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Crawford: Cloudy reasoning behind firing state climatologist
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David Stooksbury, the state climatologist for the past 12 years, was eminently qualified to do the work that he does. I don't know of anyone who was more qualified.

He is an associate professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia. He has gathered impressive amounts of research data and analysis of the droughts that have plagued this state for the past decade. He is respected enough by his peers to serve as the secretary-treasurer for the American Association of State Climatologists.

Pam Knox, Stooksbury's assistant, was the state climatologist of Wisconsin from 1989-1998 and has served on the American Meteorological Society's Committee on Applied Climatology.

"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.

In some states, government employees with that record of expertise and achievements would be rewarded. In Georgia, they get fired, which is what Gov. Nathan Deal did to Stooksbury and Knox last week.

Deal signed an executive order ordering the appointment of two employees from the Environmental Protection Division to replace Stooksbury and Knox. Deal's office did not make any announcement of the change. When asked by reporters why Deal removed two experts in climatology, the governor's spokesman kept repeating the same prepared talking point: "EPD is a natural home for this function. It's a rational consolidation."

To add insult to injury, Deal never contacted them to tell them that they had been replaced.

"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.

Why should anybody care about who holds the position of state climatologist? Because this is a period when droughts and other extreme climate conditions threaten Georgia's economic well-being.

Among the activities conducted by Stooksbury's office is a website that provides information on how farmers — agriculture is the state's biggest industry — 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 Hurricanes Katrina and Irene, it is also advisable to have an expert climatologist on board who can warn you about when and where a tropical storm may hit your state.

Deal has replaced Stooksbury with Bill Murphey, the chief meteorologist for EPD. Murphey has degrees in physics and atmospheric sciences from Georgia Tech and has worked at an atmospheric research center in New York. He does have a background in 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 science of climatology has become increasingly politicized in recent years, with many pundits and politicians denying accumulated scientific data that indicates our climate is changing dramatically as the earth gets warmer. Perhaps the governor does not want a climatologist who believes in 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 authority to make these personnel decisions, no matter how mystifying they may appear. He at least put someone in the position who has some acquaintance with climatology.

As for Stooksbury, he has 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."

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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