Patrick J. Micharls RIP

Patrick J. Micharls RIP, Econospeak

by Barkley Rosser

 I have just read an obituary in today’s Washington Post of Pat Michaels, who died a week ago of unreported causes at age 72. He was long identified as one of the most influential “climate skeptics” in terms of policy, playing an important role in blocking the US from joining the Kyoto Accords in the 1990s and long a prominent figure in media debates on outlets such as the old “Crossfire” show, where his quick wit and ability to come up with sharp lines and stabs was notorious. He once called Al Gore a “wannabe scientist” and a 2000 book was titled, _The Satanic Gases_. Many other climatologists did not like to debate him in public because of all this.

From 1980 to 2006 he served as the State Climatologist of Virginia, also serving in the Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He resigned after being criticized by then-Governor Tim Kaine, complaining his academic freedom had been limited. He then was at the Cato Institute in Washington from 2006-2019, and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute after that. He received lots of funding from fossil fuel companies for his research for which he also received lots of criticism, although it looks that they paid him because they liked what he said, not that he said what they wanted him to say so they would pay him. Even former fellow UVa climatologist and great critic and rival of his, Michael Mann, agreed with that assessment of him in the obituary.  Mann also agreed that the “strident” and “battling” public image of Pat contrasted sharply with his personally “amicable” nature.

So, why am I memorializing him as well as calling him “Pat”? I first met him in 1975 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when we were both graduate students and working on a model of world food production as impacted by climate change. The leader of that project, and his major professor, was the late Reid Bryson, the person from whom I first learned about chaos theory, in particular the famous butterfly effect model of Edward Lorenz. Bryson was an early strudent of how it appears that global climate could change quite quickly, once it got going, based on ice studies of the transitions in and out of ice ages, which appear to have happened quite quickly in terms of geological time. This fact underlies the concerns of the late Martin Weitzman about how climate may have power law distributions underlying it, due to all kinds of nonlinear positive feedback effects in the system.

As it was, Bryson was also a skeptic about global warming, one who emphasized the role of volcanic eruptions historically.  He used to argue that those advocating global warming were tools of the nuclear power industry, out to shut down the coal industry.  It must be noted, and has been forgotten or even denied, that in the early 1970s the debate in the academic literature over whether global warming or cooling would predominate was wide open, with equal numbers of papers arguing each side in academic journal articles in 1971. Were increasing aerosols and SO2 going to beat out increasing CO2? As it was, from about 1940 to about 1975, average world temperature was declining, if not too dramatically. Then it started going up, and soon thereafter the global warmers won the debate academically.  Particulates and SO2 fall out of the atmosphere quickly, while CO2 stays there a long time, not to mention that environmental laws in high income nations in the early 1970s began to reduce emissions of SO2 and aerosols, but not of CO2.

Pat Michaels, whose PhD was in ecological climatology in fact held nuanced and sophisticated views on all this, even if his libertarian and combative tendencies made him appear to be single-mindedly strident figure.  He accepted that new consensus and that global average temperature is rising, and that indeed a major part of that is due to human activities such as emitting lots of CO2 and methane. However, he argued that it was not doing so as rapidly or intensively as others said it was. I think recent years have undercut his position (and it has been several years since I had any communication with him), but he called himself a “lukewarmer.” He was part of the UN’s IPCC forecasting team, being one of those advocating a lower end projection compared to others. But he saw it happening, and he was in fact the first person I know who actually bought a hybrid car.

Having gotten to known him at Wisconsin, I used to visit him and go to lunch on a regular basis while he was in Charlottesville. We actually attempted some joint research projects that ended up going nowhere, although I think we were actually coauthors on a Working Paper out of the Wisconsin project. He used to describe me jokingly to his colleagues when we would go to lunch as “my old communist friend from Wisconsin.” But we were friends, and I attended his first wedding.  I also learned a great deal from him, including the fact that global warming is happening more intensively in the Arctic regions, well before we all became inundated by photos of polar bears stuck on small pieces of ice.

He definitely had a great ego, which fed his enjoyment in public debates where I think he overstated his own views and had an unfortunate influence on public policy.  But he was effective because he was usually at least partly right. He did know what he was talking about, even when he exaggerated. His view of the Paris Accord was that is “climatologically insignificant,” which I fear is probably the case. I note also, as a sign of his large ego is that he was convinced, perhaps not without reason, that he was the main model for the feisty protagonist of Michael Crichton’s climate skeptic novel from 2004, the highly dramatic State of Fear.

I always liked Pat, although our last couple of email communications were a bit less friendly. I regret some of his influence on policy, but I also always respected him for the consistency and scientific basis of at least his climatological arguments, if not his policy ones, where his libertarian ideology played too much of a role. I am sorry for his family that he has passed. RIP, Pat.

Barkley Rosser