It was about 105 degrees in Chico, Calif., about three hours north of Sacramento, when we arrived at the offices of one of the nation’s most read climate skeptics. Actually, Anthony Watts calls himself a pragmatic skeptic when it comes to global warming. Watts is a former television meteorologist, who has been studying climate change for years. He doesn’t claim to be a scientist; he attended Purdue. He’s the author of a blog, Watts Up with That?, which he calls the world’s most viewed site on global warming. For a story I was working on for the PBS NewsHour, Watts was recommended by the Heartland Institute, a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.
Watts doesn’t come across as a true believer or a fanatic. For one thing, he has built a business that caters to television stations and individuals who want accurate weather information and need displays to show their viewers. He has developed an array of high tech devices to disseminate weather data and put it on screens. He has several TV stations around the country as clients.
But Watts’ reputation doesn’t come from his business — IntelliWeather — but rather from his outspoken views on climate change. He says he’s been gathering data for years, and he’s analyzed it along with some academics. He used to think somewhat along the same lines as Richard Muller, the University of California physicist who recently declared he was no longer a skeptic on climate change. Muller had analyzed two centuries worth of temperature data and decided his former skepticism was misplaced: yes, the earth has been warming, and the reason is that humans are producing carbon dioxide that is hastening the warming the planet.
Watts doesn’t buy Muller’s analysis, since, he believes, it is based on faulty data. The big problem, as Watts sees it, is that the stations where temperatures are gathered are too close to urban developments where heat is soaked up and distorts the readings. So it looks like the earth is warming though it may not be, he says.
Read a transcript below.
SPENCER MICHELS: So let’s start out with the basic idea that there’s this debate in this country over global warming. There’s some people who call it a complete hoax and there are some people who completely embrace it and so forth. Where do you stand in that spectrum?
ANTHONY WATTS: Well, I at one time was very much embracing the whole concept that we had a real problem, we had to do something about it. Back in 1988 James Hanson actually was the impetus for that for me in his presentation before Congress. But as I learned more and more about the issue, I discovered that maybe it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. Some of it is hype, but there’s also some data that has not been explored and there’s been some investigations that need to be done that haven’t been done. And so now I’m in the camp of we have some global warming. No doubt about it, but it may not be as bad as we originally thought because there are other contributing factors.
SPENCER MICHELS: What’s the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there’s lots of global warming?
ANTHONY WATTS: They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes and these kinds of things may not be the actual solution for making a change to our society.
SPENCER MICHELS: What are you saying? That they’re biased essentially or motivated by something else? What?
ANTHONY WATTS: Tthere’s a term that was used to describe this. It’s called noble cause corruption. And actually I was a victim of that at one time, where you’re so fervent you’re in your belief that you have to do something. You’re saving the planet, you’re making a difference, you’re making things better that you’re so focused on this goal of fixing it or changing it that you kind of forget to look along the path to make sure that you haven’t missed some things.
I started looking into the idea that weather stations have been slowly encroached upon by urbanization and sighting issues over the last century. Meaning that our urbanization affected the temperature. And this was something that was very clear if you looked at the temperature records. But what wasn’t clear is how it affected the trend of temperatures. And so that’s been something that I’ve been investigating. Anyone who’s ever stood next to a building in the summertime at night, a brick building that’s been out in the summer sun, you stand next to it at nigh,t you can feel the heat radiating off of it. That’s a heat sync effect. And over the last 100 years our country, in fact the world, has changed. We’ve gone from having mostly a rural agrarian society to one that is more urban and city based and as a result the infrastructure has increased. We’ve got more freeways, you know more airports, we’ve got more buildings. Got more streets, all these things. Those are all heat syncs. During the day, solar insulation hits these objects and these surfaces and it stores heat in these objects. At night it releases that heat. Now if you are measuring temperature in a city that went from having uh maybe 10% of um, non-permeable surface to you know maybe 90% over 100 years, that’s a heat sync effect and that should show up in the record. The problem is, is that it’s been such a slow subtle change over the last 100 years. It’s not easy to detect and that’s been the challenge and that’s what I’ve been working on.
SPENCER MICHELS: Well in a way you’re saying that the records aren’t accurate, the data isn’t accurate.
ANTHONY WATTS: I’m saying that the data might be biased by these influences to a percentage. Yes, we have some global warming, it’s clear the temperature has gone up in the last 100 years. But what percentage of that is from carbon dioxide? And what percentage of that is from changes in the local and measurement environment?
SPENCER MICHELS: I want to go back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier, the idea that there is, there are people who are sort of invested in promoting the fact that there is global warming. There’s money involved and grants. Is that what you were saying? Maybe explain that.
ANTHONY WATTS: Well global warming had become essentially a business in its own right. There are NGOs, there are organizations, there are whole divisions of universities that have set up to study this, this factor, and so there’s lots of money involved and then so I think that there’s a tendency to want to keep that going and not really look at what might be different.
SPENCER MICHELS: Now Dr. Muller at the University of California Berkeley had similar concerns. Went back and looked at the data, took much more data than anybody else had, and concluded, well maybe there was some problems, but basically the conclusions were right. There is global warming and it comes from carbon dioxide which is meant, made by man. Do you buy that?
ANTHONY WATTS: Unfortunately he has not succeeded in terms of how science views, you know, a successful inquiry. His papers have not passed peer review. They had some problems. Some of the problems I identified, others have identified problems as well, for example, he goes much further back, back to about 1750 in terms of temperature. Well from my own studies, I know that temperature really wasn’t validated and homogenized where everything’s measured the same way until the weather bureau came into being about in 1890. Prior to that thermometers were hung in and exposed to the atmosphere all kinds of different ways. Some were hung under the shade of trees, some were on the north side of houses, some were out in the open in the sun, and so the temperature fluctuations that we got from those readings prior to 1890 was quite broad and I don’t believe that provided representative signal because the exposure’s all wrong. And Dr. Muller did not take any of that into account.
SPENCER MICHELS: His conclusion though is that basically global warming exists and that the scientists, no matter what the problems were, were pretty much right on.
ANTHONY WATTS: I agree with him that global warming exists. However, the ability to attribute the percentage of global warming to CO2 versus other man-made influences is still an open question.
SPENCER MICHELS: I want to ask you a little bit about attitudes towards this among the public. We talked to a public opinion specialist at Stanford who says there’s been 80 percent belief in global warming and man-made global warming consistently over at least the last 15 years in this country. Do you buy his theory?
ANTHONY WATTS: Well I look at a number of opinion polls. You’ll find a lot of them on my blog and that we’ve covered. And depending on how you ask the question we’ll sometimes give you a different answer. My view is, is that the view of global warming peaked about at the time that Al Gore came out with his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. But ever since then other factors have kicked in. Climate Gate for example. And it has become less of an issue, in fact you hardly see politicians talking about it anymore, or pushing it as an issue. What’s been happening now it’s just become a regulation issue. It’s gotten away from the political arena and into the bureaucratic regulation arena. And so people I believe based on the polls I’ve seen, aren’t quite as believing as they used to be. And I think the trend is downward.
SPENCER MICHELS: What do you think is the upshot of your attitude toward this? Should the Congress, should the American public say, you know nothing’s been proven yet. We should wait. Or should we go ahead with trying to solve what many people consider a really scary problem?
ANTHONY WATTS: Hmm…You mentioned a really scary problem and I think that’s part of the issues. Some people don’t respond well to scare tactics and there have been some scare tactics used by some of the proponents on the other side of the issue. And that’s where the overselling of it comes in. But this is a slow problem and it requires a slow solution I believe. For example, our infrastructure for electricity and so forth and highways didn’t happen in 5 years or 10 years. It happened over a century. We can’t just rip all that up or change it in the space off five, 10 or 15 years because it’ll be catastrophic to our economy. We need a slow change solution, one that is a solution that changes over time at about the same rate as climate change. More efficient technologies, new technologies, the use of more nuclear for example. There’s a nuclear type of a reactor that’s more safe called a, a liquid thorium reactor that China is jumping on right now. And we should be looking into things like that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Has this issue, I know you think it’s been oversold and scare tactics have been used. Do you think it’s become too politicized?
ANTHONY WATTS: Oh, it’s definitely become too politicized. In fact, some of the scientists who are the leaders in the issue have become for lack of a better word, political tools on the issue.
SPENCER MICHELS: One final question, do you consider yourself a skeptic when it comes to global warming?
ANTHONY WATTS: I would call myself a pragmatic skeptic. Yes, we need to make some changes on our energy technology but more efficient technology’s a good thing. For example, I have solar power on my own, you know, I have done energy reductions in my office and in my home to make things more efficient. So I think those are good things. Those are good messages that we should be embracing. But at the same time I think that some of the issues have been oversold, may have been oversold, because they allow for more regulation to take place. And so the people that like more regulation use global warming as a tool, as a means to an end. And so as a result, we might be getting more regulation and more taxes that really aren’t rooted in science, but more in politics.