Climate change opponent Patrick Michaels dies at 72


Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has become a lightning rod in climate change debates, reviled by activists and revered among skeptics for using his academic pedigree to challenge the broad scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of global warming , died July 15 at his home in Washington. He was 72 years old.

His family confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Dr. Michaels, who spent decades as a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia and as a climatologist for the state of Virginia, was one of the most prominent contrarian voices in the discussions policies and policies surrounding climate change.

He did not dispute the widely documented rise in temperatures on the planet, nor deny a human role in the phenomenon. “I believe in human-caused climate change,” he told the Washington Post in 2006. “What I’m skeptical about is the flippant idea that it means the end of the world as we know him.”

His stance and the forceful manner in which he promoted it in his frequent media appearances drew condemnation from scientists and environmentalists who accused Dr. Michaels of obstructing policy changes that could lessen the threat posed by climate change. They noted his association with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, where he was for a period director of the Center for the Study of Science, as well as his financial support by the fossil fuel industry, for challenging the integrity of research he cited in support of his positions.

But with his combination of academic bona fide, state title and flair in the boxing ring of political debate – he described former Vice President Al Gore, a prominent climate change activist, as a ” budding scientist” and denounced the “self-selected community of climate boffins” and “guardians of the environmental gloom paradigm” – Dr. Michaels proved an often-effective champion of his cause.

“He was just a born fighter,” said Robert Balling, a professor at Arizona State University who has co-authored books with Dr. Michaels, including “The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air About Global Warming” (2000) and “Climate of Extremes: The Science of Global Warming They Don’t Want You to Know” (2009).

“I knew people who refused to debate with him,” Balling added, recalling the frustrations of some scientists, highly qualified in their field but little experienced in the political arena, who were called upon to fight with him.

Dr. Michaels wanted to be known not as a climate change ‘skeptic’, but rather as a ‘lukewarm’. The term, said Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist and professor emeritus at Georgia Tech, refers to someone who argues that global warming is only partly caused by human activity, with natural climate variability being another factor. contributory.

He was appointed Virginia State Climatologist by Governor John N. Dalton, a Republican, in 1980. By all accounts, Dr. Michaels did well in that role, once described by The Post as a “cross between a meteorologist and a librarian”. in which he was tasked with collecting and analyzing weather data across the state.

But as climate change became an increasingly pressing issue and scientific agreement coalesced around its human causes, Dr Michaels became more outspoken in challenging what he saw as alarmist positions on global warming and overstepping regulations in efforts to combat it.

He argued that the United States should not sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the United States was ultimately not a signatory to the agreement) and described the 2016 Paris Agreement (which the US joined under President Barack Obama, left under President Donald Trump, and rejoined under President Biden) as “climate insignificant”.

In 2006, the office of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, asked Dr. Michaels to clarify that he was not speaking on behalf of the state or the governor when addressing issues related to global warming. Dr. Michaels resigned from his position and from U-Va. the following year, lamenting what he called a lack of “academic freedom”.

Dr. Michaels left the Cato Institute in 2019 and joined the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. Responding to critics who noted his funding over the years from coal-fired utilities, he said he had “worked on climate change long before I worked as a consultant” and that his “opinions have been pretty consistent. during this period”.

In his frequent media appearances, he exploited the “norm” that “for every doctorate there is an equal and opposite doctorate” on the other side of a political issue, Andrew Revkin, a former New York Times reporter who has been writing on climate change since the 1980s and now runs a communication innovation initiative at Columbia Climate School, said in an interview.

“He shrewdly accepted the human role in the climate system and was always able to artfully present the case for caution or uncertainty,” but in a way that suited the advocacy and interest groups for which he was working, Revkin said.

“He was an excellent writer and verbal communicator, but in my opinion he undermined his own effectiveness by being shrill,” wrote David Policansky, former research fellow and senior project director at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and of medicine in an email, noting “the risks and benefits of mixing science and politics. A risk undermines its credibility and a reward influences policy.

Patrick Joseph Michaels was born in Berwyn, Illinois on February 15, 1950. His father was a mushroom grower and his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Michaels earned a BS in Biological Sciences in 1971 and an MS in Biology in 1975, both from the University of Chicago. He received a doctorate in ecological climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1979. He was past president of the American Association of State Climatologists.

His books include “Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming” (1992), “Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media” (2004) and “Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything” (2016), written with Paul C. Knappenberger.

Dr. Michaels’ marriage to Erika Kancler ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of six years, the former Rachel Schwartz of Marshall, Virginia; two children from his first marriage, Erika Michaels of Waynesboro, Virginia, and Robert Michaels of Richmond; and two brothers.

Even among those who deeply disagreed with his scientific positions, Dr. Michaels found his defenders.

“He cared about the environment,” said Larry Kalkstein, professor emeritus of climatology at the University of Delaware and the University of Miami, recalling that he had seen Dr. Michaels “unfairly portrayed as a … pawn for industry”.

“I’ve never found making money from industry to be negative,” Kalkstein added, noting his own financial support from environmental groups. “I found it’s basically the same in my mind.”

“I vehemently disagreed with Pat regarding the science and policy implications of climate change,” wrote Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Pennsylvania State University, who had previously worked with Dr. Michaels at the University of Virginia. an email. “But I always found him to be a friendly colleague during our overlap at U. Va two decades ago.”

At climate conferences, Dr. Michaels was easily identifiable by the green tennis shoes he often wore – a ready-made conversation starter in a world of polarizing debate.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.


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