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Nazis, shoddy science, and the climate contrarian credibility gap

Posted on 22 February 2014 by dana1981

Because the pool of climate experts who dispute that humans are the primary cause of global warming is so small, representing just 2 to 4 percent of climate scientists, climate contrarians often reference the same few contrarian scientists. Two such examples are Roy Spencer and John Christy of the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), both of whom have testified before US Congress several times, and are often interviewed and quoted in the conservative media.

And because that pool of contrarian climate experts is so small, their credibility often seems indestructible. For example, Richard Lindzen has been wrong on essentially every position he's taken on major climate science issues over the past quarter century, and yet the conservative media continue to treat him as a foremost climate expert. Therefore, it's important to remind ourselves what these few climate scientist contrarians really believe, and whether their arguments have any scientific validity.

Yesterday, Roy Spencer took to his blog, writing a post entitled "Time to push back against the global warming Nazis". The ensuing Godwinian rant was apparently triggered by somebody calling contrarians like Spencer "deniers." Personally I tend to avoid use of the term, simply because it inevitably causes the ensuing discussion to degenerate into an argument about whether "denier" refers to Holocaust denial. Obviously that misinterpretation of the term is exactly what "pushed [Spencer's] button," as he put it.

However, this misinterpretation has no basis in reality. The term "denier" merely refers to "a person who denies" something, and originated some 600 years ago, long before the Holocaust occurred. Moreover, as the National Center for Science Education and Peter Gleick at Forbes have documented, many climate contrarians (including the aforementioned Richard Lindzen) prefer to be called "deniers."

"I actually like 'denier.' That's closer than skeptic," says MIT's Richard Lindzen, one of the most prominent deniers. Steve Milloy, the operator of the climate change denial website, told Popular Science, "Me, I just stick with denier ... I'm happy to be a denier." Minnesotans for Global Warming and other major denier groups go so far as to sing, "I'm a Denier!".

Spencer is also on the advisory board of the Cornwall Alliance, a group with 'An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming' claiming that "Earth and its ecosystems—created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory." The declaration also has a section on "What We Deny," and Spencer recently wrote in The Christian Post,

...we deny "that most [current climate change] is human-caused, and that it is a threat to future generations that must be addressed by the global community."

Thus it's rather hypocritical of Spencer to complain about the use of a word meaning "a person who denies" when he has expressly admitted to denying these climate positions.

In his blog post, Spencer also wrote of those he calls "global warming Nazis,"

"Like the Nazis, they advocate the supreme authority of the state (fascism), which in turn supports their scientific research to support their cause (in the 1930s, it was superiority of the white race)."

Aside from being incredibly offensive, these comments are extremely hypocritical coming from Roy Spencer, who previously described his job as a UAH climate scientist as follows.

"I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government."

The day before Spencer's blog post, John Christy along with another UAH colleague Richard McNider, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Their piece was in response to comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said,

"We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact,"

Christy and McNider believe it's climate contrarians like themselves who 'embrace the facts.' To support this claim, they tried to argue that mainstream climate scientists are in denial about the accuracy of climate models.

"We might forgive these modelers if their forecasts had not been so consistently and spectacularly wrong. From the beginning of climate modeling in the 1980s, these forecasts have, on average, always overstated the degree to which the Earth is warming compared with what we see in the real climate."

First of all, modern climate modeling began in the 1970s. It's also wrong to claim that their forecasts have always overstated global warming. Just as one example, NASA's James Hansen published a paper in 1981 with a model that slightly underestimated the ensuing global warming.

Hansen et al. (1981) global warming projections under a scenario of high energy growth (red) and slow energy growth (blue) vs. observations (black).  Actual energy growth has been between the two Hansen scenarios.

Hansen et al. (1981) global warming projections under a scenario of high energy growth (red) and slow energy growth (blue) vs. observations (black). Actual energy growth has been between the two Hansen scenarios.

Climate model global warming projections have also far outperformed predictions made by climate contrarians, and have performed fairly well overall (including current climate models).

 IPCC AR5 Figure 1.4. Solid lines and squares represent measured average global surface temperature changes by NASA (blue), NOAA (yellow), and the UK Hadley Centre (green). The colored shading shows the projected range of surface warming in the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR; yellow), Second (SAR; green), Third (TAR; blue), and Fourth (AR4; red).

IPCC AR5 Figure 1.4. Solid lines and squares represent measured average global surface temperature changes by NASA (blue), NOAA (yellow), and the UK Hadley Centre (green). The colored shading shows the projected range of surface warming in the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR; yellow), Second (SAR; green), Third (TAR; blue), and Fourth (AR4; red).

On the other hand, Christy and Spencer's estimates of the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere have consistently underestimated global warming. In the 1990s, they initially claimed the lower atmosphere was cooling, and had to make several warming adjustments when other groups identified errors and biases in their data set.

Changes in UAH lower atmosphere temperature trend estimates, growing consistently warmer over time. Created by John Abraham.

Changes in UAH lower atmosphere temperature trend estimates, growing consistently warmer over time as cool biases are removed. Created by John Abraham.

In their opinion piece, Christy and McNider present a graph that's supposed to prove their argument that climate models have overestimated global warming. However, rather than compare models and observations of global surface temperature, which are of the greatest importance for those of us living on the Earth's surface, they instead show temperature data from higher up in the atmosphere, the temperature of the mid-troposphere (TMT).

The figure in the Wall Street Journal piece suffers from several problems. First, it improperly averages the data (also known as "baselining") in a way that results in shifting the observational data downwards with respect to the model data, visually exaggerating the discrepancy. Second, it doesn't show any error bars or uncertainty ranges, and the error bars on the TMT data are large. Third, it simply averages together two satellite TMT data sets (presumably from UAH and Remote Sensing Systems), ignoring the fact that there is a large difference in the estimated warming trends from these two data sets, and that other TMT data sets that Christy and McNider excluded show even greater TMT warming, more in line with model projections.

The other problem is that Christy and McNider assume that the observational data are perfect, and thus that any discrepancy must mean the models are wrong. However, a U.S. Climate Change Science Program report co-authored by Christy concluded that the difference between satellite estimates and model projections of atmospheric warming is probably mostly due to errors in the observations.

"This difference between models and observations may arise from errors that are common to all models, from errors in the observational data sets, or from a combination of these factors. The second explanation is favored, but the issue is still open."

For more details, see Climate Science Watch. Christy and McNider's 'skepticism' now only seems to apply to the models and not to the observations, despite their long history of needing to make large adjustments to correct for cool biases in their own observational data. As climate scientist Andrew Dessler said,

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 51 to 60 out of 60:

  1. funglestrumpet wrote "I have decided that the time has come to start fighting and fighting dirty if necessary. Yes, we will lose some standards."

    In that case (speaking for myself rather than SkS) please can you do so elsewhere (or preferably not at all).  I find this attitude reprehensible and deeply cynical, and think it would be ultimately counterproductive.  The debate needs some truth and clarity, the last thing we need is yet more hyperbolic partisan nonsense (lets leave that to Dr Spencer et al.). 

    Lets move onto a more sensible discussion, please?

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  2. funglestrumpet@50,

    Please pay attention to the correct spelling of my username. Remember that some people, especially people coming from different cultures, do mind such details. In 100% opposition to e.g. "drive by trollers", I treat my username as my personal trademark, not only on SkS but also on other blogs, easily recognised by all people who know me.

    Re your issue of "action on climate change", I have not much to add to what I said @45 and to DM@51. In case you misunderstood @45, I repeat that "I sympathise with your opinion" (i.e. I fully understand the urgency of the "action") but I obviously disagree with you how to do it. However that issue is off topic in this thread, which is about shoddy science by certain "skeptic" scientists.

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  3. fungelstrumpet @50, given the urgency of the situation, what is needed is greater adherence to principle.  Not less.  If you want effective action, lobby for the reform of campaign funding laws so that:

    1)  Only citizens (ie, natural or naturalized residents entitled to vote) can donate to political parties;

    2)  No citizen can donate more than 1/10th of modal weekly earnings;

    3)  Only citizens and NFP charitable organizations can fund advertizing on political issues; and

    4)  Any citizen so doing must identify themselves, and the extent of their funding on the advertizing material; while NPF charitable organizations must identify their sources of funding, or be entirely citizen funded with the same limits as for political parties.

    At the same time, campaign for a strict and enforcable requirement that media should either clearly identify their programs and articles as being not intended as news and current affairs, and not claimed to be true - or adhere to a strict requirement of true and fair reportage.

    In other words, kill the mechanisms whereby the US has become a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy.

    However, if instead you give up on principle, the most effective thing you will do is to harm the efforts of those who are trying to combat global warming in a principled way.  It is not just morally wrong (more than sufficient objection in any event), but it plays into the hands of the deniers.  If you tell untruths, it will give deniers an excuse to paint the legitimate opponents of climate change as untruthful.  If you resort to violence, it will give them a chance to portray us as fanatics.  At the very best you will sink our reputation to their level so that the conflict will be percieved as simply a surrogate for political affiliation.  In short, you will wet the powder in our biggest gun - the truth.

    If you love your children, and have hopes for your progeny - do not be such a fool as to abandon principle in the fight against climate change. 

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  4. chriskoz @ 52

    I offer my apologies for the incorrect spelling of your name. My only excuse, and a weak one at that, is that I wrote the post in a hurry. Certainly no insult was intended.

    As for the general topic, I think we have reached an impasse.

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  5. Tom Curtis @ 53

    You hit on one of the battlegrounds of the whole issue: time. If only we had enough of it, we could afford the luxury of sorting out, or at least trying to sort out, such anomalies that you correctly identify. Of course, if Professor Lovelock is correct in his new book, the time battle has already been lost. What a pity we have all frittered away so much of while relying on fair words and promises that have proved to be empty.

    As for the general topic, I think we have reached an impasse.

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  6. funglestrumpet, I'll make one last comment on this topic.  The reason that "fighting dirty" works for skeptics is because none of us actually want to forgo the benefits of fossil fuel use.  As a result, those of us more susceptible to the cognitive biases that we all have will easily accept bogus arguments if it means they don't need to do anything.  However those very same cognitive biases means that people are often very good at spotting bogus arguments that argue they should do something that they don't already want to do, and it will make them dig in their heels and ignore anything else you might want to say.  So, while your hyperbolic partisan nonsense may go down well with some "warmists" that are impatient at the very slow rate of progress being made, it will go down like a lead balloon with the people whos minds you need to change if progress is going to be any faster.  If you want to seek attention, fighting dirty is a good approach, if you actually want something done about climate change, it is a very bad approach.

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  7. funglestrumpet...  Just last night I went to a lecture on climate change where one of the speakers was a lead author for both the IPCC AR4 and AR5 reports.

    This was someone who is very deeply involved in the science. He's a leading climate modeler and probably has as thorough an understanding of both the scientific side of this issue as he does the political side.

    He made a very important point saying that, you have to remember, just a few months ago we had every member nation sign off on a statement saying that there is a >95% likelihood that humans have been causing warming and that the potential impacts are serious. This includes nations like the US with our fracking, Australia and China with vast deposits of coal, other oil producing nations, and more.

    All these member nations have agreed that this is a serious problem that cannot be denied.

    He made very clear that the BAU emissions scenarios are very severe. But he also said he is an optimist. He believes we can fix the problem. He did add that the time is now. We can no longer wait. Actions have to happen now, and primarily it sounded like the most favored instrument is going to be a carbon tax.

    Yes, there has been irrational delay. Yes, we should have started long ago. Yes, there are still contrarian scientists who's opinions are being elevated far above where they actually should be.

    I would suggest this is part of the process. You have to remember, we're also telling some of the largest corporations on the planet that we're going to have to pretty much stop using their products as they currently produce and sell them. These are products that are largely responsible for the prosperity of the past 150 years.

    The transition is not going to be easy because these companies do not want to go gentle into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas).

    I'm with Tom and chriskos here. This is not a time for rage. It is a time for a steady hand on the tiller. Stay true to the published science. Communicate it as clearly and as often as you possibly can.

    We're going to show Lovelock that he's wrong.

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  8. Bob @49. Thanks, got it now. I pretty much understood you post, but your the visual from your link really made me see.

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  9. mgardner said:

    "So, rather than respond at the level appropriate to the debate as presented by skeptics, and the audience it is aimed at, they foster the impression that rebuttal requires an ever-more complex analysis. "

    One of my goals is to create an ever more simple analysis and not rely on GCMs.  Skeptics should like that.  One approach I take is to include factors that alternative theory scientists such as Scafetta and Curry want to see in the models. Skeptics should also like that. 

    What I am finding that skeptics don't like, is that even with all this bowing to their wishes, when the results don't agree with their preset notiions they still complain.

    The goal-posts will always move.



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  10. Responding from another thread:

    As to Spencer - well: "I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government."

    I have a preferrence for scientists who see their job as finding out what is not known and creating useful theories; but my main objection to Spencer is his actual attempts at science and serial misinformation. More about that here but check out the articles for yourself. He can say what he likes on blogs, but for credibility in science you have to back those assertions which he has consisitantly failed to do. In short, Spencer position on a matter of science seems instead to be an ideological one. Proposed solutions to climate change dont fit the ideology and he would appear to be bankrupt of alternative suggestions which do fit his ideology, ergo climate change must be natural. Yeah, right.

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