Tagged by some as a “convert” to global warming, the Berkeley physicist talks about his work, some of its controversial funding, and his views on renewable energy
The outcome of Richard Muller’s sweeping independent audit of temperature data surprised a lot of people — including him. Known as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study, or BEST, the project was rooted in Muller’s own skepticism toward some of the key data underlying conclusions that the UN’s influential climate panel has drawn about global warming.
The author of two books worth of science advice “for future presidents” now concedes that “global warming is real,” but he remains skeptical about a lot of things, like:
- The objectivity of some of his colleagues
- The link between climate change and severe weather
- The future of some renewable energy sources, like solar thermal and geothermal
In the video clip (below), Muller talks about the perils of accepting scientific findings at face value.
Here are some more excerpts from our recent conversation:
CM: Let’s clear the air. What are you convinced of now with respect to climate science that you weren’t, let’s say, two years ago?
RM: The estimate for how much global warming has taken place, that was done by the prior groups. We did that independently. We did it checking all the issues, the legitimate issues that had been raised, looking at them quantitatively and estimating how big an effect they were, subtracting them where we needed to. In the end we found that the prior groups had actually done a very good job.
CM: In terms of the big picture with the way the climate may be changing and what might be causing it, what have you changed your mind about, if anything?
RM: I didn’t really change my mind. Instead I developed a conclusion that I wasn’t sure of before. Global warming is real and over the last 50 years — that’s the period when the IPCC says the human component is evident — over that period it’s gone up about .9 degrees Celsius. That’s very close to what the other groups have said. Worldwide, if you include the oceans, it’s more like .6 degrees Celsius. But I now believe that land measurement has — warming has gone up.
CM: Do you agree with the UN’s climate panel that the majority of the warming going on is being caused by human activity, burning fossil fuels?
RM: We haven’t yet finished our work on the human component of this. It looks to me like we will be in agreement with that [Muller says he'll be publishing his conclusions in the next few weeks].
But I do agree that the global warming has gone up. That, I think, is the main, if you want to call it a change, it’s the main result that I will now stand behind as a scientist, using my scientific credentials, doing the work that we did very carefully, that six months ago or a year ago, I would not have been wanting to stand behind. It does agree with the previous groups. We have achieved a better precision than the other groups have achieved, but it is a real effect.
CM: The temperature study was at least partially funded by the Koch Brothers’ foundation. You must have known going in that that was going to be controversial.
RM: The foundation actually worried about that more than we did. They worried that our results would be looked at with a political light because of the fact that they had supported it. But they gave us an unrestricted educational grant and they made it clear to us that what they really wanted was to have the issue settled. They didn’t even indicate which side they hoped it would be settled on. My own suspicion is they don’t care. They just want this issue settled because it creates great uncertainty in future planning.
CM: So when your results ended up supporting the prevailing view that the climate was warming and you testified to that effect on Capitol Hill, did anyone from the Koch Foundation or any of your funders, or anyone from Washington come to you and express some disappointment or unhappiness with that?
RM: No, not at all. Just the opposite. They were delighted that we had come up with some solid results that we could defend scientifically.
CM: And do you think the results of that study moved the needle at all, outside of your own personal views?
RM: Yeah, I believe that a large number of skeptics were valid skeptics. That they recognized that there were legitimate questions about the prior work. They still have legitimate questions about claims made about hurricanes and tornadoes. And those are legitimate and often wrong. So you’ll still hear skeptics complaining about the exaggerators and the alarmers. But I do believe that many of the skeptics that have spoken to me, the people who were labeled skeptics, have said, well the issue is no longer whether the global warming has taken place, the issue now is how much is human.
Picking winners and losers in renewable energy
CM: You have some, some interesting views on the practicality of certain renewables: hydrogen, solar thermal, geothermal. No future, is what you’re saying.
RM: That’s right.
CM: Let’s start with geothermal. A lot of money’s going into trying to tap the natural heat that’s coming from the Earth’s core, percolating up.
RM: Compare geothermal to solar. The energy coming from below is three thousand times smaller than the energy coming from solar. I mean, it’s as competitive as solar if you can make it three thousand times cheaper. If the Earth concentrates it as it does in certain volcanic regions — The Geysers in California is a great place, Iceland is a great place — then that natural concentration makes it cost effective, but geothermal anywhere: no future.
CM: Have you talked to Google about that? They’ve put a lot of money into it because they think it’s one of the renewables that actually has the potential to be cost-competitive with coal.
RM: I expect them to back off from that in the near future.
CM: And solar thermal, these, as opposed to photovoltaic panels that you put on your roof and elsewhere. These big arrays in the desert that use mirrors to concentrate the solar energy to heat up something. No?
RM: It’s been working in California, in Spain, elsewhere. Only where it’s been heavily subsidized. It will not work in China where we really need solar. The reason is, it’s basically bricks and mortar. And where as the price of solar cells is dropping, the price of big, large-scale construction is not. I do not expect it to get cheap enough to be used without subsidies.