John Abraham Takes a Stand

Using science and civility, engineering professor John Abraham calls a climate-change skeptic's bluff

Dr. John Abraham and his wife, Molly, packed up their kids and headed to Disneyland in July 2010 for the family’s first real vacation. Four-year-old Olivia and 3-year-old Lilith fell in love with Disney’s dazzling King Arthur Carousel. They didn’t ride it once or twice, they went on it seven times.

While his kids were having the time of their lives, the St. Thomas associate professor of mechanical engineering unfortunately had other things on his mind. Between carousel rides, Abraham kept checking his cell phone for messages. Headlines like this one - not only in the United States but in Europe, Australia and New Zealand - explain why: "The Monckton Files: Bombshell!!! John Abraham to be Sued!!!"

Abraham had tangled with Scotland’s Christopher Monckton, one of the world’s most prominent global-warming skeptics and a sought-after speaker by the kind of  organizations that share his skepticism.

In fact, what became a global confrontation between Abraham and Monckton can be traced to an invitation that the Minnesota Free Market Institute extended to Monckton in October 2009 to speak on the Bethel University campus in Arden Hills. In his talk (not sponsored by Bethel), Monckton maintained that scientists are wrong about warming temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and even problems facing polar bears. At last count, a YouTube video of that talk had received 259,517 views.

"I knew I needed to respond," Abraham recalled. "I could not let that go unanswered,and I asked myself, ‘If I don’t, who will?’" He spent that winter researching Monckton’s statements to the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

"I thought, man, this guy is a great speaker and he is very convincing. If I didn’t know the science, I would believe him. Frankly, the nonscientists in the audience didn’t have a chance. They had no way of knowing what he said was not true. I felt Monckton took advantage of them and he knew he was taking advantage of them."

As part of his research, Abraham wrote to the authors or the directors of organizations that had published papers that Monckton referenced in his Bethel lecture. In case after case, the scientists wrote back to say that Monckton had it wrong.

If you believed Monckton, Abraham said, you would believe that: the world is not warming, sea levels are not rising, ice is not melting, the ocean is not heating, scientists are lying and there’s a conspiracy.

Abraham’s calm and cerebral response took the form of an 83-minute video that he made available on the web in late May 2010. And there the point-by-point rebuttal sat for some weeks, for the most part unnoticed. That changed, and dramatically so, when George Monbiot, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper in England, wrote about Abraham’s work.

"Viscount Monckton’s assertions have been comprehensively discredited by professor of mechanical engineering John Abraham, at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota," Monbiot wrote. "Abraham, like the other brave souls who have taken on this thankless task, has plainly spent a very long time on it.

"The results of Abraham’s investigation are astonishing: not one of the claims he looks into withstands scrutiny. He exposes a repeated pattern of misinformation, distortion and manipulation. Some of Monckton’s assertions are breathtaking in their brazen disregard of facts."

Picking a fight with ‘quite a dragon’

The story might have ended there, but Monckton tossed gas on the fire by responding with the kind of verbal attacks that attract audiences to professional wrestling.

In his initial response, Monckton said Abraham’s comments were a "hilariously mendacious 83-minute attempted rebuttal" that was "delivered in a nasal and irritatingly matey tone (at least we are spared his face - he looks like an overcooked prawn)."

He also wrote that Abraham was "snake-like" and "his deliberately dishonest personal attack on my integrity and reputation is an ingenious fiction."

But Monckton was just getting warmed up. On the Alex Jones radio and Internet program, Monckton described Abraham as "this wretched little man" who "only belongs to this half-assed Christian Bible college." Monckton described Abraham’s response as "complete fabrication" and "lie after lie after lie after lie."

Jones, for his part, called Abraham’s response a "scurrilous list of fiction" and asked Monckton: "Doesn’t he know that you’ve routed all these other fraudulent professors and this time he’s picked a fight with quite a dragon?"

"I don’t think he’s realized it yet," Monkton replied. He later gave Father Dennis Dease’s email address and encouraged viewers to "email this creep of a president." (It marked the first time, Dease later said, he’d been called a creep, at least in public.) In the first of repeated threats of legal action against Abraham and St. Thomas, Monckton said, "We are looking at a legal case if we can’t get any sense out of the president."

Global movement’s salvo ‘fired by a quiet, unassuming professor’

News of the dust-up was still mostly confined to the Guardian and websites that follow climate change.

As the environmental reporter Peter Sinclair blogged: "There’s a building storm of indignation out there among those literate in science - who have gone from depression and despair at the tsunami of fossil-fueled ignorance that’s passed for reporting - to a real resolve and willingness to fight back, not just for the planet, but for the very idea that objective truth exists, and that science is a tool to find it.

"One of the opening salvos of that movement," Sinclair wrote, "was probably fired by a quiet, unassuming professor at a Catholic university in St. Paul, who did not set out to place himself in the center of a storm."

A New Zealand-based website devoted to global-warming topics, meanwhile, posted news about the controversy under a headline: "Support John Abraham." It quickly received more than 1,000 letters of support from around the world.

While news of the controversy was spreading around the world among those following the climate-change debate, back home Abraham wasn’t even a blip on the media radar. At least not until Casey Selix, then a reporter for the online MinnPost, got wind of the story and found that if you Googled "John Abraham and Christopher Monckton" you’d find more than 21,000 search results (as of 01/05/12 it is 27,500). She spent days researching the topic before filing two stories that appeared in July 2010.

"Quite simply," she wrote, "the scientific community’s inability to explain the risks of climate change on Earth to the public propelled Abraham into action. ... Observers and scientists around the world have hailed Abraham’s ‘A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton’ as one of the best attempts yet to take on Monckton."

The Selix stories caught the attention of other reporters; within days newspaper readers across the Twin Cities, state and nation began seeing headlines about the controversy.

It is likely that, worldwide, no other St. Thomas professor has been written about more than Abraham, with the exception of 1968 presidential candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who taught sociology at St. Thomas from 1946 to 1948.

"I thought there would be criticism about my response," Abraham said, "but I didn’t realize how large the story would get. Initially, it was not a clear path. From the very beginning, though, I have always been concerned about the impact this might have on the University of St. Thomas. I didn’t want my actions to have a negative effect on the university."

Abraham also is concerned that in his effort to present accurate science on climate change, he will be seen as a "lefty trying to score political points against conservatives.

"I really try to quiet the political rancor on this subject," he said. "Both sides need to come together to find solutions to this problem that cannot only help the environment but also fix the economy. I encourage people to work hard to bridge the cultural divide we have on this issue.

"People on both sides need to be sensitive to the concerns of others. Some of those concerns are well-founded. If we can find ways to work together on mutual goals, we can make some progress toward solving this challenging, but not insurmountable problem," he said.

Top-down support

In the summer of 2010, when Monckton first threatened legal action, Dr. Susan Huber, St. Thomas’ executive vice president and chief academic officer, called Abraham to her office for a meeting.

"I thought uh-oh, I’m gonna be in trouble," he recalled later. "But when Dr. Huber called me into her office, she just wanted to make sure I was doing OK. What a great surprise."

Abraham was in for another surprise when he joined other faculty members at the president’s fall convocation, where Dease shares news and sets the tone for the coming year.

"We can take great pride in scholars such as John Abraham who place their scientific learning and expertise in service to the larger good, even at the risk of personal disparagement," Dease said. "To his credit, Dr. Abraham knew well that of which he spoke and despite the mounting pressure he did not flinch.

"Thank you, John, for the manner in which you carried yourself! You have brought distinction to this university community, and we are proud to be associated with you. ... His presentation was factual and respectful. He reflected so very well the civility that has become a hallmark of this university community."

Abraham would tell you that the concept of civility is as important to him as the scientific methods he teaches his engineering students. "If I stoop to name-calling, I lose my credibility," he said. "When Monckton began calling me and Father Dease names, I knew he had lost the battle."

To maintain his impartiality he does not accept funding for climate research. When he gives speeches (since the Monckton controversy he averages one a week) he never asks for an honorarium. If one is given, he asks that the check be made out to St. Thomas. If a check is made out to him, he gives it to charity.

Beyond Monckton

If Abraham led a busy life before his response to Monckton, it has gone into overdrive. In recent months, he has been asked to provide climate information to the U.S. Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.

In addition to reporters, he has been interviewed for a documentary that was broadcast by the BBC (despite Monckton’s efforts to block it). With two colleagues, he created an international "Climate Science Rapid Response Team" of more than 140 scientists who are available for media interviews, and he supported the creation of a legal-defense fund for climate scientists threatened with legal action.

About John Abraham

To understand Abraham’s interest in climate change, it helps to know that his field, mechanical engineering, has subdivisions. One deals with mechanical things, like engines and pumps and gears. Another deals with fluids and heat transfer, which is Abraham’s field. As he explains it, "the earth’s atmosphere and its oceans are both fluids. The principles are the same, whether it’s the planet or in the laboratory."

Abraham, 37, earned his three engineering degrees at the University of Minnesota. He received his doctorate in 2002 and came to St. Thomas right out of graduate school,first as an adjunct instructor and later as a full-time faculty member.

Abraham has published 130 peer reviewed journal and conference papers, and in addition to teaching, he’s been an engineering consultant for the past 15 years in the aerospace, biomedical, manufacturing and energy industries. He’s done work on stents and other devices that treat heart disease, on chronic-pain devices, and even methods to cool radar systems on jet airplanes.

He sees great value in blending his consulting and teaching careers. "I spend more of my time on industrial research than on teaching. I enjoy working on real-life problems with students. I get calls from companies that are having trouble with a product, and then I work with students to get working products."

Between family, teaching, research and consulting, Abraham estimates that since the fall of 2009 he has carved out 1,000 hours of unpaid time to work on climate research and the Monckton controversy.

He decided to jump into the fray, he said, "because it’s just that important."

"My agenda is to safeguard the future of the planet and to make sure that real science gets out there. And I’ll tell you what, we have some tough decisions to make and we can only make good decisions if we really know the science. The more we argue about whether or not climate change is occurring, the longer we delay making those decisions."

Editor’s Note: St. Thomas magazine welcomes and encourages a civil dialogue on the contents of the magazine. As publishers, we understand that some of the topics covered in the magazine can elicit strong opinions from our readers. We would like to remind you that any comment deemed a personal attack on an individual – whether the subject or another comment contributor – will not be approved for posting.

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