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Climate Hustle

A revealing interview with top contrarian climate scientists

Posted on 6 April 2015 by dana1981

In 1990, University of Alabama at Huntsville scientists Roy Spencer and John Christy created a data set that estimates the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere by using instruments on satellites (microwave sounding units) that measure microwave radiation in the atmosphere. According to their latestestimates, the Earth’s lower atmosphere has warmed significantly since satellite measurements began in 1979, but not quite as fast as thermometer measurements of temperatures at the Earth’s surface.

Spencer and Christy have also long disputed the degree to which humans are contributing to that warming, and have thus often been called to testify before Congress by policymakers seeking justification to oppose climate legislation. On the 25th anniversary of their satellite data set, Alabama.com interviewed the pairto discuss their science and climate contrarianism. The resulting discussion was quite revealing. 

Consensus Denial

The American Meteorological Society did their survey and they specifically asked the question, Is man the dominate controller of climate over the last 50 years? Only 52 percent said yes. That is not a consensus at all in science ... Roy and I have both made the statement that we are in the 97 percent because we believe in some (man-made) effect.

Ever since my colleagues and I published our global warming consensus paper two years ago in which we found a 97% consensus in the peer-reviewed literature on human-caused global warming, Roy Spencer has been claiming to be part of the 97%. As I showed two years ago, he’s not. Spencer and Christy each authored five papers captured in our climate science literature survey. Among those papers, we classified one of Spencer’s and two of Christy’s as minimizing or rejecting the human influence on global warming, and the others as not taking a position on the issue.

That makes both of them authors of the less than 3% of peer-reviewed climate science papers rejecting the consensus on human-caused global warming. This is an indisputable fact – the 97% consensus figure is based on our team’s categorization of the scientific literature, and we put their research outside the 97% consensus. Spencer and Christy reject this fact because they don’t understand our study – specifically that papers minimizing the human influence on global warming fall outside the 97% consensus. Their research is nevertheless among the 3% of outliers.

As for the American Meteorological Society (AMS) survey, only 13% of participants described climate science as their field of expertise. The Heartland Institute – the source of the story linked in the above quote by Christy – misrepresented the associated study so badly that the AMS executive director took the unusual step of issuing a public reprimand against their behavior. Studies of climate science experts have again and again found a 97% consensuson human-caused global warming.

Data and Research Quality

Spencer and Christy’s data set has undergone many major corrections to address various errors and biases. This is how science always progresses, but those who believe that adjustments to surface temperature measurements are part of a conspiracy (including Roy Spencer) always seem to neglect the major adjustments to the satellite data. In fact, in its early days, Spencer and Christy’s data set seemed to indicate the atmosphere was cooling, before a series of big adjustments were made.

Evolution of UAH lower tropospheric temperature trends from satellite observations. 

Evolution of UAH lower tropospheric temperature trends from satellite observations. Source: Cosmopolis; Abraham et al. (2014).

As discussed in my book and as a paper that John Abraham and I published with several colleagues last year showed, much of Spencer and Christy’s contrarian research has not withstood subsequent scientific scrutiny.

we conclude then that the quality of work of contrarian-view scientists, as showcased here by representative case studies, is notably lower than that of scientists who hold the consensus view ... We find that the scientific literature includes a series of strong responses from the mainstream scientific community including criticisms, corrections, and in some cases, resignation of editors. The contrarian views were often found to be unsubstantiated by the data and are no longer seriously considered by many climate scientists.

In fact, the accuracy of Spencer and Christy’s atmospheric temperature estimates remains a question of rigorous scientific dispute today. While the Alabama.com interview says,

Still, they carry on - comfortable in their research and data that has remained true to their findings

That comfort may very well be misplaced.

Conspiracies and Biases

When asked about data from government agencies contradicting their contrarian beliefs about the dangers associated with climate change, Christy said,

NASA, NOAA, EPA, DOE, those are agencies. Agency leaders are appointed by the government, by the current administration. They do not represent objective independent scientific organizations. They can’t. They are appointed by the head. They try. People who come out with different views in their organizations are found to be squashed. There is an agenda in those agencies ... There are skeptics in NASA and NOAA, a good number. But they are quiet. They know in this administration, they don’t speak out.

This is an ironic answer given the recent revelations that scientists in Florida have been barred from using phrases like “climate change” and “global warming.”Similarly, the George W. Bush administration was accused of censoring government reports about climate change. It’s contrarians who have tried to squash inconvenient scientific research, not those who accept the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.

Fossil Fuel Interests

The interview also included an extensive discussion about fossil fuels, with Roy Spencer saying,

When I talk to scientists who should be objective over a beer at the end of the day, I will argue with them and their final position will always be, ‘Yeah, but we need to get away from fossil fuels anyway.’ Where did that come from? Are you an expert in alternative energy sources and what they cost? How many poor people are you going to hurt? How many more people are you going to make poor through energy poverty because they are paying five to 10 times as much for their energy?

Roy Spencer is of course not an energy or economics expert either. Experts in these fields who have published research on the subject have found that fossil fuels are incredibly expensive, when we account for all of their costs. For example, one recent study conservatively estimated that including pollution costs, coal is about 4 times more expensive than wind and 3 times more expensive than solar energy in the USA today. Additionally, poorer countries are generally the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. John Christy made similarly backwards arguments,

Carbon dioxide makes things grow. The world used to have five times as much carbon dioxide as it does now. Plants love this stuff. It creates more food. CO2 is not the problem ... There is absolutely no question that carbon energy provides with longer and better lives. There is no question about that.

The ‘CO2 is plant food’ argument is a gross oversimplification. For example, rising carbon dioxide levels increase the greenhouse effect, causing global warming,which in turn intensifies droughts. As we’re seeing in California right now (the Golden State turning brown), that’s not good for plants.

Christy also made a key mistake in those comments. Energy gives people longer and better lives, but there’s absolutely no reason that energy must come from carbon-intensive fossil fuel sources. In fact, my colleague John Abraham is helping developing countries in Africa deploy clean energy sources instead.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Some more telling statistics on the AMS survey.  

    only 4% of the participants said global warming is not happening 

    only 5% of the participants attributed global warming to mostly natural causes

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  2. Nothing new under the sun. In the old Soviet Union, when asked some questions about a certain incident, leaders responded "in our camp, airplanes don't crash." In the denial camp in the US nowadays, it's "you can't say the word se-level rise." Exactly identical attitude, but even worse. It's not like saying "airplanes don't crash", it's more it "you can't say the word plane-crash." Beyond insane.

    It is especially ironic that, after all the grief climate scientists received in the Bush administration, the failed attempts from Cuccinelli to intimidate Mann and the nonsense from certain coastal states, S&C have the nerve to say that skeptics are being slienced. This is another tried and true method from the Lutz/Rove manual of practical BS for mass manipulation. Accuse your opponent of doing exactly what you're doing, preferably send the accusation first; if not, just be really loud and whiny about it. Works every time. The BS wars in the US have got to the point where it takes a fair level of sophistication, research and time to figure out the reality, none of which is within reach of the vulgum pecus. The natural result is a reinforcement of the existing tendency to take refuge in what we prefer to believe anyway. Reality has no chance in a debate these days. It will win eventually, in the most painful fashion.

    2 1
  3. Christy does leave one statement hanging in the air. He says:-

    "People who come out with different views in their organizations (ie the NASA, NOAA, EPA, DOE) are found to be squashed."

    If they are "found", we can give them names. Who are these "people"? Do tell us John Christy!! Demonstrate you speak grown-up words and not puerile nonsense!!

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  4. "Is man the dominate controller of climate over the last 50 years"

    Actually the question was about the last 150 years, which makes quite a difference as far as attribution statement is concerned. The authors of the study suspected that this was the reason for some of the discrepancy. Interesting that Dana has missed this. Not surprising that Christy hasn't.

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  5. BojanD, ummm... the "50 years" bit is a quotation >of< Christy.

    So yes, you are correct... the study actually said 150 years, but it was Christy who got it wrong, not Dana.

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  6. In comment #2, Phillippe makes reference to a certain Frank Lutz. This is a name that will be familiar to many readers of SkS.

    For those newer to the game, Lutz is (was?) a political advisor, amongst whose illustrious contributions to the welfare of the planet, was the infamous "Lutz Memo". This, basically, was a playbook for the Grand Old Party advising how to deal with questions pertaining to the environment.

    For those wishing to take a quick dekko, it can be seen here.

    Happy reading

    cheers    bill f

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  7. Hmph. Spencer has some nerve white-knighting for the global poor, seeing as atmospheric pollution from coal (beyond greenhouse gas pollution) has terrible effects on health and productivity, and of course the consequences of global warming will fall hardest upon the poor, as described previously here at Skeptical Science.

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  8. I always laugh when pseudo-skeptics reject IPCC projections of future climate scenarios because they are based on "GIGO computer models", but then in the next breath claim that UAH is the most reliable temperature series, even though it is also based on a "GIGO computer model". In fact, UAH gives a really good example of the GIGO problem - by not accounting for decline in satellite orbits, they were effectively feeding garbage into the model, so it spat garbage out, in the form of a cooling trend that didn't exist.

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  9. Regarding the quote from Christy copied by BojanD@4, it is important to be aware of the carefully selected misleading terms employed by the likes of Christy and avoid being lured into accepting them as valid ways of describing what is going on.

    Human impacts are not "controlling climate". They are affecting it. There is a significant difference and the likes of Christy are highly likely to be aware of the difference. And the likes of Christy will appeal to their target audience by saying things like 'those global warming fools believe humans can control the climate'.

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  10. @CBDunkerson, I haven't said that Dana's quote was wrong. I was trying to say that Dana missed Christy's misrepresentation when he tried to debunk it. Simple check would suffice. His answer doesn't:

    "only 13% of participants described climate science as their field of expertise"

    But if you filter out all the participants that are not active climatologist, you still get "only" 78%, which is still quite a long way to oft-quoted 97%. So 150 vs. 50 years is actually very important.

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  11. I have one critique of the Evolution of UAH trends chart: it confounds changes due to adjustments and changes due to changing trends over time. I would replace the dashed "current" line with datapoints for trends using current data for each of the years shown (e.g., 1979-1995, 1979-1998, etc). Using woodfortrees, [LINK to source data], I get:

    1995: ~0

    1998: 0.04/decade

    2001: 0.1/decade

    2005: 0.13/decade

    all data: 0.13/decade

    I know the woodfortrees UAH data is UAH5.5, not 5.6, so ideally one would repeat this with the latest dataset, but I think it shows that the revisions to the UAH data have indeed led to an increase in the trend, but that also the trend has increased over time due to more warming.

    -MMM

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Hyperlinked and truncated URL that was breaking page width.

  12. MMM@11, perhaps you would prefer this table of UAH adjustments:

    In all, it means that the initial version of UAH contained admitted errors that would have more than halved the current trend, if not corrected.  Working backwards we can then see that the admitted errors amount are, for given years, as follows:

    1992 -0.069
    1994 -0.099
    1997 -0.069
    1998 0.031
    1998 -0.039
    2003 -0.031
    2004 -0.035
    2005 0

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  13. I have one critique of the Evolution of UAH trends chart: it confounds changes due to adjustments and changes due to changing trends over time. I would replace the dashed "current" line with datapoints for trends using current data for each of the years shown (e.g., 1979-1995, 1979-1998, etc). Using woodfortrees, LINK, I get:

    1995: ~0

    1998: 0.04/decade

    2001: 0.1/decade

    2005: 0.13/decade

    all data: 0.13/decade

     

    I know the woodfortrees UAH data is UAH5.5, not 5.6, so ideally one would repeat this with the latest dataset, but I think it shows that the revisions to the UAH data have indeed led to an increase in the trend, but that also the trend has increased over time due to more warming.

    -MMM

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Shortened link. Think we can get you to start using the embedded link tool? It's on one of the tabs at the top of the comment box.

  14. Sorry for the double posting! And thanks to Tom Curtis for the other table. I do remember when CCSP 1.1 came out in 2006 that the satellite correction (presumably the 2005 one in Tom's table) was big news...

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  15. As a keen gardener I feel qualified to comment on the "CO2 makes thing grow" argument.  Well of course it does, but then so does water, sunshine and fertilizer.  The problem is, of course, getting all of those things in the right balance.  If I put either too much or too little water on my vegetables, they will die.  Too much fertilizer will burn the leaves of many plants.  And too much sunshine will kill many shade loving plants. 

    The same goes for CO2,  having more available isn't automatically better.  The question is "Can they use it?".  It's such a stupid and simplistic argument. 

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