Climatologist Draws Heat From Critics
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Patrick J. Michaels, the Virginia state climatologist, has a day job that makes him a cross between a meteorologist and a librarian. He gathers weather data and answers weather questions: What caused the great James River flood of 1771? How windy was it last Tuesday? Where's the best place to put a vineyard?
Nobody dislikes him because of his day job.
But Michaels, a professor at the University of Virginia, also moonlights as one of the country's most aggressive and, in some circles, most reviled skeptics about the scientific consensus on climate change. It was that role that landed Michaels in the center of a small controversy in Richmond last month, when the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) asked him to be clear that he is not speaking for the state when discussing issues such as global warming.
"He, in fact, speaks for himself," said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for the governor.
Similar incidents have popped up in other states, a byproduct of the growth of global warming as a political issue. The formerly obscure office of the state climatologist -- along with the obscure and sometimes contrarian people who occupy it -- has risen to new prominence.
Each state's climatologist office, which is charged with gathering, analyzing and sharing data about state weather, was established by the federal government. But in 1973, federal money ran out, and individual states were charged with funding the offices.
Now, the climatologist is a bureaucrat in some states and a professor in others. The District doesn't have a climatologist, but Puerto Rico does; Maryland doesn't have one, though some weather data is gathered by University of Maryland scientists.
This loose, irregular system has become controversial in several states recently, as climatologists in Oregon, Wyoming and Pennsylvania have taken public stances on global warming that differ from those of the politicians running their states.
In Oregon, for instance, climatologist George H. Taylor has been criticized by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) for his views. Taylor acknowledges that the Earth is warming but says it is impossible to calculate how much of that is caused by human activity.
That view is at odds with the consensus among many climate scientists. But, Taylor said, "consensus in science doesn't really mean much. What matters is the truth. Often consensus is wrong."
A root of the conflict is that, although state climatologists and atmospheric scientists study "climate," they can attack the same problems very differently. State climatologists often are trained to rely on past weather data -- records that show how much the Earth has already warmed.
State climatologists' critics in the scientific community study much broader periods and use computer models to determine how much warmer the Earth will become if pollution isn't curtailed. The view of critics often is simple: State climatologists are behind the times.