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Koch-backed scientist shows he hasn't been bought

July 30, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • A portion of the Greenland ice sheet, where NASA recently reported unprecedented melting. Billionaires Charles and David Koch fund groups that continue to deny such realities.
A portion of the Greenland ice sheet, where NASA recently reported unprecedented… (John McConnico / Associated…)

Imagine if Phillip Morris funded a study by a scientist whose previous work had demonstrated that smoking doesn't cause cancer, but the researcher didn't stay properly bought: Instead of supporting the agenda of his backers, his work turned up evidence not only that smoking was deadly, but that it was even deadlier than previously believed. Unfortunately for the tobacco giants, that actually became a rising problem starting in the 1950s, when internal scientists learned that smoking had genuinely toxic effects. The likes of Morris and R.J. Reynolds were able to suppress those findings for decades, but the Koch brothers' climate-denial machine is having a tougher time.

Climate scientist Richard A. Muller, whose work was backed by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday that wasn't at all in keeping  with the Koch philosophy on climate change. For Charles Koch and brother David, who have built a vast fortune based on the oil and gas industry, Muller must have seemed the ideal stooge: a MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, his scientific credentials were far superior to those of most climate denialists, who have a tendency to call themselves "scientists" because they once earned advanced degrees in fields that have nothing to do with climate studies. Three years ago, Muller was an outspoken skeptic who thought the global scientific consensus on man-made climate change was all wrong, because researchers had been analyzing faulty data.

So Muller, with a sizable infusion of Koch cash, reexamined the data. He made a big splash last year when he announced that, on second look, the global consensus was actually right: The Earth really is warming as quickly as scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change contend. His newest findings could make an even bigger splash:

"My total turnaround, in such a short span, is the result of careful and objective analysis...," Muller wrote in the New York Times. "Our results show that the average temperature of the earth's land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases." Note that these conclusions are even stronger than those reached by the IPCC.

To some, Muller is a self-promoter who is taking a decidedly unprofessional approach. To write a newspaper op-ed before one's results have been properly peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal isn't just bad form, it's bad science, and may lessen the impact of Muller's findings. One of the key complaiints about the work of climate skeptics, after all, is that it tends to be published in non-scientific journals and not properly peer-reviewed. In his defense, though, Muller isn't hiding his data -- the study is available for anyone to view at the Berkeleyearth.org website -- and he says it has already been reviewed by dozens of scientists. If it has flaws, they will soon be revealed.

The tobacco companies, when confronted with a very similar science problem, opted to put their money into partisan think tanks and P.R. agencies that sought to obfuscate the scientific connection between smoking and cancer, and eventually stopped funding legitimate scientific studies on the issue. After being burned by Muller, one can expect the Kochs to take the same tack; actually, that's already where the bulk of their money goes, pouring into such professional denial shops as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Institute and the George C. Marshall Foundation.

Perhaps Koch money can explain how Robert Bryce, a senior fellow with the Koch-funded Manhattan Institute, could write an op-ed in The Times last week extolling the benefits of coal as a power source, contending that U.S. efforts to limit carbon emissions wouldn't make any difference in the face of global growth and pointing out that coal is cheaper than its alternatives -- without once even mentioning the devastating economic, health and environmental impacts that will be wrought by worsening climate change or considering that as the world's No. 2 carbon emitter, the United States could influence global policy by cleaning up its act.

As denying the science becomes untenable, fossil fuel interests now seem to want to simply ignore the problem. That strategy, too, comes with a time limit: The impacts of climate change are already becoming too obvious to ignore. When the latest effort stops working, maybe the Kochs can promote the benefits of Minnesota sunbathing in February, or owning beachfront property in Escondido.

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