The political battle to control the flavor of scientific discourse claims another victim. This time it was Dr. David Stooksbury, the 12-year veteran State Climatologist of Georgia whose middle-of-the-road opinions about climate change apparently ran afoul of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s more conservative views.
In an executive order issued last week, Governor Deal stripped Dr. Stooksbury of his title and conferred it to a current employee of the state’s Environmental Protection Division—a position under direct government control, unlike Stooksbury’s rather independent office at the University of Georgia.
Certainly, the Governor can do as he chooses. And the newly tapped Georgia State Climatologist, Bill Murphey is seemingly qualified for the job. But, the move has all the signs of haste, and none of an orderly, well-thought out and coordinated transition. Which hints of something fishy going on.
It is worth bearing in mind that politics should consider scientific opinion, not shape it.
Stooksbury’s ouster is just the latest in a string of State Climatologists have been “replaced” in recent years for what seem like political reasons.
Patrick Michaels in Virginia. David Legates in Delaware. George Taylor in Oregon. Those three now-former state climatologists were on the rather cautious (and outspoken) side when it came to the possibility for alarming climate changes to occur as a result of human changes to the large-scale composition of the atmosphere. All three were ushered out by governors who had a different take on the issue. Michaels, Legates, and Taylor were victims of their title of “state” climatologist, even though, in this case, “state” referred primarily to geographical location more so than “government.” I guess the governors wanted to alleviate any confusion associated with the name and put someone in that position whose view better reflected that of the “State” (with a capital ‘S’).
What Is a “State Climatoligist”
According to the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC), “State Climatologists are individuals who have been identified by a state entity as the state’s climatologist and who are also recognized by the Director of the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the state climatologist of a particular state.” Primarily, the State Climatologist does things like:
• Coordinate and collect weather observations for the purpose of climate monitoring
• Summarize and disseminate weather and climate information to the user community
• Demonstrate to the user community the value of climate information in the decision making process
• Perform climate impact assessments and weather event evaluations
• Conduct climate research, diagnosis, and projections
Usually, such activities don’t really attract the attention of the Governor, and so there never really is much conflict between “state” as a geographical location and “state” as the government. A change in Administration did not result in a change of the State Climatologist.
Until recently—when climate has been pushed to forefront of politics. Now having a State Climatologist whose views on climate change are not harmonious with that of the State Governor can sometimes be attention grabbing—and usually not in a good way for one of the two entities involved. Governors who previously were probably unaware that there was such a thing as a State Climatologist, now want to make sure they are on the same page. I would think that would involve the Governor setting up a meeting with the scientist and getting briefed on the issue. However, with increasing frequency, it seems to be the other way around.
Certainly this was the case with Stooksbury.
The Governor’s Executive Order transferring the position of State Climatologist came as a complete surprise to seemingly everyone involved. In fact, Stooksbury learned of his ouster through a media inquiry. “There was word in June they were considering having the state climatologist report to [Environmental Protection Division], but as far as what happened this week, I was totally blindsided” Stooksbury said. Not only did Stooksbury lose his post, but so too did Pam Knox, the Assistant State Climatologist (Pam was the one-time State Climatologist of Wisconsin). Both Stooksbury and Knox were eminently qualified for their position.
As to the forwarded reason for the switch, the governor’s spokesman said that it made sense to “centralize the [state climatology] office in state government.”
Stooksbury explains the implications of this move in an interview with Tom Crawford of the Georgia Report (in an article well worth reading,)
“You’ve kind of lost that independent voice for informing the public and informing decision-makers,” Stooksbury said. “I’m not sure that is good for the state in the long term. In a university setting, there is more independence, more access to the latest scientific information.”
Where’s the Beef?
Could the Governor have some beef with Stooksbury? Well, in this politically charged climate of climate change, Gov. Deal is on the conservative side of the issue. Stooksbury is somewhere in the middle—not particularly alarmed, but neither in denial that human greenhouse gas emissions et al. are having an impact on the climate. Stooksbury was not overly outspoken about the issue, instead spending the vast majority of his time doing the more mundane climate services tasks that State Climatologists do. However, Stooksbury would discuss his views on the topic of climate change if asked (See here, for example).
But, Stooksbury was hardly outspoken on the issue of climate change, saying that “I’ve tried not to make any comments on policy. I am a scientist. In public, I’ve been very quiet.”
Where’s the Outcry?
Admittedly, it is just speculation at this point that politics were involved in Stooksbury’s ouster but such speculation has not previously stopped outcry from various channels of the web when other State Climatologists were booted for seemingly political reasons. So I am at a loss to understand why Stooksbury’s situation has not grabbed wider attention outside north-central Georgia. So far, the response has been little more than a trickle . I certainly don’t want to think that folks’ concern over political pressure only flows in one direction!
So, I’ll say it loud and clear—Georgia governor Nathan Deal made a poor decision in replacing David Stooksbury as Georgia State Climatologist. If politics were involved—then the decision was egregious. There is no better individual to serve the climate needs of the people of the state of Georgia. I am confident that everyone who has directly interacted with David Stooksbury (or with Pam Knox) would be in agreement. Clearly, Governor Deal never did.
Both the “state” and the “State” of Georgia have lost a valuable resource.
[disclaimer: I attended graduate school with David Stooksbury at the University of Virginia back in the late 1980s when we were both students of Dr. Patrick Michaels studying climatology in the Department of Environmental Sciences. David and I both worked for several years in the Virginia State Climatology. Even back then, he always had his sights set on becoming the Georgia State Climatologist—a goal that he ultimately achieved and at which he excelled.]