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Dr. Muller’s Findings

New York Times
November 3, 2011

Richard Muller, a prominent American physicist, was so skeptical about data showing a gradual warming of the Earth’s surface that he decided to investigate for himself. The results of his two-year inquiry — partially bankrolled by the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is a prominent global-warming denier — are now in. And, voilà, the Earth is indeed warming, just as most scientists have been saying for years.

The main finding by Mr. Muller and his team at the University of California at Berkeley is that land temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius (or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950. This matches findings by the National Academy of Sciences, federal agencies and independent American and British researchers whose work has been repeatedly attacked by climate deniers and opponents of efforts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

Mr. Muller undertook the study partly because he distrusted the readings at temperature stations around the world, some of which he felt were more sophisticated than others, and partly because he feared that higher temperatures in the cities skewed the overall result. After taking 1.6 billion readings at 39,000 sites, he has toted up the results and declared: “Global warming is real.”

This may not be exactly the result the Koch foundation had in mind when it forked out one-quarter of the $600,000 it took to do the study. Charles Koch and his brother, David, are oil and gas billionaires who argue that warming is a hoax. They spent heavily to defeat California’s global warming initiative in a 2010 state referendum. Still, we should thank them for helping to change the mind of an influential scientist.

Mr. Muller says he doesn’t know how much of the warming is caused by humans, what its effects will be or what should be done about it. He shows little interest in entering the political fight. Still, his acceptance of the reality of warming may help move the conversation — once and for all — away from questions about whether it exists to smart strategies for addressing it.