The Not-So-Great Part of Richard Muller’s Conversion from Climate Skeptic to Believer

Berkeley scientist’s advocacy of natural gas extraction via “clean fracking” is troubling

Richard Muller never denied that Earth was getting warmer, he told me over coffee last February. But he was skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change because of what he viewed as systematic flaws in the major climate change studies that informed it. So Muller, a physicist at UC Berkeley, decided to remedy the problem with a new study solely based on temperature records that he believed would address those flaws.

Richard MullerRichard Muller

Now, three years later, Muller has had a “total turnaround.” Despite the previous studies’ flaws, the consensus — that global warming is real and that humans are helping speed it up — was correct, a conclusion that most other scientists came to years ago. Because of who he is — an outspoken critic of climate change research — Muller created something of a media storm when he announced his transformation, which he published in an op-ed in The New York Times last month. 

“Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct,” Muller wrote in the July 28 op-ed. “I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Muller’s project has been criticized in the past for receiving $150,000 in funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, which is associated with Koch Industries, an oil and gas conglomerate. The foundation has historically supported conservative causes, so environmentalists were unsure what to expect when Muller prepared to announce the study’s findings last year. Muller maintained throughout the study that the funding would have no impact on the results of the research, and he sort of proved it with the group’s results that show a two and a half degree Fahrenheit increase over the last 250 years, and one and a half degrees Fahrenheit increase over the last 50 years.

“We carefully studied issues raised by skeptics: biases from urban heating (we duplicated our results using rural data alone), from data selection (prior groups selected fewer than 20 percent of the available temperature stations; we used virtually 100 percent), from poor station quality (we separately analyzed good stations and poor ones) and from human intervention and data adjustment (our work is completely automated and hands-off),” Muller wrote in the NYT oped.

The findings aren’t controversial — far from it. They are very much in line with the scientific community’s consensus on global warming and only serve to further confirm what scientists have known for decades. But in a country where belief in climate change is a political issue, Muller’s finding makes it significantly harder for climate change denialists to point to science to back up their claims. Muller was one of the most vocal global warming skeptics in the scientific community, and his transformation is a blow to those who used his prominence as a scientist and his skepticism to argue that global warming did not exist.

But the decision to release the group’s data and analysis on their website and publicize the results in an op-ed instead of waiting for publication in a peer-reviewed journal has earned the project criticism from the scientific community.

Though none of the five papers that the group has now produced have been published in scientific journals, Muller wrote that “[f]our of our papers have undergone extensive scrutiny by the scientific community, and the newest, a paper with the analysis of the human component, is now posted, along with the data and computer programs used.”

Muller hopes the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and humanity’s role in exacerbating it.  He believes the most difficult task in front of us is to reach a consensus across the political spectrum about what we are going to do to deal with a changing climate.

In the near future, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions will come from China, India, and other parts of the developing world, Muller said in an email to Earth Island Journal. In order to slow warming, he said two major initiatives are required: technical conservation and replacing coal with natural gas, which emits one-third of the carbon dioxide coal emits when burned.

Muller’s advocacy of natural gas as a cleaner fuel, however, doesn’t really delve into the serious environmental and health impacts caused by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of extracting gas buried in shale deposits that’s become increasingly popular in the United States. In an interview earlier this month with talk show host Rachel Maddow, he offered up an unbelievably naïve solution to such concerns:

“Well, I totally don’t support the old kind of fracking, but I think clean fracking — in which you just fine the hell out of the companies if they spill anything or upset the water tables, they can fix it up. Compared to developing really cheap solar, developing really clean fracking, I think, is relatively straightforward.”

“Clean fracking?” It seems Muller’s understanding about our current political climate and the influence of corporate (especially oil and gas company) money in US politics isn’t quite as clear as his newfound understanding of the factors affecting climate change. For environmentalists, Muller’s conversion from skeptic to believer appears to be more of a one step forward two steps back advantage in the fight against climate change in the US.

And by the way, Koch Industries is into oil and gas, isn’t it?

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