The Skeptic

Galileo got crosswise with Pope Urban VIII. Robert Oppenheimer didn't see eye-to-eye with Edward Teller. Every original thinker has a bête noire who torments and goads him.

For William Gray, a lean, six-foot-five emeritus professor at Colorado State University and one of the world's leading experts on tropical storms, the bugaboo on the horizon is another tall, charismatic fellow named Albert Arnold Gore Jr. You can call him Al.

Sitting in his office on the northwest edge of Fort Collins, Gray thumbs through Gore's An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, the coffee-table companion book to the documentary of the same name. Gore has been making the rounds of talk shows and bookseller conventions promoting both efforts. Turn on cable news and there he is, reciting the we're-in-deep-shit message he's been delivering by slide show for years, now bolstered by a website (www.climatecrisis.net) and startling computer graphics that depict the earth being ravaged by a gauntlet of man-made catastrophes over the next few decades.

Gray doesn't believe in the planetary emergency. Never has. Still, he picks his words carefully. A few weeks ago, a Washington Post article quoted him comparing Gore's convictions about global warming to Hitler's beliefs about the Jews, a burst of rhetorical overkill he says he sincerely regrets. So he's going to try to sound a diplomatic note here, even though the book, which some colleagues have asked him to review, strikes him as a piece of outright hysteria.

"I admire Al Gore," he says. "There's no doubt, with over six billion people, we have a lot of environmental problems in this world. He's pointing them out. That's fine. But that doesn't mean it's all due to global warming, or that you're going to solve these problems by cutting back on fossil fuels."

The tone seems conciliatory enough. But soon Gray is out of his seat, pointing out features on a map of the world pinned to the wall, reading passages from Gore's book aloud, scribbling lines of convection on a yellow legal pad. "This is a slick propaganda book," he declares. "The pictures are very good. But there are factual errors."

He's off and running. The people who are spreading the global-warming alarm, including the scientists, just don't understand the way the atmosphere works, he says. The ones who see a link between increasing ocean temperatures and more intense hurricanes in recent decades don't understand the ocean or hurricanes. The global computer models projecting that heat-trapping greenhouse gases will warm the earth between three and seven degrees Fahrenheit in the next hundred years -- melting polar ice, flooding shorelines and disrupting weather patterns everywhere -- are fatally flawed.

Now 76 years old, Gray is an old-school meterologist who prefers observational data to computer modeling. "I could assemble fifty of my colleagues who are very skeptical about global warming," he says. "The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] never talks to us, but I have a bit of an obligation, at my age -- I was trained to tell the truth. There's a lot of hogwash in this. If I don't speak up, I'm not doing my job."

Colorado's Front Range is a hotbed of research on climate change, from CSU's Department of Atmospheric Science to the strong presence in Boulder of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates several labs as well as joint research projects with the University of Colorado and CSU. Gray has been a prominent figure on the scene -- and an increasingly vocal skeptic of global warming claims for the past decade or so ("Global Warning," October 9, 1997). But his role in the debate has exploded in recent months, as intense hurricane activity has triggered a spate of theories and scientific papers linking the extreme weather to rising global temperatures.

Gray has been tracking hurricanes for half a century. "All these guys are very talented," he says of the scientists who are looking at hurricanes as indicators of the damage that increased greenhouse gases are inflicting on the planet. "Good talkers. But that doesn't mean they know how the atmosphere ticks. They haven't been down in the trenches. They can't hold their own with me."

Determined to set the record straight, Gray has lashed out at his colleagues over and over again in op-ed pieces, interviews and Senate testimony. He's taken the fight from the trenches of Discover to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The argument has become heated and, at times, bruisingly personal -- so much so that several leading climate researchers will no longer appear on a panel with him or debate him at conferences. "Bill and I used to have, as the British say, 'jolly arguments,'" sighs Peter Webster, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who once co-authored a paper with Gray but has since become one of his targets. "But they've ceased to be fun."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast