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Ken Cuccinelli's Cloudy Judgment

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Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wants to be his state's next governor.

In his forthcoming book, The Last Line of Defense, he has attempted to burnish his gubernatorial bona fides by portraying himself as a bulwark against wasteful federal spending.

The Washington Post's conservative opinion writer Jennifer Rubin characterizes the book as "preaching and screeching to the choir, ignoring the nonideological voters." Cuccinelli, she says, comes across as "clueless and mean-spirited."

Is that a fair assessment?

I should know. I was the target of one of his ideological attacks. And I've written about my experiences in my own book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.

I'm a climate scientist. My work is one piece of a vast puzzle scientists have assembled that forms a clear picture: the world is growing warmer due to the emissions of heat-trapping gases from burning coal and gas, and we're already seeing the effects of climate change, including increases in some types of extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Political allies of the fossil fuel industry -- including Mr. Cuccinelli, whose top donors include coal producer Consol Energy and oil giant Koch Industries -- don't like our research. They'd rather use their power to attack well-established science than consider the possibility that burning massive amounts of coal and oil has negative environmental side effects.

In April 2010, Cuccinelli demanded thousands of emails my fellow researchers and I had exchanged with one another over many years from the University of Virginia. He launched his investigation under a state law designed to prevent Medicaid fraud, so his operating theory seemed to be that scientists whose research he didn't like must be making it all up.

Scientific and free speech groups cried foul. Nine hundred Virginia academics, in a letter organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that the investigation sent a chilling message to researchers who work on issues of public import.

After some initial hesitation, the university fought Cuccinelli's demand. The attorney general took his misguided case all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which handily rejected it. Total cost to the university: at least $350,000, which could have been better spent educating Virginia students. Cuccinelli's office, meanwhile, has not disclosed how many resources it wasted.

Cuccinelli's court filings, when they referred to climate science at all, were clearly based on Internet conspiracy theories and misinformation from fossil fuel industry front groups. Ph.D. candidates at the university thought the attorney general's treatment of scientific research was so laughable that they simply read his court filings out loud during a speaking engagement he had at the school. Similarly, UVA microbiologist Martin Schwartz wrote in a mock letter to Cuccinelli, "I've got a pile of lab notebooks that contain results someone might disagree with. Could your office help me check the calculations?"

But climate change is serious for Virginia.

The state's coastline is under threat from rising seas. As the Earth warms, glaciers melt into the ocean, which also heats and expands. At the same time, Virginia's coast is slowly subsiding below sea level. Recent research shows sea levels are rising three to four times faster along much of the East Coast than in the rest of the world.

Sea levels in Norfolk, Va., home to the world's largest naval base, have risen 14.5 inches in the past century. No wonder the U.S. Navy recognizes the threat climate change poses. Sea-level rise also threatens the state's valuable beaches, where I've happily vacationed along with millions of other families.

It's clear that human-induced climate change is a fact of life. People hit by Sandy, for example, are already facing difficult choices as they rebuild. As sea-levels rise, coastlines are at greater risk, and flood insurance is becoming more expensive.

Virginians deserve a governor who can take a sober look at scientific findings and recognize the threat to his own state.

But Ken Cuccinelli put the narrow interests of his corporate donors and the extremist elements of his own party above the interests of taxpayers and coastal residents.

Clearly, I'm not holding my breath for an apology.

But I do hope he and other climate change deniers begin to realize that climate change is already affecting our economy and our way of life.

If they're unable to do that, I hope voters will have the good sense to prevent them from taking office.

Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and is the author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

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