Climate-change debate touches Chico

Local skeptic Anthony Watts cited in national, international media

Chico meteorologist and blogger Anthony Watts has become something of a national figure on the climate-change scene. Through his blog, “Watts Up With That?” he has long voiced skepticism of climate change and the manner in which climate studies have been conducted, and national media outlets have given him audience.

So when UC Berkeley physics professor and former “climate skeptic” Richard Muller wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal Oct. 21 simultaneously announcing the findings of his two-year climate study and his new stance on climate change, Watts was bombarded with interview requests from the New York Times, the Economist, the UK’s Guardian and Fox News, among others.

Last March Watts, apparently confident about Muller’s forthcoming conclusions, posted on his blog; “… I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong. I’m taking this bold step because the method has promise.”

He has since backed off, saying the study is of no value because its parts have not been peer reviewed.

To understand why the results of Muller’s study were so unexpected and created such a media storm, one must follow a trail of money back to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.

The brothers Koch inherited Wichita-based Koch Industries—the largest privately owned company in the United States—from their father, Fred, who pioneered an innovative method for turning heavy oil into usable gasoline. The brothers have individual fortunes of around $25 billion, putting them among the five richest men in the country. The brothers have dedicated tens of millions of dollars to supporting conservative politicians and academic researchers critical of climate change.

“There are certain people who benefit from denying that climate change is real,” said Scott McNall, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Development at Chico State. “If you’re selling oil or gas, you’re not really interested in trying to conserve energy. There’s a financial interest in denying climate change is real, but we’ve known that for a long time.”

Muller, Watts and other climate skeptics were particularly critical of temperature readings in urban areas, asserting that studies relying on data recorded in large cities are skewed because they do not take cooler rural areas into account. This phenomenon is known as Urban Heat Island Effect, and is the cornerstone of many arguments against NASA and NOAA studies that conclude the Earth has been steadily warming since the 1950s.

When Muller and eight other Berkeley scientists formed the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project with the goal of accurately calculating exactly how the planet’s climate has changed in recent decades, the Koch brothers provided the team with $150,000, covering about one quarter of the study’s cost.

“They thought they were going to have a world-famous scientist prove there is no global warming and that temperatures are not rising,” McNall said.

The study did just the opposite. Muller’s Wall Street Journal article concluded the figures produced by climate scientists in the NASA and NOAA studies were consistent with his own findings—that the Earth’s average temperature has risen about 1.8 degrees since the 1950s.

“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find,” Muller wrote. “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that.”

Watts is undeterred by the study, questioning whether the BEST team fully followed the scientific process.

“Anything as important as this is worth doing well, and rushing a worldwide press release before science review can weigh in is a huge mistake, in my opinion,” he said in an email. “When the science and peer review is finished, the results are likely to look different. If the medical community did something like this on cancer, for example, the scientists would be excoriated. Why does climate science get a free pass?”

Watts and University of Alabama professor John Christy will present a lecture titled “Some Things I Think I Know about the Murky Science of Climate” on Thursday, Nov. 10 in the Student Services Center, room 150, at Chico State.

“The issue has become left and right,” Watts said. “Nature, not man, will be the final arbiter of truth, and with what I’ve found recently, I suspect we’ll be surprised when the dust from this fight settles.”

In the meantime, Watts is preparing a new peer-reviewed paper on station siting with Dr. Roger Pielke, of the University of Colorado. They intend to show “what BEST and other studies missed, and how urbanization and encroachment have an effect on the temperature trend of the last 30 years,” Watts writes. He adds that he expects to complete peer review and publish in the spring of 2012.