Make-Or-Break Politics Of Climate: Mike Mann’s Madhouse Effect

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You might conclude from its title that The Madhouse Effect, one of the fall’s best book offerings, takes on the US presidential election. You’d be close — the subject does come up repeatedly in the technical and policy discussions — but not quite right. I enjoyed discussing it with the author recently.

The Madhouse Effect dust jacket from Tom Toles

Dr. Michael E. Mann (
Dr. Michael E. Mann (

The Madhouse Effect is a book that dissects current fantastical arguments among humans about the ability of Earth’s current species to withstand changes brought on by anthropogenic carbon emissions. Madhouse Effect hit the bookstores a few weeks ahead of schedule, well in time for both the US elections and the holiday book sales.

In the last days before the elections, the topic of climate change has finally become a subject for discussion, despite pointed silence from one side of the aisle. The two major-party candidates hold starkly different views of its existence, potency, and the need to do something about it. Fortunately, the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is the one who’s up to the challenge.

Michael E. Mann, the Penn State prof whose research team noted world temperatures skyrocketing over the past two centuries and sparked intense scrutiny of climate change, wrote this new book. As a piece of very persuasive writing, it is definitely his best. As a lucid summary of events from the first inklings about the link to fossil fuels, it’s invaluable.

NOAA's 2016 update of 19th-21st century climate data (NOAA NCDC via
NOAA’s 2016 update of 19th-21st century climate data (NOAA NCDC via

The physical book captures the shelf appeal of short, ironic popular fiction from late 20th century: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from Douglas Adams. The inside is similarly wry. Covering the slim hardback, a glossy red dust jacket sports a cartoon of an aghast Edvard Munch-ian Planet Earth.

Washington Post award-winning cartoonist Tom Toles (
Washington Post award-winning cartoonist Tom Toles (

Tom Toles, Pulitzer Prize–winning comic artist of the Washington Post, created the moaning cover portrait. He also “coauthored” the work, covering Mann’s factual descriptions with brilliant slices of legendary visual humor about a not-too-funny phenomenon.

I read the book in just over an hour. That is, I hungrily scanned the cartoons first and then sat down with Dr. Mann’s narrative. It turned out to please me even more than Toles’s pithy, sardonic visuals.

The famous novels the book physically resembles are fiction (well, mostly, anyway). However, The Madhouse Effect resounds with plain and simple truth, laced with allusions to literature, sports, and current events, and written in elegant but unvarnished prose. Mann weaves an engaging story for all readers about real-life science and sabotage at the end of Earth’s Second Millennium. Lest you forget that plenty of evidence backs up Mann’s text, the 24 pages of notes and lengthy subject index will remind you.

Tom Toles "Climate Change Debate" cartoon (Washington Post, 2010)The subtitle — “How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy” — describes the important threads Dr. Mann weaves together. He goes into fascinating and comprehensive detail about the villains (climate change deniers) and heroes (proponents of true science) of today’s climate wars.

Mann also recalls similarly reviled studies from earlier centuries: Galileo’s astronomical and applied science observations, Newton’s discovery of gravity, and Darwin’s work on the origin of species. Mann’s talk — like that of Washington Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who invented the phrase to describe their handling of the Nixon Watergate scandal) “follows the money.”

Although Mann spends much time on renewable and nonrenewable energy, viewing them from a sustainability perspective, he admits to leaving nuclear energy out of the equation. He told me:

“We didn’t feel compelled to specifically weigh in on nuclear (either con or pro), but it falls within this statement: ‘There is room for debate about the specific policy prescriptions for dealing with the problem, but there is no room in good-faith political discourse for continuing to deny that the problem exists.’ The role of nuclear, both its promise and its risks, is part of that worthwhile debate.”

The narrative unfolds in three pithy sections:

  • Lack of public understanding of how science works
  • Weapons and defenses in the war on climate
  • A Path Forward (what won’t work, and what might/should/we’ll see)

Tom Toles "Exxon Charred Earth" cartoon (Washington Post, 2006)

Throughout, Dr. Mann exposes the political hypocrisy, journalistic false balance, and outright lies surrounding the issues — including decades of deception from the fossil fuel industry and the “Climategate” scandal that tarnished his own reputation and scuttled the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. He also reveals the blind eyes of a dozen and a half presidential candidates this time around and the hapless attitude of the eventual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

With fairness and much detail, Madhouse Effect also goes into the positive legacies of the many Republican leaders who have supported climate regulations. Notably, it cites President George Herbert Walker Bush, who championed the idea of cap-and-trade decades ago.

Mann details the politics of change necessary to propel the climate movement to the point it occupies today: the people’s marches for climate; the growing divestment movement advocated by popular activist Bill McKibben and subscribed to by numerous public and private investors, including the substantial Rockefeller Brothers Fund; the ethical and moral stances of Pope Francis, spiritual leader of well over 15% of the world’s population; and the current ExxonMobil investigations by various people, organizations, and the courts. And he notes the important contributions of President Obama to the worldwide dialogue, China’s President Xi’s leadership, the tenacity of the European Union, and the importance of India to future balance.

Suggested solutions for the madhouse effect are left to the final chapter. Dr. Mann believes that most of our remaining fossil fuel resources must remain in the ground so that humans can avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The future, he firmly believes, lies in carbon pricing, a wholesale and smooth transition to energy efficiency, sustainable living, and renewable energies like sun, wind, and technologies yet to come.

Notably (and in the face of assumptions made at the recent Oxford conference and afterward), he disses apparently fantastic geoengineering schemes like placing mirrors in space, shooting stuff into the atmosphere, dumping stuff in the ocean, and creating a giant sucking machine. (The last of these, direct air capture, may be the most viable method, he surmises.)

Tom Toles "What's a tipping point?" cartoon (The Madhouse Effect)“What could go wrong?” If we implemented many of these unproven and expensive technologies, we’d be tinkering with a complex system that we don’t fully understand. He tells me that he’s wary of “the principle of unintended consequences” — the cure could end up worse than the disease.

I ask him about the “10 years or bust” deadline that has recently challenged our belief that humans may be able to reduce emissions adequately during the next 30 years or by the end of the 21st century. With discretion, he replies, “While there is a reason for cautious optimism, there is now great urgency to reducing our carbon emissions over the next several years.”

Dr. Mann also makes no bones with me about the immense importance of the upcoming US election:

Tom Toles "Ostrichphant" cartoon (Washington Post, 2009)“In this upcoming presidential election we have on the one hand a candidate who recognizes climate change for the existential threat that it represents, and who wants to build on the successes of the current administration in tackling climate change, and on the other hand a candidate who denies that climate change is real or a problem. The choice that lies before us could not be more stark. It is not an exaggeration to say that the livability of our planet may lie in the balance.”

“What can I do?”the last section asks. Mann’s answers:

  • Leave the madhouse. Quote the science and dismiss denial as no longer a respectable position.
  • Support renewable energy and a price on carbon, and vote accordingly for both President and Congress.
  • Join an organization with a good track record on climate.
  • Help move along the movement for environmental sustainability.

The future of humanity is right here on earth, he concludes. To me, the last two paragraphs of Madhouse Effect resonate very deeply. I won’t quote them here. Buy, beg, borrow, or steal the book, read it, and judge for yourself. Give it to any of your connections who are still in doubt. Dr. Mann’s whole-planet environmentalism — wrapped in readily appreciable wit, a deep knowledge of the subject, and deftly constructed visual lampoonery — does not disappoint.

*In case you’ve somehow managed not to hear of him, Michael E. Mann makes his living as Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University. His first book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia, 2012), describes the emergence of controversy over the work he contributed to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly won by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former US Vice President Al Gore. His second, Dire Predictions (written with Lee R. Kump) and replete with infographics, photographs, and explanatory links, discusses impacts of anthropogenic climate shift and the world’s vulnerability to them. It has already seen two editions since 2008. Mann is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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