A few months ago, the University of Missouri-Columbia proudly announced that one of its professors would share the Nobel Peace Prize.
The professor, Tony Lupo, is an associate professor of atmospheric science in the School of Natural Resources. He also happens to be a global-warming skeptic — a member of a tribe that even the Southern Baptists are abandoning.
Lupo shares his Nobel Prize with thousands of scientists around the world who wrote and reviewed the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body that tries to make sense of all the research on global warming. Authors from 40 countries worked on the report, which concluded with 90 percent certainty that humans are the main cause of rising temperatures. (The Nobel Committee gave the other half of the prize to Al Gore.)
Lupo is a 10-percenter, unwilling to say that climate change is definitely humankind's handiwork. "I'll concede that there may be a human component," Lupo tells me in a phone interview. "But the question is, how much?"
This puts him out of step with most of his colleagues and popular opinion; even conservative hero Newt Gingrich says there's sufficient evidence that humans are warming the Earth.
Lupo puts more faith in the notion that global warming is "a natural phenomenon," a position set forth in an open letter sent to the United Nations in December. He signed the letter along with dozens of other Ph.D.s who stand outside the mainstream and mock efforts to curb greenhouse gases. Their letter warned that attempts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions are likely to increase human suffering, on the theory that such measures would slow development. Lupo's name appeared between those of a Polish geologist and an Australian statistician.
His skepticism has also taken the form of letters to the editors of Missouri newspapers. Over the years, he's written several on the subject of climate change. Back in 1998, he wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that claimed: "There is no scientific consensus whether global warming is a fact and is occurring."
Finding a silly idea on a letters page isn't hard. But it's one thing when Bill in Lake Quivira claims that global warming is a hoax (The Kansas City Star, March 1, 2008); it's something else — something sadder — when a man of science at the state's flagship university insists that climate change is nothing to fear, as Lupo once did. After all, if a science professor is unconcerned, it gives ammo to the officemate who insists on making sarcastic comments about global warming whenever it snows.
In his letters, Lupo frequently complains about misinformation. But he sometimes sounds like the self-appointed experts and other "hucksters" he criticizes.
In another 1998 letter, this one to the Columbia Daily Tribune, he wrote that skeptics outnumbered adherents to the theory of human-induced climate change. Lupo says today that the numbers have shifted, but that in 1998 the statement was "probably true."
It wasn't. By 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had already concluded that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate."
In a 2000 letter to the Post-Dispatch, Lupo noted that an influential oceanographer named Roger Reville was urging more study before civilization took drastic measures to counter global warming.
But as Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, pointed out in a rebuttal letter, Reville was hardly in a position to make "recent statements" on climate change, having died in 1991.
Wuebbles tells me today that he can't understand how the global-warming skeptics — he calls them "confusionists" — continue to operate in the face of such overwhelming evidence. "Everything they've raised over the years has been proved to be wrong," he says.
As for Lupo, Wuebbles says: "He just must be kind of a strange bird, is all I can tell."
I asked the odd man out if he fought with his students and fellow faculty on the subject of global warming.
"I get into my debates with my colleagues," Lupo says in the course of a pleasant conversation. "They're very friendly ones. The folks who disagree with me have always been open and listened to what I've had to say. And I hope I've done the same for them."
Like most skeptics, Lupo has had to backpedal a bit. A letter he sent to the Star in 2005 allowed that the "the climate is warming." But Lupo went on to say that the warm and dry conditions the region was experiencing were "not unprecedented."
I ask the professor if he thinks his political beliefs have encroached upon his scientific work. His home page — unsurprising news alert! — links to various Republican sites, including RushLimbaugh.com.
"In my mind, I hope that I'm keeping those two things separate," he says. "But I'm a person like anyone else, and I think I wouldn't be surprised if my thoughts are a little bit colored. But, you know, I try to keep my science independent of my politics as much as possible."
In addition to having at least some self-awareness, Lupo — whose expertise is climate variability in the jet stream and snowfall in the Midwest — isn't beholden to fossil-fuel interests, like some of his fellow skeptics. ExxonMobil, for instance, has spent a reported $16 million funding climate studies over the years. In 2005, a Colorado utility, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, organized a collection drive for Patrick J. Michaels, the former state climatologist of Virginia and author of books with such titles as Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media. Michaels appeared at a recent skeptic conference in New York. Speaking to The Washington Post, the head of Clean Air Watch called the meeting "the climate equivalent of Custer's Last Stand."
Lupo, who did not attend the event, sees it a different way, chafing a bit when I use the term "holdouts" to describe the skeptics at the conference.
"Obviously, it's going to look like that," he says. "But there were some pretty high-powered folks there, at least from the atmospheric-sciences realm."
As for the Nobel Prize, Lupo doesn't think it's so ironic for someone like him to claim a tiny fraction of the award. Admitting that people on his side tend to deride the climate-change panel, Lupo also notes that he's not the only panel member who is reluctant to blame SUVs and smokestacks for climate irregularities. "It's not a monolith," he says.
Perhaps not. But it's doubtful that many of the 2,500 people who reviewed the panel's most recent report have talked up the benefits of global warming. "In the last 10, 15 years, Columbia's probably become a more ideal place to live," Lupo told the Daily Tribune last year.
Fine for Lupo. Probably not so much for an African who relies on rain-fed agriculture or a polar bear watching sea ice disappear.