Pat Michaels, Virginia “State Climatologist”? A critical perspective on the issues


The Washington Post ran an article on September 17 on the controversy over whether Pat Michaels, long-time voice of the global warming denial machine, was entitled to continue to identify himself as the Virginia State Climatologist.  Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine doesn’t want Michaels appearing to speak for the state on global warming issues.  This guest contribution provides a critical perspective that goes beyond what was developed in the Post’s coverage—about the legitimacy of Michaels’ designation as state climatologist, about Michaels’ funding sources and think tank affiliation, and about the meaning of “climatologist” in the contemporary scientific context.

An environmental journalist writes:

I’m a huge fan and loyal reader of the Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin and David Farenthold, and think the world of most of their work, but I was disappointed in their Sept. 17, 2006, story about Patrick J. Michaels, “Climatologist Draws Heat From Critics.” 
The problems began before the first sentence was over—as the story began by identifying Michaels as “the Virginia state climatologist”—when one of the big disputes discussed in the story was whether Michaels can, in fact, legitimately be called the Virginia state climatologist. By stating that without any qualification, the article begged the central question.  Overall, the Post article gave Michaels a pass, a free ride, rather than a critical or skeptical examination.
The first story on this controversy was broken a month earlier by Bob Gibson in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Gibson reported on Aug. 8 that Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine did not consider Michaels the state climatologist.

Citing a Kaine spokesman, Gibson wrote that Michaels “honorary position” … “is not subject to gubernatorial appointment—or political removal from office,” and “does not speak for the state or the governor.” Michaels had been appointed by a Republican governor in 1980 under a program long since defunded by the feds. He is now a professor and employee of the University of Virginia.

“He doesn’t speak for the state. He doesn’t speak for the governor, Kaine spokesman Delacey Skinner told Gibson. “This is the University of Virginia having this particular faculty member head up their office of climatology,” she said.

So is U.Va. an organ of the state? Is it a public or private university? Well, those are actually complicated questions with ambiguous answers. U.Va. was state-chartered, but since the start has relied on state funds for a very minor fraction (less than about 15%) of its revenue. The bottom line, though, is that it is not an arm of state government or a direct instrument of state policy.
The answer goes directly to the question of whether Michaels can legitimately be called a “state” climatologist.
Commonwealth Secretary Katherine K. Hanley (a cabinet-level gubernatorial appointee in charge of state appointments) wrote to U.Va. President John T. Casteen III Aug. 17 asking that Michaels “avoid any conflict of interest or appearance thereof by scrupulously avoiding the use of the title of state climatologist in connection with any outside activities or private consulting endeavors.”  That was reported Aug. 19, by Carlos Santos in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Hanley goes further, though, noting that absolutely nothing in Virginia law provides for appointment of a climatologist by the governor or anyone else.
Digging a little deeper into the question was Charlottesville City Council member Kevin Lynch, whose findings were published by the alt-weekly Cville News. It gets to be an increasingly long and complex story, but the bottom line is that some people (Lynch among them) are actually questioning the legality and legitimacy of Michaels’ original 1980 appointment by then-Gov. John N. Dalton (R). You can read about it in the Cville News here and here.
Conflict of Interest
The Post article glancingly raised the question of whether Michaels might have a gross conflict of interest, but did not squarely address it or provide any appreciable portion of the in-the-record-and-available information that might allow readers to arrive at an answer themselves. The article did not address the profound corruption of the integrity of science in which he is involved.
All the Post said about Michaels and money was that “This summer, news reports revealed that Michaels had asked for money for his research from coal-burning utilities.” But he didn’t just ask for the money, he got it. He has been getting money from fossil-fuel interests for a long time. And the money he gets from fossil-fuel industries may actually exceed the amount he gets as a salary from the University of Virginia.
The Associated Press had reported on July 27, 2006, that the Intermountain Rural Electric Association of Sedalia, Colo., gave Michaels $100,000 and called on other utilities to give more. Responding to that appeal, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, another Colorado-area utility, pledged $50,000 in June 2006. The money in both cases seems to have gone to New Hope Environmental Services, Michaels’ “advocacy science” consulting firm, which publishes World Climate Report, a publication that denies mainstream climate science. More pledges may be forthcoming.
That was just for this year. Michaels has been getting major funding from fossil-fuels industry for many years. The Western Fuels Association had been funding Michaels’ newsletter, World Climate Review (a dead-tree precursor of the now blogified World Climate Report) since at least 1991—and failing for some time to disclose Western Fuels’ sponsorship.
The fossil-fuel and electric industries’ funding of Michaels is a long story, and part of their tangled web of PR and lobbying offensives to raise doubt about legitimate science on climate change. Much of this story is spelled out and documented by Pulitzer-winner Ross Gelbspan in his books Boiling Point (2004) and The Heat Is On (1997).
These facts are critically important, because they add up to a profound “conflict of interest” that undermines Michaels’ credibility as a fair commentator on climate science. Profits in the oil, coal, and electric industries are just fine, thank you—and they will stay high as long as the U.S. delays action on limiting greenhouse emissions. So those industries have a huge financial stake in casting doubt on the science that implies carbon controls would make life better for citizens of the U.S. and the planet. Michaels’ credibility is the central question in the Post article, but his industry funding connections are largely ignored.
Another source of Michaels’ institutional and financial support is his affiliation with the Cato Institute. That connection is central to Michaels’ motives and credibility, but the Post article mentioned it only obliquely, as a way of identifying who had published one of his articles. All they said was that an article had been written “for the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow in environmental studies.”
While Cato is doubtless full of smart, sincere fellows, there are two really important things we readers need to know about it. First: it has an ideological agenda. As true-believing free-marketeers and libertarians, Cato “scholars” inevitably argue against government regulation of almost anything and everything. (In this case: carbon dioxide emissions.)  Second: Cato gets considerable money from fossil-fuel interests that oppose controlling greenhouse emissions—including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and ExxonMobil. Cato fellows typically are paid—although whether Michaels gets a Cato stipend and how big it is are not currently known.
Can Anyone Be a “Climatologist”?
The Post article takes a sharp look at the meaning or validity of the term “climatologist”.  It makes the point that there are climatologists and then there are climatologists. The old-fashioned idea of a climatologist was a bit like a glorified county extension agent, typically found at state land grant universities or ag colleges, who would tell farmers where and when to plant, because he kept track of historical weather records. These guys, exemplified by “state climatologists,” are quintessentially local/parochial in their view, practical, … with a time-horizon of about 30 years.
Since scientists in larger numbers began in earnest to ask questions about manmade global change in the mid-late-Twentieth Century, and to discover how enormously complex the global climate system really is, the term “climatologist” has taken on added meaning. In fact, the inquiry that is climatology is conducted by scores of scientific specialists: paleoclimatologists, glaciologists, atmospheric chemists, radiative physicists, statisticians, oceanographers, limnologists, marine biologists, soil scientists, biogeochemists, and computer modelers, to name only a few. These scientists are often more interested in pure research than practical applications, more interested in global processes than local weather, and likely look much farther (thousands or millions of years) into the past and future than old-school state climatologists.
This distinction between two different uses of the term “climatologist” leads to the question of whether Michaels, as a state climatologist and vestige of a simpler time, is qualified to comment at all on the more intellectually demanding field that is climatology today.
The Post article doesn’t question assertions that Michaels does “research.” The evidence that Michaels has ever done significant amounts of research serious enough to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals is … slim at best. This is not to say that he has never been published in a scientific journal—but merely to say that the vast bulk of his work has been polemics published in non-scientific or non-refereed publication, often publications with an axe to grind. The role of gadfly—picking at the intellectual weaknesses in other people’s research can indeed be a valuable and honorable one. But only when it is intellectually honest.
Harvard’s John Holdren, currently President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the Senate Republican Policy Committee, “Michaels …. has published little if anything of distinction in the professional literature, being noted rather for his shrill op-ed pieces and indiscriminate denunciations of virtually every finding of mainstream climate science.”
Michaels got through the Post article without the reader getting much information with which to decide whether the “heat from critics” was in any way justified.

(1) “Climatologist Draws Heat From Critics,” Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2006, by Juliet Eilperin and David Farenthold

(2) “Climatologist Request Made; Kaine Office Asks That U.Va. Professor Not Use His State Title in His Private Research,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug. 19, 2006, by Carlos Santos

(3) “Kaine, U.Va. Differ on Climatologist; Sides Disagree on Whether Michaels Is Appointed,” Charlottesville Daily Progress, August 8, 2006, by Bob Gibson

(4) “Utilities Give Warming Skeptic Big Bucks,” Associated Press via Boston Globe,  July 27, 2006, by Seth Borenstein

(5) “Tri-State Funds Global-Warming Critic; LPEA Power Provider Gives $50,000 to Virginia-Based Consulting Firm,” Durango Herald, September 22, 2006, by Chuck Slothower

(6) Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan (New York: Basic Books, 2004). See pp. 51-52.
(7) The Heat Is On, Ross Gelbspan (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997). See especially pp. 40-44.
(8) “ABC News Reporting Cited As Evidence In Congressional Hearing On Global Warming; Making Money by Feeding Confusion Over Global Warming,” ABC News, July 27, 2006, by Clayton Sandell and Bill Blakemore

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