Richard Muller: Yep, Still Skeptical

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

KQED

While Richard Muller has come around on global warming, he remains skeptical toward many aspects of climate science.

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?

“I didn’t really change my mind. Instead I developed a conclusion that I wasn’t sure of before.”

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.

You can see more of my interview with Muller on KQED’s This Week in Northern California. His latest book, Energy for Future Presidents, is scheduled for publication this summer.

  • Anonymous

    Quite strange indeed. Richard Muller sounds like he believes that skeptics har questioned whether or not temperatures have gone up underthe last 50 (or so) years, that this has been the (or one) major issue, and now resolved bey the BEST project. Not so!
     
    True, there are and have been issues with the surface station records, and some of those (not all) the BEST study has shed more light upon. But neither all of them, nor have those addressed settled things permanently. The exercise has merely confirmed that using the same station data, one arrives at roughly the same numbers.
     
    Strange is also that he thinks (pretends) that the remaining justified (?) skepticism now is about hurricanes and tornados, and that is is mostly wrong(?).
     
    This just baffles the mind, considering that he has placed himself in the center of this, that (if) he is unaware of that the real issues about the global warming hype is about CO2 being the main driver, alledgedly through those large positive feedbacks purportedly arising through water vapor. And that he additionally would be completely unaware of the so many other questions around other possible mechanisms and natural fluctuations not yet understood or quantified (aka internal variability) and the uncertainties involved, and how such have been downplayed, ignored and even actively supressed by those favoring the CO2-narrative.
     
    If he really is unaware of all this as his ‘answers’ imply, he is very naive. On the other hand, he might just as well be sly enough to frame the questions with the motive of further staying in the center of the public debate, and positioning him as ‘relevant’ there.
     
    Remember how he phrased him self around the UHI-effect (one issue with surface station records):
     
    Nothing of what he said was technically wrong or speculative. However, it certainly was not an answer to any relevant question anubody would ask, nor did it adress the core issues. It looked just like a politician’s answer to a journalist’s question forwarding concerns he didn’t undertand, though answering something else, seemingly related (but uncontroversial) while technically not being untruthfull, and thereby rhetorically disarming (but avoiding) legitimate concerns.   

  • mortice

    Hardly a surprise. He gets that the temperature has gone up, he is now admitting that the cause is human.

    “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].” The multiple lines of evidence all point to man made climate change. Hopefully some of the false sceptics will now grow-up, move on and lets all begin to talk sensibly about what we’re going to do about it. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RE3VBK6EGPDIP36TLWYJKNBNCM B S

    Reading the interview was quite strange indeed.
    Richard Muller sounds like he believes that skeptics have questioned whether or not temperatures have gone up under the last 50 (or so) years, that this has been the (or one) major issue, and now resolved by the BEST project. Not so! True, there are and have been issues with the surface station records, and some of those (not all) the BEST study has shed more light upon. But neither all of them, nor have those addressed settled things permanently. The exercise has merely confirmed that using the same station data, one arrives at roughly the same numbers.Strange is also that he thinks (pretends) that the remaining justified (?) skepticism now is about hurricanes and tornados, and that is is mostly wrong(?).This just baffles the mind, considering that he has placed himself in the center of this, that (if?) he is unaware of that the real issues about the global warming hype is about CO2 being the main driver, alledgedly through those large positive feedbacks purportedly arising through water vapor. And that he additionally would be completely unaware of the so many other questions around other possible mechanisms and natural fluctuations not yet understood or quantified (aka internal variability) and the uncertainties involved, and how such have been downplayed, ignored and even actively supressed by those favoring the CO2-narrative. If he really is unaware of all this as his ‘answers’ imply, he is very naive. On the other hand, he might just as well be sly enough to frame the questions with the motive of further staying in the center of the public debate, and positioning him as ‘relevant’ there.Remember how he phrased him self around the UHI-effect (one issue with surface station records): Nothing of what he said was technically wrong or speculative. However, it certainly was not an answer to any relevant question anybody would ask, nor did it address the core issues. It looked just like a politician’s answer to a journalist’s question forwarding concerns he didn’t undertand, though answering something else, seemingly related (but uncontroversial) while technically not being untruthfull, and thereby rhetorically disarming (but avoiding) legitimate concerns.(from Jonas)

  • concerned citizen

    I do not remember eating in sidewalk cafes in San Francisco from 1970-90… too cold!  That is “from the field” indicator of temp change.  Is anyone out there addressing weather modification/geoeongineering/chemtrails and what that is doing to the weather — creating a hothouse effect probably with barium and aluminum spray.  The Kochs are probably funders to that “secret” program and the chemical companies making money… as is Bill Gates.  New movie coming out in the fall “Why in the World Are they Spraying.”  Will premiere at LA conference 17-19 August.  Call 805-477-8887 for more info.  Scary times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erik-Osbun/100001215333702 Erik Osbun

    I think that he has bias.

  • Anonymous

    I am not sure that Muller understands
    anything about the global temperature record. According to his daughter who
    issued a press release their major effort went into collating several major
    temperature records into one monster database they posted on the Berkeley web
    site. That is a worthwhile effort but it had nothing to do with resolving
    questions raised by critics. It was basically a clerical job that does not
    require a high paid scientist and could be turned over to a technician. His
    talk of what the temperature did for the last fifty years shows his naiveté
    about what is in the actual temperature record. If you examine the global
    temperature records closely you will find that there have been distinct
    breakpoints where behavior of global temperature changes. This breaks the
    temperature record up into distinct regimes that must not be lumped together
    for purposes of computer averaging. I will come to this below but first I want
    to say that the entire existing temperature record bears the stamp of the ENSO
    oscillation in the form of an unbroken chain of El Nino peaks alternating with
    La Nina valleys, occasionally interrupted by irregularities. His own graph showing
    four independent records is a wonderful illustration of that. The data sets he
    uses in it become extremely believable because the peaks line up precisely over
    a hundred and twenty year period. And those are the peaks that so-called
    “climate” scientists like to eliminate with a running mean. But lets
    look at the breakpoints that he missed. Starting with the twentieth century,
    the early century warming started abruptly in 1910 and stopped equally abruptly
    in 1940. Since there was no parallel sudden increase of atmospheric carbon
    dioxide it follows that it cannot be greenhouse warming according to the laws
    of physics. Bjørn Lomborg thinks it is due to solar influence and I agree. This
    temperature segment must be considered a distinct temperature regime and must
    not be averaged in with neighboring regimes. There was almost no warming in the
    fifties, sixties, and seventies while carbon dioxide steadily increased. There
    is no satisfactory explanation for this lack of warming, only contorted attempts
    to excuse it.  This segment of the curve
    should be considered another separate temperature regime. Between it and the
    eighties is the great Pacific climate change, an alleged step warming not
    clearly visible in the record. Up to this point none of the temperature rise
    has been anthropogenic or greenhouse in nature. There was no warming in the
    eighties and the nineties either according to the satellite record while
    ground-based records show a “late twentieth century warming” in this
    time slot. That is the warming Hansen spoke of in 1988. Small wonder that
    neither NASA, nor NOAA, nor the Met Office wants to recognize the existence of
    satellite temperature records that go back to 1979. And Muller, like a patsy,
    goes along with this denial and likewise ignores the satellite record. That is
    the one really important thing that he should have settled but totally ignored.
    I have determined from a comparison of satellite and ground-based records
    that the ground-based records are cooked by lowering the depth of La Nina
    valleys. You will find my analysis in “What Warming?” available from
    Amazon.  The origin of this falsification should be investigated, not
    ignored. According to the satellite record this period was followed by a short
    spurt of warming. Starting with the
    super El Nino of 1998 global temperature rose by a third of a degree in four
    years and then stopped. This is another climate regime separate from the
    standstill of the eighties and nineties. There has not been any warming since,
    and this lack of warming defines the current temperature regime. Each of these
    separate temperature regimes requires to be individually analyzed because
    separate physical processes are responsible in each case. Muller shows no sign
    of being aware of this. The only thing he seems to have tackled is the UHI
    situation which to me was always a peripheral issue because means of correcting
    for it are available if correctly applied. The elephant in the room is still the
    late twentieth century warming I spoke of. The observed warming starts as soon
    as Hansen defines a new method for GISS to estimate global temperature change
    in the late seventies. And ten years later he is able to report to the Senate
    that anthropogenic warming has arrived. Muller also tells us that Koch Brothers
    gave him “… an unrestricted educational grant … to have the issue
    settled.” He settled nothing, created a monster database that had nothing
    to do with resolving skeptical arguments, and seems to have used the funding
    for nothing more advanced than a sinecure.

    .