Is Roy Spencer the world's most important scientist?
Roy Spencer is a climate scientist at the University of Alabama Huntsville who may be the world's most important scientist. He has discovered scientific insights and theories that cast great doubt on global warming doctrine. That doctrine has always been dubious and is often defended by attacking the integrity of anyone who dares to raise questions. Spencer is a rare combination of a brilliant scientist and a brave soul willing to risk his livelihood and reputation by speaking plainly.
The global warming promoters say we must scrap the world's energy infrastructure in favor of green energy. They say that burning coal, oil and natural gas adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and that will cause a global warming disaster. The global warming believers demand a massive investment in uneconomic windmills and solar energy. Their demands are not exactly sincere, because their program is a utopian fantasy that will never be implemented on the scale needed to achieve the ostensible objectives.
The coalition of environmentalists, scientists and politicians who are the promoters of global warming inadvertently reveal their insincerity by the specifics of their programs. The much idolized Kyoto Protocol and associated Clean Development Mechanism, lets the giant emitters of carbon dioxide, China and India, off scot free for the simple reason that they would never agree to destroy the future of their countries by giving up fossil fuels. No CO2 emissions credit is allowed for CO2-free nuclear power because it would embarrass the environmental groups that spent decades denouncing nuclear power.
The scientific backing for the global warming scare comes from climate science. Climate science is a weak science. The atmosphere is chaotic and difficult to define with scientific theories. Attempts to predict the future of the climate and to quantify the effects of carbon dioxide are speculative and influenced by ideological biases of the various scientists. In climate science there are strong elements attempting to enforce uniformity of opinion. Scientists that depart from the prevailing climate political correctness are sanctioned.
Monster computer programs, called climate models, are supposed to mimic the Earth's climate. The computer models do a poor job of mimicking the climate. One proof of this is that the 20 or so models from different science groups disagree considerably with each other about the amount of warming that will be caused by adding CO2 to the atmosphere. But, these inadequate computer models are the basis for the predictions of global warming doom. The emotional and financial investment in computer models is so great that their creators have lost objectivity concerning their creations. The computer models are the spoiled children of climate science.
Roy Spencer is not a shrinking violet. Spencer vigorously promotes his ideas. If he didn't, the global warming establishment would happily ignore him and his ideas would be nothing more than a ripple in the climate science ocean. He issues press releases. He appears on television and radio. He is Rush Limbaugh's "official" climate scientist. Spencer has written three popular books on climate science as well as a small book on the principles of free market economics. None of this endears him to his more modest and more politically correct colleagues.
The climate science establishment is irritated that Spencer has come up with highly creative discoveries that the establishment did not think of first. They don't like it that he openly contradicts climate celebrities like Al Gore and James Hansen. If that were not enough irritation, Spencer is a Bible-following Christian, as is his boss at the university, John Christy. Christy, an ordained minister, was a missionary in Africa before becoming a scientist. Obviously Christy and Spencer are not the only scientists who are serious Christians, but they don't seem to care if everyone knows it.
I don't claim and never would claim that the climate establishment is a conspiracy of scientists to create false science to promote their own careers, even though it may appear that way at times, and even though some of the biggest doomsday promoters have had the greatest career success. The advocates of global warming doom believe what they say. But, sincerity is not a substitute for critical thinking or common sense.
How the climate establishment turns the output of the disagreeing computer models into predictions of climate doomsday is obscurantist alchemy. They take the average prediction of the models as the most probable future and assume that the truth likely is somewhere within the range of predictions exhibited by the various models. None of this is more than rank speculation, scientifically. The climate science establishment is less than open with the public concerning the shortcomings of their approach to climate forecasting. At times the public presentations of climate science descend into outrageous advocacy. If you press the scientist-promoters of global warming they will say their methods are the best they can do given what they have. For public consumption computer alchemy is turned into solid science by the operation of the publicity machine and the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Even though Spencer is a bit of an outlaw, he is still a climate scientist in more or less good standing. Like cops, Marines, or members of fraternities, once you're a climate scientist, you're one for life, contingent on reasonably good scientific behavior. Remember that climate scientists go through a lengthy acculturation as graduate students, postdocs and junior scientists. His fellow climate scientists may diss him in writing but there remains a line they won't cross. For example, Christy and Spencer still have their government research grants. At a climate science dinner that I attended, I noticed that the scientists were very protective of Judith Curry, an accomplished climate scientist who, like Spencer, has gone over to the dark side and become openly skeptical about the doomsday claims. I attribute this to the fellowship among climate scientists that is stronger than scientific or ideological differences.
Like the climate, group opinion among climate scientists is chaotic, meaning that the potential exists for a sudden transformation, perhaps an ideological ice age or a psychological warming. Spencer, Christy, Curry and the many other skeptic scientists are outliers, but if a tipping point is reached, climate science might undergo a rapid change of collective opinion. This could leave the civilian camp followers and the manufacturers of windmills dangling in the wind.
The pressure that is building on climate doctrine is the failure of the Earth to warm, a trend that has now continued for 16 years. The longer warming is stalled, in the face of constantly increasing CO2, the harder it becomes for the believers to continue believing. Compounding the failure of the Earth to warm is the failure of the oceans to warm for the last 10 years. Normally, failure of the Earth to warm would be explained by saying that the ocean is sucking up the energy flux that would cause the atmosphere to warm. But if the ocean is not warming either, that explanation won't work. (Some persistent believers in ocean warming are now searching for the missing warmth in the deep ocean, a part of the ocean that is largely beyond the vision of most monitoring systems.)
Roy Spencer at some point had an epiphany that resulted in new insights. The central question about global warming, that climate science tries to answer, is what is climate sensitivity. Climate sensitivity is formally a number that describes the amount of warming or cooling the Earth experiences in response to a change in the energy flow. Various things can change the energy flow, including adding CO2 to the atmosphere.
If scientists were gods and able to control the energy output of the sun, climate sensitivity could be measured via an experiment. On the average the energy flow on to the Earth from the sun is about 240 watts per square meter. The outward flow of energy, on the average, is the same, resulting in a stable, average Earth temperature of about 14 degrees Celsius or 57 degrees Fahrenheit. If energy flow could be throttled up, to say 244 watts per square meter, and we observed the resulting change in the Earth's temperature, this experiment would get us the climate sensitivity. According to the climate establishment increasing the energy flow by 4 watts per square meter would cause the earth to warm, averaged over the seasons and different locations, by about 3.25 degrees Celsius. The climate sensitivity is expressed by the ratio (3.25 degrees/ 4 watts per square meter) = 0.81 degrees per watt per square meter. A climate sensitivity of 0.81 represents a very sensitive climate. If the climate is very sensitive, then adding CO2 to the atmosphere could be a problem.
Given the establishment's belief in a highly sensitive climate, doubling CO2 in the atmosphere should increase the average temperature of the Earth by 3 degrees Celsius. Adding CO2 to the atmosphere effectively changes the net energy flow from the sun because CO2 inhibits the outward escape of energy via long wave radiation.
Scientists are not gods, no matter what they may think, so they can't change the energy output of the sun for an experiment. But they do have computer models that supposedly mimic the Earth's climate and they can use the computer models to perform experiments that are impossible to perform on the actual Earth. Using the admittedly poor models and glossing over the fact that the models disagree with each other, the establishment claims that the Earth has a very delicately balanced climate that will be disrupted by CO2 emissions. You would think that at this point they would demand that we switch to a CO2-free nuclear economy. But the establishment gives away its ideological bias by demanding that we switch instead to a windmill and solar panel economy.
Roy Spencer's science specialty is the measurement of the Earth's temperature by satellites. Spencer and Christy keep track of changes in the Earth's temperature by analyzing data from certain satellites that measure microwave radiation that originates in oxygen molecules. There are other satellite-based instruments that measure the energy flows into and out of the Earth via long and short wave radiation - heat radiation and sunlight.
Due to random fluctuations from changes in weather, clouds and temperature, the average temperature of the Earth and the energy flows into and out of the Earth wander by a small amount over months. Spencer constructed what are called phase space graph that show this random wandering. An example is below.
This graph is constructed by placing a dot for each day, the dot placed at a point on the graph that represents the average radiation flux and the average temperature over 91 days. These quantities are measured by satellites looking at the Earth. As the radiation or energy flux and the temperature wander the trail of dots traces a path. Rather than being a completely random path, it is evident that there is a suggestion of structure. At times the trail of dots traces a diagonal line. Spencer called these diagonal lines striations.
Spencer discovered convincing evidence that the slope of these striations is a measure of climate sensitivity. In the graph above the diagonal lines follow the striations and indicate that the Earth's climate sensitivity is about 0.11, or about 7 times less than the 0.81 that the establishment claims. The convincing evidence is that Spencer created simple simulations of climate, with known climate sensitivity, and used data from the simulations to create phase space plots. The climate sensitivity measured from the plot agreed with the known climate sensitivity built into the simulation. Spencer then made phase space plots using data from the establishment's monster climate models, and found, at least for some models, that the same relation held. Let's not claim that Spencer discovered a law of nature comparable to the general theory of relativity, but he has made a genuine discovery of considerable originality.
In a blog posting, modestly titled Has the Climate Sensitivity Holy Grail Been Found, Spencer described his discovery of the striations as follows:
"These linear striations in the data were an accidental finding of mine. I was computing these averages in an Excel spreadsheet that had daily averages in it, so the easiest way for me to make 3-monthly (91 day) averages was to simply compute a new average centered on each day in the 6-year data record."
Spencer depicts his discovery as a flash of insight, like Fleming's discovery of penicillin, where he noticed that mold accidentally introduced into a petri dish was killing bacteria. Spencer's description of his discovery makes a memorable story. This is the type of story that is too good to check, but I decided to check it anyway. In the hallway at a scientific meeting between presentations I asked Christy about this. The expression on his face told me more than anything he said. Spencer's discovery wasn't that easy.
Other scientists have tried to use the satellite data to measure climate sensitivity. Often they came up with obvious overestimates. For example, in the phase space plot above there is a near horizontal line that is a simple fit to the cloud of dots. The slope of that line corresponds to a climate sensitivity of 1.6, an implausibly extreme climate sensitivity. Richard Lindzen of MIT has also devised similar methods of estimating climate sensitivity from measured data. Stephen Schwartz, a government scientist at the Brookhaven National Lab, has investigated climate sensitivity with approaches similar to Spencer.
The small wandering changes in the energy balance come from random changes in clouds as well as an assumed feedback from temperature changes that affect clouds, water vapor and outgoing radiation. Temperature changes, in turn, come from changes in energy flow as well as other causes such as energy exchanges with the oceans. It is this tangling up of cause and effect that make it difficult to deduce climate sensitivity from the noise in the system that causes the small deviations in the energy balance in the atmosphere. Spencer's work essentially revolves around understanding and untangling these effects.
Spencer and his co-author William Braswell published their ideas in a peer reviewed scientific paper that appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research in August of 2010. The road to publication was long and tortuous and some of his claims had to be watered down to get past the reviewers. It might be that the reviewers were hostile to Spencer because he was upsetting the global warming apple cart or perhaps they thought that Spencer's claims were too broad for the evidence he had. In any case scientists habitually complain about reviewers of their papers. A clear case of establishment bias against Spencer's ideas would come later.
In July 2011, Spencer published another paper in a fairly obscure European journal Remote Sensing. This paper incited an unusual angry outburst from important elements of the climate establishment. It's a bit difficult to know why they were so angry. The paper is an extension of Spencer's previous work and answers some of the criticism of his 2010 paper. Remote Sensing offers rapid peer review and publication, no doubt an attractive feature for Spencer, previously subjected to long delays and false starts from trying to publish in more traditional climate science venues. The establishment anger may have been triggered because the establishment probably didn't know about the article until it was published and secondly because the article highlighted faults in the establishment's climate models by comparing model output to satellite observations of the Earth. Spencer's paper made the models look pretty bad. Spencer's article received huge publicity due to a Forbes column by Heartland Institute fellow James Taylor. This surely added to the upset of climate establishment grandees.
A remarkable, no holds barred attack was made on Spencer on the website The Daily Climate. The Daily Climate article contained statements such as this:
"Over the years, Spencer and Christy developed a reputation for making serial mistakes that other scientists have been forced to uncover."
This is not the sort of things that scientists say about each other, at least not in print. Besides it was a complete lie, because Christy and Spencer are known to be very competent and careful scientists. More interesting than what was said, is who said it. Kevin Trenberth was the first author. The two other authors were John Abraham and Peter Gleick. All three of these scientists are aggressive defenders of global warming catastrophe theory.
Let's take Kevin Trenberth first. By general acclaim, Trenberth is one of the smartest climate scientists alive. Trenberth is a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Ironically, Trenberth is a strong critic of climate models, for example here and here, yet he defends the alarmist predictions that are rooted in climate models.
John Abraham is a professor of mechanical engineering. He is one of the leaders of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. This is a group set up to rapidly refute criticism of global warming alarmism. Activists became alarmed that the global warming skeptics were getting a foothold and the activists decided that the problem was that the media wasn't getting good information in a timely manner. Thus the rapid response team is a counter propaganda outfit. The problem is that if people are starting to doubt what you say, screaming louder may not solve the problem.
Peter Gleick, the third author of the attack on Spencer, is a water scientist and a self proclaimed climate scientist. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius award. He is also a criminal, albeit one that avoided prosecution due to good political associations. Approximately six months after the Daily Climate blast at Spencer, Gleick impersonated a board member of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian Chicago think tank with global warming skeptic tendencies. Perhaps believing his own propaganda, he thought that if he could get the confidential packet of documents distributed at the Heartland board meeting, he could prove that Heartland had a nefarious agenda funded by the fossil fuel industry. When that confidential information turned out not to be incriminating, he forged additional documents designed to discredit the Heartland Institute. (He claimed the forged documents were sent to him anonymously in the mail.) He "leaked" everything to the global warming advocacy blogosphere. But Gleick was an amateur criminal and was quickly exposed. One of his mistakes was to feature himself in the forged documents, making it appear that Peter Gleick was a person of great concern to the Heartland Institute. Gleick used a fake email account to execute his crime. He clearly violated the federal wire fraud statue (18 USC 1343). Gleick's lies were widely disseminated and greatly damaged the Heartland Institute. In spite of strenuous requests by the victim Heartland Institute, the administration's U.S. Attorney in Chicago has refused, so far, to prosecute. Gleick was quickly rehabilitated, returned to his position as the president of the Pacific Institute and given the honor of an invited talk at the 2012 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation will give him another genius award for escaping prosecution and professional shame.
The pushback to Spencer's Remote Sensing paper became more bizarre when the editor of Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner, resigned and apologized to Kevin Trenberth for publishing Spencer's paper. In his letter of resignation Wagner made it clear that there was no impropriety in the publishing of the paper. Peer review was properly conducted by qualified reviewers. Why would an Austrian professor and the editor of a journal published in Switzerland apologize, for not doing anything wrong, to a government scientist in Colorado? Obviously because the establishment was displeased by the paper and the implied criticism of the establishment. Apparently the influence of the climate establishment is powerful and world wide. If they say jump, scientists everywhere say how high. Presumably the apology was directed to Trenberth acting in his capacity as a leader of the climate establishment.
Steve McIntyre, a prominent skeptical scientist and blogger said this:
"Like most of us, I've been a bit taken aback by the ritual seppuku of young academic Wolfgang Wagner, formerly editor of Remote Sensing, for the temerity of casting a shadow across the path of climate capo Kevin Trenberth. It appears that Wagner's self immolation has only partly appeased Trenberth, who, like an Oriental despot, remains unamused."
Besides the slander and power plays against Spencer described above, the establishment also commissioned a scientific paper to debunk Spencer's work. The scientist chosen to do this was Andrew Dessler, a professor in the atmospheric sciences department at Texas A & M university.
Texas A&M has a large atmospheric sciences department. On their website there are 22 tenured and tenure track faculty. What is really unusual about the department is that all the regular faculty are seemingly required to sign a global warming loyalty oath called the climate change statement. Every faculty member except one new arrival has signed. None of the lowly adjunct faculty's names appear.
The Texas A&M atmospheric sciences department is part of the College of Geosciences. That college also houses the department of Geology and Geophysics that operates practically as a satellite of the Texas energy industry. Texas A&M has a large endowment, heavily invested in energy industries, and of course, the revenue of the state of Texas is heavily dependent on carbon burning energy industries. There are strange bedfellows in the Texas A&M College of Geosciences.
Andrew Dessler wrote his paper attacking Spencer's paper. It zoomed through peer review in 19 days, a remarkable speed record. It was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a favored journal of the global warming establishment.
It probably didn't matter what Dessler's paper said or how objective it was. All that really mattered is that the climate establishment could say to the world of media and politics that Roy Spencer had been refuted. Spencer had a response on his website within 24 hours of receiving a preprint of the paper. One problem for the establishment is that Dessler is prone to go a bit wobbly and lose focus as to the main task. The main task is making skeptics like Roy Spencer look like incompetent idiots. Dessler entered into a dialog with Spencer and accepted suggestions from Spencer to correct errors and otherwise improve the paper attacking Spencer himself. Spencer felt this was a great step forward from establishment figures ignoring him or taking potshots from afar.
The global warming scientific establishment is starting to look like the final days of the Soviet Union. On the surface it appears impregnable and the dissidents are a minor problem. But the huge soviet edifice quickly collapsed when people lost their fear of the system and the functionaries stopped following orders. There came a point when everyone decided to stop living a lie. I can't believe, for example, that every faculty member at Texas A&M is really happy about signing a climate loyalty oath.
The lie the scientist believers in global warming are living is that the climate models reliably mimic the Earth's climate and are suitable for predicting the future. Roy Spencer has developed a theory to compute climate sensitivity, using real data, data that does not invoke the monster climate models. His theories may or may not stand the test of time, but the climate establishment should stop acting like a science mafia protecting its turf. New ideas should be allowed to circulate freely, not be strangled at birth.
Norman Rogers, educated as a physicist, is a retired computer entrepreneur, a volunteer Senior Policy Advisor at the Heartland Institute, a member of the American Geophysical Union and of the American Meteorological Society. He maintains a website.