Pat Michaels: scientist, energy industry lackey, Washington Post contributor

On May 16, The Washington Post published an opinion piece in its Sunday “Outlook” section about The Day After Tomorrow -- the upcoming Hollywood film depicting a nightmare scenario in which global warming causes severe and sudden weather to ravage North America -- by Patrick J. Michaels, a staunch critic of global climate change theory whom one climate scientist compared to a member of the Flat Earth Society. Liberal advocacy groups such as have touted the film, calling it “The Movie the White House Doesn't Want You to See” and explaining that, "[w]hile 'The Day After Tomorrow' is more science fiction than science fact," the film nevertheless offers an occasion for serious public discussion of global warming. also warned, “The right wing has already cranked up its PR machine to discredit the movie as 'fright flick' propaganda cooked up by climate change conspiracy theorists.” Michaels's 1,700-word commentary on the front page of The Washington Post's Sunday “Outlook” section is a case in point.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior researcher in environmental studies at the Cato Institute; research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia; author of two books on global warming, The Satanic Gases and Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming; and editor of World Climate Report, a biweekly newsletter on climate studies funded in large part by the coal industry. According to a 1998 article by Institute for Public Accuracy executive director Norman Solomon, the Cato Institute has received financial support from energy companies -- including Chevron Companies, Exxon Company, Shell Oil Company, and Tenneco Gas, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, Amoco Foundation, and Atlantic Richfield Foundation. According to his bio on the Cato website, Michaels is a visiting scientist at the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI) in Washington, DC. The nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly calls the Marshall Institute “a Washington-based think tank supported by industry and conservative foundations that focuses primarily on trying to debunk global warming as a threat.” According to an ExxonMobil report, the ExxonMobil Foundation donated $80,000 to the Marshall Institute's Global Climate Change Program in 2002. [The ExxonMobil report wrote “George C. Marshall Foundation, Washington, D.C.” (rather than "George C. Marshall Institute"); Media Matters for America concluded that this was a typographical error on the part of ExxonMobil, as there is an organization named the George C. Marshall Foundation, but it does not have a Climate Change program and it is located in Lexington, VA (not Washington, DC).]

Journalist Ross Gelbspan has also documented Michaels's more direct ties to the energy industry; in the December 1995 Harper's Magazine, Gelbspan wrote: “Michaels has received more than $115,000 over the last four years from coal and energy interests. World Climate Review, a quarterly he founded that routinely debunks climate concerns, was funded by [the coal producer and electricity co-op] Western Fuels”. (World Climate Review's successor publication is World Climate Report, and the latter is also funded by the energy industry). All these companies have a financial stake in opposing policies that seek to combat global warming by limiting carbon emissions.

Michaels is part of a small and dwindling cadre of scientists who remain skeptical about the effect of human activities on global warming and the seriousness of the potential impact. An article from the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security -- a liberal-leaning policy and research institute -- recounted a 2003 incident in which Michaels threatened to sue a fellow scientist Peter Gleick, after Gleick told The Star Press of Muncie, Indiana, that Michaels “is one of a very small minority of nay-sayers who continue to dispute the facts and science about climate change in the face of compelling, overwhelming, and growing evidence. ... I consider that Michaels is to the science of climate change like the Flat Earth Society is to the science of planetary shape.” The Pacific Institute article also quoted Harvard University professor John Holdren, who told the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, “Michaels is another of the handful of U.S. climate-change contrarians, but lacks [MIT professor and fellow contrarian] Richard Lindzen's scientific stature. He has published little if anything of distinction in the professional literature, being noted rather for his shrill op-ed pieces and indiscriminate denunciations of virtually every finding of mainstream climate science.”

In his Washington Post opinion piece, Michaels attacked the science behind the new film; in the final eight paragraphs, he broadened the attack to a general critique of concerns about global climate change and efforts to address global warming concern through public policy. Michaels expressed hope that the movie would not undermine public support for President George W. Bush's energy policy in favor of more aggressive measures to control carbon emissions favored by Democrats. He concluded the article by citing the 1979 film The China Syndrome as an example of a pseudo-scientific film that influenced energy policy -- for the worse, in his opinion -- by souring the public on nuclear power, and then asked: “Did implausible fiction influence our national energy system? Democrats with their eye on the presidency are no doubt fervently hoping that it did.”

In publishing Michaels's critique of the film, the Post provided Michaels with a forum for airing views that hail from the fringe of mainstream scientific thought. His commentary offers another example of what science reporter Chris Mooney identified as the media's tendency, in the name of balance, to provide a platform for uncritical presentation of theories that are given little credence in serious science literature. From Mooney's May 6 column on the Center for American Progress's website:

[W]ith a few exceptions, the views of conservative contrarians on the climate issue rarely find anything more than superficial support in the peer reviewed literature. However, the media allow these contrarians to get around this problem and keep debate alive through non-scientific channels. On newspaper op-ed pages and in he-said, she-said exchanges presented by news reporters, contrarians battle back against the scientific consensus. They're entirely in their element: Newspaper op-ed pages don't practice scientific quality control.

With Michaels's commentary, The Washington Post took this practice a step further, omitting any counterpoint to Matthews's views on the gravity of global warming and any hint about Michaels's own history as a global warming contrarian. In the May 16 opinion piece, the Post identified Pat Michaels as “senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of the upcoming book Meltdown: The Predictable Exaggeration of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media (Cato Books).” (Michaels's latest book, to be released in September, is titled -- according to and a recent Michaels article on the Cato website -- Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.)