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The Scientist Who Made a ‘Total Turnaround’

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Subhankar Banerjee
A mother polar bear and two cubs playing near their den, Brownlow Point, Canning River Delta, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, March 2002

In the long intellectual struggle over global warming—by now stretching out to something like the duration of the cold war—one of the more amusing sideshows came earlier this summer, courtesy of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.

An engaging soul (he’s won teaching awards at Cal; no wonder, since his Wikipedia page shows him wearing a long blond wig as he touches the Van de Graaff generator to demonstrate static electricity), Muller is clearly one of those scholars who relishes attention. A particle physicist by training, he has published widely on controversial topics—theorizing, for instance, that our sun has an undetected companion star that periodically sends swarms of comets in our direction (the so-called Nemesis hypothesis) and estimating in a column for MIT’s Technology Review that polygraph machines are 80–95 percent accurate. From a distance, he seems a type familiar to anyone who spends time on college campuses—the brilliant curmudgeon who trespasses across disciplinary boundaries, often equal parts endearing and tiring.

Sometime in the last decade Muller got a bee in his bonnet about climate change, or at least the measurements used to show that the earth was warming. He worried that thermometers used to take readings around the world had been placed too near pavements; that raw data had been incorrectly “adjusted” by scientists; that cities had warmed because of the so-called “urban heat island effect” and that this affected calculations; and that there had been bias in the selection of which temperature records to use.

Other scientists had already tackled each of those possible sources of error repeatedly, and reached a strong consensus that indeed the planet was warming. But Muller decided he should reach his own conclusions, and raised money from a variety of sources, including Charles Koch, one of the two Koch brothers who made their fortune in fossil fuel and have generously funded the climate denial movement. Expectation therefore ran high among these skeptics that Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project would confirm their view. Anthony Watts, for instance, proprietor of the most widely read skeptic blog, said, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premises wrong.”

In the event, the project’s reworking of the data found precisely what one might expect: the previous teams of talented scientists had gotten it exactly right. When you plotted the BEST line against earlier work from places like Jim Hansen’s NASA lab, they matched up almost exactly—in fact, Muller’s data showed the planet had warmed a bit more than other reckonings. “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK,” said Muller, when preliminary results were announced last fall. “This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.” Earlier this summer, Muller and his colleagues released a new (not as yet peer-reviewed) paper going a step further, declaring that humans, thanks to our carbon emissions, are “almost entirely the cause” of the increase.

The news that a team of scientists had discovered exactly the same thing as all the other scientists before them would normally not create much furor. And indeed among scientists in the field the BEST paper was largely a nonevent. Technicians were interested in the new “data-set agglomeration” techniques used by Muller’s colleague Robert Rohde, who is admired as a topnotch statistician, but otherwise it held little technical interest for scientists. For lay observers, though, the fact that Muller was a former skeptic, and that he’d taken money from a Koch brother, seemed to endow his findings with special significance, an idea Muller was happy to foster. “Call me a converted skeptic” was how he opened the New York Times Op-Ed where he released his findings. He had made “a total turnaround, in such a short time.” And since the press loves to write about converted skeptics, he became the subject of thousands of comments and press accounts. “Koch-Funded Climate Change Skeptic Reverses Course” was the altogether typical headline on the Los Angeles Times story.

The climate denier community was the first to complain about Muller’s change of heart. Needless to say, his findings did not in fact cause them to recant. Their scientific counterattacks were as usual paltry, but they had a reasonable point to make about Muller himself—namely, that he hadn’t ever been much of a skeptic, and hence his conversion was really not that big a deal. Indeed, a great deal of his supposed change of heart did appear to be PR—it didn’t take long to find essays from almost a decade ago where he said things like

my own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate.

In the long run, however, advocates for action on climate change—who enthusiastically embraced Muller’s supposed defection on the matter of the temperature record—may have more to fear from his sudden celebrity. His daughter Elizabeth, who was his collaborator on the BEST project, announced plans for a “new section” of the BEST project to “look at policy.” (He’s also the president of a consulting company, Muller & Associates, whose website describes its work for a “large industrial conglomerate,” “a major energy company,” “a major private equity firm,” and governments from oil-rich Nigeria to oil-rich Abu Dhabi, not to mention “analysis of the bioterrorism threat” for the US government. His daughter is CEO.)

Muller’s new book, Energy for Future Presidents, released alongside his own statements to the press about the new findings, in fact centers on policy suggestions, and it is one of the strangest mixes of wool-gathering, Op-Ed punditry, and general mixed-up-ness I’ve ever read. It’s actually the second in a series of books he’s written purporting to advise potential occupants of the White House, the first titled Physics for Future Presidents, based on a course of that name that he taught for many years at Berkeley. (Apparently, Cal is rich with people considering commander in chief as a career.) This volume repeats many of the first book’s themes and examples; it’s clear that Muller has a few hobbyhorses that he is willing to ride into the ground.

It’s also clear he’s got a penchant for straw men, and this book begins with one. Determined to rehabilitate nuclear power after the Fukushima accident, he begins with a potted history of the 2011 Japanese tsunami (in three sentences the size of the wave goes from thirty feet to fifty feet) that “severely damaged” the reactor. The world was on tenterhooks: “Might the uranium inside explode like an atomic bomb?” Except…no scientists, and very few journalists, that I came across were worried about a nuclear explosion. I know he’s writing for future presidents, and the quality of this year’s primary field does give one some pause; still, all the media coverage focused on the possibility not of an atomic explosion, but of a large-scale radiation leak. So the two pages spent explaining why a nuclear plant is not a nuclear bomb (and the four pages spent on precisely the same topic toward the end of the book) are so much hand-waving.

One suspects that Muller has given the lecture about why basic physics prevents an atomic reactor from exploding in a mushroom cloud several times over the course of his career, and rather enjoys it. Once he’s finished delivering it here, he goes on to downplay the danger of the radiation that did leak, calculating that it will only cause one hundred additional cases of cancer—which may not come as comfort to the thousands of people evacuated for the foreseeable future from the region surrounding the plant where they had previously made their homes and livings. At any rate, Muller’s technique is clear: take the worst possible (or in this case impossible) danger and dismiss it, at which point any other effects will seem small.

Applied to global warming a little later in the book, the sleight of hand goes like this: it’s unlikely that we’ll heat the planet enough to set off a runaway greenhouse effect that will turn Earth into Venus. Also, some people thought climate change “caused” Hurricane Katrina, not to mention outbreaks of tornadoes and other severe weather, but we don’t have statistical proof that hurricanes or tornadoes are on the increase, so it’s okay to conclude that we should be “concerned” about global warming but we should certainly not panic. In fact, he opines that “maybe global warming is good,” adding that his home in “chilly Berkeley” might “be nicer with a few degrees of warming.”

In truth, this is a veritable march of straw men. Almost no one has seriously worried that we’ll heat the earth to the point where, say, our oceans boil away. And let’s give Muller the benefit of the doubt on hurricanes and tornadoes—they’re rare and episodic, and hence amid the random noise of nature it is hard to pin down how their incidence is changing (though it would have been correct to note that scientists who study severe weather are clear that increased temperature, by loading the atmosphere with extra moisture, can contribute to stronger storms).

In any event, all this spinning allows Muller to avoid grappling with the basic, fundamental, readily apparent, and already highly dangerous effects of climate change. Muller posits a spectrum of positions that run from “alarmist” and “exaggerator” through “warmist” and “lukewarmist” to “skeptic” and “denier,” and attempts to claim for himself the responsible middle ground while shunting scientists and activists more worried about global warming off into the extremes. This is a political strategy—a bid for the ear of pundits as well as presidents, with the time-honored strategy of representing the reasonable middle.

The trouble is, climate change has already produced empirically verifiable results, precisely as people like Hansen have predicted from the start. Forty percent of summer ice in the Arctic is gone (and this year’s melt season set a new record in late August); the ocean is 30 percent more acidic; and the atmosphere is 5 percent wetter than it used to be, loading the dice for more severe floods, even as hotter summers give us more prolonged and pronounced droughts. Data released this past summer demonstrates huge increases in “extreme precipitation” from rainstorms. In the northeast United States, for instance, such gullywashers grew 85 percent more common. Results like this are why the world’s largest insurance company, Munich Re, said in 2010 that “a marked increase in the number of weather-related events” simply “cannot be explained without global warming.” As Hansen demonstrated earlier this summer, in a paper (this one, as opposed to Muller’s, peer-reviewed) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the one-degree increase in temperature that has already occurred has been enough to give us “a high degree of confidence” that extreme heat events like those we’ve seen this summer across the US are “a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.”

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