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Virginia's Heated Battle over Global Warming

Most Virginia taxpayers probably have no idea that they are paying for a state climatologist. But they are. Or at least were, until last week.

And whether that climatologist is appointed and paid for by the state or by the University of Virginia, which, of course, is a taxpayer-supported public institution, the controversial fact is that said scientist, Patrick Michaels, is a vocal and vehement opponent of the idea that the Earth is warming, and because of that position, some utility companies that share that position have been hiring him as a paid consultant.

Which smells to a lot of folks like a conflict of interest.

This fall, Michaels is on sabbatical from UVa and will be teaching a course at the Northern Virginia campus of Virginia Tech--on global warming. And while no one has said that the professor is anything but even-handed in his teaching of the subject, there is no doubt that he has become an advocate in his research work on the politically volatile issue.

Michaels has held the title of state climatologist since 1980 and until last week, it wasn't clear whether he was appointed by the governor or the university. Michaels claimed his was a gubernatorial appointment, but Gov. Tim Kaine's office said this was strictly a university matter. Now, Kaine's secretary of the commonwealth, former Fairfax board chairman Kate Hanley, has written to the university at Charlottesville saying that the governor has nothing to do with this guy and wants UVa to make certain that he doesn't use his "state climatologist" title on any of his outside consulting work.

The stink over the climate man arose after news reports that a Colorado utility raised more than $150,000 in donations and pledges to pay Michaels to critique other scientists' research supporting the idea that the planet is getting too toasty.

Michaels' stance is that the Earth is indeed getting warmer, but not because of anything people are doing to it. Rather, he believes this is merely a natural process.

Michaels would have us believe that global warming is kind of...cool. "Growing seasons have lengthened, crop yields have quintupled, lifespan's doubled," he told CNN, where he appeared a few years ago in connection with his book, "The Satanic Gases."

"Most of my funding, the vast majority, comes from taxpayer-supported entities," Michaels said in 2002 when asked whether his taking money from anti-warming companies colored his research. "I would make the argument that if funding colors research, I should be certainly biased more towards the taxpayers, of which I am one, than towards industry. But the fact of the matter is, numbers are objective.

"And what you look at the global warming numbers, you cannot come to any conclusion other than the fact that we pretty much know how much it's going to warm in the next 100 years. It's not going to be that much. And you can't stop it."

Nothing that happens in Richmond or Charlottesville is going to settle any debates over global warming. But if you give someone a dandy title such as State Climatologist, you can bet that whatever positions he takes are going to sound like they have the authority of the state and its governor behind it, even if the professor's academic papers contain a boilerplate disclaimer.

Tim Kaine's position now is that Michaels is really something more like the University Climatologist, and the university's position is that they have nothing to do with this either, because there's an independent, outside, national climatology group that actually bestows the title. But the bottom line is that your money is paying for this guy's work, just as it pays for the research of any professor at a public college. And neither state government nor taxpayers should be in the business of dictating what kind of research professors undertake. But neither should professors take on or use titles that can only serve to mislead the public.

If Michaels wants to keep on taking money from anti-warming advocates, and if he wants to argue his side of the warming issue, that's fine--but he ought to have the good taste and ethical sense to drop the silly title and let his work speak for itself.

By Marc Fisher |  August 28, 2006; 8:18 AM ET
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Comments

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Did everyone see Tom Toles' editorial cartoon on Global Warming and the Republicans this weekend. That's about as tough an indictment on how President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress has handled Global Warming as I've ever seen. (What global warming?) Cheers to Tom Toles and the Raw Fisher for talking about the issue.

Posted by: Plato still Rocks | August 28, 2006 11:00 AM

Describing UVA as a taxpayer-supported public institution is like saying George W. Bush believes in a balanced budget. Literally true perhaps, but obviously belied by the facts. Public funding of the university is now less than ten percent. What a disgrace.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | August 28, 2006 11:30 AM

Excellent point!

It is a shame how people take advantage of opportunity to get rich.

This guy is nothing but a slick con-artist riding the wave of propaganda.

How can you agree the earth is warmer but then not show data that proves it's a natural process?

This guy is a fraud and we pay him to do it, only in America.

Posted by: Frankey | August 28, 2006 12:31 PM

He who is hired can be fired. Anyone doing anything about it?

Prima facia conflict of interest.

Posted by: Gene | August 28, 2006 12:47 PM

I applaud Marc for bringing light to this issue and will be contacting my state senator and delegate to follow up on it. But the real climate change disgrace in Virginia is that Dominion Virginia Power customers aren't given the option to buy renewable energy. While several local power companies give you the option to switch to wind, for millions of Dominion Virginia customers it's coal or nothing.

Posted by: Miles44 | August 28, 2006 1:13 PM

The former state climatologist raises some valid points, however. I myself am bit of an environmental whacko, but it is intriguing to think that a slightly warmer plane may actually be better. There are certainly a lot of variables to consider, but unfortunately the global warming debate has been basically that all environmental change is bad.

Posted by: preslopsky | August 28, 2006 1:40 PM

Patrick Michaels deserves a raise. I am glad the Post is annoyed. Finally someone is making sense on global warming.

Posted by: Kenny Coskey | August 28, 2006 1:47 PM

The class at VA Tech was cancelled this semester due to low enrollment.

Posted by: Jessica Brown | August 28, 2006 2:22 PM

"If Michaels wants to keep on taking money from anti-warming advocates, and if he wants to argue his side of the warming issue, that's fine--but he ought to have the good taste and ethical sense to drop the silly title and let his work speak for itself."

As I recall, when a Bush appointee insisted that a NASA scientist stop using his official title when advocating global warming policies (and by the way stop advocating polcy on government time/dime), he was immediatly castigated for censorship, the instructions were overruled and the scientist was allowed to continue both using his title and travel to global warming conferences (again on government time/dime).

Then again, Mark's outrage at public misbehavior always has depended on whose ox was getting gored.


Posted by: Woodbridge Va | August 28, 2006 2:41 PM

It is amazing how we have focused our debate on this quesion on one question - will it be warmer. It is nice for someone to ask "Is this good or bad?" and "What should we do about it?"

It does not matter what payroll they are on, these are important questions to consider. Are we to think "If you are not in a panic you are a stooge."

Posted by: Gary Masters | August 28, 2006 4:53 PM

Preslopsky, the problem with the (almost universally fossil fuel industry-funded) shills who argue "maybe global warming ain't so bad" is that the earth's climate is a manifestly complex, highly nonlinear system. You can't simply tweak one variable and say "2 degrees warmer please, and then hold it there".

We're already seeing runaway warming in the polar regions - largely due to the albedo effect (warming melts the ice, which lowers surface reflectance, which cause higher absorption and faster rates of warming, and so on). And that's just the simplest one to describe. In general you simply DO NOT want to mess with a system like this that's been in a relatively benign equilibrium state for the general time period of human history. Or, put more colloquially, "it's not good to fool with Mother Nature".

That these were largely the same industry shills who for decades have argued that we had nothing to do with it - but now say, "oh well, it's too late to affect it" - should speak volumes to their credibility on the subject.

Posted by: Mark | August 28, 2006 6:42 PM

The following sums up the Republican (and hence, current US) climate policy:

"When the ice all melts, Noah will build us a biiiig Ark!"

God help us. And I mean that metaphorically. We have to help ourselves, if we're capable of it.

Posted by: B2O | August 28, 2006 6:50 PM

I don't know why you refer to my older (2000) Satanic Gases, even though that book repeatedly argues that humans are warming the surface temperature. My newer book, Meltdown (2004) begins with the following statement (after the Foreward)

"Global warming is real and human beings have something to do with it..."

Any statement that I believe warming is not caused by humans in recent decades is simply not supported by anything I have written or said for a very long time.

However, in recent years, computer models have improved to the point that we can interface them with observed rates of warming to come up with a confident prediction of future warming. The math works it out to near the low end of projections made by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which I have been a member for over ten years.

Having said that, there is no extant policy that can significantly alter the rate of observed warming for at least the next half-century. No one conversant with the scientific literature disputes that.

At the same time, humans are adapting. Heat-related death rates have declined significantly in almost all North American cities as they (and the surface) have warmed. I was an author on that work, which was awarded climate "Paper of the Year" by the Association of American Geographers in 2004.

Posted by: Pat Michaels | August 28, 2006 7:15 PM

Yeah, the basic idea is, messing with a system like this that works? Not so great. Sure, crop yields might go up and Saskatchewan might have a better climate. But it seems to me the fifty bazillion other things that will go out of whack are more important. And it's everything from more invasive species to nastier weather to more cases of plague (plague!). We *know* what to do about it. It's time to freaking get up and DO something.

Posted by: h3 | August 29, 2006 10:29 AM

I am not convinced that what we term global warming is really all our doing. It's not like we have eons of data to compare - we can't look at computer models from tens of thousands of years ago the way we can of today's data, and you have to admit that in the grand history of this fine earth, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that there are patterns to this type of thing. Temps go up, and go down. We can't look at the last 100 years and say that the earth is at the warmest point in those last 100 years therefore it *Must* be a result of XYZ.

Posted by: Matt | August 31, 2006 3:16 PM

Now here's a new idea: if you can't shoot down the message, shoot the messenger. I have read some of Dr. Michaels work, including "Shattered Consenus," which includes articles by a number of scientists, and do not find anywhere where he disputes the "idea that the Earth is warming" as Fisher states; if fact, Dr. Michaels acknowledges that the earth's climate is changing, but questions some of the science and data being used to politicize the issue. It is an inconvenient truth that science, like all human endeavors, is at times not objective - when a small group of scientists reviews each other's papers and grant proposals without public scrutiny, there is considerable opportunity for incest. At least Dr. Michael's activities and associations are public.

Posted by: Jimmy | September 2, 2006 10:15 AM

Now here's a new idea: if you can't shoot down the message, shoot the messenger. I have read some of Dr. Michaels' work, including "Shattered Consensus," which includes articles by a number of scientists, and do not find anywhere where he disputes the "idea that the Earth is warming" as Fisher states; if fact, Dr. Michaels acknowledges that the earth's climate is changing, but questions some of the science and data being used to politicize the issue. It is an inconvenient truth that science, like all human endeavors, is at times not objective - when a small group of scientists reviews each other's papers and grant proposals without public scrutiny, there is considerable opportunity for incest. At least Dr. Michaels' activities and associations are public.

Posted by: Jimmy | September 2, 2006 10:28 AM

Pat Michaels post contains several interesting points.

First he is not a member of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, only governments can be members. He was a contributor to the 1995 report and a reviewer of the 2001 report (reviewers are self-selected). I do not know what his role, if any with be to the forthcoming report, or his role, if any, as a contributor to other IPCC reports.

Second, one must be extremely careful in parsing his statement that the models work out to the lower end of the IPCC projections. There are two components to this. The first is the climate sensitivity, which can roughly be translated to "What would the global temperature change be if CO2 concentrations doubled." The IPCC 2001 statement was that the range was likely to be between 1.5 and 4.5 oC. http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/031.htm

But we also need to know how greenhouse gas concentrations will increase, and since we have no observations of the future, we need to make projections of what will happen. Michaels can make estimates of greenhouse gas concentration growth to make the answer of future global temperatures come out anywhere he wants. To make it come out at the lower end of IPCC TAR estimates, he has to make an unrealistically low estimate.

Finally we come to his statement that "Any statement that I believe warming is not caused by humans in recent decades is simply not supported by anything I have written or said for a very long time". Depends on what you call a very long time.


Posted by: Eli Rabett | September 4, 2006 11:45 PM

"unfortunately the global warming debate has been basically that all environmental change is bad."

Um..... no it's not. We can tolerate *SOME* warming but if we keep going like we are now we can expect the carbonic acidification of the ocean in 40-50 years or so. We will also doom future generations with a 80 foot rise in sea level.

Posted by: wacki | September 5, 2006 11:56 AM

Pat Michaels wrote:

"Having said that, there is no extant policy that can significantly alter the rate of observed warming for at least the next half-century. No one conversant with the scientific literature disputes that."

This is because there is already warming in the "pipeline". Actions are intended to slow further warming after this.

"At the same time, humans are adapting. Heat-related death rates have declined significantly in almost all North American cities as they (and the surface) have warmed. I was an author on that work, which was awarded climate "Paper of the Year" by the Association of American Geographers in 2004."

This paper did not look planet-wide, where the numbers are far different in, say, Europe.

Anything Michaels and Lindzen say must be read very carefully, as they are very careful with their words and phrase construction.

Best,

D

Posted by: Dano | September 11, 2006 4:50 PM

The weathermen are promising cold snaps... after a couple of days of too warm weather, in my area, I would say that they snapped! It is no colder than a spring's day... in early September.

The weathermen being so off states only one thing... that pretty soon the weathermen will not be able to predict the weather as accurately... they will have only one resolve for this: try and predict global warming weather!?!? Ummm... if that we possible...

Posted by: lol! | September 11, 2006 11:56 PM

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