Guest commentary from Andy Dessler (TAMU)
When a new scientific hypothesis is published, two questions always occur to me:
- Did the authors convincingly show the hypothesis was correct?
- If not, is the hypothesis actually correct?
The answers to these two questions may not be the same. A good example is Wegener’s theory of continental drift — his idea was fundamentally correct, but he lacked the data and physical mechanisms to convince the rest of scientific community. It would take several decades before enough data were gathered that the scientific community wholeheartedly endorsed plate tectonics.
In 2001, Prof. Richard Lindzen and colleagues published his “iris hypothesis” (Lindzen et al., 2001). The hypothesis has two parts: First, in a warmer climate, enhanced precipitation efficiency will lead to less cloud being detrained into the troposphere from convection. Second, with less cloud cover, more infrared radiation can escape to space, thereby creating a strong climate-stabilizing negative cloud feedback that prevents significant warming from increasing greenhouse gases.
Within a few years, a number of analyses made clear that the evidence provided by Lindzen et al. had problems [e.g., Hartmann and Michelsen, 2002; Lin et al., 2002; Lin et al., 2004; Su et al., 2008]. Lindzen and colleagues responded to these critiques, but few were convinced by their arguments. By 2006, when I submitted an analysis of tropospheric water vapor that investigated whether there was an iris in that, one of the reviewers pointedly questioned why anyone was still working on this issue. I subsequently withdrew the paper.
Nevertheless, just because Lindzen et al. did not convincingly demonstrate their case does not mean the iris hypothesis is wrong. With that idea in mind, a new paper by Mauritsen and Stevens (2015) revisits the iris hypothesis. The most important part of their work was to simulate the iris in a climate model by artificially tweaking the model’s convective parameterization. They do this by increasing the rate of conversion of cloud water to rain as the climate warms, thereby reducing the amount of detraining condensate in a warmer climate. In effect, this imposes a tweak that mimics the iris effect – it is not a demonstration that the iris effect emerges from any physical mechanisms.
What they find is that, even though cloud cover is reduced as the climate warms, it does not generate a strong negative cloud feedback. While reducing cloud cover does indeed let more infrared energy out, it also lets more sunlight in. These two effects, while independently large, act in opposite directions. The net effect is the small residual of their difference. For runs with the strongest “iris”, the model’s climate sensitivity is reduced from 2.8°C for doubled carbon dioxide to 2.2°C — still well within the IPCC’s canonical range.
It’s also worth pointing out what this study doesn’t prove. It doesn’t validate Lindzen et al.’s original hypothesis — in fact, it does the opposite – even with an iris effect, the sensitivity does not become negligible. Additionally, there is little evidence that the rate of conversion of cloud water to rain actually changes with temperature, although Mauritsen and Stevens show that incorporating the iris into the model does improve the model’s simulations of some aspects of the climate system (even though it doesn’t change climate sensitivity much).
I view this as a what-if calculation of the impact of such a process. Future research may validate this, or it may not. This kind of calculation is one of the reasons why we like using models, of course.
Another argument against the iris comes from my work looking at the cloud feedback in response to short-term climate variability. If the iris provided a strong negative feedback, then we would expect to see it in response to short-term climate fluctuations. Analysis of observations doesn’t show anything like that (Dessler, 2013).
Overall, I think the debate over the iris hypothesis is a testament to the efforts the scientific community goes through to evaluate challenges to theories and find ways to improve our understanding of the climate (for instance, see Bill Ruddiman’s post from last week). This is one of the most important reasons I have such high confidence in the scientific process for figuring out how the universe works.
- R.S. Lindzen, M. Chou, and A.Y. Hou, "Does the Earth Have an Adaptive Infrared Iris?", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 82, pp. 417-432, 2001. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0477(2001)082<0417:DTEHAA>2.3.CO;2
- D.L. Hartmann, and M.L. Michelsen, "No Evidence for Iris", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 83, pp. 249-254, 2002. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0477(2002)083<0249:NEFI>2.3.CO;2
- B. Lin, B.A. Wielicki, L.H. Chambers, Y. Hu, and K. Xu, "The Iris Hypothesis: A Negative or Positive Cloud Feedback?", Journal of Climate, vol. 15, pp. 3-7, 2002. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0442(2002)015<0003:TIHANO>2.0.CO;2
- B. Lin, T. Wong, B.A. Wielicki, and Y. Hu, " Examination of the Decadal Tropical Mean ERBS Nonscanner Radiation Data for the Iris Hypothesis ", Journal of Climate, vol. 17, pp. 1239-1246, 2004. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0442(2004)017<1239:EOTDTM>2.0.CO;2
- H. Su, J.H. Jiang, Y. Gu, J.D. Neelin, B.H. Kahn, D. Feldman, Y.L. Yung, J.W. Waters, N.J. Livesey, M.L. Santee, and W.G. Read, "Variations of tropical upper tropospheric clouds with sea surface temperature and implications for radiative effects", J. Geophys. Res., vol. 113, 2008. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2007JD009624
- T. Mauritsen, and B. Stevens, "Missing iris effect as a possible cause of muted hydrological change and high climate sensitivity in models", Nature Geosci, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2414
- A.E. Dessler, "Observations of Climate Feedbacks over 2000–10 and Comparisons to Climate Models*", Journal of Climate, vol. 26, pp. 333-342, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/jcli-d-11-00640.1
Guest post from John Cook, University of Queensland
For many years, RealClimate has been educating the public about climate science. The value of climate scientists patiently explaining the science and rebutting misinformation directly with the public cannot be overestimated. When I began investigating this issue, my initial searches led me here, which was invaluable in increasing my understanding of our climate and making sense of misinformation. RealClimate has inspired and empowered a host of climate communicators such as myself to step forward and help make climate science more accessible to the general public.
To further the work of educating the public, and empowering people to communicate the realities of climate change, the Skeptical Science team has collaborated with The University of Queensland to develop a MOOC, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. MOOC stands for Massive (we’ve already had thousands of students sign up from over 130 countries) Open (available for free to everyone) Online (web-based, no software required) Course.
The course examines the science of climate science denial. Why do a small but vocal minority reject the scientific evidence for climate change? What techniques do they use to cast doubt on the science? And we examine the all-important question – based on scientific research, how should we respond to science denial?
Several strands of research in cognitive psychology, educational research and a branch of psychology called “inoculation theory” all point the way to neutralising the influence of science denial. The approach is two-fold: communicate the science but also explain how that science can be distorted.
So our course looks at the most common climate myths you’re likely to encounter online or in the media. We examine myths casting doubt on the reality of global warming. We explore the many human fingerprints on climate change. We look at the messages from past climate change and what climate models tell us about the future. And we look at how climate change is impacting every part of society and the environment. As we examine myths touching on all these parts of climate science, we shine the spotlight on the fallacies and techniques used to distort the science.
As well as our short video lectures debunking climate myths, we also interviewed many of the world’s leading scientists. I had the privilege to speak to Ben Santer, Katharine Hayhoe, Richard Alley, Phil Jones, Naomi Oreskes and let’s not forget my long, fascinating conversation with Michael Mann. I was also lucky enough to interview Sir David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef. We spoke to both climate scientists and social scientists who study the psychology of climate science denial. Some of the most powerful moments from those interviews came when the scientists described the attacks they’d personally experienced because of their climate research:
Our MOOC starts next Tuesday, April 28. It’s a free online course hosted by the not-for-profit edX (founded by Harvard University & MIT). It runs for 7 weeks, requiring 1 to 2 hours per week. You can enroll at http://edx.org/understanding-climate-denial.
Guest posting from Bill Ruddiman, University of Virginia
Recently I’ve read claims that some scientists are opposed to AGW but won’t speak out because they fear censure from a nearly monolithic community intent on imposing a mainstream view. Yet my last 10 years of personal experience refute this claim. This story began late in 2003 when I introduced a new idea (the ‘early anthropogenic hypothesis’) that went completely against a prevailing climatic paradigm of the time. I claimed that detectable human influences on Earth’s surface and its climate began thousands of years ago because of agriculture. Here I describe how this radically different idea was received by the mainstream scientific community.
Was my initial attempt to present this new idea suppressed? No. I submitted a paper to Climatic Change, then edited by Steve Schneider, a well-known climate scientist and AGW spokesman. From what I could tell, Steve was agnostic about my idea but published it because he found it an interesting challenge to the conventional wisdom. I also gave the Emiliani lecture at the 2003 December American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference to some 800 people. I feel certain that very few of those scientists came to my talk believing what my abstract claimed. They attended because they were interested in a really new idea from someone with a decent career reputation. The talk was covered by many prominent media sources, including the New York Times and The Economist. This experience told me that provocative new ideas draw interest because they are provocative and new, provided that they pass the key ‘sniff test’ by presenting evidence in support of their claims.
Did this radical new idea have difficulty receiving research funding? No. Proposals submitted to the highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) with John Kutzbach and Steve Vavrus have been fully funded since 2004 by 3-year grants. Even though the hypothesis of early anthropogenic effects on climate has been controversial (and still is for some), we crafted proposals that were carefully written, tightly reasoned, and focused on testing the new idea. As a result, we succeeded against negative funding odds of 4-1 or 5-1. One program manager told me he planned to put our grant on a short list of ‘transformational’ proposals/grants that NSF had requested. That didn’t mean he accepted our hypothesis. It meant that he felt that our hypothesis had the potential to transform that particular field of paleoclimatic research, if proven correct.
Were we able to get papers published? Yes. As any scientist will tell you, this process is rarely easy. Even reviewers who basically support what you have to say will rarely hand out ‘easy-pass’ reviews. They add their own perspective, and they often point out useful improvements. A few reviews of the 30-some papers we have published during the last 11 years have come back with extremely negative reviews, seemingly from scientists who seem deeply opposed to anything that even hints at large early anthropogenic effects. While these uber-critical reviews are discouraging, I have learned to put them aside for a few days, give my spirits time to rebound, and then address the criticisms that are fair (that is, evidence-based), explain to the journal editor why other criticisms are unfair, and submit a revised (and inevitably improved) paper. Eventually, our views have always gotten published, although sometimes only after considerable effort.
The decade-long argument over large early anthropogenic effects continues, although recent syntheses of archeological and paleoecological data have been increasingly supportive. In any case, I continue to trust the scientific process to sort this debate out. I suggest that my experience is a good index of the way the system actually operates when new and controversial ideas emerge. I see no evidence that the system is muffling good new ideas.