The Michaels Story is Heating Up

The Patrick Michaels story continues to heat up. The Virginian-Pilot has weighed in with an editorial noting that the University of Virginia professor and state climatologist has taken money from fossil fuel companies, but notes that it’s an old story — first reported in 1990 — and he doesn’t seem to be violating any conflict-of-interest guidelines.

But back in Charlottesville, Kevin Lynch, a Charlottesville city councilor, has been digging into the story. As reported in the and aired in Waldo Jaquith’s blog, Lynch can’t find any documentation that Michaels is, in fact, state climatologist — despite the fact that he has been receiving some $90,000 a year in state funds. The legal authority and paperwork appeared to have been lost in the mists of time, and the state appears to be handing over money to Michaels out of habit. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine insists that Michaels is not a gubernatorial appointee. It would be a good idea for someone in state government — perhaps the Attorney General’s office — to get to the bottom of this.

In another piece, Lynch looks into the question: What, exactly, does the state climatologist do for his $90,000 a year? The main thing he does, apparently, is issue periodic “climate advisories” throughout the year. However, Lynch detects an editorializing trend in his advisories “expressing skepticism towards global warming in particular and fellow scientists in general,” a skepticism that he believes is inappropriate. Concludes Lynch:

I cannot see how any impartial observer could avoid the conclusion that using an official publication of the State Climatologist as an editorial vehicle to promote the agenda of Dr. Michaels’ power company funders is anything other than a clear conflict of interest.

Lynch, it seems to me, is asking perfectly legitimate questions, and I applaud him for his initiatve. However, Lynch’s argumentative tone suggests that Michaels’ greatest offense is to question global warming in the first place.

The one thing I have yet to see in any of the editorials and commentaries written about Michaels is a critique of his arguments. Painting him as a paid apologist for the fossil fuel industry is sufficent to dismiss his ideas without ever engaging them. Well, I have just purchased his book, “Meltdown,” and I’m working my way through it. I will comment in detail upon his arguments if this state-climatologist controversy doesn’t die down.

At this point I will say only this: Michaels’ knowledge of climatology, the scientific studies he cites and the arguments he makes cannot be dismissed simply by labeling him a tool of the bad guys. He may be wrong… He may not be offering a complete picture of the state of knowledge in climatology today… but he is not self-evidently wrong. By contrast, the characterizations of his views are laughably inaccurate.

Secondly, Michaels offers a critique of the scientific establishment that the pundits refuse to acknowledge. He examines the political economy of global warming, a multi-billion scientific industry that lives off of government funding. The only way to maintain that funding, he argues, is to keep the public and politicians in a state of alarm and agitation about the cataclysmic fate that awaits us all. The global warming true believers, if we are to believe him, are as motivated by self interest as those who oppose them. That’s the sad state of science in the world today.

Update: Daily Progress columnist Bob Gibson argues that there’s nothing wrong with the intellectual diversity that Michaels, “a little speck of red in a blue ivory tower,” provides UVa. “Politically correct research is fine, but as with science, research that questions prevailing wisdom often produces better wisdom.”

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19 responses to “The Michaels Story is Heating Up”

  1. Waldo Jaquith Avatar
    Waldo Jaquith

    I would have a great deal more respect for Prof. Michaels had he ever published a peer-reviewed paper that so much as questioned global warming. But he’s never done any such thing, because he cannot prove his assertions. All of his papers are entirely reasonable, and he’s left to make his crazy claims in pop culture, by way of paperback books and over-the-top quotes in soft interviews with major news organizations.

    If there was anything to what he’s saying, he’d demonstrate it. In thirty years, he’s yet to do so, just like those who claim to have been abducted by aliens, those who track Bigfoot, and those who seek out the Loch Ness Monster.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Look at the bright side: the Fairfax County Arborist gets paid quite a bit more money.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Waldo, in what way does Michaels question “global warming”? He acknowledges that global temperatures have increased in the 20th century — he just disputes the extent to which they have increased, and the extent to which they will increase.

    I don’t have any independent knowledge base to draw upon, so I’m not in a position to intelligently dispute his claims. Perhaps you can. For instance, Michaels claims that satellite measurements of temperatures around the globe suggest lower temperature increases than do on-the-ground thermometers, which are subjet to the heat-island effect. Is that a fact, or is he just cherry picking his data?

    In response to claims that “global warming” is causing the Arctic ice sheet to melt, he points out that the global warming models predict that warming in low-humidity locations like the polar ice cap will occur most during winter. But raising average temperatures from -40 degrees C to -30 degrees C is not going to melt anything. He asserts that the open water in high latitudes is a cyclical phenomenon associated with different wind patterns. Is that junk science? He cites studies that, he complains, are never mentioned in the popular press.

    Here’s what gives me pause about the Global Warming alarmists. They insist that the debate is over and that there is now a consensus. But the popularizers of Global Warming theory don’t acknowledge the dissenting voices, the uncertainties, the conflicting evidence or the complexities that Michaels brings up.

    Perhaps the same could be said of the Intelligent Design theorists, or even the Creationists. For a non-scientist, it’s hard to tell when someone is a Galileo speaking truth to power — or just a crank.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Stars burn hotter as they age. I s the Earth warmer because the sun is getting warmer?

  5. Once again, Bacon, what would alarm you? Antartica cracking FURTHER? Gas pipelinks sinking into melting permafrost? More hurricanes? Norfolk underwater?

    What’s it going to take before you stop hedging your bets with the rest of the politicos and recognize the danger?

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Scott, Let’s talk hurricanes. Where are they? After last year, the global warming alarmists assured us that they would be back this year. What do we have so far? Halfway through the season, we’ve got zip. Nada. If hurricane frequency and intensity can’t be predicted one year in advance, our meteorological models aren’t very good. Clearly, there are more variables at play than our weather models incorporate.

    Of course, one guy was skeptical about the hurricanes… Patrick Michaels. He said last year that the driving force behind the hurricanes was new wind patterns, not warmer water. Guess what. Those wind patterns changed this year and, presto, no hurricanes. (Not yet.)

    Unfortunately, the science behind the claims and counter claims is so complex that only trained climatologists can appraise them. The issue also has been highly politicized. Sorry, but in my observation no one is pure, everyone has an axe to grind. I think it’s valuable to maintain minority viewpoints like Michaels’. Some people would like to shut him down in favor of preserving the orthodoxy, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    This is scott replying.

    So we get no hurricanes and global warming is over? My point is not that Michaels does not have valid theories. I respect his academic freedom.

    My point is that he denies global warming as the official state climatologist. At what point do we say, hey, he does not represent Virginia? The position of state climatologist already looks pretty questionable.

    And more importantly, what will it take for people like yourself to recognize the threat? Let Michaels and the scientists debate the causes, but the fact is that the world is heating up. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait to see what happens when the icecaps totally melt down. I don’t want to see what happens when Lake Anna nuclear facalities are in crisis because of a extreme heat wave. Our media here has not been doing a good job of reporting all the problems that nuclear plants in Europe have been experiencing this summer.

    What will it take?

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Scott, you say the world “is heating up.” That’s a near-meaningless statement. How fast is it heating up? If it’s heating up at the rate of one degree per century, that’s a pace that humans can adapt to. If it heats up another one or two degrees only, one could argue that the climatic impacts will be beneficial overall, yielding longer growing seasons and moderating temperature extremes. (Most global warming consists of less cold, not more heat.) If rising global temperatures are part of long-oscillation heating-cooling cycles, our period of heating may well be followed by a period of cooling.

    I refuse to be panicked into “taking action” on the basis of only half-understood fears.

  9. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Scott, as previously pointed out by a number of people, the war-cry in the 70s was “global cooling.” Its supporters were just as sure that they were correct back then as the proponents of the “global warming” war-cry are today. Both groups of proponents cited to volumes of scientitic data to support their claims.

    There is an issue of credibility here. I’m not arguing that the proponents of the global warming argument are totally wrong, but how do they explain the 180 degree turn from the recent crusade in the other direction?

  10. Science in general has changed opinions. Climatology is certainly not an exact science.

    Look if you want to argue about the coming flood, go ahead and argue. I have been convinced to the point where I believe action is warrented and people need to be warned about the coming flood. I am asking, what will it take to convince you? I will say I am glad that Bacon and others recognize a need for human civilization to change on some level, but what will it take to convince you to raise that level in response to the threat of global warming?

    Again, does Michaels represent Virignia well as our “State CLimatologist”? I have doubts and I am tired of my taxpayer money going to him.

    btw, a fyi:

    Sierra Club Falls of the James Group
    September 11, 2006 7pm, Science Musiem of Viriginia – Membership Meeting ** Program – “Economic Growth and a Sustainable Virginia” – Dr. Richard Collins, Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia.

    Open to the Public & FREE

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    It makes me very uncomfortable to see supposed progressives caught up in what appears to be a witch hunt to stamp out dissenting academic views.

    One of the big arguments in global warming is the role of urban heat sinks versus CO2. That’s an important question. It deserves to be asked and answered and questioned and defended thoroughly – because THE ANSWER MATTERS.

    Fix the wrong thing, and you don’t fix the problem. Correlation with CO2 isn’t enough – take ONE statistics course, and the first thing you learn is, correlation doesn’t mean causation.

    If, as I understand is the case, you have correlation with BOTH CO2 and w/greater urban land mass (heat sink), we, as a society, NEED to determine the relative roles of each in causation.

    The solutions are not the same, depending on the relative contribution of each possible cause.

    Faith is not good science – just because you really really believe, you still need to be able to prove it and defend your argument.

    A dissenting view does not hide truth. If your argument is not strong enough to rebut a dissenting view, the problem is in your argument, not with the dissenter.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Scott, you’ve made my point: “Science in general has changed opinions. Climatology is certainly not an exact science.” I’m not arguing that the current widely held view is necessarily wrong on all counts. Rather, I simply hold that before we enact lots of new regulations, impose higher taxes and fees, or appropriate lots of money, someone explain why, despite being wrong before, we should follow the new direction now.

    There might be a valid explanation for the change in direction that does not affect credibility, but there might not be. This is similar to the recent practice of Fairfax County Schools grossly over-forecasting the number of students each year that resulted in bigger budgets and higher taxes. While no one expects crystal-ball accuracy and being a few over is better than being a few under, the grossly overstated predictions undermined the School’s credibility on forecasting. People and government officials began to say: why should we believe this year’s forecast when all of your earlier ones were so wrong?

    We need good, honest open disucssions of these important issue as we also try to reduce emissions at the same time. We simply cannot, however, toss reason to the wind because people who have been wrong in the past and are seeking taxpayer funding now say they are truly right this time.

  13. Being progressive does not mean you have to put up with whatever is being thrown outside, away from the ivory tower.

    I hold science in regard, but I can’t say the same for the “State Climatologist” position.

    Getting back to the science, maybe if we put things back in to a business perspective, you will recognize the threat more. Again, this is not just climatology….

    That seemingly academic question was addressed in large part last year by the United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year international scientific assessment of the condition of earth’s ecosystems. It concluded that that 15 out of 24 of the ecosystem services it studied are being degraded or used unsustainably, while only three of the ecosystem services have been enhanced in the past 50 years.

  14. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Scott, Now you’re talking a language I can relate to. I’m surprised the number is only 15 or 24 ecosystems that are being degraded or used unsustainably. I figured it would be 24 out of 24. Between deforestation, soil erosion, loss of habitat, acid rain, release of toxic pollutants, etc. there are plenty of very real and immediate environmental problems for us to worry about. Right here in Virginia, we have polluted rivers and streams, a damaged Chesapeake Bay, invasive species, loss of wetlands, etc. etc. In the absence of harder evidence on global warming, we have plenty of competing environmental priorities to worry about.

  15. Can you?

    The British government, many scientists, and some executives are urging an all-out effort to keep the earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius. “The consequences of changes above two degrees are so dreadful that we need to avoid it,” says BP’s Mottershead. To hit that target, scientists calculate that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere must be kept from reaching 550 ppm — twice the preindustrial level.

    The reason for the inaction is “not the science and not the economics,” says G. Michael Purdy, director of Lamont-Doherty. “Rather it is the lack of public knowledge, the lack of leadership, and the lack of political will.”

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Scott, again, though, WHY things are warming up matters. If in fact the urban heat sink effect is the major cause – then the solutions are different than reducing CO2 emissions.

    Further, China is currently poised to be the major CO2 emitter worldwide – and other emerging economies are also emerging CO2 producers.

    We need to look at what IS – reality, not ideology. Questioning orthodoxy is GOOD, not bad – even if you strongly, strongly disagree with the questions, the process of defending such critiques strengthens ones arguments.

    Our society cannot become afraid of questioning cherished assumptions. That’s intelluctual tyranny by the majority.

  17. First of all, I am with the GREEN party, so you can knock Democrats all day and I won’t care.

    Secondly, I am not saying that Michaels or anyone else can’t debate the causes and effects of global warming. If Michaels wants to sit in his ivory tower, take that oil/utility money, he can fling around whatever he wants. He can even go outside the ivory tower and rebel against the entire world of science.

    However, when he comments as the “state climatologist” and represents the state of Virginia, I see a huge problem. Its not about ‘tyranny of the majority’ as much as it is about representative democracy and public responsibility. I am sure I could find some lab coat who says the Bay is on its way to perfect health, that does not mean he should represent Virginia when it comes to water quality issues.

    Next week Wilder will announce that Richmond is joining the Cool Cities campaing. Unfortunately, for some Shockoe Bottom businesses, it will be a little too late.

    Soak in that.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    Scott, it isn’t about what he’s saying as the state climatologist – ALL of the comments I’ve seen, that were objected to, were his comments as a professor or as a private individual.

    To the best of my knowledge and belief, state climatologist does not include official positions on global warming.

    This is very much about tyranny of the majority – what it looks like is political correctness with pitchforks and torches, trying to force a man out of his job because of his privately expressed opinions.

  19. Which job?

    UVA Professor, Researcher, Utility/Oil company shill, or “state climatologist”.

    I can’t say I feel bad about him losing that last role. Remember, his pay for that comes from my tax money.

    He ain’t starving.

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