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Cooling climate change contrarians

Andrew Freedman @ 2:40 AM

Climate change contrarianism is increasingly becoming hazardous to one's professional well being, at least if your job title happens to be "state climatologist."

In the past several months Democratic governors in three states -- Delaware, Oregon, and Virginia -- have sought to limit the ability of state climatologists to use their official designation when commenting on policy matters, and in the case of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, to strip the title-holder of the designation entirely.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Partly cloudy and quite brisk. Highs 41-46, with northwest winds 15-20mph, making it feel colder.
Tonight: Clear and cold. Lows 22-28 (suburbs-city).
Tomorrow: Partly cloudy and milder, highs in the low 50s.

A detailed week ahead forecast will appear tomorrow.

Each of the state climatologists involved may have misstepped by using their designation as state climatologist when expressing views on climate change policies.

The three governors have correctly judged that the views expressed by their state climatologists could be interpreted as official statements from their administration and thereby undermine their own policy goals.

"If you give someone a dandy title such as State Climatologist, you can bet that whatever positions he takes are going to sound like they have the authority of the state and its governor behind it," wrote Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher.

The controversy first arose in Virginia last summer with a dispute between the office of Gov. Tim Kaine and longtime state climatologist and climate change contrarian Patrick J. Michaels. Kaine's administration wrote to the University of Virginia, where Michaels is a professor, requesting that he refrain from using his official title when conducting outside activities or engaging in private consulting work.

In nearby Delaware, state climatologist David R. Legates is in a similar predicament. On Feb. 13, Governor Ruth Ann Minner (D) sent a letter to Legates to clarify his use of the title bestowed upon him by the federal and state governments. The letter directs Legates to avoid using the title when offering his views on public policy matters.

Legates has a history of backing up his policy statements with his title as state climatologist. For example, he identified himself as the state climatologist when he co-wrote a friend-of-the-court legal brief that opposed Delaware's position in a recent Supreme Court case involving federal regulations of greenhouse gases.

In Oregon a similar effort is underway but with an important distinction. This time the governor wants to completely remove the job title from the current state climatologist, George Taylor of Oregon State University.

Taylor disputes the widely held belief that human emissions of greenhouse gases are now the dominant player in producing climate change and that future climate change could have severe consequences. He instead blames natural causes for the observed warming.

The governor, who favors taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says he wants to clarify that Taylor doesn't represent his administration. "He is Oregon State University's climatologist. He is not the state of Oregon's climatologist," Kulongoski told KGW-TV.

Removing Taylor from his post would go too far, and together with the other state actions is giving some researchers and activists ammunition to level the charge of government-sponsored scientific cleansing.

"It seems if scientists don't express the views of the political establishment, they will be threatened and that is a discomforting thought," Alabama state climatologist John Christie told the Cybercast News Service.

Hurricane expert and former Colorado state climatologist William Gray Sr. wrote on his blog: "These are very chilling developments and should be resisted and objected to by anyone who values the free expression of scientific views."

Such criticism is an attempt turn an issue of an executive's authority over state policy into a matter of scientific freedom. There is no compelling reason why a governor should not have the authority to authorize who speaks for their state on policy matters. The problem arises when they punish people for holding certain scientific beliefs, but in at least the cases of Delaware and Virginia the action is being taken due to persons exceeding their scientific role and straying into the policy arena.

None of the governors are proposing to fire these researchers from their paid university professorships (state climatologists are often unpaid positions) or to restrict them from receiving state money for climate research.

In other words, they aren't going to have to leave their lab, stop publishing scientific work and be put out on the street simply because they have to change business cards.

Like a graph plotting the recent temperature of the earth, the trend here is clear: it's becoming more and more uncomfortable to oppose taking action on global climate change.

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