Energy & Environment

Global Warming Puts the Heat on State Climatologists

Extreme weather events have intensified the climate change debate and made climatologists’ job more high profile and more controversial than ever before.
by | December 2012
Pat Michaels, who was Virginia's state climatologist for 26 years, is also a national, outspoken critic of the prevailing scientific wisdom on climate change. (Photo: David Kidd)

Pat Michaels wants you to know he is not a climate change denier. Mention the idea -- or even the mere fact that others in the media have reported on controversy surrounding Michaels’ views -- and he gets testy. Michaels says he believes global warming is happening, and that humans are a contributing factor. But he thinks natural variations play a larger role, and he believes climate change isn’t progressing as quickly as other scientists say.

These distinctions matter, because for a quarter-century Pat Michaels was the official climatologist for Virginia. In 1980, when he was a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, Michaels was appointed state climatologist by Gov. John Dalton. Michaels served in that role for 26 years, conducting meteorological research and publishing data on weather patterns.

But over the course of those 26 years, Michaels also became a national, outspoken critic of the prevailing scientific wisdom on climate change. On several occasions, he published his opinion that global warming isn’t a predominantly man-made problem, and that major investments in clean energy are unwarranted.

That position is controversial enough, but Michaels’ role was further complicated by the fact that he also ran a private consulting firm, New Hope Environmental Services, that received significant funding from the oil and gas industries. (Michaels has acknowledged that 40 percent of his firm’s funding came from oil companies, including ExxonMobil.) Michaels maintained that his consulting work was unrelated to his views on climate change or his role as state climatologist. Gov. Tim Kaine didn’t agree. In August 2006, Kaine announced that Michaels’ opinions were not those of the state. In fact, Kaine went on, the governor’s office isn’t even responsible for appointing a state climatologist, and Dalton didn’t have the authority to name Michaels to that post in the first place. “Dr. Michaels had once been designated as a representative to [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA] on climatology issues by a previous governor in the late 1970s,” says Brandi Hoffine, a spokeswoman for Kaine, who last month was elected to the U.S. Senate. “But the title was not for life and Gov. Kaine never designated anyone to speak for the commonwealth in that capacity. When he learned that some still used that title for Dr. Michaels, he clarified that the title was no longer accurate.” In other words, Kaine told Michaels to stop calling himself the state climatologist.

Michaels eventually stepped down from the position and left the university. "It was clear that the governor did not want me to be the state climatologist," he says today. "I decided I was not going to participate in this anymore."

Pat Michaels isn't alone. While the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is occurring, there are fierce debates among some over its causes and effects. As that debate has grown more aggressive, state climatologists have increasingly become polarizing figures. Like Michaels, some climatologists -- including Oregon's George Taylor and Delaware's David Legates -- have been removed by governors who didn't think they were outspoken enough on the threats of global warming. Elsewhere, climatologists have been nixed for being too outspoken, replaced by hand-picked appointees more in line with a governor's own views on climate change.

Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events -- this summer was the third-hottest ever recorded in the United States, and the year as a whole is on track to be the warmest on record -- have only intensified the debate. As a result, state climatologists in recent years have become more high profile-and more controversial. What used to be an apolitical bureaucratic post has in some places become an ideological lightning rod. The irony is that states could use climate expertise now more than ever before. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Sandy, and this was a hard way to learn them," New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson told a newspaper last month. "But let's not kid ourselves. This isn't the worst that New Jersey could get." Tides in New Jersey broke records by 3 feet during the storm. "What are sea levels projected to be by the end of this century? Two to 3 feet higher. Can you imagine adding 2 or 3 feet to what we just saw?"

State climatologists weren't always under the jurisdiction of state governments. The state climatologist program started in 1954 as a federal initiative within the U.S. Weather Bureau. But 20 years in, the program was terminated due to lack of funds; NOAA Administrator Robert M. White sent letters to all state governors urging them to establish their own state-funded climate programs. Three years later, the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC) was organized. Today, 47 states and Puerto Rico have a state climatologist. The nature of the role varies from state to state: Most are researchers at state universities, but some are state agency employees.

For most of the past 60 years, those climatologists largely toiled in obscurity. But as climate change has become a bigger issue, climatologists have found more acclaim. "Whether it's due to the increased attention in the media, or simply the notion that we've had quite a few extreme weather events in recent years, state climatologists have moved more to the forefront," says Kentucky State Climatologist and AASC President Stuart Foster. "Look at the weather we've seen. Obviously there's Sandy. But also here in Kentucky: This year we saw a massive drought, with some areas experiencing record dryness. Those same areas last year saw historic levels of rain. As the general public, the media and the political arena have focused more on this issue, it's brought quite a bit more attention to state climatologists."

That certainly seemed to be the case for David Stooksbury, the former Georgia state climatologist. A professor at the University of Georgia, where the state's climatologists have been headquartered for decades, Stooksbury was appointed to the post in 1999. Then one day in September 2011, he received an email from a colleague who said he'd heard Stooksbury had been replaced. Gov. Nathan Deal had stripped him of his title and replaced him with a meteorologist from the state Environmental Protection Division. Today, more than a year later, Stooksbury still hasn't heard directly from Deal, so he can't say for sure why he was removed. Deal's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But Stooksbury says he has a good idea why he was let go. Before his removal, he'd been warning that Georgia was probably going to see significant climate-related drought (which it later did). "The irony is that because I warned the state about the drought, water utilities kept their reservoirs full during winters that they typically would have lowered them to catch winter rains. Because of my warning, we didn't have to have water bans."

He'd also been working with coastal communities on the possibility of rising sea levels, which he believes was another factor in his dismissal. "I don't get involved with policy," Stooksbury says. "I'm a scientist. I just do my best to interpret the facts for the policymakers and then they decide what to do."

Moving the position out of academia and into the executive branch could curtail its role as an independent source of information, both Stooksbury and Michaels agree. "It is preferred that we are not in state agencies," says Stooksbury, "so we can go with the science and not whatever the political flavor of the year is."

But housing the state climatologist's office in a public university is no guarantee of academic freedom, Michaels says. "It has become a political appointment no matter where the office is located, which is a shame because it is supposed to be about the science. The political climate surrounding global warming has made that impossible. State climatologists are being forced to toe the line."

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