Dramatic turnaround from leading climate change skeptic blows open debate

Physics professor and self-proclaimed "converted" climate change skeptic Richard A. Muller. Photo credit: Physics World on Flickr.

One of the world's most influential climate change skeptics reignited public debate on the issue by declaring that climate change is real, and caused entirely by humans.

Richard A. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on July 30 in which he proclaimed himself a "converted skeptic." The Earth Surface project's findings assert the earth's average land temperature rose by 1.5 degrees Celcius over the past 250 years almost entirely due to greenhouse gas pollution. Climate change is real, he wrote, and humans are "almost entirely the cause."

Then the kicker: "We need to do something about it."

Media reacted swiftly, from Democracy Now to op-eds in UK's The Guardian. In Canada, Postmedia's Stephen Maher asserted that critics of climate change are losing their PR battle, citing Muller's turnabout as a major setback to climate change skeptic funders such as the Koch brothers.

The Koch Brothers and climate change skeptics
Muller's turnabout on the issue has made him a media darling because the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project received $150,000 from Charles Koch, a well-known US billionaire who with his brother David Koch fund climate change skeptic groups such as the Heartland Institute.

The Koch brothers also gave $500,000 to the right-wing Canadian think-tank the Fraser Institute, well-known for its ties to high-profile climate change skeptics.

Ezra Levant, a Sun media columnist and author of Ethical Oil, came to intern at the Fraser Institute after a fellowship with the Koch Foundation. Kathryn Marshall, political commentator and former Ethical Oil spokesperson, was a development associate at the Fraser Institute. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith took on an internship with the Fraser Institute during her twenties that “imbued her with a passion for Ayn Rand and charter schools”, according to a Walrus article. She became an intern with the encouragement of Tom Flanagan, a Fraser Institute senior fellow and Stephen Harper mentor. Vancouver Sun editorial pages editor and columnist Fazil Milhar is the former regulatory studies director at the Fraser Institute.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked Muller point-blank whether the Koch brothers were "disappointed" in his findings and asked for their money back. Muller said this was not the case, saying that he talked to them and that they appeared to be "very pleased."

The last word on climate change?
Muller stated that he expected his op-ed would attract attention. "Since we expected attention, and we knew that journalists would be giving layman descriptions of our work, we felt it best if we described our own work in layman's terms," he wrote in an email to The Vancouver Observer. He added that by posting all the research papers and methods online, it would lower the barrier to entry for other scientists into climate change-related research.

However, the Berkeley Earth project's findings have come under scrutiny for being overly simplistic from Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The New York Times' DotEarth blogger Andrew Revkin noted that Curry sent a note to journalists, stating:

"The BEST team has produced the best land surface temperature data set that we currently have. It is best in the sense of including the most data and extending further back in time. The data quality control and processing use objective, statistically robust techniques. That said, the scientific analyses that the BEST team has done with the new data set are controversial, including the impact of station quality on interpreting temperature trends and the urban heat island effect. Their latest paper on the 250-year record concludes that the best explanation for the observed warming is greenhouse gas emissions. Their analysis is way oversimplistic and not at all convincing in my opinion."

The Guardian's Phillip Ball cautioned against viewing Muller's turnaround as an absolute victory for climate change believers versus non-believers.

"Big questions in science are rarely resolved at a stroke by transparent experimental results," he wrote. "So they require vigorous debate, and the opposing views need resolute champions."

Muller concluded his op-ed on a similar note, expressing hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis "will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes," after which comes the difficult part: "agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done."

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