Politics of Climate Change Science—No More Witch Hunts


Fresh from trying to cover the bare breast of the Roman goddess Virtu, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is now demanding that the University of Virginia turn over a broad range of documents relating to the work of climatologist Michael Mann. Cuccinelli claims that he is investigating Mann, who is now a professor at Pennsylvania State University, for the possible fraudulent use of state funds in his research. Mann produced tne notorious "hockey-stick" graph suggesting that recent global average temperatures are unprecedentedly high, and he is one of the leading figures in the Climategate e-mail affair.

The Washington Post has properly branded Cuccinelli's ploy as a witch hunt. Unfortunately, Virginia is no stranger to climatological witch hunts.

For example, environmental activists, incensed with the skeptical views of then-Virginia state climatolgist Patrick Michaels, tried get the General Assembly and governor to cut the funding to the state office of climatology headquartered at the University of Virginia. The attacks on Michaels intensified when he took $150,000 to work as a consultant for an associaton of coal-fired electric utilities. Conflict of interest? Perhaps. But Michaels freely acknowledged the funding and its source. And as the University Wire news service (via Nexis) reported at the time:

David Hudson, associate vice president for research and graduate studies, said the University actually encourages faculty members to work as consultants if their consulting work will improve their work at the University.

"The University recognizes that work outside the institution broadens the experience base," he said.

In fact, UVA faculty members are permitted to consult up to 52 days per years. And as Michaels told the Washington Post:

"I was working on climate change long before I was a consultant. and my views have been quite consistent over that period."

I know that to be true because I interviewed him on the topic back in the late 1980s, when I was a staff writer for Forbes. Keep in mind that in the policy world, money more often follows opinion, than opinion follows money.

The Daily Progess (Charlottesville, Va.) reported that while the activists failed to get Michaels fired, they did persuade Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine to disavow him:

Michaels, state climatologist since 1980, "is not a gubernatorial appointee," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's director of communications.

Kaine "considers him a professor at the University of Virginia and the head of the Virginia State Climatology Office," Skinner said Monday in response to inquiries about whether the governor would reappoint him as climatologist. 

"Generally, it is safe to say that Pat Michaels doesn't represent the governor's opinion on global warming," she said.

"He doesn't speak for the state. He doesn't speak for the governor," she said. "This is the University of Virginia having this particular faculty member head up their office of climatology."

OK, then. But state climatologist is a job title suggesting some, oh, say, expertise in climatology. Media outlets would cite the title as a shorthand way to indicate his credentials to readers and viewers. Surely few had ever mistaken the scientific views (controversial though they may be) of the state climatologist for the political views of the governor.

In any case, the not unreasonable conclusion is that the activist campaign aimed at Michaels was not about clarifying his exact relationship with the state government; it was chiefly about trying to get him fired for his views. Michaels stepped down in 2007, and now works at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Finally, a colleague of Michaels', climate scientist Chip Knappenberger, tells the Charlottesville weekly, The Hook:

"I didn't like it when the politicians came after Pat Michaels," says Chip Knappenberger. "I don't like it that the politicians are coming after Mike Mann."

Making his comments via an online posting under an earlier version of this story, Knappenberger worries that scientists at Virginia's public universities could become "political appointees, with whoever is in charge deciding which science is acceptable, and prosecuting the rest. Say good-bye to science in Virginia."

He's right.