Four Questions with Climate Science “Ambassador” Scott Mandia

July 1, 2014 | 10:41 am
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Scott Mandia has done a lot of work to help climate researchers, especially ones who find themselves in the middle of media and political maelstroms.

Mandia helped found the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which matches journalists with scientists and he also co-founded the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which assists scientists when they face legal scrutiny of their work, including invasive demands for their personal correspondence. By day, he’s a meteorology professor at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

The American Geophysical Union just announced that Mandia has won the AGU Ambassador Award, which is given annually to honorees for their contributions to the Earth science community. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of the supporting letters for his nomination and I also really enjoy working with him.)

Awards like these are a big deal in the scientific community and receiving one from an institution as large and august as the AGU is quite an honor. Mandia’s contributions are also unique in that he’s volunteered so much of his time on these projects. I really admire academics who step up and take leadership roles like this in their community.

AGU "Ambassador" Scott Mandia

AGU “Ambassador” Scott Mandia

I asked Mandia a few questions about his work. Our lightly edited correspondence is below:

Congratulations on the award! We know that professors often find it difficult to find the time to engage with the public. Looking back, what motivated you to volunteer your time for these efforts?

Thank you. I agreed to become a co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team along with Drs. Ray Weymann and John Abraham in 2010 with the purpose of moving the public and political dial when it comes to understanding climate change science. After the so-called “Climategate” email hack in November of 2009, the dial had moved backward just as it appeared that science-based policy was moving forward in this country and abroad. We felt that our service would allow the media to “get the story right” so that the general public could make informed decisions. I believe our service has in fact moved the dial forward and I thank the 160 experts who make up our team for willing to be on-call at a moment’s notice.

I began the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund in September 2011 as an informal effort to help raise defense funds for Dr. Michael E. Mann who was on the receiving end of a political witch hunt by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and an astroturf group called the American Tradition Institute (ATI). In January 2012, Joshua Wolfe joined me and we formalized the service. We were fortunate to become a project of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and together we have sent a clear message that we are here to stand up and fight for scientists’ rights.

What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned about communicating climate science in the past few years?

Understand your audience so that you can frame the message in a way that relates to your listeners. Climate change affects us all, so try to understand what your listeners cherish; chances are that climate change will have an impact there. Keep the message simple – think of it as a conversation and not a science lecture. We are human before we are scientists. Show your human side. A good frame to use is that we have choices to make and there is much hope if we make the right ones now. Climate change offers opportunities if we act now. It does not have to be doom and gloom.

We’ve both been on the phone with scientists right after they’ve had intimidating legal documents land in their mailbox. It’s a scary moment for them. What’s their reaction like now that you have the legal defense fund up and running?

When a scientist contacts the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, they not only receive legal support, but they are put in contact with other scientists who have faced similar intimidating legal actions. Having this support group of colleagues who have gone through the process before puts a “first-timer” much more at ease.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There is much thanks to go around: American Geophysical Union for bestowing me this award and for assisting Climate Science Legal Defense Fund with its legal education outreach program during the previous two AGU Fall Meetings. Jeff Ruch and his staff at PEER for agreeing to become our fiscal sponsor and for always being there when scientists contacted our service in need of legal advice. Joshua Wolfe for being a huge part of the growth and success of Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, but who prefers to remain behind the scenes. Drs. John Abraham, Michael Ashley, Jan Dash, and Ray Weymann who have worked alongside me to run Climate Science Rapid Response Team and to the 160 climate experts who make up that team. You are my heroes.

Mandia blogs and you can follow him on Twitter @AGW_Prof. Mandia joined us for a webinar a few years ago to discuss how he handles difficult conversations about climate change.