"Science Isn't Partisan": An Interview with Richard Muller

Ashley Thorne

We learned about Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller earlier this year through an article in the Guardian that tells about his initiative, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project.

His goal is to create a new, independent study of global warming, using transparent methods. He and his team of scientists and statisticians seek to produce results untainted by political influence. He describes the project as “a careful analysis of the most complete set ever used of land surface temperature measurements.”

On March 31, Professor Muller gave testimony before Congress outlining some of Berkeley Earth’s preliminary findings.

Muller has published papers on climate analysis in Nature, Science, Geology, and Paleoceanography. He has advised the Department of Energy, NASA, the Department of Defense, and other government agencies on science and technology issues relating to energy and national security. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Muller is the author of a number of books including The Instant Physicist (2010), an animated, humorous adaptation of his best-seller Physics for Future Presidents; Physics and Technology for Future Presidents, a textbook for his physics course, which was voted Best Class at Berkeley by students; The Sins of Jesus, a novel; and Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes. His company, Muller and Associates, provides consulting to many companies on energy and technology. And he has taken some amazing photos during his world travels.

We were intrigued by the Berkeley Earth initiative, and by way of learning more about Professor Muller and his work, and introducing him to our readers at NAS, we asked him for an interview. He graciously accepted; below are his answers to our questions.

To learn more about the Berkeley Earth project, visit www.berkeleyearth.org.

NAS: I understand that your project is to offer a fresh, unbiased assessment of the evidence on climate change. To help our readers understand what that means, I’d like to start with some basic questions about what you see as the actual areas of dispute. First, do you regard as an open question the idea that a planet’s atmospheric temperature is directly related to the composition of gases in the atmosphere?

Muller: No.

NAS: Do you regard it as an open question that increases of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere are raising global temperatures?

Muller: No.

NAS: Do you regard it as an open question that emissions of CO2 from human activities are a significant cause of global warming?

Muller: If you mean “statistically significant” then it appears to me that human effects are indeed statistically significant. If you mean is the 0.4 C global warming cause by humans (according to the IPCC estimate) already having major negative aspects on human life an culture, the answer is no.

NAS: If global warming is occurring, is it bad for life on Earth? Or is this question outside the scope of your research?

Muller: It is certainly outside the scope of my research. I suspect that if global warming does amount to 3-5 C, then it will be bad.

NAS: If it is bad for life on Earth, should humans try to mitigate it by changing their behavior?

Muller: Yes. In particular, we can reduce CO2 emissions by conservation and efficiency. The change should be commensurate with the threat, and with the cost of not doing anything.

NAS: How did you become interested in climate change? You’ve done work in a number of disciplines besides physics, such as paleoclimatology, and your book Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes studies temperature data through the centuries. Did writing this book spark your interest in climate change?

Muller: I became interested because I realized I had the right background in astronomy and geophysics to address an important issue. My interest began with paleoclimate, but moved into recent climate.

NAS: What is the basic relation between the field of physics and the study of climate change?

Muller: Physics includes geophysics, and climate change is part of geophysics. I have published many papers in geophysics and climate change, and I’ve written a technical book on the subject.

NAS: You assembled a team of scientists in a group called Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature to analyze what has been called the “scientific consensus” on global warming.

Muller: That’s not really why we did it. We organized in order to make a new and independent study of global warming, and to address some specific concerns that had been raised.

NAS: The goal of Berkeley Earth is to “resolve current criticism of the former temperature analyses, and to prepare an open record that will allow rapid response to further criticism or suggestions.” But many people say that there is already scientific consensus on this issue. Why are you unconvinced?

Muller: When I ask most scientists in the consensus what contribution to the global warming is made by the time of observation bias, they have no idea what I am talking about. We need to be careful about “consensus.” Many scientists believe that it is science that is under attack and they need to defend “climate science.” But they defend it without applying their own scientific expertise. When large organizations “vote” on supporting climate change, it isn’t worth much unless the people voting have taken a careful look at the science. Most of them have not.

I am mostly interested in the consensus of people who have taken a serious look. Many of them raise serious questions that need to be addressed in additional detail.

NAS: Do you expect Berkeley Earth’s findings to confirm, confirm with qualifications, or contradict the current consensus?

Muller: If I knew, I would be biased. I honestly don’t know.

NAS: The Berkeley Earth website says, “None of the scientists involved have taken a public political stand on global warming.” But questioning the “consensus” is, in effect, a public stand. How do you distinguish your position from those scientists who have publicly expressed skepticism of the man-made global warming hypothesis?

Muller: I disagree. Proper skepticism is part of science. Once we say that anybody who asks a question has taken a public stand, then we are no longer in the realm of science.

NAS: In a talk you gave at an i4Energy seminar last year (video), you said that no matter how much America does to reduce carbon, nothing can stop the world from global warming unless China and the developing world decide to change. What if China and the developing world were to change?

Muller: That would solve the problem. The US contribution is small, by all estimates, and it will remain small. The bulk of the change will come from the developing world. I am not blaming them, just pointing out that US and western Europe measures will not have much of an effect, if you put in the numbers.

NAS: At the seminar, you also said, “Anything we develop that costs a lot of money is a waste of setting an example, because they can’t afford it and we can’t afford to subsidize it. So what we have to do is reduce carbon in a way that’s profitable.” How can we do that?

Muller: Energy conservation is profitable, as Art Rosenfeld has been saying for decades, and as the famous McKinsey analysis confirms.

NAS: Is there value in calculating our individual carbon footprints?

Muller: It makes us feel good, but it doesn’t address the problem. And, of course, there is a danger in feeling good, because it means you may no longer look for a larger solution.

NAS: Should governments take action to prevent global warming? Should the UN and other intergovernmental panels?

Muller: I think the risk is great enough that governments and the UN should take action. How much action, and what needs to be spent, is the key question. That depends on the rate of global warming, and we hope to improve the accuracy of that number.

NAS: Going back to the idea of reducing carbon in a way that’s profitable, you have said that “if it isn’t profitable, it isn’t sustainable.” What do you mean by this?

Muller: The developing world can’t afford to take expensive measures, and I suspect that the developed world doesn’t have sufficient economic ability to subsidize expensive measures in the developing world. But conservation and efficiency are profitable, so there is hope.

NAS: NAS has been following the sustainability movement’s influence in higher education. One thing we’ve noticed is that its advocates seek to make sustainability education the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education. Do you think sustainability is rightly the new raison d’être of colleges and universities?

Muller: I like sustainability, but some people define it more narrowly than I do. I include nuclear, for example, and clean coal. If something is sustainable for 50 years, it should be called sustainable – since in 50 years we are likely to have fusion or cheap solar or something brand new. It is silly to think we can pick our energy sources for the next 100 years.

NAS: You founded Muller & Associates, an energy consulting firm for businesses, to help “demystify complex technical issues so that clients can make educated decisions.” Do you find that these business clients seek your expertise largely (a) to be “green” (b) to save money, (c) to comply with regulations, or (d) to compete with other companies that are going “green”?

Muller: Most of our clients are simply confused about the issues. They often don’t know what is simply a fad and what will prove sustainable.

NAS: Muller & Associates’ service GreenGov does similar work for governments and non-profits. Its “aim is to provide politically-neutral counsel that is broad in scope while rooted in the hard facts of state-of-the-art science and engineering.” How do governments respond to “politically-neutral counsel”? Are they often divided as to whether to take your advice?

Muller: Our goal is to inform and educate, and not to give advice. We believe that once a government understands the issues, they can take into account issues that we, as a company, can’t judge. These include political and social issues. Our role is to make sure that they understand the scientific and technical issues. There is a great deal of confusion on the value and limits of solar, nuclear, electric autos, geothermal, etc. Our role is to help them to understand what is true and what isn’t.

NAS: One principle you have articulated is that real science is non-partisan. What does this mean to you? Is scientific knowledge always objective?

Muller: Yes.

NAS: Is there such thing as scientific truth?

Muller: Science does not have a monopoly on truth. But science is characterized by the fact that it is separate from politics and economics and other realms of knowledge. US science is the same as Russian science is the same as African Science is the same as Chinese science … etc. You might even define science as that realm of knowledge on which all informed parties capable of understanding the material, will agree.

NAS: What if, in a public debate, one political party espouses a view that has better scientific grounding that the view espoused by another party? Would that make the science “partisan,” regardless of the motives of the scientists?

Muller: No, the science isn’t partisan. The politicians are partisan.

NAS: In your opinion, did Climategate damage or undermine the integrity of the peer-review process?

Muller: It illustrated for the public a well-known weakness in the peer review system.

NAS: NAS is a higher education reform organization with a vision for renewing civil debate and rigorous, reasoned scholarship in America’s colleges and universities. What does your ideal university look like?

Muller: The answer to that demands several pages. Certainly an ideal university is one that allows open ideas to be discussed in a polite and courteous manner. I am embarrassed that some people feel that they can not come and speak at some famous universities because they would be hooted down. I was arrested in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. But I think that we have less free speech at many of our universities now than we had before.

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