A climate science skeptic with a history of botched research is the latest controversial addition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board.
John Christy, a climate scientist from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, was one of eight people added on Thursday to the panel, which provides scientific advice to the EPA’s director. Another 21 experts, many drawn from industry and state agencies, were also added to related advisory committees.
Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has overhauled its advisers, shortened the term limits for advisers, and mandated that participating members refuse EPA grant money. Environmental and science advocacy groups, as well as past EPA officials, criticized the latter change as favoring industry members and forcing some prominent scientists to choose between being an adviser and keeping their research funding.
Trump administration appointees to EPA’s main advisory panel now outnumber past members by 26 to 19, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. They include fewer university researchers investigating the health effects of toxins and pollutants and more voices of experts from polluting industries or state regulators. And some of the Trump-appointed members hold fringe views in their field — including Christy.
“I’m skeptical of the conclusions that can be drawn from climate models,” Christy told BuzzFeed News. “I think there is a rush to judgment that every time something happens it’s because of global warming.”
Christy and his colleague Roy Spencer were the first researchers to analyze temperatures in the troposphere, a lower atmospheric layer, using satellite records. They identified cooling — not warming — in recent decades, a surprise in an era of global warming. But when others, including Carl Mears, a senior research scientist at the research company Remote Sensing Systems, reexamined Christy’s work in the early 2000s, they found errors that when corrected revealed warming in the troposphere. Christy acknowledged the error, according to the New York Times. As recently as 2017, multiple scientists corrected or raised concerns about how Christy’s team was analyzing satellite data.
Nevertheless, Christy said, “We have demonstrated in our published work that climate models are overpredicting warming by roughly a factor of two. I think that is perspective the EPA will want.”
In congressional testimony on climate change, Christy has touted his own estimates of atmospheric temperatures despite his record of mistakes, drawing complaints of “political grandstanding” from NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt in a 2016 analysis finding distortions in the data that Christy presented to lawmakers.
By phone, Christy dismissed past corrections of his team’s temperature estimates as “talking about things from 10 years ago.”
A broad scientific consensus now exists that the Earth's climate has warmed over the last century and will continue, so Christy’s skepticism toward climate models, which have been proven roughly true in their predictions, has other climate scientists critical of his new EPA role.
“He has made many statements before Congress and elsewhere that are at odds with the scientific evidence because of his personal value system. He is not an appropriate appointee for this advisory panel, unfortunately,” said Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who was one of Christy’s graduate school supervisors.
Trenberth pointed to Christy’s early career as a missionary in Kenya and religious views — namely, that impoverished people need fossil fuels and that providence controls the environment — as excessively coloring his opinion of climate science.
“In my view it has undermined his science objectivity,” said Trenberth.
In response to Christy’s criticisms of climate models on a Senate panel in 2015, former US Navy chief oceanographer David Titley testified that satellites “are not thermometers in space,” and noted the repeated past errors by Christy’s team that underplayed warming in the atmosphere.
Although climate models aren’t perfect, a NASA model in 1980, for example, hadn’t called for enough warming, Titley said. “They are useful and do help tell us about the future.”