George Taylor shouldn't scare anybody. He has been a vegetarian since the 1970s. He commutes to work by bicycle. He's an ex-hippie and an ex-surfer. He recycles. He likes trees and salmon.
He's also, according to his critics, one of the most dangerous men in Oregon.
Nestled comfortably in a state that boasts of its environmental cred the way California touts its sunshine, Taylor is one of the leading circuit riders for the church of Global Warming Ain't Happening.
From his third-floor office in the Strand Agriculture building at Oregon State University, Taylor, 58, a state employee who runs an agency with a half-million-dollar annual budget, is often at work discrediting the well-established scientific facts about global warming.
His views have been read on the floor of the U.S. Senate and, most recently, influenced global-warming bills in Salem. In the past, he also has tried to undermine global-warming legislation in Canada.
"Look, it's not that complicated," says Taylor, who, as head of the Oregon Climate Service at OSU, is known as the state climatologist. "It's not clear that we are seeing unprecedented warming, and it's definitely untrue that any warming trend can be assigned to human activities. Natural variations in climate are much more significant than any human activities."
His critics-who include some of his colleagues at OSU-suggest that Taylor is a member of the Flat Earth Society who has taken a leap over the edge.
"There is a valued and much-needed role for skeptics to question the prevailing view," says Philip Mote, Taylor's counterpart in Washington state and a professor at the University of Washington. "Once in a while, the skeptics are right. But there is no debate in the scientific community over whether human-caused global warming is possible or observed. The only way one could come up with that opinion is not being familiar with the scientific literature."
Taylor becomes especially dangerous when policy-makers accept his views, says Jeremiah Baumann of the environmental group OSPIRG. "You've got George Taylor fiddling while Rome burns, and the problem is that the Legislature is listening to the concert instead of doing something about the fire."
In April, George Taylor sat patiently in front of the Oregon House Environment Committee, whose chairman, Grants Pass Republican Gordon Anderson, is likewise skeptical of global-warming theories. Taylor testified on a bill that would have required autos in Oregon to meet California's new stricter emissions standards beginning in 2009. Taylor poohpoohed the need for the bill, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes.
"I believe the effect of greenhouse gas is a relatively minor one," Taylor told the committee. "I really believe natural variation and natural factors are a bigger cause of climate change than you and I."
The bill died. If it had been approved, new emissions standards would be in place in the three Pacific states. Washington has a similar law, but it takes effect only after Oregon enacts its own.
But Taylor's message gave cover to Anderson, who says, "I am not going to take the position that everything is going to hell. We're not going to wrap up our country and tie a noose around our neck."
In the weeks after Taylor testified, the Oregon Legislature passed a budget amendment barring state agencies from spending any money to reduce emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases," like carbon dioxide, that scientists say cause global warming by accumulating in the atmosphere and trapping heat. The amendment would stop the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality from enacting "cleaner cars" legislation that would remove carbon dioxide from tailpipes. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who considers the amendment both unconstitutional and bad policy, promises a line-item veto by Labor Day, says Dave Van't Hof, his sustainability policy advisor.
Officially, Taylor's job description is to collect, manage and maintain Oregon weather and climate data and to educate the people of Oregon on current and emerging climate issues. He has a staff of six full-time assistants and three undergraduate assistants.
He has written more than 200 research papers, plus several articles for industry-funded websites Tech Central Station and CO2 Science. He also has written two books, The Climate of Oregon and The Oregon Weather Book, both published by Oregon State University Press in 1999. The former disputes the notion that climate change is happening.
Taylor manages the state Climate Service website (www.ocs.oregonstate.edu), which runs on a state-funded OSU server. It's peppered with criticism of global-warming theories with little rebuttal from the theories' supporters.
Taylor's position as the leading climate expert in Oregon, a state with a national environmental reputation, has given ammo to those who are hostile to the idea that the earth is warming up. On Jan. 4 of this year, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a Senate floor speech, "As Oregon State University climatologist George Taylor has shown, Arctic temperatures are actually slightly cooler today than they were in the 1930s. As Dr. Taylor has explained, it's all relative."
Inhofe was wrong on two counts. First, Taylor is not a doctor; he has no Ph.D. (he received his master's in meteorology at the University of Utah in 1975). And second, Taylor is flat-out mistaken. Temperatures in the Arctic have, in fact, reached unprecedented levels, according to an exhaustive study by two international Arctic science organizations published last November that confirmed previous, similar results.
Mote, whose Ph.D. is from the University of Washington, surmises that Taylor is guilty of looking only at data that support his views, while discarding the rest. "You can only come to that conclusion if you handpick the climate records," Mote says.
"You can say whatever you want about a subject, but to defy expert opinion-it's just hard for me to understand approaching a complex subject like this and say, 'I know better than the experts,'" Mote says.
Accuracy about global warming matters, Mote says. By spreading misinformation about the world's most important environmental issue, Taylor can encourage people not only to have doubts about proven science, but to become complacent. "People will conclude it's still uncertain," Mote says, "so we don't have to do anything."
The subject of global warming is indeed complicated. In order to determine if the Earth is heating up as never before, scientists have had to reconstruct historical temperatures. That's not easy, given that thermometers have been in general use only for the past 150 years or so.
Scientists have had to find a different source for their climate data. They turned to tree rings, coral, and boreholes dug deep into ice and soil for information. They added some Fortran code and produced a series of results. Since the year 1000, global temperatures were essentially flat until around 1900. In the past 30 years they have been rocketing skyward. When plotted on a graph, the result looks like a hockey stick lying on the ice, its blade pointing toward the sky.
The facts of global warming have been confirmed by hundreds of climate scientists around the world, most of whom participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sponsored by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. The panel issued its last report in 2001 and will update it in 2007. The IPCC says that global average surface temperatures have increased over the 20th century by about 0.6 degrees Celsius, or about 1.08 degrees Fahrenheit. Globally, it is very likely that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year. But the record shows a great deal of variability; for example, most of the warming occurred during two periods, 1910 to 1945 and 1976 to 2000.
Satellite data confirm the results recorded by thermometers on the Earth's surface. They also show that the area of Earth covered by snow has decreased by about 10 percent since the late 1960s. Scientists have documented widespread retreats of glaciers and sea ice, and a serious thinning of the polar ice cap in the Arctic. The oceans are warmer since the 1950s, and sea levels have risen several inches in the past century.
If these trends continue, as most climate scientists predict, major changes will ensue for the weather, sea levels, growing seasons and living conditions everywhere. The combined effects of ice melting and seawater expansion from ocean warming are projected to cause the global mean sea-level to rise as much as 3 feet between 1990 and 2100. In Bangladesh alone, a sea-level rise of slightly more than half that projection would place about 6 million people at risk from flooding.
The prevailing view among scientists is that humans are fouling their own nest. "It is pretty clear that there are limits to the ability of natural variation to explain what's happened over the last 50 years," Mote says. "The last 50 years is a period when the human influence over climate has emerged above natural variability."
The National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science all agree that humans are forcing global temperatures upward.
It is hard to find a single peer-reviewed journal article that agrees with Taylor's views. A report last December in the journal Science found that of 928 major peer-reviewed academic papers on the subject of climate change, all supported the consensus view that a significant fraction of recent climate change is due to human activities.
Mote says the Earth's biggest challenge will be to reverse the trend of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere without damaging the economy. In the past 15 years, the city of Portland's output of global warming gases like carbon dioxide has risen only slightly. In June, it announced greenhouse gas emissions in the city had gone down, but in July the city's Office of Sustainability said it had miscalculated. Even so, the city shows that fighting global warming may be possible without hurting the economy.
The Bush administration and its allies have always claimed otherwise. One of its more powerful friends on this issue is ExxonMobil, the oil giant which has invested millions to stop laws that regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. The oil company, now feeding on the high price of gasoline and extra goodies in the new federal energy bill, stands to lose like the tobacco industry has if the government imposes taxes to offset environmental damage and if consumers turn to other energy sources. ExxonMobil is in league with automakers and dozens of other energy companies in the coal, electricity and transportation industries who burn greenhouse gas-spewing fossil fuels for a living.
Now they've turned up the heat.
ExxonMobil has been funneling cash and media attention toward a cadre of self-styled experts who say not to worry about climate change, according to research posted on the website ExxonSecrets.org. It's just a natural cycle. Or El Niño. Or something. Things will get back to normal in no time.
Some of these experts possess impressive credentials. One is Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the co-author of a 2003 paper that said the climate isn't so hot after all. Baliunas also has the title of "senior scientist" with the George C. Marshall Institute. ExxonMobil has given the Institute $405,000 for its climate change programs since 2001, according tothe institute's annual reports.
Another expert is Patrick Michaels, a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and a visiting scientist with the Marshall Institute. In a statement posted on a State of Oregon website run by Taylor, Michaels claims he doesn't see global warming as a problem; what worries him more is a global conspiracy to shut down skeptics like himself.
Taylor himself has supplemented his government salary with oil money. On Nov. 22, 2004, the ExxonMobil-funded website Tech Central Station (techcentralstation.com-"Where Free Markets Meet Technology") published the 2,300-word article by Taylor that Inhofe had read on the Senate floor. Taylor's article was a review of a report that had shown significant warming in the Arctic. Taylor, who has written seven articles on climate change for Tech Central Station, says he was paid $500 for the review.
The Arctic report said the North Pole is losing its permafrost, and frozen bogs are melting in Alaska and Siberia, spewing vast amounts of methane, another greenhouse gas. Sea ice and glaciers are retreating, temperatures are rising, the growing season is extending and robins are now living above the Arctic Circle for the first time in history.
Taylor's review said the authors of the Arctic study looked at only the last 35 years, ignoring data from the 1930s that show conditions were comparable to those of today. "Why not start the trend there?" he wrote. "Because there is no net warming over the last 65 years?"
It's not clear what report Taylor was reading. In fact, the Arctic study takes into account an entire thousand years and places the Arctic in the context of the entire globe.
Taylor acknowledges he reviewed only 55 pages of a 140-page summary of the full 1,200-page report, yet still found fault with its sourcing. "Oddly, the [report] does a very poor job of documenting its sources of information," Taylor writes. "For such an ambitious document its science consists primarily of blanket statements without any sort of reference or citation."
If Taylor had waited to review the full report (preliminary versions of chapters are posted on the Web; the final version is due in September), he would have noticed the report's detailed documentation and lengthy list of references.
Taylor also complains that the "doom-and-gloom report" failed to consult several studies that he contends disprove Arctic warming. Were any of his favored sources considered by the authors of the report? he asks. "It's hard to say-one can only guess 'no.'"
In fact, the report does list most of Taylor's references-among hundreds of others.
Taylor concludes his article with a snarky little dig: "Nice graphics, but bad science."
Some people would be happier if George Taylor would roll up his own charts and graphs and just go do something else.
"Mr. Taylor has a right to speak his mind, but he does not have the right to use his position as state climatologist to spread disinformation," says Chris Hagerbaumer, a program director at the Oregon Environmental Council. "Like other global-warming deniers, Taylor has never submitted his opinion for peer review by actual climate scientists because those scientists would reject his ideas out of hand."
The state climatologist does not speak for the governor on global warming, says Van't Hof, Kulongoski's sustainability policy advisor. "George Taylor doesn't represent the governor's office, and he doesn't represent the state of Oregon," the aide says. "The governor consistently is in favor of addressing global warming. Global warming is real and is greatly accelerated by human activity."
Taylor's colleagues at Oregon State's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences have grown frustrated over the years with what they consider his misunderstanding of climate-change facts. On multiple occasions, faculty members found it necessary to correct statements in Taylor's regular "Weather Matters" column in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.
In 2004, a letter to the editor of the Gazette-Times signed by Prof. James Coakley "and all professors of the College of Atmospheric Sciences" said Taylor's statements in the newspaper "misrepresent the widely accepted scientific knowledge concerning the Earth's climate and global warming."
In 1999, another letter to the Corvallis newspaper, signed by six of the college's faculty members, took Taylor to task for dismissing the depletion of the ozone layer as "a rather small problem." Another letter written by a faculty member, the late Jack Dymond, observed, "First with ozone depletion and now with global warming, George Taylor continues to misinterpret the science of some of the most important environmental issues facing the planet."
"He missed his calling as a used-car salesman," Coakley, an expert on clouds, said in an interview with WW. "George is a nice guy, runs his shop pretty well. We're not happy with his pronouncements. They drive us bonkers."
"The best explanation I can come up with is, George is very tied into the conservative bent," Coakley added. "He gets all his information from the conservative-type think tanks. George picks it up and regurgitates it. Some of the stuff is half-baked at best, but sometimes it's so bad we have to call him on it and write letters to the editor. It's just not right; it just counters all the evidence."
No one, however, says Taylor is wrong about everything. Every August, he makes a prediction about the upcoming winter weather. Sometimes he's remarkably prescient. In 1995, he told The Oregonian that we were in for a wet, rainy year, and that the salmon would be coming back strong. And they did.
"I'm like a historian," Taylor says. "I look at occurrences in a historical context; I look at the larger trends."
The highly charged global warming controversy is getting to Taylor, especially the criticism that's coming his way. 'It bothers the heck out of me, it really does," he says. "I believe in civil discourse. I have colleagues who have been very public, who strongly disagree with me, but they have been nice about it. I really upset some people, and I still upset some people. I think they are upset because I am in an influential position. I am the state climatologist."
"A lot of people wish I'd shut up," he says. "I have an opinion on this issue. I'd rather go ahead and express that opinion than shut up because I might offend somebody."
He says he's never been asked by his superiors at the university to keep his opinions to himself. And, when asked whether he would ever shut up, he paused for a moment.
Winner of the 2004 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times.
About 20 percent of George Taylor's $500,000 annual budget comes from state government; the rest comes from grants from the federal government and other sources.
Like many of Taylor's friends and acquaintances, UW's Philip Mote has kind things to say: "He's a good friend and a good communicator."
As nations and economies develop over the next 25 years, world energy demand is estimated to increase by almost 60 percent.
Fossil fuels, which are responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide emissions produced by human activities, are projected to provide 85 pecent of this demand, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
The authoritative scientific blog on global warming is www.realclimate.org .