Most Credible Climate Skeptic Not So Credible After All

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Patrick Michaels has more credibility than your average climate skeptic. Unlike some of the kookier characters that populate the small world of climate denialists—like Lord Christopher Monckton, a sometime adviser to Margaret Thatcher who claims that "We are a carbon-starved planet," or H. Leighton Steward, a retired oil executive and author of a best-selling diet book who argues that carbon dioxide is "green"—Michaels is actually a bona fide climate scientist. As such, he's often quoted by reporters as a reasonable expert who argues that global warming has been overhyped. But what Michaels doesn't mention in his frequent media appearances is his history of receiving money from big polluters.

Michaels, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, has some impressive-sounding credentials. He has a PhD in ecological climatology and is a senior fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He's a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists and a former program chair for the Committee on Applied Climatology of the American Meteorological Society. He regularly touts his work as a contributing author and reviewer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. (Almost every climate scientist in the world has at some point contributed to or reviewed an IPCC study.) Unlike climate skeptics who implausibly claim that there's no such thing as global warming, Michaels accepts that it's happening, but downplays the severity of the problem and the role that human activity plays in the phenomenon.

With climate science increasingly under siege, Michaels has been getting plenty of airtime lately. Following reports of errors and sloppy research procedures with the reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Michaels featured prominently in a CBS News report last month, claiming that there is "no doubt the trust in the UN panel has been undermined." And after hacked emails revealed that a group of climate scientists had tried to block skeptical views from academic papers and journals, Michaels appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 to debate Bill Nye (the "Science Guy"). Michaels said he was "troubled" that scientists at the heart of the controversy might have tried "to hide things" from Freedom of Information Act requests. He was also featured prominently in a New York Times piece calling the controversy "a mushroom cloud" for climate science, and appeared several times in the Wall Street Journal complaining that scientists said mean things about him in the emails. (It's worth emphasizing that while the incident revealed scientists behaving unprofessionally, nothing in the emails undermined the underlying science of climate change.)

But Michaels' credibility on climate is called into question by a trove of documents from a 2007 court case that attracted almost no scrutiny at the time. Those documents show that Michaels has financial ties to big energy interests—ties that he's worked hard to keep secret. Here's the back story:

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Several years ago, the auto industry launched a salvo of lawsuits challenging the tougher vehicle emissions standards that had been introduced in many states. In 2007, Michaels was scheduled to appear as an expert witness on behalf of a challenge by Green Mountain Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers to emissions standards in Vermont. The auto industry's lawyers planned to put Michaels on the stand as an expert witness who would question the scientific finding that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet. But it soon became clear that lawyers defending Vermont's law were going to ask Michaels about the clients of his "advocacy science consulting firm," New Hope Environmental Services.

Michaels had never made a list of his clients public, and he refused to do so now, arguing that it was a confidential matter. The judge disagreed, and ruled that Michaels' clients were a "viable area of cross examination." "I understand that maybe it's a little embarrassing," said Judge William K. Sessions III. "[But] it's not highly confidential information."

In a rare move, the auto dealers pulled Michaels off their witness list. In an affidavit [PDF], Michaels stated that New Hope was his primary source of income, and being forced to reveal its clients would "imperil my livelihood." He emphasized that the "sole reason" he did not testify was "concern that my trial testimony would result in the loss of confidentiality for the New Hope information."  

The auto lawyers were "desperate to shield who Pat Michaels makes his money from," David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club and one of the lawyers for the state in the case. "It's beyond unrealistic," said Bookbinder. "It's like saying in a speeding case that you're not able to ask about how fast someone was going."

As it turned out, Michaels' attempt to keep his client list secret wasn't entirely successful. The court documents reveal that lawyers for the defense saw records revealing that Michaels had received money from at least one very large energy company.

In addition, Greenpeace recently obtained an older copy of Michaels' curriculum vitae via a Freedom of Information Act request that shows that the Western Fuels Association, a coal and fuel-transportation business group, gave him a $63,000 grant in the early 1990s for "research on global climatic change." He also received $25,000 from the Edison Electric Institute, an association of electric utilities, from 1992-95 for "literature review of climate change and updates." And a 2006 leaked industry memo revealed that he received $100,000 in funding from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association to fund climate denial campaigning around the time of the release of An Inconvenient Truth. Reporter Ross Gelbspan wrote in his 1998 book The Heat is On, one of the earliest works documenting industry funding for climate change skepticism, that Michaels also received $49,000 came from the German Coal Mining Association and $40,000 from the western mining company Cyprus Minerals. 

In the Vermont case, the auto dealers eventually replaced Michaels with John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who believes that concerns about global warming might be overstated. However, Christy proved to be a far less agressive defender of that view than Michaels. According to court transcripts, Christy eventually admitted on the stand, "The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is real. It is due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels." Vermont went on to win the case and eventually the Environmental Protection Agency not only granted states the right to set those higher emissions standards but adopted the stricter rules nationwide.

Michaels is still frequently called on as an expert source by mainstream media outlets. Even as he's bashed the IPCC for its lack of transparency, he refuses to come clean about the sources of his funding. It turns out the climate skeptics' most credible expert isn't so credible after all.

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