by Judith Curry
There is a disturbing story coming out of the University of Washington surrounding Cliff Mass.
In preparing this article, I have received material from a member of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. I also ran into another member of the Department while at the AGU meeting this week, who corroborated these events. I conducted a 30 minute phone interview with Cliff Mass.
Who is Cliff Mass?
Cliff Mass has been a faculty member in the University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Department since 1982. His research focuses on numerical weather modeling and prediction, the role of topography in the evolution of weather systems, and on the weather of the Pacific Northwest. In addition to his research publications, Cliff Mass has published a popular book entitled ‘Weather of the Pacific Northwest.’
Since 2008, Cliff Mass has maintained a popular blog Cliff Mass Weather and Climate. Mass posts regular articles on meteorology, Pacific Northwest weather history, and the impacts of climate change written for the general public.
He has 13,000 twitter followers. Mass also has a weekly radio show with 400,000 weekly listeners (!)
Cliff Mass – climate ‘denier’?
Cliff Mass has been characterized as a ‘sort of’ climate denier. The first reference to this is a 2015 article Cliff Mass: Scientific lies and the new climate deniers.
“He is also a dangerous new breed of climate skeptic. He has made a theme of downplaying the role of global warming in extreme weather events, and in exposing what he calls “overzealousness” in the scientific, media, and activist community.”
A 2017 article in Stranger entitled Why does Cliff Mass believe scientists and leftist journalists are exaggerating the dangers of climate change?
“Cliff Mass is not a climate denier, but he is their ally, which is as good as being a climate denier.”
The accusation of ‘denier’ got more explicit when Sarah Myre testified before the State of Washington House of Representatives: Can you be a climate scientist and an advocate?
“In February 2017, Sarah Myhre traveled to Washington’s capital, Olympia, to give testimony to the state House of Representatives Environment Committee. There, Representative Shelly Short, a Republican from northeastern Washington, asked her to comment on her colleague Mass’ unwillingness to link recent wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes to climate change. Myhre responded that she and many of her colleagues saw Mass’ recent views “as coming from a denialist or contrarian place.”
The Cascadia Daily states:
“Seattle weather guy and climate change denier Cliff Mass”
So, what does Cliff Mass have to say about climate change, in his own words? From an interview with the UW Alumni magazine and summary from the Wikipedia (based on my knowledge of Cliff’s opinions and writings, this is correct):
“According to Mass, “Global warming is an extraordinarily serious issue, and scientists have a key role to play in communicating what is known and what is not about this critical issue.
Mass has stated publicly that he shares the scientific consensus that global warming is real and that human activity is the primary cause of warming trends in the 20th and 21st centuries. He has been critical of the Paris Climate accord for not going far enough to address the negative impacts of climate change. However, Mass is also frequently critical of what he has characterizes as exaggerations of the past and current impacts of climate change in the news media, including the attribution of individual extreme weather events to global warming.”
The most recent ‘denier’ claims are associated with Cliff’s statements about the causes of the recent California fires: Cliff Mass: Climate change is real but . . .
“But Mass takes issue every time someone points to local extreme weather and says “that’s caused by climate change.”
The extremes we’ve seen in Seattle, around the region and even across the U.S. — most of them anyway — are caused by anomalous weather patterns, not climate change, Mass said.
There are, of course, those who would argue that by nitpicking such details, Mass only feeds ammunition to climate change deniers. Mass doesn’t want to downplay global warming; he just doesn’t want to stretch the truth to try and out-extreme those who would deny it. “So global warming’s very serious,” Mass said. “But it’s coming up in the future, not right now, for us.”
Sarah Myhre is not happy with Mass’ recent statements about the California wildfires. From an article by James Delingpole: Brown Fiddled While California Burned:
“One Dr Sarah Myhre – who, gloriously, bills herself as a “public scholar scientist advocate communicator” [actually, you know, just “activist” would have done] – tweeted at him “This. Is. Pure. Propaganda.” And then told a Washington radio station that had given him airtime that giving Cliff a “platform” was a “form of violence.”
So in summary, Cliff Mass accepts the consensus science. However he breaks with the ‘activists’ in terms of thinking it is a bad idea to falsely claim that extreme weather events are caused by AGW.
Most unforgivably, Mass broke with the progressive activists in terms of not supporting the latest carbon fee initiative in Washington, I-1631. Mass has long advocated for some sort of carbon tax: How to make a carbon tax work in Washington
Mass was a strong supporter of a previous carbon tax initiative (which was voted down). His concerns with I-1631 are described in three blog posts:
- If you worry about climate change and care about the environment, vote no on I-1631.
- Initiative I-1631: At odds with democratic values
- A Political analysis of I-1631: The carbon fee initiative
I don’t pretend to be an expert on I-1631 and I am not passing judgment here, but I will say that Mass’s position is well-supported and defensible.
For a perspective from the supporters of I-1631, I refer to Sarah Myhre’s article in the Stranger entitled New carbon tax initiative drafted with more color and less white supremacy. Reducing CO2 emissions seems to be a relatively minor factor; climate policy has become a crusade to change the balance of power:
“When climate policy is written by white men in a closed room, that is white supremacy.”
Things got really ‘interesting’ as a result Mass’ blog post ‘If you worry about climate change . . .’ , which had this statement:
“The initiative hardwires money to certain special interest groups–the left-leaning supporters of the measure. A minimum of ten percent of the money goes to Indian tribes, who are exempted from paying any carbon fee by the initiative. Labor advocates got a fifty million dollar fund, replenished annually, for worker support programs. And to provide funding to the social action groups pushing the initiative, 35% of the money goes to “pollution and health action areas” of minority and “vulnerable populations.” There is more, but you get the message (see the picture below).” [The picture was pigs at a trough.]
Mass’ point was that special interest groups were hardwired for a good portion of the funds. He wanted an image that illustrated ‘political pork’ and special interest groups feeding at the public trough and so he used the pigs at a trough image.
While there were no complaints about the image in the blog comments, a few of the activists at the UW claimed it was racist. Imagery of pigs at a public trough has been used for over a century, and has never been used to refer to minorities as far as Mass could identify. ‘Pigs at a trough’ is about the well-connected and privileged. Mass decided to be sensitive to the ‘feelings’ of thee activists and pulled the image. Then Mass received a number of messages after he pulled it, accusing him of giving in to mob rule. There was nothing racist or anything else inappropriate in the text, and no one has suggested there was. Apparently the mention of the phrase ‘Indian tribes’ in the same paragraph that references an image of pigs at the trough is sufficient to trigger an accusation of racism.
Note: I-1631 was voted down in the November election.
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
Any scientist that is active in the public debate on climate change (no matter what their actual position in the debate) will invariably be subject to attacks on twitter, the blogosphere and even by journalists. That is part of the noise associated with the public debate on climate change. This noise shouldn’t matter, in the overall scheme of things.
However, it is a different kettle of fish when people from your own university, and even your own Department, go after you publicly, with the objective of stifling your freedom of speech. And then when University administrators get involved, a threatening situation can emerge.
A number of University of Washington graduate students have taken a vocal stance against Cliff Mass, particularly on twitter. These same activist students that were so upset about the pig picture participated in online character assassination, calling Mass every name in the book over the past six months because they are unhappy with his rejection of 1631 and his research/blog posts on wildfires and attribution of extreme events. They have accused him of deception, being on the payroll of oil companies, purposely obfuscating with multiple twitter accounts, racism, misogyny, tokenism, Trumpism. They are hypersensitive about any indirect criticism of their ‘side’ but are fine with name-calling and personal attacks on those they disagree with.
The attacks ramped up when a group of students complained to the Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Rather than meet with Cliff Mass to discuss, the Assistant Dean sent a mass email to the faculty of the Atmospheric Sciences Department, with the following lede:
“a recent blog posting by a member of our community on a personal website included imagery and text that was racially insensitive and caused offense to a significant number of members in the departmental community.”
No attempt was made by this Assistant Dean to meet with Cliff Mass, or to understand that there was no racism evident or intended, and that the image in question was quickly removed from the blog post.
I will not ‘name and shame’ any of the graduate students here, who in any event are probably proud of their behavior. (JC note to students applying for jobs: search committees will check your social media presence). However, one graduate student in particular gets a ‘dishonorable’ mention here: Alex Lenferna, a Ph.D. candidate in the UW Philosophy Department with a Certificate in Atmospheric Science. He wrote a blog post that is basically a ‘hit-job’ on Cliff Mass, owing to his failure to support I-1631, including playing the ‘racism’ card. The blog post includes an image: Cliff Mass ‘hearts’ oil.
I won’t dignify Lenferna’s slime by reproducing any of it. This blog post is significant, however, because the Atmospheric Sciences Department Chair (Dale Durran) sent a mass email to the Department faculty including the link to Lenferna’s post, and voicing concern about Mass’ behavior and ‘racism’, and including the image Mass ‘hearts’ oil.
The Chair then called a general Department-wide meeting about the blog post Mass wrote, with the event billed as ‘controversy.’ An ombudsperson was enlisted to run the meeting, but the Chair took over, serving as inquisitor and critic. The Chair prevented Mass from finishing his opening comments and hectored Mass throughout the meeting. The activist students were true to form, hurling all kinds of insulting, personal and inappropriate remarks.
So what is going on here? Is the Department of Atmospheric Sciences making a stand against political activism by its faculty members? Hardly. In fact, the Chair, Dale Durran, pressured each of the faculty members to sign a statement supporting I-1631. This statement was published by the Seattle Times :
“Some know they must stop smoking, but can’t, and it wrecks their health. As spelled out in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, humanity has been acting like a chain smoker. Initiative 1631 gives us the chance to change. The opposition to I-1631 is largely concerned with the politics of taxing and spending. These are important matters, but they should not be endlessly debated in lieu of taking action. I-1631 is the third major effort to discourage carbon emissions in Washington state.
Science shows carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, warming and dramatically changing the climate. Because of the way carbon accumulates, the emission reductions required to hold future changes in climate below any given level become more drastic with each year we wait to begin serious cuts.
Unlike the carbon emitted while waiting for a perfect law, passing I-1631 does not represent an irrevocable hundreds-of-years commitment. After a short period, I-1631 could be amended to make it even better.
Now is the time to take a big step to kick our carbon habit.
Dale Durran, professor and chair, and 21 other professors in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Washington, Seattle (the views expressed here are those of the authors and not UW)”
While many of the faculty members appear to have signed this enthusiastically (based on their signatures on other lists related to I-1631), I’ve been told that several faculty members felt uncomfortable signing this. One of the faculty members I spoke with said they felt compelled to sign the letter since they didn’t want to stand up to Chair; this individual told me they voted against I-1631.
There are several people in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences that don’t like Cliff Mass (including, obviously, the Chair). They are concerned about his status as Washington’s ‘celebrity’ scientist – being either envious of this status or concerned that this status makes Mass relatively immune to ‘pressure’ from Departmental leadership. But most fundamentally, they seem to dislike that his blog is getting in the way of their own political advocacy.
The climate change advocacy disease seems to have affected many of the UW faculty and graduate students. Apart from the issue of activism potentially getting in the way of scientific objectivity, the big issue here is that the Chair attempted to ‘institutionalize’ this activism with the I-1631 support letter. I have to say I find this very inappropriate behavior for a Chair, and I’m surprised that the higher administration didn’t reprimand him for this (in the old days I would have been reprimanded for this at Georgia Tech, but under the current administration, who knows). Faculty members were pressured into signing that letter, since the Chair controls their reappointments and promotions, salary, teaching assignments, etc. The public ‘shaming’ meeting is beyond the pale, particularly the Chair’s behavior during this meeting. After this behavior, I cannot imagine how the UW faculty and administration can have any confidence in the leadership of their current Chair.
And finally, a closing comment about Cliff Mass. While this can’t be fun for him, I’m not too worried about Cliff Mass: Cliff has friends in high places and an enormous ‘bully pulpit’ in terms of his blog and radio show. Trying to take him down isn’t going to work.
I have much more to say on this situation and the broader implications, I will write more in a follow on post.