Global warming convert's natural-gas sales push

Professor Richard Muller's U-turn on global warming made headlines, but was it a publicity stunt to push natural gas?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 4:57am

When you attend a lecture by an eminent scientist, a fellow of the American Society of Arts and Sciences, a recipient of the MacArthur Prize (aka the "genius grant"), among numerous other awards, you have high expectations of scientific rigour and intellectual integrity. The lecture, titled "A New Study of Global Warming: Back to 1753", was delivered at the University of Hong Kong on Monday by Professor Richard Muller, of the University of California, Berkeley.

Muller, a renowned climate-change sceptic, drew attention recently by proclaiming that, after intensive research, he had "converted" to the conclusion global warming is real - and human activity is the cause.

I came away from his lecture, however, convinced the professor is a natural-gas salesman wearing a "converted sceptic" costume.

Muller described his Berkeley Earth project, which found the rise in the earth's land temperature over the past 250 years was caused by humans, but made no mention of the impact of this global temperature rise. Acknowledging that global warming is dangerous, without giving examples, he spent more time attacking so-called exaggerated claims about the negative impact of global warming. Without going into the consequences of global warming, Muller then segued into an energy policy.

To stop global warming, he advocated energy efficiency and a switch from coal to natural gas worldwide, but especially in China and India. He did not mention nuclear, solar and wind energy - none of which emit greenhouse gases. He did not discuss the technical and environmental issues around "fracking", the process of extracting natural gas from shale, which results in the emission of not only carbon dioxide but also methane - a far more potent greenhouse gas. He gave just one example of "exaggerated" concern over fracking.

While he acknowledged human activity is causing global warming, Muller clearly remains a sceptic about its negative impact, using his "conversion" to attract publicity for deniers and sceptics. The Berkeley Earth research results are not new. Three studies had already reached a similar conclusion. The consensus in the scientific community for the past 20 years has been that human activity is responsible for global warming. Muller drew attention because of his reputation as a physics professor, a global warming sceptic, and for the financial support of American billionaire Charles Koch, whose foundation backs projects disputing global warming. The Koch family's business empire is invested in the energy industry, including seven subsidiaries involved in natural gas and fracking.

With his use of selective examples of exaggeration and one-sided presentation for natural gas, Muller committed the same crime he accuses other scientists of: cherry-picking examples to support his position while oblivious to his biases.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant with a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM