Climatologist Michael E. Mann says we're past the point of no return with regards to global warming.

Michael E. Mann   Credit: Jon Golden

Michael E. Mann is the director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center as well as a professor in both the Meteorology and Geosciences Department and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He was a lead author on a section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s four-part Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001. He is perhaps most famous for his “hockey stick” schema reflecting a sudden temperature shift over the last century due to human activities.

How urgent of a problem is climate change?
It’s been a very interesting past year or so, in terms of our understanding of the rate at which climate change is occurring. Recent measurements from Greenland suggest that the Greenland ice sheet is melting at a significantly greater rate than we first thought or predicted it would. We’re starting to see what we think may be detectable influences of climate change on weather and climate behavior that affects us directly, and we may be also reaching certain tipping points.

What’s an example of one of these tipping points?
There is evidence that we may have passed the point of no return as far as the Greenland ice sheet is concerned, which is to say that—based on the increased greenhouse gas concentrations we’ve already put into the atmosphere, and the warming that’s associated with that—we may already have put into the system enough inertia that the Greenland ice sheet will continue to melt for hundreds of years no matter what we do. And it may basically entirely melt no matter what we do. So that’s a real concern: That we may be starting to breach some tipping points, and there are signals that we’re seeing that suggest that might be the case.

What do you think should be done to counteract the effects of climate change?
I think almost certainly as I said before, we’re already committed to a certain amount of climate change already. It’s sort of like a locomotive: once you get it moving, it’s very hard to stop. And we’ve already put that locomotive in motion, and we’re not going to be able to bring it to a standstill. What we can hope is that by significantly decreasing the combustion of fossil fuels and the increase of greenhouse gases associated with that, we can hopefully still slow the rate of climate change down to a level that we can adapt to. At this point, it’s really about mitigation and adaptation. We’re not going to stop the problem in its tracks.

What do you think of the Bush administration’s policy on climate change?
I think that the Bush administration, as part of the US government and policy-making community, has been slow to take the problem as seriously as many other countries. Hopefully, that’s starting to change.

What about the other branches of the US government? Are they doing any better?
Politicians on both sides of the aisle in this country should be praised, for they have shown movement towards trying to address the problem of global climate change. This includes people like McCain and Boehlert, who are Republicans, as well as of course many Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Bingaman from New Mexico. I think that we’re starting to see some changes in the attitudes of US politicians towards this problem, and hopefully we’ll see that in the Bush administration as well.

What are you doing for Earth Day?
I’ll probably be preparing to give my classes in the following week, where I’m teaching students about the atmosphere and the climate and how to analyze the information that we have about the climate.

And maybe, if it’s a nice day, I’ll take a walk with my wife and our three-month-old daughter and hope that she can enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.

Originally published April 17, 2006


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