UW researcher in spotlight on global-warming issue
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — With television lights glaring, hundreds of people — teenagers with pierced lips, middle-aged men with plaid shirts over bulging bellies, and women in high heels — all pressed into a room at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry this week.
They had all come for a debate about the weather. They had all come to hear a soft-spoken University of Washington researcher named Philip Mote.
A decade ago, such an event might have drawn a few dozen wonks and science geeks.
That was before global warming became a household phrase.
The recent urgency on the topic has propelled the 41-year-old, Birkenstock-wearing Mote, Washington's unofficial state climatologist, to the forefront of one of the most controversial issues of the day. He has crisscrossed the Northwest to talk about climate change to hundreds of groups, from lawmakers in Idaho, to concerned citizens in Leavenworth, to Puget Sound Energy's corporate board. In 2004 he testified before Congress.
Now he's a lead author of the much-awaited international report on climate change to be released today.
Along the way, Mote has stepped out of the comfortable offices of academia to become an unusual hybrid — a scientist who is comfortable in the public spotlight as an expert who is neither a politician nor an activist.
Unlike former Vice President Al Gore, who has used fame and charisma to become an icon of the cause, Mote is an unassuming man who admires some Republican politicians, drives a Mercedes and generally sidesteps the biggest question on climate change: what to do about it.
About as far as he'll go is this: "I do think it's a shame that 10 years have gone by without doing all the things that are really easy."
Gives Gore an A-minus
Still, it's tempting to compare Mote's work with Gore's crusade.
Both travel a lot, armed with Macintosh computers filled with photos of shrinking glaciers and graphs of the buildup of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Both attended Harvard; Gore studied government, Mote physics. Both are clean-cut, with Boy Scout earnestness.
Instead of Gore's call to arms, however, Mote speaks in measured tones about science. He uses terms such as "monotonic" and "baroclinity," a scientific term referring to density in the atmosphere.
But the underlying message is clear: Climate change is happening, and humans are the biggest cause. It's a conclusion most scientists now share.
Mote gives Gore's presentation, featured in the hit movie "An Inconvenient Truth," an A-minus on the science. He marks Gore down for claiming that global warming is behind shrinking snows on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, for example, and for saying that changes in ocean currents could throw Europe into deep freeze.
But when he met Gore at a dinner in Seattle, Mote balked at telling Gore he disagreed with him. "It was just too intimidating for a nonconfrontational person like me," Mote said.
Mote grew up in Provo, Utah, and in California's Central Valley, a Presbyterian minister's kid and a science whiz.
He first came to the University of Washington as a graduate student in atmospheric sciences. His research shifted toward global warming in 1998 when he was hired by the UW's Climate Impacts Group, a federally funded program studying climate change in the Northwest. His job was partly to be the group's spokesman.
"He's very articulate, outgoing, likes to talk to people," said Nate Mantua, a UW scientist with the group.
A bigger role?
Until now, the state climatologist hasn't been an official position recognized by state law. Mote simply volunteered to assume the role when the former state climatologist decided to stop.
But Gov. Christine Gregoire's proposed budget includes $168,000 for the office over the next two years, which would provide Mote an assistant. And the Governor's Office is asking the Legislature to make it an official, appointed position.
But Keith Phillips, a top Gregoire adviser on environmental issues, stressed the climatologist's office wouldn't be all about climate change. It also would be about topics such as drought and water supply.
"We're hoping to avoid it becoming a political debate about whether climate change is real or not," he said.
But that's exactly where Mote regularly finds himself — just like last week in Portland.
On that stage at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, he engaged in a polite but tense encounter with George Taylor, who heads Oregon's Climate Service and is among a tiny minority of climate scientists who doubt humans are responsible for global warming.
As he usually does, Mote fielded questions by detailing the latest research. Taylor often responded with wisecracks.
Taylor said too many unanswered questions remain about the influence of things such as unusual solar activity on the climate. He questioned whether there really was a problem at all.
Mote responded that the idea that the current warming was caused by such solar activity had been debunked. While the severity of the impact from global warming is unclear, some scenarios are "extremely worrisome," he said.
But when someone in the audience asked about President Bush's policies, both Mote and Taylor agreed.
"Let's move on to the next question," Mote said.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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