Climate change

Richard Muller, converted climate change sceptic, still a maverick

Richard Muller, whose controversial views have brought him fame, speaks in the city tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 3:45am

Tomorrow, the University of Hong Kong will host a lecture by one of the most colourful characters in climate science, Richard Muller. The US physicist is perhaps most famous for his "conversion", announced in July, from being a sceptic to a proponent of the reality of climate change.

The Berkeley (University of California) professor heads the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (Best) project, which has found that the long gradual temperature change over 250 years is an excellent match to our record of greenhouse gases, and concluded that virtually all of the warming of that period was caused by humans.

Though he obtained his PhD in elementary particle physics, Muller's research interests span astrophysics, including the cosmic microwave background and supernovae, along with aspects of geophysics. He has espoused a theory that our sun is partnered by an undiscovered small star he calls Nemesis, "the death star". Muller has written a historical novel, The Sins of Jesus ("he slowly slips deeper and deeper into sin") and a short essay titled "Why Dumbledore is Gay" - on the headmaster of fictional wizarding school Hogwarts. Muller even opened a restaurant; you won't be surprised that the cuisine was "eclectic".

Muller has a particular appeal as a climate scientist, as he formerly expressed doubts about methods and results, and is now a self-confessed "converted sceptic". In 2004, he wrote of a discovery that hit him like a bombshell: two sceptics had produced an analysis purportedly showing the "hockey stick" - a graph with temperatures long steady then suddenly rising in recent years - was an artefact of poor mathematics. "How could it happen?" asked Muller.

In 2010, Muller and his daughter Elizabeth established the Berkeley Earth project in order to take an independent look at temperature data. Sponsors included the Charles Koch Foundation, established by one of the two billionaire Koch brothers known for sponsoring denial of climate science and supporting Republican politicians. Anthony Watts, an ex-television-weatherman and energetic blogger on global warming denial, predicted "the BEST result will be closer to the ground truth that anything we've seen".

Last year, Muller testified before the United States Congress on the project's initial findings. "We confirm that over the last 50 years, temperature has risen 0.9 degrees Celsius, or 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit," he announced. "This is the same number that the IPCC [UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says."

Though the results are yet to be published in a scientific journal, they have attracted considerable media interest, and this summer Muller wrote in The New York Times that he was going a step further and concluding humans are almost entirely the cause of the warming.

Muller's pronouncements have not impressed climate scientists. Michael Mann, who is closely associated with the hockey stick and earlier accused Muller of "scurrilous parroting" of criticisms, noted that the study demonstrated what scientists have known with some degree of confidence for nearly two decades; albeit he applauded Muller and his colleagues for following where their analyses led them, without regard for the possible political repercussions.

Global warming deniers perhaps felt Muller had turned on them. The Charles Koch Foundation issued a banal statement on the results. Reneging on his promise to accept the findings, Watts claimed further issues with temperature measurements. After publishing a column on Muller, the South China Morning Post received an article by Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a prominent denier as colourful as Muller, though lacking scientific credentials and noted for falsely claiming to be a member of Britain's House of Lords. Monckton's piece supposedly answered "Muller's propaganda", yet was rambling, inconsistent, and threw in debunked notions like the correlation between sunspot activity and temperatures.

Monckton also asserted that there had been no warming for 15 years. Just this month, Britain's The Mail on Sunday likewise reported that global warming stopped in 1997. The British Met Office has refuted this, as does the Berkeley Earth website, which comments on wrongly using data over the short term: "If you did that same exercise back in 1995, and drew a horizontal line through the data for 1980 to 1995, you might have falsely concluded that global warming had stopped back then."

Notwithstanding his conversion, Muller remains a maverick, ready to express views against mainstream climate science. "Is the Arctic melting due to global warming?" he pondered in a recent radio interview. "You know, the evidence for that is very, very flimsy. I'm not even sure it's true." This despite the melting being widely attributed to global warming, which led to Arctic ice plunging to a record low last month - the 331st consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.

More worryingly, Muller espouses a shift from burning coal to natural gas as a means of reducing global warming. This seems to fly in the face of evidence that using natural gas will lead to significant warming, and the serious environmental consequences of extraction methods such as fracking - when pressurised water, sand and lubricants fracture underground shale in order to release natural gas.

Interestingly, Muller is president of a company with expertise in fields including natural gas and shale oil. And Koch Industries, which generated the profits that built the foundation that sponsored Berkeley Earth, is a major proponent of fracking.

Professor Richard Muller will deliver a public lecture tomorrow about his research on global warming back to 1753 at the University of Hong Kong.

Martin Williams is a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment, with a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge University