Does Virginia really have a State Climatologist?

Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch has been quite taken with the story of UVa Professor and State Climatologist Patrick Michaels taking money from utilities. He raised some interesting questions in his comments on the story, and ended up spending a great bit of time investigating the history of Michaels ostensible position as State Climatologist. Funny thing — it sure looks like he is not, in fact, State Climatologist. What follows is Kevin’s article on the topic, the first in a two-part series.

Does Virginia really have a State Climatologist?
And if not, why are taxpayers spending $91,530 a year for the Virginia State Climatologist Office?

As reported in the Progress a couple of days ago, there is a difference of opinion between the University of Virginia and the Governor’s office as to who is responsible for the Office of the Climatologist. According to the Governors office, the Climatologist is not a gubernatorial appointee, while according to the University the position of State Climatologist is a gubernatorial appointment.

Patrick Michaels This matters of course, because using his Office of State Climatologist, Dr. Patrick Michaels publishes some rather controversial opinions on global warming and associated phenomena – opinions that seem to be very closely related to those he promotes as a private consultant to coal and power industries. This would appear to be a conflict of interest, however at this time, neither the University or Governor’s office will claim responsibility for Dr. Michaels’ actions as State Climatologist. Thus the determination of whether or not a conflict exists is left to editorial page writers.

The lack of oversight by the Governors office or University raises a much more serious question: If the State Climatologist is accountable to neither, than who appointed him and by whose authority has his office been drawing approximately $2.5 million dollars of taxpayer money over the past 26 years?

Having reviewed the documentation available thus far, I believe that the Governor’s office is right – the Climatologist is not a gubernatorial appointee. He was in fact given a letter of appointment by Governor Dalton in 1980, but his appointment does not appear to have been legitimate, nor was it ever recorded with the Secretary of the Commonwealth or with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).

To understand how this could have happened, a bit of history is required: The position of the State Climatologist was originally a Federal appointment, housed at Virginia Tech. In 1973, the Federal government discontinued the program. Shortly thereafter, most States picked up the responsibility for the office as a State function. Typically the position is a Gubernatorial appointment, filled by either an employee of a State agency or staff member of a State-supported University.

In 1977, Virginia was still without a State Climatologist and the University of Virginia petitioned Governor Godwin to house the Office at UVA. On August 10, 1977, Governor Godwin appointed Dr. Bruce Hayden as “acting” State Climatologist. The designation of “acting” is significant, because at the time there was no statutory authority in Virginia State code to create the office. Governor Godwin stated in his appointment letter

I believe we need to consider carefully the creation of a permanent state climatological office. For the interim, I would like to ask that you accept my designation as the acting state climatologist.

I am not sure of the exact authority of the appointment, but believe that Governor Godwin may have relied on (a somewhat liberal interpretation of) Virginia Code Sec 2.2-605 to fill the position as “acting” since there had been a previous appointment which was left vacant when the office was moved to UVA.

At that point (August 10, 1977), Governor Godwin was near the end of his term. And for whatever reason, it is apparent that the position of State Climatologist was never created by an act of the General Assembly or otherwise.

In 1980, the University recruited the current Climatologist, Dr. Patrick Michaels, to become the permanent State Climatologist. On July 8th, 1980, Governor Dalton sent a letter of appointment to Dr. Michaels in which he states: “It is my pleasure to appoint you as State Climatologist.” Note there is no “acting” designation. This is the letter for which the University bases its claim that the Climatologist is a Gubernatorial appointment. However, no action establishing the State Climatologist Office had been taken (nor has such action been taken since). Thus I do not believe Governor Dalton had the statutory authority to issue the letter. Furthermore, only the University seems to have had a copy of this letter. There was no copy at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, nor was there any copy in Governor Dalton’s personal records of appointments and memos. Unlike the previous appointment, no copy of the letter was filed with NCDC. The result of this is that even if there were some possible legitimate basis for the letter of appointment, no Governor since Dalton has had any inkling that there ever was an appointment, and thus there has been no reappointment of the State Climatologist in 26 years.

When I asked Dr. Michaels how he became the State Climatologist in an email, he did not mention the letter of appointment from Dalton – instead he responded:

State Climatologists are appointed via a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Climatic Data Center, the relevant University, and the Executive Branch. It’s got to be around somewhere.

However, thus far no one, including Dr. Michaels has been able to produce such a MOU, which would have been dated 1980. The Governor’s office and NCDC don’t have it. There is no copy in Governor Dalton’s papers at the State Library. The only entity that could possibly have it is the University. If they do have such a document, it seems a little strange that they would insist that the Climatologist is a Gubernatorial appointment on the basis of Governor Dalton’s 1980 letter.

I have not heard back from Dr. Michaels since the first of August, although I have tried to contact him. This is unfortunate, because he may be able to answer a few questions to help clear things up. For example: If there is indeed such a MOU as he claims, why can no one, including himself, produce a copy? Is there anyone besides himself who can vouch for its existence? What exactly did it say? Did it void the letter of appointment by Dalton? If so, why does the University still claim that Dr. Michaels is a Gubernatorial appointment? If not, why does Dr. Michaels suppose he hasn’t been re-appointed for the past 26 years? Did the MOU make him a judge with a lifetime appointment? If no one else besides Dr. Michaels can vouch for the existence of the MOU, who else besides myself has been told that the MOU was the basis of Dr. Michaels’ appointment?

So here we are, almost two weeks after Harry asked how the Climatologist is appointed and we still have more questions than answers — although the questions are now quite a bit more serious.

Harry also seems to have excellent intuition, because he also asked two weeks ago “Did George Allen have anything to do with Patrick Michaels getting the gig?” And while I don’t know that Allen had anything to do with Dr. Michaels getting the gig, he certainly seems to have had quite a bit to do with him keeping the gig, as was reported in the recent Progress article. The details of these “interventions” are a whole other story — one which is probably best left to the professionals.

16 thoughts on “Does Virginia really have a State Climatologist?”

  1. This sounds to me that a citizen could sue the state for cause (misuse of state taxes dollars) and in that case the state would have to prove that Mr . Micheals was a legitmate state employee. If they cannot then the case will never see court and Micheals tenure will end in a whimper.

  2. Wow. This is impressive work on the part of Kevin Lynch, Citizen Journalist.

    This investigative piece stands head and shoulders over all of political armchair quarterbacking, pontificating, bellyaching and name-calling that pervades so many blogs. Kevin Lynch read a few questions, was curious, and took it upon himself to do the serious legwork to search for answers. I haven’t seen any newspapers doing this kind of work.

    Thanks and a tip of the hat…

  3. My God, Kevin is really going to have this guy’s head on a wall by the end of the month. This may be the best example I have ever seen of someone of ordinary means using simple curiosity and truth to get something done. Pat Michaels got away with pretending to be a high-ranking public official for decades – has anything like this ever happened before? This whole affair will be the stuff of legend in Virginia political circles for the next century or so.

  4. Wow. This is impressive work on the part of Kevin Lynch, Citizen Journalist.


    I haven’t seen any newspapers doing this kind of work.

    I agree entirely. And this should be lesson number 1 for all of the local news organizations about how to do something other than the “good news – no risk reporting” that one generally sees in this town.

    This almost reminds me of the first time C-ville Weekly started publishing a complete roster of the local teachers salaries with names identifing who made how much, right after teacher salaries became public information. It definately took the wind out of the argument – “teachers aren’t paid enough.”

  5. While some teachers are paid very nicely, many are paid extremely poorly. There’s a great deal of space between our best-paid teachers and our worst-paid teachers.

  6. $36k definitely isn’t real hot, particularly given the cost of housing in Charlottesville. I just plugged that into a mortgage calculator, assuming a $10,000 down payment, a 30-year mortgage, a 6.2% interest rate, $1k/year for insurance, $1k/year for real estate taxes, and $600 in monthly living costs (food, clothing, transportation, etc.). How much house can a teacher afford? A $89,413.55 one.

    Just for fun, I checked CAAR’s site. Turns out there are four such houses to choose from. One is a 50+ year old 672 square foot house…in Waynesboro. The other three are trailers in New Canton, Arrington, and Keysville. And, I’ve got to tell you, two and a half hours — each way — is one hell of a commute.

    With public servants from whom we desire a long-term commitment (teachers, firefighters, police officers, etc.) we have a special duty to make it possible to pay them enough to make it possible to continue to live in the community and perform their job. Otherwise they’ll have to move elsewhere in order to make a home for themselves, and we don’t end up with many experienced teachers.

    Remember, too, that Charlottesville and Albemarle place a great deal more emphasis on education funding than most places in the nation. We’re — happily — not representative of the standard plight of teachers.

  7. You’re preaching to the choir when you’re speaking about how expensive Cville is to live in. And I’m very aware at what it costs to get into the housing market in Cville. I also know what the job market in town looks like, and there’s a lot more out there that pays a lot less. So when 36k is more than you make it’s kinda difficult to sympathize.

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  9. I reeaaaaly don’t like to defend Mr. Michaels but as I quoted in the other thread, the budget legislation in 2003 indicated that general fund support for offices like his and dozens of other “special purpose research and public service centers” affiliated with universities, such as the Center for Politics, should “not be continued indefinitely and that institutions of higher education [should] secure nongeneral fund support of such activities.”

    So soliciting happy money (or a word that starts with brib…) from the coal industry might be justified? I don’t know what they meant by nongeneral fund support; maybe nonpartisan foundation grants.

    Strange isn’t it what you can glean from a few lines of the state budget? I didn’t see the language in the latest budget, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on it.

  10. I’ve been reading the VA Climate Advisory since it was a free newsletter mailed to anyone who asked for it. I found it often pretty interesting. I clearly remember in the mid 80’s when it started exploring the global warming issue. It was actually a long time before I realized he was known outside VA. I think Michaels was correct that it was easy to manipulate the numbers and that often “warmer” could be largely attributed to the “heat island” effect, ie more development around cities where weather instruments were placed.

    It seems that the current discussion is not dealing with the efficacy of Michaels views of global warming but rather whether he is creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. Whether or not he is the State Climatoligist is I think a side issue although worthy of discussion.

    I write a weekly column for the Culpeper Star Exponent and am planning on writing about this next week. If anyone wants to send any info that they think might be helpful please send to: One thing I’d like some examples of is whether people in similar positions have entered into similar arrangements or whether this is unusual.

  11. I think there are some questions that would be worth tracking down including…

    -Why was Hayden named State Climatologist in 1977?
    -If UVa was using the State Climatologist salary line to hold Hayden, did he get a tenure track appointment in 1980, which opened up the position?
    -Why did UVa hire Michaels for a position which appears to call for someone more senior than he was (he was a fresh PhD at the time)?

    There is some more here.

    As to the heat island issue from Coby Beck’s blog is a good place to start with further links. The long and the short of it is that yes, urban areas are warmer than rural, but the way in which global temperature records are measured takes this into account.

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