By Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"What state agencies, politicians and citizens need now is something different from when that position was created," said Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University who has studied how climate change affects the ocean. "I know there's a lot of frustration with not having a state climatologist reflecting the very strong consensus in the scientific community" about the human impact on global warming, she said.
But few state climatologists have generated as much frustration among the scientific establishment as Michaels has in Virginia.
Michaels was appointed to his position by Gov. John N. Dalton (R) in 1980, a year after Michaels received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. And it's hard to find anyone who faults his work in keeping the state's weather data.
"He's done an outstanding job," said Paul G. Knight, the state climatologist for Pennsylvania and head of the American Association of State Climatologists. Knight said that Michaels and his staff have excelled at gathering data and answering questions. "His office is really one of the very good offices" in the association, he said.
Michaels has built his career as a fiery and frequently quoted global-warming doubter. His position is that the climate is becoming warmer, but it will not turn out to be as hot -- or its consequences as bad -- as some fear. Michaels has criticized other scientists, as well as political figures such as former vice president Al Gore (a "scientist wannabe," Michaels wrote this year), for exaggerating the risks and results of climate change.
"The preponderance of bad news almost certainly means that something is missing, both in the process of science itself and in the reporting of science," Michaels wrote last month in "Is the Sky Really Falling? A Review of Recent Global Warming Scare Stories," an article for the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow in environmental studies.
That position has earned him wrath from others in the climate-change debate who say that Michaels -- especially when he is quoted as a state climatologist -- creates the false impression of another side to a closed debate.
"He's sort of one of the central figures in what I would call a disinformation campaign," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. She added: "He says it's a little bit, and it's of no consequence. . . . And it's not a little bit, and it is of serious consequence."
This summer, news reports revealed that Michaels had asked for money for his research from coal-burning utilities. Such companies often are criticized for emitting pollutants that lead to global warming, and critics have said this fundraising proves that Michaels's views are calculated to please his financial backers. Michaels said it doesn't prove anything.
"I was working on climate change long before I worked as a consultant" to outside groups, he wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post, "and my views have been quite consistent over that period."
After the fundraising reports came out, the Kaine administration investigated how Michaels had come by his title, and officials determined that he worked for the university, not the governor. So they sent Michaels a letter asking him to make it clear that he was not speaking for the state during his "outside activities" or consulting.
The bifurcated nature of Michaels's professional life is made clear in the text of an e-mail sent out last week to other state climatologists by Mark Shafer, the director of climate information at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. Shafer's e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, came as state climatologists and their staff debated whether to issue a "letter of support" for Michaels.
"Regardless of your views on climate change, Pat Michaels is one of us," Shafer wrote. "He has a 25+ year record of climate services to the people of Virginia and provides a lot more services that do not get the press of his research."