David Stooksbury, who was the state climatologist for the past 12 years, was eminently qualified to do the work that he does for Georgia. I don’t know of anyone in the state who was better qualified.
He is an associate professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia. He worked for NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) high plains climate center in Nebraska for six years before moving to UGA. He has compiled voluminous amounts of research data and analysis of the droughts that have plagued Georgia for the past decade. He is respected enough by his peers to serve as the secretary-treasurer for the American Association of State Climatologists.
The woman who had been working as Stooksbury’s assistant also has impressive credentials. Pam Knox was the state climatologist of Wisconsin from 1989-1998 and had been the assistant state climatologist of Georgia since 2001. She has served on the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Applied Climatology. She has taught meteorology and physics at the college level.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job for the past 12 years of building up an office whose work is well-respected around the country,” Stooksbury said last week.
In many states, government employees with that admirable record of expertise and achievements would be commended and rewarded.
In Georgia, they get fired, which is what Gov. Nathan Deal did to Stooksbury and Knox last week. Deal not only dismissed them, he didn’t bother to tell them that they had been replaced and the governor’s office has provided no credible explanation for why they were so abruptly canned.
Deal signed an executive order on Tuesday ordering the appointment of two mid-level employees from the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to replace Stooksbury and Knox. The governor evidently was a little embarrassed by what he did, because his office did not make any public announcement of the personnel change. When asked repeatedly by reporters for the reasons why Deal fired two people so expert in climatology, the governor’s spokesman robotically repeated the same prepared talking point over and over: “EPD is a natural home for this function. It’s a rational consolidation.” He would say nothing more.
To add insult to injury, Deal never bothered to contact either climatologist to tell them that they had been fired.
“I have still not heard directly from the governor’s office,” Stooksbury said during an interview more than three days after Deal signed the order to replace him. He said he first learned of his change in employment status when “I got a call from somebody out of state who said, ‘I see you’ve been replaced.’”
Why should anybody care about who holds the position of state climatologist? Because this is a period when droughts and other extreme climate conditions endanger Georgia’s well-being and its largest industry, agriculture.
Among the activities conducted by Stooksbury’s office is the operation of a website that provides information on how farmers can get better crop yields during the current climate extremes. He advises coastal communities on how to cope with the rising sea levels caused by the ongoing warming of the earth’s climate.
As we have seen with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Irene, it is also advisable to have an expert climatologist on board who can warn you when and where a tropical storm is going to strike your state.
“There is this perception along the Georgia coast that we’ve never been hit by a hurricane,” Stooksbury said. “Climatologists know that is wrong.”
“Climatologists will tell you that in the 1800s, Georgia had six major hurricanes make landfall,” he pointed out. “We had a storm surge in Brunswick in the 1890s that put water in the streets. A climatologist would say, random events tend to cluster, random events are not evenly spaced out. Hurricanes are random events. Along the Georgia coast, we’ve had them in the past and we’ll have them in the future.”
Deal has replaced Stooksbury with Bill Murphey, the chief meteorologist for the Environmental Protection Division. Murphey has degrees in physics and atmospheric sciences from Georgia Tech and has worked as a meteorologist for the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York. He does have background and experience with climate issues, although his work with EPD has primarily involved the operation of air quality monitoring stations.
Murphey is also a state employee ultimately answerable to the governor. Stooksbury and Knox work at UGA with much of their budget coming from independent research grants.
“You’ve kind of lost that independent voice for informing the public and informing decision-makers,” Stooksbury said. “I’m not sure that is good for the state in the long term. In a university setting, there is more independence, more access to the latest scientific information.”
There is also this to consider: the whole science of climatology has become increasingly politicized in recent years with many leaders of one of our major political organizations, the Republican Party, actively denying the accumulated scientific data supporting the argument that our climate is changing dramatically as the earth gets warmer. Perhaps a Republican governor would not want a climatologist who is not under his control and who would insist upon such quaint notions as making decisions that are based on facts and data.
“I’ve tried not to make any comments on policy,” Stooksbury said. “I am a scientist. In public, I’ve been very quiet.”
As the governor, of course, Deal has the absolute authority to make personnel decisions such as this one, no matter how mystifying they may appear. He at least has put someone in the position who is generally familiar with the issues and science of climatology.
As for Stooksbury, he has academic tenure at UGA and will continue with his teaching and research at the state’s flagship university.
“Next week I’ll be teaching vector analysis and coastal meteorology and grading papers, just like I’ve always done.” He said. “The governor has made his decision. We’ll continue to move forward and serve the people of Georgia that way.”