What Happens in Utah ... Doesn't Stay in Utah

BYU Earth Scientists Express Concerns Over State Legislature’s Climate Efforts

The Utah capitol: Hearing ‘both sides’ of climate science.

Eighteen Brigham Young University earth scientists are telling the state’s political leaders that they need to “give considerable weight to an overwhelming scientific consensus, and treat fringe positions with respectful skepticism.”

The BYU faculty members said they think that giving “too much weight” to a vocal but small minority of scientific viewpoints “puts all of us at risk by promoting poorly informed decisions.” Their prescription for better policy for Utah? “Base decisions regarding the effects of climate change in Utah upon the best scientific evidence available.”

The November open letter from the BYU scientists comes after state legislative hearings featured one scientist generally supporting the IPCC “consensus” view – warming is happening and humans are significantly responsible – and another recognized as being among a small number of climate “skeptics” or “contrarians.” The letter also follows ongoing coverage of the Utah situation in the Salt Lake Tribune and minimal coverage in the competing Deseret News. It also follows a report in the Tribune that some read as suggesting an implicit threat by a legislative skeptic against a Utah State University physics professor, raising issues of academic freedom.

Salt Lake City’s
Two Daily Newspapers
Science Issues the 18 BYU
Scientists Specifically Challenged

In their open letter to Utah’s U.S. senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and to the state’s governor and Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee, the 18 BYU faculty members said they “agree with the consensus view – that climate is changing and is significantly influenced by human activity.” But they emphasized that they represent different political and ideological perspectives and “have no specific political agenda to support.”

They wrote that they “disagree with one another about how society ought to respond to the threats posed by a warming climate …. whatever action is taken, it should be informed by the best available scientific evidence.

“We encourage our legislators not to manipulate the scientific evidence to suit any political agenda,” they wrote, adding that the opinions are their own and not those of Brigham Young University. “We submit this letter as concerned scientists and citizens.”

Leading up to the Scientists’ Letter

The Utah “interim committee” hearings came amidst reports of the new Utah governor’s questioning of climate science and some conservative legislators’ desires to assess “both sides” of the science.

President Obama had nominated the state’s previous Republican Governor, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., to be U.S. Ambassador to China. Huntsman earlier had engaged the state actively in the Western Climate Initiative and he appeared to many to understand the seriousness of the climate issue.

His successor, Gov. Gary Herbert, has said he wanted to “debate the science.” Some sympathetic Utah legislators have moved to have the state withdrawn from the Western Climate Initiative.

The Tribune‘s environment reporter, Judy Fahys (pronounced “phase”) has been following the story from the start. She reported in October that “the legislature’s most outspoken skeptic on man-caused climate change” had complained to Utah State University President Stan L. Albrecht about one of the school’s physics professor’s published remarks critical of testimony provided earlier by Roy Spencer, a University of Alabama-Huntsville scientist and prominent climate skeptic.

According to Fahys’ report, the legislator, Republican Rep. Mike Noel, “strongly denied making any threats or calling for the scientist’s job.” Fahys earlier had quoted that Utah State faculty member, Robert Davies, as saying the legislature had invited Spencer to testify to provide “‘cover’ for their resistance to adopting policies addressing the threat” of warming. “Completely fringe,” Davies said in characterizing Spencer’s views on climate change.

That got Noel’s goat. He labeled Davies’s comments “personal attacks” and took his beef to Albrecht. “I didn’t threaten anybody,” Fahys quoted Noel as saying. “To threaten somebody is to say to them, ‘I’m going to get your job. I’m going to get rid of you.’”

According to Noel, as reported by Fahys, the message to the Utah State president was, in effect, that “I’m very disappointed in the fact that you have a professor make a statement like that from a state-supported institution about an individual [Spencer] that has been very honest.”

Others see an implicit threat in Noel’s approach to Albrecht.

Fahys reported scientist Davies’ view that the law maker’s going directly to the university president was “completely inappropriate,” saying Noel should have complained to him directly and not to his employer, which Fahys reported receives about $150 million annually in state and federal funds.

Why Flag BYU as ‘Conservative’?

In her reporting on the BYU letter, Fahys’ lede paragraph noted that the 18 scientists signing the letter are faculty at “conservative Brigham Young University.” She reported later in the same article that “Because BYU is a private institution owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its faculty and staff are insulated from legislative pressures that public universities could be subject to.”

Hence come suspicions in some Utah quarters that other science faculty at Utah public universities might best keep their powder dry rather than run the risk of incurring legislators’ (and appropriators’) wrath. That’s seen as one reason the thrust of the BYU letter, since its release, has not been publicly embraced by science faculties at other Utah colleges or universities. (The letter writers say they did not seek support from beyond BYU in preparing the letter initially.)

In an e-mail exchange, Fahys explained to The Yale Forum her handling of the lede sentence reporting the 18 scientists’ letter:

On the issue of the word “conservative,” I thought it was important for two reasons. Within Utah, while readers generally would be aware that BYU is conservative, it was a way of reminding them that “these folks at BYU, the Mormon-church owned university,” are very likely to share our readers’ values. Though readers might have written off the views of professors at other universities – even in Utah – for being more politically and socially liberal, BYU is not known for leftist views on its science or anything else.

A second reason for using the word is that people outside of Utah who are reading the article might not know much about BYU, but this is a shorthand way of providing some context about the place and its faculty that is expanded later in the story. Our climate stories have a wide readership that extends outside Utah.

Tribune Editorial … and Roy Spencer Defense

In editorializing on the issue, The Salt Lake Tribune has said that despite “overwhelming agreement among experts that human-caused CO2 emissions are largely to blame for a rapid increase in global temperature, too many politicians are looking for an opposing view. Political conservatives are disdainful, even hostile, toward global warming because accepting it would demand policy changes costly to fossil-fuel industries that emit millions of tons of CO2.”

The paper’s editorial page said that controlling CO2 “could hurt the pocketbooks of politicians who collect hefty contributions from those industries. Progressives seem better able to see the benefits of changing to less-polluting renewable energy sources.”

The paper also faulted the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee for providing a “pulpit” to Spencer, who it characterized as “one of only a handful of scientists who dispute the evidence of human-caused global warming.” It said Utah legislators “who should be acting in Utah’s best interest would do well to learn from scientists, not argue with them.”

The Tribune on its editorial pages and through most of its own columnists has consistently taken firm positions supporting the “consensus” climate change science, at one point editorializing against “pig-headed denial masquerading as fact-finding” by skeptics. The paper’s editorial cartoonist, Pat Bagley, has posted biting cartoons on the issue, powerfully lambasting what he sees as climate science contrarians.

Commenting on the Fahys’ and the Tribune‘s laser-beam coverage of climate change and of this set of activities, long-time environmental reporter John Daley, with KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, said “Fahys and the Trib have done a great job on this issue. Without them there’s no doubt that it would have gone entirely unreported.” He said he has found that reporters pitching climate-related stories too often “end up getting assigned to something else.” (Editor’s Note: Daley recently has done extensive research on how the economic downturn confronting “legacy” journalism organizations affects coverage of issues such as climate change. His “When A Tree Falls …” feature article on these issues is posted online by The Yale Forum here .)

On his behalf, Spencer, in a November 13 op-ed column in the Tribune, defended himself as “one of only a handful of scientists in the world who is addressing the big picture of how clouds in the climate system not only limit the effect of humanity on climate, but can themselves cause global warming or cooling.”

He accused what he called “the BYU Gang of 18″ of being guilty of politicizing the issue while objecting to politicization: “It is the scientists themselves who have fallen into the trap of appealing to ‘official’ U.N. views on this subject, views which are outdated and highly politicized … indeed recognized by world governments as authoritative, but they are not rigorously peer-reviewed in the usual sense.”

“I predict that it is only a matter of time before the U.N.’s agenda on the subject of global warming is finally exposed for its blind obedience to desired policy outcomes,” Spencer wrote. He said the few scientists questioning the status quo and receiving no energy industry funding, such as himself, “should be welcomed, rather than maligned, for trying to keep the rest of the research community honest.”

Ongoing Dialogue in Times Letter, Op-Eds

In separate commentaries published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Spencer could find comfort from expressions of support from conservative Republican state legislators.

Republican Utah House member Chris Herrod said “the science has already been politicized and some have an agenda.” In answering his own question of whether global warming is occurring, he wrote “Since the Earth is coming out of an ice age and has been significantly warming throughout its history, most agree this is true.”

It’s an answer, in its abject simplicity, hardly likely to be received well from within the science community.

Herrod next asked if humans are “the primary causes” and, if so, “is it enough to cause catastrophic harm?” Here too, and perhaps even more so, his answer to his own question is at best problematical: “Catastrophic predictions are possible only if climate models assume positive amplification of minor man-made warming. Many ‘nonconsensus’ scientists doubt this and other assumptions and are concerned about the reliability of complex models.”

In answering the third question he poses to himself, Herrod clearly concludes that any solution would be worse than the purported problem.

“Before we wreak havoc on our economy, strengthen our political enemies, and become more of a debtor nation,” he wrote, “responsible elected leaders must conduct an honest-cost-benefit analysis.” Admitting “my bias,” he concluded, “I fear global economic meltdown and the loss of freedom much more than any global warming theory, but I am still open to discussion.”

What if Reagan, Not Gore, Had Taken Up Climate?

(In a November 20 comment to the Tribune, Davies was having none of it, characterizing Herrod’s “fatally flawed analysis” and “defective calculation – like assessing the cost of home insulation without including utility savings or the cost of a bicycle helmet without acknowledging the value of risk reduction.” He faulted Herrod for “considering only worst-case economic scenarios and best-case climate scenarios,” and said “scientific consensus is not a substitute for scientific evidence, it is the result of scientific evidence.” Policy makers should “stop betting the farm on outliers and wishful thinking,” Davies wrote.)

Among those signing the BYU open letter, Professor David Long said in a phone interview that “there is no alternative to the very best scientific understanding.” He said he wonders how the political posturing on climate change might differ if Ronald Reagan, rather than Al Gore, had taken up the issue.

Pointing to “the consensus view on the climate science,” Long said, “It is not our fault if some cannot stand the truth. We’re a private school, and we take the issue of academic freedom very seriously.”

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Editor’s Note:  This piece was lightly edited on 11/29/09.


Salt Lake City’s Two Daily Newspapers

Now owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group, Inc., headed by Dean Singleton, the Salt Lake Tribune was established in 1871 as the Mormon Tribune and a year later was renamed the Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette. It later became The Salt Lake Tribune. The paper now has a paid daily circulation of about 115,000.

With a daily circulation of about 72,000, the competing Deseret News, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), has been substantially less involved in covering the issue, although it did report on the 18 BYU scientists’ letter. The paper, whose editor, Joseph Cannon, is a former head of the Utah Republican Party (2002-2006) and who served as a presidential appointee under President Reagan, appears not to have taken an editorial position on climate change. (Cannon was a Geneva Steel Company chairman and head of the Utah GOP before taking his first position as a journalist, as editor of what some locals call the “D-News.”

While at the Environmental Protection Agency under the early Reagan administration and the controversial administration of former Colorado state legislator Anne Gorsuch Burford, Cannon had been considered by many in the Washington press corps to be among the few moderate Republican agency appointees and generally a “straight shooter.” That reputation appeared to have helped him stay on board at EPA after President Reagan brought in William D. Ruckelshaus to take over for a scandal-inflicted Gorsuch Burford EPA administration. Under Ruckelshaus, Cannon was confirmed by the Senate as EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation.

After leaving the agency, he moved back to his Utah home and was instrumental in the purchase of Geneva Steel from U.S. Steel, later becoming Chairman of Geneva Steel, and for several years headed the Geneva Steel Company. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator in 1992, losing in the primary to the current incumbent Senator Robert F. Bennett. His newspaper has reported that the Geneva Steel site, after two bankruptcy filings, will require up to $42 million in environmental mediation efforts as a result of soil and water contamination.

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Editor’s Note:  This sidebar edited 11/29/09 to adjust newspapers’ daily paid circulation figures.


Science Issues the 18 BYU Scientists
Specifically Challenged

1.  Utah state legislators were said to have “claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ignored the possibility that natural climate cycles are responsible for most of the climate change evident over the past century. This is patently false. The scientific community has extensively investigated natural climate cycles. [emphasis in original] For example, the IPCC reports have several chapters dealing with natural climate variability, including the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, El Niño Oscillation, variation in solar radiation, volcanic eruptions, and so on.”

2.  Second, it was claimed that climate scientists have ignored the hypothesis that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a natural mode of climate variability, could be responsible for climate change over the last century. The inaccuracy of this claim can also be readily demonstrated. A database search on our university library system, prompted by this claim, uncovered more than 600 peer-reviewed, scientific articles addressing the relationship of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation with climate change on many timescales, published within just the last five years alone.”

Summing up their concerns, the BYU scientists said Utah, as part of an arid continental interior, “may sustain serious damage due to a warming climate, and Utah’s climate scientists are a valuable resource to help public officials decide how to respond to the threat.

“It is irresponsible to alienate them by setting aside their testimony in favor of easily debunked fringe science,” they wrote.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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