motivations and agendas. The reality of why we’re here is because money talks and bs walks and when what opposes it is just more of the communist tribal us versus them narrative that everything is f***** and a conspiracy and they’re just trying to kill us. In a “perfect” world maybe “they” or “the government” would just pick the correct thing in the beginning and it would all be perfect from the start and forever. But the reality is that world is chaotic and the energy economy is truly an amalgam of sources, processes, tech, and right of way. I’m not really deeply into subsidies on any of it but I respect that congress and governments have done that for better or worse in many ways. In general, I believe that if the tech and/or source is viable, investment will follow and usually pretty quickly. Why are the legacy energy companies among the largest investors and innovators of clean and green tech wtf? They lobbied against wasting taxpayer money on non competitive tech but were willing to invest their own on what they think might work. I think it was prudent of the government to encourage development but not bankrupt ourselves on insufficient tech for 30 years and let the validation of capital investment control the landscape. Much more efficient than doing stupid stuff with public money that ends up costing too much and can’t deliver. Facing the fact that alternatives are just beginning to become viable and make substantial contributions to the grid is important. It will happen but we have to give it time and in the meantime we’re going to consume fossil fuels whether you like it or not so why not be smart about it and respect the need and not do stupid stuff that hurts people in the meantime. Keeping the price of energy low is a super important part of the US economy.

          • Well I do respect that one person’s s*** is another’s steak and that my reality is different than others. For my own part, I tend to put my money where my mouth is. my portfolio contains a mix of legacy and developing energy and related tech issues, among a bunch of other stuff. it’s doing phenomenally well and has performed for years. It’s reflective of my knowledge of a market I’ve studied for decades. outside of market investing have also been involved in a number of startups, including EV related technologies, going back over 30 years.

  7. Thanks to everyone who stayed on topic and stuck to facts. The fact is we knew we needed to invest in sustainable energy since the 1950s when we could see the horizon of the end of fossil fuels. We have known about human-caused global warming from greenhouse gases since the late 1800s.

    The profitability and viability of sustainable energy has not changed significantly in the past 60 years. Photovoltaic (solar) cells were developed in the 1950s for space missions. Wind power has been around for centuries.

    It was all about governments subsidizing and incentivizing fossil fuels and dis-incentivizing sustainable energy. The US utterly failed as a world leader. China and Germany became the world leaders with solar and battery technology. We are benefiting from their investments. Now we (yes, our government) needs massive spending to implement these technologies as quickly as possible.

    Way cheaper than the catastrophic effects of the Climate Crisis on loss of livable land, loss of crops, loss of drinking water and direct death from heat. All of which leads to massive displacement and national security crises.

    It is silly to point out the individual companies that fail. Any good investor knows that you invest widely and some succeed and some fail. Which is why we need a lot of investment in a wide range of sustainable transportation and sustainable energy.

    Ideally, investment in high speed rail and good urban high speed transit and not just pouring it down the endless black hole of forced/subsidized automobile dependency.

    Thanks again to everyone who has contributed thoughtful comments.

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