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Review of Spencer’s ‘Great Global Warming Blunder’

Filed under: — group @ 28 April 2011

Guest commentary from Steve Ghan

A good writer knows their audience, and Roy Spencer knows his. There are plenty of people who would love to hear a compelling argument for why no action is needed to mitigate global warming, and Spencer’s book “The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists” will give uncritical readers the argument they’ve been looking for. As Sarah Palin said, “while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause weather change”. That is really the essence of Roy’s argument.

What is the Great Blunder? According to his book, “a fundamental mistake has been made in previous interpretations of satellite data”…”a mix-up between cause and effect when analyzing cloud and temperature variations”.

Who made this mistake? Invariably, it is “the IPCC researchers”. He cites a couple of specific papers by Piers Forster, but finds no fault with them. So he casts aspersions into the wind.

Spencer’s assertion in his book of that there has been a “mix-up between cause and effect” is quite a different conclusion from his recent article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres in 2010, which concluded innocuously that “since the climate system is never in equilibrium, feedbacks in the climate system cannot be diagnosed from differences between equilibrium climate states” … despite the fact that this is the exact diagnosis supporting his conclusion in the book.

In his book Spencer contends that short-term fluctuations in the energy balance and surface temperature are consistent with a low climate sensitivity: “A careful examination of the satellite data suggests that manmade warming due to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide could be less than 1ºC – possibly much less.”

Why does Spencer consider his “discovery” of a mix-up between cause and effect to be so important? Because “natural cloud fluctuations in the climate system will cause a bias in the diagnosed feedback in the direction of positive feedback”, which means those careless IPCC researchers have vastly overestimated the climate sensitivity. He then asserts that “if the real climate system looks sensitive to climate modelers, they will build their models to be sensitive also.” But he never mentions the fact that climate models have produced climate sensitivities of 2-5ºC per doubling of CO2 concentration for decades, well before the Forster papers and before satellite measurements were available for those careless anonymous IPCC researchers to produce biased estimates of climate sensitivity.

Moreover, how could models explain the observed warming during the 20th century if the climate sensitivity is as low as it is, unless aerosols don’t cool and there is some other warming mechanism? Spencer addresses this question with a hypothesis that natural cloud variability is the cause of longer term trends. He proposes a relationship between the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and clouds by considering a variety of combinations of initial ocean temperature, ocean thickness, cloud feedback, and forcing by clouds (neglecting forcing by CO2 and the water vapor feedback entirely) in a simple energy balance model, and finds a relationship between PDO and clouds using 9 years of satellite data. By exploring parameter space randomly he found the agreement with the observed 20th century warming was best for an initial ocean temperature 0.6ºC below normal, which means almost all of the warming that his model explains is simply the ocean returning to normal, not the response to decadal variability in clouds. (Ed: note that the details of this calculation are heavily criticised by Barry Bickmore in a series of posts). Of course, decadal variability in clouds can only be a response to decadal variability in the surface conditions or atmospheric circulation that drive cloud formation, because the lifetime of cloud systems is days rather than decades.

How, then, does Spencer explain the ice ages? He essentially punts, saying he believes the ice core record is “irrelevant”, that “we don’t have a clue” what was causing those climate variations. But if climate really is as insensitive as he claims it to be, the climate forcing producing the ice ages must have been huge, much larger than the radiative forcing from orbital changes, surface albedo, and greenhouse gases. He claims to prefer empiricism to theoretical models, yet when the paleo data supports the higher climate sensitivity simulated by climate models, he blames some unknown mechanism. It reminds one of the old cartoon of the physicist drawing mathematical theories madly on the blackboard, completing his theory with the statement “and then a miracle occurred”.

Spencer does make a valid point about the potential for bias toward exaggerating problems because it can bring in more funding. We all must be wary of this. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the book market tends to financially reward a bias toward contrarianism.

But for me his credibility as a climate scientist was most compromised with his assertion that “it would take only one research study to cause the global warming house of cards to collapse.” So much for weighing the evidence. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said about the diversity of views of climate scientists, if your child is ill and 98 out of 100 doctors call for life-saving surgery and 2 say it is not necessary, your decision is obvious.

Roy Spencer is respected for his remote sensing expertise, but the conclusions of his book are nothing like those in his JGR article. What a difference an audience can make.

Suspension of comments: Due to Roy Spencer being caught up in a loss of power related to the tornado outbreak in Alabama, we are suspending comments on this post until he is in a position to respond (should he choose to).

Update (05/05/11): Comments have been re-opened.

69 Responses to “Review of Spencer’s ‘Great Global Warming Blunder’”

  1. 51
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It doesn’t matter whether the “designers” in ID are the King of Hosts or little green men. It is anti-science. It tries to explain the unknown in terms of the even-less-known. This is something that is also evident in Roy’s approach to climate science, unfortunately. It calls into question whether he really understands what science is.

  2. 52
    Michael says:

    Imagine for a moment……….

    We were incorrect, it was a once in “lifetime” event. Was all of mans efforts worth the struggle, the money expended ?
    Well, lets us look at what is being done in the name of Global Climate Change (GCC)

    Nations are beginning to step away from coal fired power plants, people are making an effort to replant the worlds forest, renewable energy is no longer just for “hippies”.

    As for resources, we are beginning to embrace recycling, design the articles we use to be recycled, many of us are beginning to address water issues, we are coming to a place where we can once again deal with our own “waste”.

    There is a renewed interest in organic fruits and veggies, buying locally, from organic farmers. Some folks are embracing vegetarianism, some have gone whole route to have come to know life as a vegan. Meat does kill, especially through abusive consumption and the water use is excessive.

    Machines are being designed to be more efficient, we now have the opportunity to drive a hybrid or an electric car, soon we will see hybrid trucks. In a few years we WILL begin using hydrogen to power our machines.

    Houses are being designed to be more efficient, using solar and in some cases, wind. Appliances are far more efficient than ever before.
    Nations are beginning to take a serious look at the issue of over-fishing of the seas.

    The only exception to this example, those that would hijack this movement for their own selfish purpose. The growing number of ex-real estate sales agents, used cars salesmen and corporations with no conscience. Their type has plagued man since the beginning of time. Don’t let them get in the way of your success.

    All of the above efforts are what we should have been doing without any perceived threat to the planet.

    Our conversion from being just wasteful consumers, has not been a exercise in futility. To once again take back a degree of control of our own lives, to build a future for the generations to come, now that is exciting.
    Where is the fault in that. Where is the shame, even if we are wrong, we still WIN.

    By the way, when in history has an “event” like this shown such negative results in such a short period of time.

    The Medieval or Little Ice Age, actually it was 3 periods, over the course of 600 years, still nothing pleasant about it for most people. Starting 1250 ad and ending about 1850, more info is available on-line.
    If you look to the paintings of the period and they are numerous, you will find an ever constant depiction of gloom, ice and snow.

    Another episode worth mention is, while it does not have man-made implications, it does illustrate the impact of global disruption.
    The summer of 1816 has become known as the “Year without a Summer”, with eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.
    That very summer Mary Shelley and her man-friend were spending their time with Lord Byron in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
    It was from this dreaded summer, that some say the character of Frankenstein emerged in the mind of Shelley.

  3. 53
    Rod B says:

    Ray, Fred Hoyle is anti-science??

  4. 54
    Jriper03 says:

    I think Rod B is talking about people like me, I believe and know evolution to be true. I also believe in a creator. But I hate to use the term ID because even though it might be applicable it has too many connotations used by too many religious groups. I think Christians dont give their god enough credit. That is, he doesn’t need to change animals throughout time, at different points in time. When he created the universe why wouldn’t he “know” the right natural laws that would develop into evolution? if he is so powerful he could do it at the beginning before time existed. But this does not mean I believe man has no effect on this planet, I think it would be pointless for us to exist if that were the case. I dont believe the whole Bible story (or any organized religious story) about why we are here. But I do believe that with our brains we are given enough power to embrace life or destroy life.

  5. 55
    Robert Murphy says:

    “Ray, Fred Hoyle is anti-science??”

    He’s dead, but when he was alive he got pretty cranky, especially in his old age. Steady state theory, despite overwhelming evidence against it, comes to mind. Abiotic oil. I think he just liked being a contrarian, for it’s own sake.

  6. 56
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Rod B
    > Hoyle
    Lovely red herring you have there.

    “… The notion that evolution proceeds in sudden jumps through genetic storms from space—viral infection—is held in ignorance or through denial of the accumulated evidence. A perusal of Molecular Evolution of Life (ed Baltscheffsky, et al, Cambridge UP, 1986) illustrates the acute embarassment felt by the scientific community over the mystical outpourings on this subject by Hoyle and his collaborator. Not one iota of evidence put forward in support of their ill founded hypothesis has held water….”

  7. 57
    Rod B says:

    While there are piles of people who hold Hoyle’s science in high regards, you guys think he’s more of a crank, so O.K. How about Einstein? While not a perfect example as his views differed in detail from this thread and Spencer, he was in the ballpark in his belief in a super intelligent God-like (kinda) being, contrary to other posters here.

  8. 58
    Rod B says:

    ps, while the thought of Einstein is in the ballpark, his example does miss the specifics of this discourse since, to the best of my knowledge, he didn’t use the exact phrase “intelligent design.”

  9. 59
    Joe Cushley says:

    57 Rod B – “Einstein was in the ballpark in his belief in a super intelligent God-like (kinda) being”

    Nonsense. He was an agnostic.

  10. 60

    Remind me again why we care whether Einstein was, or was not, a deist or agnostic?

    I’ve been ‘guilty’ of commenting in this area myself, so I’m in no position to cast (verbal) stones. But maybe it’s time to move on?

  11. 61
    SecularAnimist says:

    While the moderators are apparently permitting some commentary here on “Intelligent Design”, I’d like to take the window of opportunity to observe:

    1. ID begs the question “What is ‘intelligence’?”

    2. ID conflates intelligence with design.

  12. 62
    Jriper03 says:

    We’re all off topic, all I was trying to get at was that my belief in a creator does not stop me from understanding the science of climate change, and the fact that we are the major factor in it. So I can see this book for what it is. Now I would love to seriously discuss the meaning of our existence with some of the real hardcore atheist and agnostic scientist on this website but this is not the place. Does anyone know the place ? It’s a lot harder for me to believe in a “god” than not to believe in one, so don’t assume I’m another sheep.

  13. 63
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., Quoting Einstein on Religion is like quoting Jefferson on politics–you can find a quote to justify any position. Einstein most certainly did not believe in a deity that could be comprehended as an “intelligence”. His conception of deity was akin to that of Spinoza–as he said many times.

    That, however, is irrelevant to the fact that explaining the unknown in terms of the unknown is antiscience. We see this throughout the denialist community–an attempt to explain away the crisis by positing a mechanism we don’t yet comprehend well enough to disprove. That is not how science works. You try to explain the unknown in terms of known science. If you fail, you keep working around the edges until you understand the formerly unknown cause well enough that it qualifies as known science.

    Note that by this definition, Pauli was quite correct to be more than a little chagrinned by his hypothesis of the neutrino–despite the fact that eventually, he was found to be correct.

  14. 64
    Rod B says:

    Everyone is right: this got way off the path. I’ll close with a question for Ray which is kinda back on topic. How does your assertions in #65 et al fit with your implication that Spencer’s goofy (in your and others mind) thoughts on evolution and deity prove he is a bad climate scientist?

  15. 65
    MartinJB says:

    Well Rod B,

    say Spencer thought gravity was caused by invisible space-gerbils pushing on you from above. Would you wonder then about his scientific acumen? That’s not much stranger than the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory of ID.

    Just sayin’.

  16. 66
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, I did not say, nor did I mean to imply that Spencer is a bad scientist. What I said is that I don’t think he fully understands the scientific method. There are many scientists–hell, even Nobel Laureates–who fall into this category (e.g. the example of Pauli’s neutrino hypothesis I cited above). Scientific method is a recipe for avoiding error. One of the ways to do this is to stick to the known when trying to explain the unknown. If one can invoke an unknown cause to explain a phenomenon, then why couldn’t we invoke such a cause to explain the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment and so held onto the ether hypothesis.

    As soon as you start invoking unknowns–or worse, unknowables–to explain the unknown, you’ve stopped doing science.

  17. 67
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “As soon as you start invoking unknowns–or worse, unknowables–to explain the unknown, you’ve stopped doing science.”

    I would suggest that what ID does is actually worse than that. It essentially proclaims as an axiom that “intelligence” is unknown and unknowable and outside of nature, ie. “supernatural”.

    In other words, as I wrote above, it begs the question “what is ‘intelligence’?”.

    Presumably, human intelligence is the paradigmatic referent of the word — but we don’t even have a universally accepted definition of human intelligence, let alone a general definition applicable to other contexts.

    What do we mean by “intelligent”? How do we recognize intelligence when we see it? How does intelligence arise in nature? What is the role of intelligence in natural processes? Are chimpanzees intelligent? Are dolphins intelligent? How about crows? Are bees intelligent? Is a bee hive intelligent? Can ecosystems, the Earth’s biosphere, or the process of biological evolution considered as a whole, be meaningfully considered “intelligent” in some sense?

    These are all legitimate, and important, questions for scientific inquiry.

    Ask an advocate of “Intelligent Design” these questions, or simply ask him to define exactly what he means by “intelligent” — and chances are you’ll get a blank stare in response.

  18. 68
    Ray Ladbury says:

    SA, Oh, I agree ID is problematic for a lot of reasons–I’m just trying to avoid the whole theological hijacking that usually results from the topic. My point is that it’s crappy science quite independent of the fact that it’s crappy theology.

  19. 69
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, someone’s fooled you about Einstein; ask their source; consider why you trusted their opinion. Two articles by the man himself describe beliefs, which can’t be reduced to a simple talking point; links in the page here: