15 Fascinating Oregonians Feature
Forecast: Warming?
By Lisa Baker

For the past 16 years George Taylor has been the state climatologist for Oregon. Taylor is a faculty member at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. He manages the Oregon Climate Service, the state repository of weather and climate information, and supervises a staff of 10. Taylor is past president of the American Association of State Climatologists.

Earlier this year a storm of controversy erupted when Taylor forthrightly offered his scientific opinions on the topic of global warming. For those who accept as near religious dogma the idea that global warming is caused primarily by human activities, his comments inspired immediate wrath, and retaliation. Unaccustomed to the attention and stunned by the level of furor, Taylor was quickly forced to defend his scientific position, and to his surprise, his job. At least one Democrat senator suggested legislation that could remove him as state climatologist because his views differ from the governor’s.

For most folks, weather is a safe topic when you’ve nothing else to say or when you want to avoid having something to say.

But for Oregon’s state climatologist George Taylor, rain patterns, cycles and old musty records of hot summer days long gone are the stuff of pure fascination. If you have time, he’ll tell you of climate mapping, where the weather patterns of every half-mile section of the U.S. are profiled in enough specificity for you to decide whether you dare plant a hardy banana tree in a certain backyard in Goshen.

For those whose livelihoods depend on the vagaries of weather, Taylor’s information is like learning the spread before a horse race. No, more like interviewing the jockey.

Better: like interviewing the horse.

If there’s a stat, Taylor has it.

Wanna know if it’s likely to rain on your outdoor September wedding in Corvallis? He’s got it.

How about if the surf’s going to be good off Nye Beach this weekend? He’s got that, too.

How about whether global warming will melt polar ice caps and turn San Francisco into the world’s biggest water slide? And if it does, whose fault will it be?

Until a few months ago, George Taylor would have loved that question, the conversation, the analysis. Now, with so much water under the bridge, he’d rather not talk about, well, the weather. How about religion or politics?

These days, Taylor finds himself in the center of the storm over Global Warming. His opinion — that G.W., if it can be proven to exist beyond cyclical fluctuations in Earth’s history, is more likely the result of solar activities than greenhouse gases fueled by human activities — has been labeled nothing short of heresy by some.

Academic freedom, scientific inquiry and freedom of speech aside, the consequences for such heresy, particularly in “sustainable Oregon” can be severe. Environmentalists are calling him “dangerous” and the governor (who possesses limited weather credentials) has considered stripping him of his state climatologist title.

It is a strange thing to Taylor, whose mild-mannered life straddles the clear demarcations between ideological lifestyles. On the one hand, he’s a granola-eating, bike-to-work conservationist vegetarian. On the other, he’s a church-going, numbers-crunching pragmatist who loves country music and is so fond of OSU baseball that he serves as the team’s go-to guy when they’re deciding whether to wait out the rain or go home.

Until now, his opinions and scientific creds — a master’s in meteorology, a bachelor’s in math and years as a private consultant — have never been considered dangerous or even controversial.

Not to say he’s never been contrarian. His move to vegetarianism in his 20s he now believes was likely, in part, a poke at his father, who owned a wholesale meat business. At the time, diet was just the beginning. He embraced unemployment, moving into a 6- by-10 room in a relative’s barn (no electricity or plumbing), grew his hair and his beard, and rode his bike everywhere. “I just sort of dropped out and forsook a lot of material things. You could say it was the hippie period in my life. I think it was more of a hermit existence.”

But then he discovered weather science and found that his analytical skill with numbers could be put to use in practical ways rather than simply hatching abstract notions. Suddenly, he says, he found a reason “to come back to the world.”

Gainfully employed, he nevertheless kept the bike and the vegetarian diet — not as symbolic of anything but simply because they worked for him and still do.

Given a choice, Taylor would love to go back to the days when his name could return to relative obscurity, when he could give a breezy quote about windstorms or el niño. “Frankly, I miss the good old days when nobody gave a rip about climate,” he says.

Not that he’s averse to a little excitement, he just prefers that his excitement come in the form of a surfboard or hiking boots or a sailboat. And even then, it’s a highly planned adventure — another example of blended ideology — that requires him to check the data so that he will know whether the waves will be too exciting rather than just exciting enough. Some of Taylor’s adventures have been toned down in a barely perceptible nod to middle age. Marathon running has been moved indoors and replaced by a treadmill, for instance.

At 60, and emerging from a bout with cancer, Taylor has settled into a more reflective mode where not all things are as they seemed to him years ago, including science. “There are demands for black and white, yes-no answers, and science has a lot of gray,” he says. “Scientists know that their science is wrong a lot of the time. In fact, I’m in a field where we’re wrong, as some say, all the time. I might be right. I might be wrong. It keeps me humble. I just think to pretend we understand, or that we know, is not always appropriate.”

BrainstormNW - April 2007

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