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Lindzen Illusion #7: The Anti-Galileo

Posted on 13 May 2011 by dana1981

Richard Lindzen is one of the most prominent and widely-referenced climate scientist "skeptics".  After all, there is a scientific consensus about anthropogenic global warming, so there are few climate scientist "skeptics" to choose from.  Lindzen has researched climate science for four decades, since the field really began to grow and develop in the early 1970s, has published hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, works at a prominent academic institution (MIT), and has been a "contrarian" for most of his career. 

So his combination of expertise and "skepticism" make Lindzen an appealing figure to "skeptics".  He's even been compared to Galileo quite frequently.  But there's one major difference between Galileo and Lindzen: Galileo was right

Galileo's positions were based on and supported by scientific evidence.  Other scientists at the time also recognized that Galileo was right and supported by the evidence.  In this post we will see that Lindzen, on the other hand, has a history of consistently being wrong on climate issues, and his positions are contradicted by the scientific evidence and observational data.

Lindzen's Evolution

In his 1989 MIT Tech Talk, Lindzen summarized his many climate contrarian positions at the time:

  1. Earth hasn't warmed as much as expected
  2. the surface temperature record is wrong
  3. global warming is not a concern
  4. climate sensitivity is low
  5. the water vapor feedback is negative
  6. the cloud feedback is negative
  7. global warming is just due to internal variability
  8. water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas

Over the years, Lindzen's views have evolved somewhat, and some of these positions have fallen by the wayside.  Let's examine how his 1989 positions compare to his current views, and how they stack up against the observational data.  You would think a scientist's views would match observational reality, but as we will soon see, that's simply not the case for Lindzen.

Earth hasn't warmed as much as expected - this remains one of Lindzen's favorite arguments, which he makes in media articles on an annual basis to this day.  But as we saw in Lindzen Illusion #1, there is simply no truth to this argument.  When we consider all factors, including aerosol cooling and ocean thermal inertia, both of which Lindzen neglects in making this argument, we see that the planet has warmed almost exactly as much as climate models expect.

The surface temperature record is wrong - as we saw in Lindzen Illusion #2, in 1989, Lindzen didn't even put the GISTEMP observed warming trend (0.5 to 0.7°C since 1880) within his range of possible warming trends (-0.2 to +0.4°C since 1880).  As we now know, and as Lindzen would now admit, James Hansen and GISTEMP were right, and Lindzen was wrong.  The surface temperature record was and is accurate.

Global warming is not a concern - this argument is of course fundamental to global warming "skepticism", and thus one which Lindzen continues to subscribe to.  However, it's based on a conglomeration of Lindzen's many other incorrect arguments, and as shown in Lindzen Illusion #3, his arguments against taking action to reduce GHG emissions are based on logical fallacies and a lack of understanding of economics.

Climate sensitivity is low - this continues to be Lindzen's bread and butter argument, but as illustrated in Lindzen Illusion #2, temperature projections using low sensitivity simply don't match the observed warming trend.  Additionally, Lindzen Illusion #1 showed that the warming we've seen so far is inconsistent with low climate sensitivity.  Lindzen Illusion #4 demonstrated that nothing credible we've seen so far suggests sensitivity is nearly as low as Lindzen claims.  His low sensitivity argument seems to be based on little more than his own fundamentally flawed paper.

The water vapor feedback is negative - as we saw in Lindzen Illusion #4, Lindzen argued that water vapor could be a negative feedback due to a drying of the upper atmosphere until the mid-1990s, but had begun to reverse this position by the end of the decade.  Indeed, recent observational evidence has been consistent with the climate model projection of a strongly positive water vapor feedback.

The cloud feedback is negative - Lindzen Illusion #4 also discussed that Lindzen continues to believe the cloud feedback is strongly negative.  However, his "infrared iris" hypothesis has not withstood the test of time, and numerous recent studies have been inconsistent with a strongly negative cloud feedback.

Global warming is just due to internal variability - Lindzen continues to argue that internal variability may account for most of the global warming over the past century.  However, Lindzen Illusion #5 revealed this argument's Achilles heel: the oceans (including the deep layers) are warming too.  If the surface warming were simply due to heat moving around the internal climate system, from oceans to air, then the oceans would be cooling.  Moreover, we saw that Lindzen's argument was based on a misrepresentation of other climate scientists' work.

Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas - although Lindzen no longer downplays the role of CO2 in the greenhouse effect, he continues to downplay its role as a global temperature driver, and many "skeptics" still argue that water vapor is a far more important greenhouse gas than CO2.  However, as highlighted in Lindzen Illusion #6, two recent NASA GISS studies demonstrated that CO2 plays a far larger role in the greenhouse effect than Lindzen claimed in 1989, and more importantly, is "the principal control knob that governs the temperature of Earth".

In short, of Lindzen's eight 1989 arguments listed above, he has effectively admitted that he was wrong on three points (temperature record accuracy, water vapor feedback, importance of CO2 as a greenhouse gas), but continues to make the other five.  However, none of these remaining five arguments mesh with observational reality.  But a useful question comes to mind, given the frequency with which "skeptic" arguments contradict each other: are these surviving arguments contradictory or self-consistent?

Lindzen's Consistently Cloudy Vision

Lindzen's surviving arguments are: Earth hasn't warmed as much as expected, global warming is not a concern, climate sensitivity is low, the cloud feedback is negative, global warming is just due to internal variability.  And indeed, we can create a consistent depiction of the climate system with these arguments.  

A strongly negative cloud feedback would allow for a low climate sensitivity, which would explain how the large anthropogenic GHG radiative forcing could have a small impact on global temperatures.  If the anthropogenic influence were overestimated, then Earth wouldn't have warmed as much as expected.  But if GHGs aren't driving global warming, there must be another cause.  Lindzen explains the warming through the natural internal variability of the climate system (although as Swanson et al. (2009) note, a climate system with larger internal variability will also tend to be more sensitive to external forcings).  And if the warming is just natural variability, it will soon reverse itself, and thus is of no concern.

So Lindzen does present a mostly coherent, consistent alternative hypothesis to the anthropogenic global warming theory.  There's only one problem: as discussed above, every single one of these arguments is inconsistent with the observational evidence.  You may have also noticed that every single one of Lindzen's positions have underestimated or downplayed anthropogenic global warming, which suggests they may be based on contrarianism rather than scientific evidence.

Lindzen has constructed a house of cards, with his incorrect conclusion (global warming is of no concern) sitting atop a series of incorrect beliefs which are each contradicted by the observational evidence.  Indeed, when asked by then-Senator Al Gore why he believed water vapor and clouds generate a negative feedback in a 1991 Congressional hearing (Page 71), Lindzen responded:

"as far as we can tell every model predicting an excess of 2 degrees [sensitivity to doubled CO2] is predicting more [warming] than we already have seen."

In short, Lindzen's "no concern" argument is based on his "low sensitivity" argument, which is based on his "clouds are a large negative feedback" argument, which is based on his "Earth hasn't warmed as much as expected argument.  It's just one huge chain of wrong arguments based on other wrong arguments, finally leading to a very wrong conclusion.

With this history of being wrong, the comparisons to Galileo seem wholly inappropriate.  There is of course nothing wrong with being occasionally mistaken in science.  The problem arises when a scientist is consistently wrong and fails to learn from the corrections advanced by other scientists or by nature, especially when we're asked to believe that he is right and virtually every other scientific expert is wrong. 

Galileo was not a contrarian who was purely motivated to contradict Catholic beliefs.  Galileo's key feature is that his conclusions were dictated by the scientific evidence.  If anything, Lindzen is the anti-Galileo, as his conclusions seem to be based on pure contrarianism instead of scientific evidence.  Indeed, this seems to be a common feature among self-proclaimed global warming "skeptics", which is likely why Lindzen is held in such high regard despite his dismal climate record.

NOTE: clicking John Cook's snazzy Lindzen Illusions button at the top of the post will take you to our comprehensive Lindzen page (short URL, with tabs for Lindzen's quotes, articles, arguments, our Lindzen blog posts, and relevant external links.  It's identical in format to the Monckton Myths page

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Comments 101 to 116 out of 116:

  1. CW: "so you don't know how much energy is coming in and you don't know how much energy is going out, but you know what the result is?" Great job of persistently missing the point ... we can put error bounds on the result, even though we don't know the exact result. In particular "...climate is completely INsensitive to changes in CO2..." is not a possibility.
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  2. Well yes CW. We've got lots of evidence to inform us. Note that we don't have to "know how much energy is coming in" and "how much energy is coming out", though we can bound these. Of course it would be great if we could define these very difficult parameters. but not to worry. We don't really need to know these. As far as global warming is concerned we really want to know how much excess solar energy is retained in the climate system. We've got lots of evidence on that (sea level rise; polar ice melt; surface and atmospheric temperature increase; ocean heat content and so on). As David says just above, we can see the effect. A couple of recent analyses of increasing ocean heat content, for example, supports a radiative imbalance of around 0.75 W/m2 averaged over the solar cycle. This is a small but empirically-accessible number that is the difference between your two large and poorly-accessible numbers. --------------------------------------------- P.S. Situations where a parameter of interest is the small difference between two very large, and difficult to define numbers are quite common in science. It's usually the difference that is important, and the latter is often amenable to independent empirical analysis. Another example is defining the thermodynamics of protein folding. The thermodynamic stability of a folded protein state (relative to the unfolded state) is a tiny difference between the energies of the folded and unfolded states, respectively. Attempting to determine the free energy of folding by determining seperately the energies of the folded and unfolded states (and calculating the difference) is a hopeless task of attempting to assess the entropic and enthalpic components of the energies and how these change upon folding. However the free energy of the folded state relative to the unfolded state can be measured quite accurately by a number of methods. And the thermodynamic effect of specific mutations (amino acid substitutions) on the folded state stability can also be defined quite accurately even if these are a fraction of a kJ.mol-1. It's a little like trying to assess the effect of a small change in radiative forcing (e.g. the effect of the solar cycle, which is of the order of 0.2-0.25 W/m2 min to max). We might hope that we could determine this from measuring the incoming and outgoing radiation, and determining the difference. But that’s well beyond the capabilities of our measuring systems. However if this change in forcing was sustained for a sufficient length of time, we’d have a good chance of quantifying it (e.g. by measuring the change in ocean heat uptake).
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  3. chris: "Note that we don't have to "know how much energy is coming in" and "how much energy is coming out", though we can bound these. Of course it would be great if we could define these very difficult parameters." Even this, though, boils down to greatly tightening the bounds. There will always be uncertainty, no matter how small, so apparently CW believes we can never rule out the possibility "...climate is completely INsensitive to changes in CO2..." He's just spinning the old denialist line that if we don't know everything (with absolute precision) we know nothing.
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  4. The results of this will change the dynamics of the models as there is now cause and effect. Svensmark was correct.
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    [DB] "Svensmark was correct."

    Based on what?  Certainly not from actually watching the video, which (although interesting) contained no new information.  Hot-linked URL.

  5. 104, Camburn,
    Svensmark was correct.
    And you know this because... they are planning on running an experiment at some time in the future? This is what qualifies for "skepticism" today? They're going to run an experiment and you'd like to see a certain result, so you're going to act as if that result has already been observed, and ignore all of the actual evidence that is currently available?
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  6. Thank you for hot linking the video. I am going to make a stab at learning to do that again in the future. The experiment is being run now, and has been running for approx 1 year. The preliminary results support Svensmark's theory. It does seem Mr. Kirby is quit excited about this. I am glad to see this happening because it will increase our understanding of climate stimuli from an experiment that can be replicated. The results may help fill in some of the questions that current climate models raise. Emperical knowledge is a very good thing to have, so that it can be used in a constructive way.
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  7. In particular "...climate is completely INsensitive to changes in CO2..." is not a possibility. Of course it's possible. The theory of AGW is that GHGs will reduce earth's emission to space until earth's temperature rises to a level at which output again matches input. The theory is not without merit. But to know what the equilibrium level is you must know how much energy is entering the earth system. The chart shows a range of close to 10 W/m^2 for input (albedo estimates). You must know the amount of energy exiting the system. The chart shows a range of around 8 W/m^2. Solar variation is actually known much better, but still adds another 1 W/m^2 uncertainty for current levels. Who is right Trenberth or Hansen? or neither? or the NOAA satellite series? We do not know what the budget is. We certainly have no inkling how it has changed before even the contradictory satellite measurements. The above error bars easily cover the 4 or so W/m^2 for a still future doubling of CO2.
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  8. What is the disagreement between Trenberth and Hansen?
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  9. Chris #95 Quite a reasonable sounding summary Chris, except it is really only the story of 'trapping' the outgoing energy and not what is happening with the incoming. The thrust of Hansen's new paper is that Aerosols are reflecting much more incoming than previously thought, and together with a Solar minimum, the imbalance over the last decade has reduced from about 0.9W/sq.m to 0.5W/sq.m via von Schukmann's Argo OHC analysis. The 11 year Solar ripple has an amplitude of about 0.25W/sq.m which is 0.13W/sq.m either side of a mean. Therefore, your statement that: "indicates with very little room for doubt that the Earth is currently in radiative imbalanace (absorbing around 0.75 Wm-2 excess solar energy averaged over the solar cycle, as Ken Lambert has informed us elsewhere in reference to a recent summary by Hansen)." Is not quite right. The imbalance number would be 0.63 +/-0.13 W/sq.m over the Solar cycle based on Hansen's paper which is a third less than the 0.9W/sq.m used by Hansen, Trenberth et al. to date. This is at a time when CO2 concentrations have never been higher, and WV feedback is at a maximum. Hansen argues that the Aerosol cooling has increased to about a value of -1.6W/sq.m which effectively cancels out the +1.7W/sq.m from CO2 GHG effects (at 390ppmv it would be +1.77W/sq.m). The big issue for Hansen, Trenberth et al., arises if the warming imbalance measured by OHC change is far less that 0.5-0.6W/sq.m and heads toward zero. Do we increase the implied Aerosol cooling?, what happens to WV feedback?, and do we really have a closing imbalance gap which mitigates the effect of AGW? Increasing CO2 emissions increases Aerosols which reduce incoming energy which closes the imbalance gap. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the process is reversible, so that the planet has time to economically reduce both emissions and aerosols, and perhaps keep the gap closing.
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  10. 108: See the images in post #4 of this thread. Note the differences in albedo between the albedo used in Hansen's model and the ones estimated by Trenberth's two energy budgets. Note the differences in outgoing longwave radiation between Hansen's model, Trenberth's two energy budget estimates, and the series from all the NOAA satellites. While they could conceivably all be wrong, at most, only one can be correct meaning the others are wrong by more than the signal we're looking for from CO2 forcing. Notice the seasonal variation in outgoing longwave radiation as estimated from the NOAA satellites. Also notice the change from year to year. Is that accurate? Probably not, there are a lot of uncalculable changes in calibrations taking place on so many different sensors. But now look at the thick lines representing the linear trend in outgoing longwave radiation. Notice how the GISS model indicates falling outgoing (as AGW predicts) and contrast that with the RISING outgoing energy as estimated by the satellite series. There are questions that we have to humbly recognize we cannot answer.
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  11. CW, Have you noticed that none has bothered to answer your missive @110? Have you asked yourself why? And I am willing to bet that you will provide yourself and readers here the wrong answer as to why.
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  12. 111. I suspect it's more fun to post on a new topic. People probably don't really want to understand but rather have fresh opportunities to make snarky comments. Just you and me left here. What you got?
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  13. "The imbalance number would be 0.63 +/-0.13 W/sq.m over the Solar cycle based on Hansen's paper which is a third less than the 0.9W/sq.m used by Hansen, Trenberth et al. to date." No, according to the Hansen 2011 paper that you are addressing, the solar cycle-averaged imbalance is around 0.75 W/m2. The estimated current energy imbalance (2005-2010) is 0.59 W/m2 (+/- 20%ish) and averaging in the solar-cycle-averaged solar contribution this increases to 0.72-ish W/m2 (+/- a bit). I was actually using Hansen's statement on page 43 ("We estimate the energy imbalance averaged over a solar cycle as ~ 0.75 W/m2.")
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  14. chris #113 How about we agree to disagree about 0.1 +/-0.1W/sq.m
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  15. I've followed most of the above, but only a couple things come to mind that others haven't said already. I made a WoodForTrees CO2, PMOD, and Temp graph that I think sums up their relationships, or lack thereof, pretty well. It struck me that climate change has already had its Galileo. His name was Arrhenius, he bucked the status quo about 100 years ago, and his position has grown to be held by the majority since then.
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  16. To coin the old phrse Eppur si calefacit
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