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Oregon Global Warming Skeptic Finds Controversy

June 21, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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GEORGE TAYLOR, Oregon Climate Service: This has been very wet. And compared to other years…

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: For the last 16 years, since George Taylor became head of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University, he’s been the public face of weather in Oregon. But when he recently stepped to the microphone at Oregon’s Museum of Science and Industry to debate climate change, Taylor stepped into a political storm.

GEORGE TAYLOR: Glaciers are melting. This is one of those statements that is true, but there’s a “yes, but” following it. Sea level, the sea level is rising. And this is one that has some truth in it, but there’s a “yes, but” to this, as well.

LEE HOCHBERG: The 59-year-old Taylor, who calls himself the state climatologist, told his audience he’s skeptical that global warming is caused by man.

GEORGE TAYLOR: The real question is, how much is the human effect compared to natural variation?

LEE HOCHBERG: He’s freely advanced his view, which is at odds with the preponderance of scientific thinking at scientific forums in the past. But this time, Taylor was speaking to a public audience of 400 and TV news viewers statewide. His words got the angry attention of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI (D), Oregon: If Mr. Taylor wants to make his case, I can’t tell him he can’t make his case. He just can’t make his case claiming he’s representing the state of Oregon, because he doesn’t.

LEE HOCHBERG: The governor says Taylor has no right to call himself “state climatologist,” since there is no such official position, and by claiming he speaks for Oregon, he undercuts the governor’s concerted efforts to fight global warming.

Kulongoski believes warming will bring huge economic costs to eastern Oregon farms, flooding from greater springtime rains, parched fields from summertime droughts. In 2005, he was the first Western governor to announce statewide targets for reduction of greenhouse gases.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: Today, we must lead on global warming and the development of biofuels and other alternative energy sources.

Setting regional targets

LEE HOCHBERG: This year, he said Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona and New Mexico will join together to set regional targets for reduced emissions.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: If you look at the overwhelming science in this area, the handwriting is on the wall. I don't think this is a debate any longer.

LEE HOCHBERG: The debate is over?

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: It is. I think it is, and I think you have to start adopting policies to actually how we get to remedy this problem. I think it's over with.

LEE HOCHBERG: The governor was miffed when Taylor testified against several measures in the state legislature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the recent speech may have been the last straw. The governor asked the university to get Taylor to stop using the title of "state climatologist," and he asked the legislature to make climatologist a governor-appointed position. That bill is now under debate.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: You can have a press conference and say whatever you want. I don't care. Just don't say that you're the state -- representing the state when you're doing this. Mr. Taylor is a meteorologist. He's not a climatologist.

LEE HOCHBERG: Taylor says it's true his meteorology degree only qualifies him to study short-term weather systems, but he says he's learned on his own to do more.

GEORGE TAYLOR: As far as I'm concerned, I'm a climatologist, because I am a person who studies weather and climate trends over long periods of time, and that's what climatologists do.

Denying global warming

LEE HOCHBERG: At a rural weather station near Corvallis, Oregon, Taylor said that most of those who look at climate change are measuring temperatures the wrong way.

GEORGE TAYLOR: I think the only really valid way to establish a long-term trend when it comes to temperature is to use a technology that hasn't changed much at a site that hasn't changed much, a place that started out rural and remains rural. Then what you get is a true representative view of what the trend has been over that period.

LEE HOCHBERG: He argues rising temperatures at weather stations like the Portland airport, where Oregon temperatures are recorded, reflect local development rather than what's happening globally.

GEORGE TAYLOR: And, therefore, the data are contaminated by those local changes and the problems associated with them. There is a lot less warming than a lot of people are reporting.

LEE HOCHBERG: Most climatologists -- and some politicians -- scoff at that view. It's a different reaction than, say, in 1999, when he published "The Climate of Oregon" and denied global warming. At that time, he hardly caused a stir.

GEORGE TAYLOR: I think what's changed is it has become so wrapped up in politics and policy. It's sort of like you're a good guy or a bad guy rather than just being a scientist.

I think things are so polarized that, for many people, somebody like me becomes a pariah, becomes criticized. I get hate mail that is quite amazing from people that believe I'm a dangerous man and equate me to a Holocaust-denier or someone who believes that the Earth is flat.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: I'm trying to do things on biofuels, biomass, a whole series of things. What the other side was saying is, "You don't have to do those." And my greatest concern would be that what this does is get us into a position where we don't take any action at all and we just continue the way we're going. That would probably be the most disastrous thing we could do.

Speaking for the state

LEE HOCHBERG: The uneasy clash between science and politics is occurring in other states, too. In Seattle, the associate state climatologist was stripped of his title for overstating the case against global warming.

This storm started when Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels wrote a column in the Seattle Times advocating government action to fight global warming. He quoted an oft-reported but inaccurate figure that 50 percent of the snow pack in the Cascade Mountains had melted. Most scientists believe the correct number is 30 percent.

The associate state climatologist launched an e-mail campaign claiming none of the snow pack had melted and writing of "the myth of the vanishing snow pack." He declined our request for an interview, but his boss, state climatologist Philip Mote, said he had no choice but to remove the man's honorary title.

PHILIP MOTE, Washington State Climatologist: If nobody's watching, it doesn't matter. But, you know, when we have a lobbyist saying, "I'm going down to Olympia to testify, and I would love to have this tidbit to tell the legislators, oh, look, this whole story about snow pack is wrong, or it's a myth," then, you know, we do have to be very careful.

LEE HOCHBERG: Mote says he doesn't consider what he did censorship.

PHILIP MOTE: It's not about censorship; it's about what's appropriate in a public venue. And what's appropriate for a scientist to do in a public venue is to talk about science that is relatively settled or, if it's unsettled, to present both sides. And...

LEE HOCHBERG: The mayor didn't.

PHILIP MOTE: The mayor is not a scientist. There's a big difference. Scientists are after the objective truth. An elected official is pushing certain policies.

LEE HOCHBERG: Back in Oregon, George Taylor just wants a return to the past when he could talk more freely.

GEORGE TAYLOR: I often long for the old days when nobody really gave a rip about climate, when I could just kind of go about and do my own thing, and it didn't really matter too much to anybody, and I could have a difference of opinion with another scientist and it was OK. I really do long for the old, quiet days when I could just do my own thing and nobody really cared.

LEE HOCHBERG: But with mounting scientific data portending a problem, it's clear that people and their leaders have begun to care.