By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007
The University of Virginia's climatology data center is seeking a lower profile after its former top official, the state climatologist, resigned this past summer amid questions over whether he should use the position to promote his doubts about theories on global warming.
The Climatology Office has been renamed, dropping a formal reference to the state in its name. The office receives half its $183,000 operating budget from the state and half from U-Va. and is the main outlet in Virginia for information on the impact of weather and climate on economic and ecological systems.
The former state climatologist, Patrick J. Michaels, has been on sabbatical from the university for the past year, said Joseph C. Zieman, chairman of the school's Department of Environmental Sciences, which houses the center. Zieman said Michaels resigned the post this summer and was replaced by U-Va. research scientist Jerry Stenger, who has been running the center without the formal state title. Stenger has worked at the center for more than 20 years.
The university is considering eliminating the title of state climatologist, Zieman said.
The position was created in 1980 by then-Gov. John N. Dalton (R). Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, had clashed with several governors who said he was using his platform as state climatologist to promote his views on global warming, including that the issue was overemphasized.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) testified before a Senate panel Wednesday about the impact of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay. Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said their states have implemented programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, largely accepted by scientists as a prime source of global warming.
Michaels has argued that the climate is becoming warmer but that the consequences will not be as dire as others have predicted. Kaine had warned Michaels not to use his official title in discussing his views.
"I resigned as Virginia state climatologist because I was told that I could not speak in public on my area of expertise, global warming, as state climatologist," Michaels said in a statement this week provided by the libertarian Cato Institute, where he has been a fellow since 1992. "It was impossible to maintain academic freedom with this speech restriction."
Delacey Skinner, communications director for the Virginia governor, said Kaine is not proposing to cut the climatology center's budget during the next fiscal year.
State Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, said the title of the center's director makes no difference.
"It doesn't matter as long as the job is being done by someone with experience," he said.
But Paul G. Knight, the state climatologist for Pennsylvania and president of the American Association of State Climatologists, which Michaels once headed, decried the developments.
"They're throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Knight said, referring to Michaels' departure and the possible elimination of the title. Most states have a state climatologist. "The state tended to focus on his opinions instead of what the people of Virginia were getting, which was better than most places."