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.

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