Conflict of Interest and the State Climatologist

City Councilor Kevin Lynch has been investigating UVa Professor and State Climatologist Patrick Michaels. Having already demonstrated that Michaels is likely being less than truthful in claiming to be State Climatologist, he’s turned his attention to the ethical considerations that accompany Michaels’ solicitation of contributions from power companies. Kevin’s article follows, the second in a two-part series.

Conflict of Interest and the State Climatologist

In the past several weeks, much has been written in the press concerning State Climatologist, Patrick Michaels’ solicitation of funding from power companies.

While much of the press has concluded that this constitutes a conflict of interest, UVA Environmental Science chair Joseph Zieman, was recently quoted in the Richmond Times Dispatch saying “Pat has a consulting company, and that is done outside the University and has nothing to do with his official duties as state climatologist,” Zieman expounded further in the Cavalier Daily: “Michaels has published material in peer-review journals that has generally taken a “middle-of-the-road” view on global warming. It’s the stuff that is frequently done with the consulting company that downplays the influence of global warming.”

However, in addition to the work which Dr. Michaels does with the his consulting company, the material he publishes as State Climatologist also vehemently downplays the influence of global warming.

The body of Dr. Michaels’ official work as State Climatologist can be found on the Virginia Climatologist website. There is very little original content on this site – it is mostly links to other information. What we do find is some general information on Virginia’s climate and a service called the Virginia Climate Advisory, which sends Climate Advisories several times a year, usually quarterly, to several thousand subscribers around the State.

The Climate Advisories are archived all the way back to 1977. Until the mid 1980’s, they contained the sort of information that one might expect from a State Climatologist – information about State weather patterns and the effect that they might have on various crops, the likely impact of the upcoming hurricane season on coastal areas, etc. However starting around 1986, the Climate Advisories began to take a progressively more editorial bent, expressing skepticism towards global warming in particular and fellow scientists in general. For example, the lead-in to the most recent issue states:

Five named storms before July 15! Obviously we’re headed for some kind of record year. Or are we? And what does all of this have to do with planetary warming? The answers aren’t at all clear…we live in a society where the hallmark of any respected profession (dubiously including weather forecasting in that group) is risk-aversion.

Is this a State Climate Advisory? It sounds a lot like editorializing to me, the purpose of which seems to be to cast suspicion on global warming and the work of his peers.

In the Spring of 1987, the Climate Advisory introduced a feature, called “The Current Wisdom.” According to the lead in:

THE CURRENT WISDOM is an Advisory service whose purpose is to acquaint readers with items of interest appearing in the scientific literature. Particular attention is paid to recent publications and presentations; however, we occasionally hearken back to the Wisdom of the Ages.

The Wisdom is an attempt to balance the popular perception of important issues relating to our climatic environment. Several scientific papers or public presentations occur each quarter that may not receive either the public exposure or the evenhanded interpretation that is commensurate with their importance.

Wait a minute! Isn’t this exactly what Dr. Michaels is getting paid to do by the power companies? Why is this showing up in a State Climate Advisory? What does challenging the work of other researchers have to do with Virginia’s climate? Most of these “Current Wisdom” editions don’t even mention Virginia’s climate.

The Climate Advisory has also served as a handy way of letting Dr. Michaels’ readership know when his office is short of funds. For example, in the Fall 1990 Issue, we find this gem:

One virtue of our current society is that government bureaucrats – like us – have to prove every once in a while that we’re worth our paltry salaries. This is especially true in times of revenue famine. Like now. Unfortunately, the associated vice is that you have to read about it in our Official pages, rather than, say, enjoying the usual diatribe about global warming, which we’ve deferred to this issue’s Current Wisdom.

Interestingly, at the same time, Dr. Michaels was making his pitch directly to the power companies. According to an AP article from October 10, 1990:

Patrick J. Michaels, associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, delivered a critique Tuesday of the global warming theory before a coal industry executives. His appearance was sponsored by the Pikeville Coal Operators and Associates and the North Carolina Coal Institute…. Carbon dioxide is a chief byproduct of coal burning, and the industry fears a new wave of environmental regulations to limit or tax carbon dioxide emissions would kill the nation’s coal mines. ‘You are the industry targeted to be phased out,’ Michaels told the group.Using an array of graphs and charts, Michaels argued that the warming effect of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is more than offset by increased cloudiness created by industrial emissions.

Got that? Don’t worry about the greenhouse gasses warming things up. A nice layer of smog will keep things cool!

Perhaps a little refresher in the University’s conflict of interest policies are in order:

An employee of the University shall not accept a business or professional opportunity for financial benefit, if he/she knows or should know that the opportunity is offered to influence the discharge of his/her official duties.

I cannot see how any impartial observer could avoid the conclusion that using an official publication of the State Climatologist as an editorial vehicle to promote the agenda of Dr. Michaels’ power company funders is anything other than a clear conflict of interest.

The problem is that thus far, the University maintains that since Dr. Michaels was appointed by Governor Dalton, what he publishes as State Climatologist is the Governor’s problem. The Governor’s office maintains that the State Climatologist is not and never has been a gubernatorial appointment position. Getting to the bottom of this is a whole other story.

14 thoughts on “Conflict of Interest and the State Climatologist”

  1. Why is a city councilman getting involved in a University matter? Last I heard, the University is not under the jurisdiction of Charlottesville but of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Perhaps if Councilman Lynch spent more time focusing on concerns within the city rather than the University where he has no say, some real work could be done.

  2. The City is dependent upon the state for a large chunk of revenue, so watching the state budget is a part of a councillor’s job. Beyond that, this yahoo Michaels is sitting here in Charlottesville making the City look ridiculous and the City’s image is also among the things a councillor should have some interest in. I’ve got no problem with how KL is spending his time.

  3. If Kevin Lynch were Kevin Lynch, private citizen, CR UVA wouldn’t be so concerned about how he is spending his time. Is CR UVA saying that becasue Lynch is on the City Council investigating a possible case of fraud (both monetary and in terms of the public trust) as a private citizen is an inappropriate use of his time?

    I say no. The fact that the research he presents is downright scholarly, not partisan, only adds to the value therein. I had written in this space earlier that I didn’t have much of a problem with Michaels receiving funding from utilities – professors often receive funding from the industries they are working with. But this article has changed my mind, even though this means that my Republican friends can now label me as a flip-flopper. Having been swift-boated before, I think I can weather the storm.

  4. That Kevin Lynch is a city official has little to do with his excellent research. This original take on the state climatologist office may well bear fruit. I am curious to see where this goes.

    Waldo, with all due respect, the conflict of interest claim has not proven. That is not to say it can’t or won’t be proven.There is more gray area in conflict of interest then one might think. I have watched researchers work to get funding by letting those who might benefit from their research become involved. If this research is falsified or corrupt by this funding then the scientist will suffer. Corporations will fund those who think like they do. This is not new or illegal.

    Coporations will also fund respected professors to try and hide the truth. The case of Dr. Barry Marshall comes to mind. Drug companies tried to destroy Dr. Marshall research that Helicobacter pylori virus caused ulcers. In the end science won out and Marshall was proven right. I have yet to read that anyone that tried to disprove his therioes was found to have commit a conflict of interest. The drug companies fund millions to prove him wrong and in the end Dr. Marshall will someday win a Nobel prize.

    If Micheals believes that , for example, that the Kyoto protocols will hurt business and not have the positive effects on the climate that other scientists do, then he needs to prove that claim. To do that it should surprise no one that industries that dislike the Kyoto protocols will be more than happy to fund that research. That is not a conflict of interest. Just because Micheals is seems to be wrong on his global warming view does not mean that he has commit an illegal act.

  5. I think the question of whether or not we indeed have a state climatologist is a good starting point and pretty relavant to the local dialog on global climate change.

    If there is indeed such a state appointed office, than why is he taking money from coal companies? How is this not a conflict of interest? We need to come to a consensus, globally and locally about the real problem of global climate change. This discussion is part of that process and applaud Mr. Lynch’s use of his time and resources on this issue.

  6. CR UVa,

    So being unable to refute any of the facts you’ve decided to attack the right of the author to even ask the questions that he did? This is not going to get you anywhere. Whenever you find yourself having to do that, it’s usually wise to reconsider your position.

  7. Beyond that, this yahoo Michaels is sitting here in Charlottesville making the City look ridiculous…

    You know sometimes I think the city does a good enough job making itself look ridiculous.

    Aside from that, I’m wondering if we could take the state money that Michaels gets paid as state climatologist and roll it into a “living wage” fund for UVA employees currently making less than 11/hr.

    Since UVA insists state climatologist is a Govenor appointed position and the Govenor insists it’s a UVA position neither group should mind yanking the funds to use it for the “living wage.”

  8. 1. City Councilor is a part-time job. So the issue would be not whether Lynch’s research is job-related but whether it is job-contradictory. I would say no, it does not impinge on his work as a public official.

    2. The “conflict of interest” standard might be “appearance of a conflict of interest.”

    3. Is Michaels the State Climatologist? I’ve reread some the articles linked from here and am not sure if the $90K for the State Climatology Office is on top of his salary as professor. In any case, if the legislature funds it specifically as “State Climatology Office” each biennium, then that would have bearing. And if so, then what about other offices and institutes at UVa? If the legislature has a line for the “UVa Center for Politics,” does that make Larry Sabato the official state “Political Centrist?”

    Seriously, if the legislature is funding it, then it seems to me the only objection could be constitutional. And I don’t see they’ve gone into executive territory just by naming an office “State Climatology Office” rather than “UVa Climatology Office,” and leaving the status its (one?) employee undefined. But I’m just guessing about how this is written into the biennial budget. And does that mean UVa would then be in charge of appointing and removing the director of the office? Maybe so, if it’s funded as part of UVa. Maybe not, if it’s funded otherwise. As part of the Governor’s office? Or does the Governor have implicit responsibility for managing undefined state positions? Especially with UVa publicly ceding authority. Total guesswork here.

    Would there be an objection to Michaels calling himself “Director of the State Climatology Office?”

  9. Here it is in the 2007 + 2008 budget. And it is the “Virginia State ClimatoLOGIST Office,” not the Virginia State ClimatoLOGY Office.” So Michaels is certainly entitled to update his web site to that extent. ;)

    “ยง 1-61. UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA (207)…

    “F. Out of this appropriation, $91,530 the first year and $91,530 the second year from the general fund is designated for the Virginia State Climatologist Office.”

    and, by the way, a few lines down in the same section:

    “J.1. Out of this appropriation, $655,000 the first year
    and $655,000 the second year from the general fund
    shall be provided for the Center for Politics at the
    University of Virginia to conduct and preserve oral
    histories with senior public officials, to conduct the
    Virginia Youth Leadership Initiative which educates
    students in Virginia’s secondary schools in the
    democratic process, and to develop programs that foster
    increased public awareness of the electoral system.”

    But searching the state Code for “climatologist” turns up nothing, so I guess it’s up to the Governor how he spends the dough.

    On a side note, the $91K is *less* than it used to be. Seems if 2003 the amount was $113,000, with reductions of 11,300 each year, because “It is the intent of the Governor and the General Assembly that direct general fund support of special purpose research and public service centers and projects in higher education not be continued indefinitely and that institutions of higher education secure nongeneral fund support of such activities.”

    All of which makes it sound like a UVa responsibility to hire & fire the State Climatologist. You gotta hand it to him though, Michaels has indeed secured “nongeneral fund support” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Might as well say it… Lary Sab. is the official “Virginia Youth Leader.” Or he *would* be if it read the “Virginia Youth Leader Initiative.”

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