Richard Muller was supposed to be the white knight for the deniers of global warming, smiting the fire-breathing activists who insist that climate change is real. In the end, though, science prevailed.
Muller, a well respected physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, has long been a critic of the scientific methods used to determine whether the climate is, indeed, changing and whether humans are responsible in any way. Two years ago, Muller and his team at Berkeley set out to examine the evidence compiled by mainstream scientists and set the matter straight.
While Muller insists that all he is interested in is promoting sound scientific studies, his project must have sounded promising enough to the Koch brothers, who ended up funding a quarter of the $600,000 cost of the study. The brothers, Charles and David, run the largest privately held company in the U.S.
Since the 1980s, foundations formed by the Koch brothers have spent more than $100 million on conservative organizations and causes. Koch Industries is involved in oil and other endeavors that produce large amounts of greenhouse emissions, and the Kochs have bankrolled numerous efforts to discredit climate scientists.
Muller's quest must have seemed an ideal way to raise doubts about climate change - and the need for pesky environmental regulations to deal with the threat.
But if Muller was a skeptic, he also is a real scientist. He and his team - called the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, or BEST - examined reams of data related to allegations that the earth has warmed over the past two centuries. Muller even delved into weather readings from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
The BEST team reviewed data collected from temperature monitoring stations around the globe. Members also examined the data produced by British and American scientists involved in the so-called "Climategate" scandal, and found that it conformed to the rest of the findings as well.
In all, Muller's team reviewed 1.6 billion records, by far the most intensive examination of weather data ever. And the result?
Muller declared last week in a Wall Street Journal column and a subsequent news conference that climate change is real. The land, he said, is 1.6 degrees warmer than in the 1950s.
He also said that "we have confidence that the temperature rise that had previously been reported had been done without bias." That should lay to rest the common assertion by climate-change skeptics that scientists are skewing the data to promote their own careers and keep the grant money coming in.
Muller stops short of saying unequivocally that humans are largely responsible for climate change because the BEST team didn't specifically examine that issue.
However, Muller said, "It is my personal opinion that greenhouse gas emissions from humans have contributed to the observed warmings."
"Greenhouse gases could have a disastrous impact on the world," he added.
The reaction of a number of climate-change deniers was predictable: They now are denying Muller. They say he never really was a genuine skeptic and that he has been an advocate of the theory of climate change all along.
But for those not so far into denial that nothing will change their minds, Muller's findings should provide compelling reasons to accept the evidence that climate change is occurring - not somewhere down the road but right now. Whether Americans embrace the consensus among serious scientists that climate change is real could have a profound effect on how this nation reacts to the threat.
Do we go along with efforts to dismantle environmental protections, or do we look for better ways to reduce pollution and keep our air and water clean? Do we give polluting industries a blank check, or do we put a higher premium on the health of the American people? Do we continue our reliance on coal and oil as energy sources, or do we seek ways to promote cleaner alternatives? Do we keep doing what we're doing now, or do we work to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren?
Those willing to deny the undeniable scientific evidence will always be with us. But one thing is certain: Richard Muller is not their champion.
Commentary: Science trumps climate change deniers - KansasCity.com (external - login to view)