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Roy Spencer's Catholic Online Climate Myths

Posted on 1 May 2013 by dana1981

Roy Spencer was recently interviewed by the website Catholic Online, and unfortunately spent most of the interview repeating long-debunked climate myths.  He could have simply answered the questions with factually correct information, and expressed his climate 'skepticism' where appropriate.  Had he taken this approach, the Catholic Online readers could have become better informed on the subject of climate change, as well as potentially seeing where Roy Spencer's 'skepticism' comes from.

Instead, Roy Spencer responded to most of the questions with factually wrong answers.  It was the sort of interview you might expect from a climate contrarian blogger like Anthony Watts, but you would hope that a climate scientist could do much, much better.  Unfortunately, Spencer disappointed.  Here we will compare Spencer's assertions to the body of scientific evidence and see where he went wrong.

Global Warming is Happening

Spencer began the interview by trying to cast doubt on the existence of global warming.

"No one knows whether it is currently warming, because we only see warming "in the rearview mirror"...after it has occurred."

To his credit, Spencer did mention that "there is some evidence that the deep ocean has continued to warm."  However, we absolutely do know that the planet is currently warming.  Aside from the fact that we measure that warming directly, we also know that there is a global energy imbalance due to the fact that humans have increased the greenhouse effect.  Physically, we know that the planet will continue to warm as long as we continue to increase the greenhouse effect.

Arctic Sea Ice Decline Denial

Spencer next repeated a variant of a myth we previously examined from his University of Alabama at Huntsville colleague, John Christy.

"It is entirely possible that summer sea ice meltback now is no worse than it was back in the 1920's and 1930's, when ship explorers reported unprecedented warming and sea ice and glacier changes in the Arctic"

While we didn't have satellites monitoring Arctic sea ice in the 1920s or 1930s or 1940s, all available data indicate that Arctic sea ice was much, much more extensive during that timeframe than today.  One of the most widely used long-term estimates of Arctic sea ice extent comes from Walsh and Chapman (2001), whose data are available from the University of Illinois (updated through 2008).  A description of the vast array of data used by Walsh and Chapman is available here, and the data are plotted in Figure 1.

summer sea ice extent

Figure 1: Average July through September Arctic sea ice extent 1870-2008 from the University of Illinois (Walsh & Chapman 2001 updated to 2008) and observational data from NSIDC for 2009-2011 (blue), with a fourth order polynomial fit (black soiid line).  Black vertical dashed lines indicate the years 1938-43.  

Clearly Arctic sea ice during the early and mid-20th century was far more extensive than today.  In fact, research by Kinnard et al. (2011) indicates that Arctic sea ice extent is now at its lowest in 1,450 years.  There's really no point in denying this, except for denial's sake.  All of the available evidence contradicts this myth.

Antarctic Sea Ice Expansion is as Expected

As climate contrarians often do when asked about the Arctic sea ice death spiral, Spencer then tried to shift the focus to the Antarctic.

"Also, since 1979, sea ice around Antarctica has gradually increased, not decreased, which climate models have not been able to explain."

Eli Rabett does a great job debunking this one.  In 1992, Manabe, Spellman and Stouffer predicted "the enhanced production of [Antarctic] sea ice." The paper discusses that melting ice will decrease the salinity of the ocean waters around Antarctica, which will cause decreased mixing with the relatively warmer deep ocean waters, reducing sea surface temperatures, causing more sea ice to form.

In 2002, Zwally, Comiso and Parkinson noted that the slight increase in Antarctic sea ice extent is:

"...qualitatively consistent with the counterintuitive prediction of a global atmospheric-ocean model of increasing sea ice around Antarctica with climate warming due to the stabilizing effects of increased snowfall on the Southern Ocean."

In 2010, Liu and Curry (that's climate 'skeptic' Judith Curry) arrived at the same conclusions as the Manabe and Zwally papers, but predicted that global warming will eventually catch up with Antarctic sea ice and cause it to decline over the second half of the 21st century.

It's true that some climate models predict that Antarctic sea ice should be decreasing, but as Polvani and Smith (2013) shows, the natural variability in Antarctic sea ice extent is probably larger than any trend from the forced response in models anyway.  Bottom line, Antarctica is cold?  Yeah, we knew that, Spencer.

Hurricanes are Becoming Stronger

Next on the 'skeptic' checklist, Spencer ticked off extreme weather event denial.

"There has been no increase in "superstorms" ... Sandy-class storms occur every year"

In fact, MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel first proposed in Emanuel (1987) that warmer sea surface temperatures should lead to stronger hurricanes.  Emanuel (2005) confirmed that hurricanes have grown stronger over the past several decades, in part due to human-caused global warming.  As he put it in Emanuel (2012),

"In the North Atlantic region, where tropical cyclone records are longer and generally of better quality than elsewhere, power dissipation by tropical cyclones is highly correlated with sea surface temperature during hurricane season in the regions where storms typically develop"

As a result, hurricane strength and damage are projected to continue increasing in a warming world.  These results are also consistent with the results of Grinsted et al. (2013), which concluded that:

"we have probably crossed the threshold where Katrina magnitude hurricane surges are more likely caused by global warming than not."

And with Holland and Bruyère (2013) which found that:

"since 1975 there has been a substantial and observable regional and global increase in the proportion of Cat 4–5 hurricanes"

Humans are Causing Global Warming

Spencer expressed his skepticism about the amount of global warming that humans are causing.

"The consensus is only that humans are contributing to warming...even I would probably agree with such an innocuous statement ... Most climate researchers simply assume recent warming is manmade, but human causation is only one possible explanation out of several."

The body of scientific literature is quite clear and consistent in finding that human greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant cause of the global warming over the past 50–100 years (Figure 2).

attribution 50 yr

Figure 2: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, light green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange), Wigley and Santer 2012 (WS12, dark green), and Jones et al. 2013 (J12, pink).

Most climate researchers don't just "assume" the warming is manmade, they defer to the body of scientific literature on the subject.  And ultimately it again boils down to that fundamental physics.  Humans have caused a large global energy imbalance by increasing the greenhouse effect.  The planet must warm in response.

Humans are Causing Sea Level Rise

While admitting that sea levels are rising, Spencer disputed that we know the cause.

"...sea levels have indeed increased, which probably is a sign of warming ... it is difficult to attribute the current rate of humans when we don't know how much of the rise is natural."

Sea level rises for two main reasons: 1) melting land ice, and 2) thermal expansion.  Both of those contributors are results of global warming.  If humans are causing global warming (and as just discussed, we are), then we're causing sea level to rise.

Climate Scientists Research Natural Climate Change Causes

Spencer next claimed that "there is very little research into" natural causes of climate change.  That is simply untrue.  For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a thorough summary of research on natural climate change causes in its reports, including in its Summary for Policymakers.  Studies which attempt to determine the causes of global warming also investigate natural causes, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Earth Has Warmed as Expected

Spencer's final claim in the interview is also entirely false.

"...the warming has been only 50% of what the consensus of climate models say it should be"

It's hard to know where this statement comes from – perhaps from Spencer's fellow climate scientist 'skeptic' Richard Lindzen, who often makes a similar claim.  Regardless, this claim is just flat-out ridiculously wrong.

In reality, the observed global warming has been spot-on consistent with climate model projections.  For example, the models used in the IPCC reports have been very accurate – much more accurate than predctions by Spencer's fellow 'skeptics' (Figure 3).

Predictions Comparison

Figure 3: IPCC temperature projections (red, pink, orange, green) and contrarian projections (blue and purple) vs. observed surface temperature changes (average of NASA GISS, NOAA NCDC, and HadCRUT4; black and red) for 1990 through 2012.

Disappointing Misinformative Interview

Overall, Spencer made very few factually correct statements in this interview.  The majority of his comments consisted of repeating long-debunked myths that any decent climate scientist should know are untrue.  The amount of misinformation he conveyed was on par with what we would expect from a climate contrarian blogger. 

Unfortunately, the Catholic Online readership will come away from this interview with a poorer understanding of the climate than they began with.  A climate scientist should be able to do far better than this.

Spencer's interview included one more myth, about the costs of renewable and fossil fuel energy.  For a bonus myth debunking, see Climate Consensus - the 97%.

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Comments 1 to 32:

  1. Catholic Online would have done far better to interview Spencer about his membership of the Cornwall Alliance, which espouses the "greed gospel", and regards fossil fuels as part of God's bounty it would be an insult to pass up.

    Given the Papal positions on climae change and poverty, now that would have been an interesting interview.

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  2. Roy Spencer's endorsement of an open letter from the Cornwall Alliance in which it is stated "It does not seem likely to me that God would set up the world to work in such a way that human beings would eventually destroy the earth..." expresses his starting point perfectly, and therefore his answers will always be the same, regardless of actual data.

    Several familiar names here.

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  3. Regarding Antarctic sea ice expansion, according to Manabe et al 1991 (Part 1 of this set of papers), the cause is decreased mixing with deeper ocean layers, not increased as stated in the opening post. From Pg. 811: response to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the excess of precipitation over evaporation increases, and surface salinity is reduced in high latitudes as noted in section 8. Thus, the static stability of the near-surface water increases and the convective mixing of cold surface water with the relatively warm subsurface water is reduced, thereby contributing to the reduction of sea surface temperature in the Circumpolar Ocean. This is why sea surface temperature hardly changes and sea ice slightly increases near the Antarctic Continent in response the increase of carbon dioxide.

    [Emphasis added]

    Reduced mixing with relatively warmer sub-surface waters effectively reduces the thermal mass exposed to the cold Antarctic air - slightly more ice forms. 

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  4. Thanks KR - fixed.

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  5. dana1981 - An additional part of that correction is that the deeper subsurface Antarctic waters are (relatively) warmer than surface waters, not colder as stated in the OP.

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  6. Sadly, the "character arc" or "story arc" (if you will) that Dr Spencer is on appears to be the more typical one for scientific contrarians to take - and not just in climate science, but of various stripes (one thinks here of Dr Oz), where their positions become increasingly divergent from the reality presented by the evidence.

    The "story arc" where they realize that their positions are off-base and change them in response to the present state of the evidence (in other words, when they start behaving like skeptics) is sadly all too rare an occurrence.

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  7. @Mark SB and @"Roy Spencer", regarding:

    "It does not seem likely to me that God would set up the world to work in such a way that human beings would eventually destroy the earth..."

    I've often thought that if such a Deity did participate in setting things up, the Deity did exactly what Spencer cannot believe.  The peak of the blackbody emissions from Earth's surface, determined by a temperature which is comfortable for much of life, is very close to that massive CO2 absorption region around 667 per cm. On the other hand, this could be seen as the delicate thermostat, carefully crafted, with idiotic human beings trampling all over it. 

    I personally don't buy the existence of such a Deity, but if Spencer invited the problem, he certainly has it. 

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  8. Contrarians often contradict one another (well, they often contradict themselves...) For example, Spencer says it's some random cloud feedback that drives climate, whereas Willie Soon says it's the sun.

    Would it be possible to assemble an "alternative theory" database to compare just how heterogeneous the small "skeptic" lot is? Is there already such a thing somewhere?

    The Climate Misinformer database here at SkS is great, but each misinformer page looks more like a Gish Gallop (understandably) then the alternative theory the guy in question defends.


    Just for the record, I have never seen a climate skeptic say publicly that some fellow skeptic was wrong - even though each of them proposes very different things.

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  9. Alexandre @8 - we do have the contradictions database, but it just lists generic arguments, not attributed to specific individuals.

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  10. Comments also appeared here:

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  11. It would be good if Dana would address and refute the criticisms by Christopher Monckton (referred to in comment 10 from Carlton Benson III) as these portray a very different picture of Dr Spencer and his speech from that given here.  Such contrasting views about the same person and the same speech are very confusing to the layman 

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  12. Ray @ 11,

    It's a bit hard to get past the rather childish namecalling, but I'd start by noting that Monckton's first obvious and unequivocal error appears in only the second paragraph:

    The satellites reveal the inconvenient truth that there has been no global warming for approaching two decades.

    How on earth does he work that out? I thought he might have been cherry picking with his "approaching two decades" qualifier, since the satellite record itself is nearly 25 years long, but no — I can't get "no global warming" from UAH using any start date anywhere near two decades ago. Perhaps you'll have better luck, using either or

    Of course, I was being charitable there, because his first error appears in the very first paragraph:

    With John Christy he presents the monthly real-world data from the microwave sounding unit satellites that provide the least inaccurate global temperature record we have.

    But I suppose that one could be considered equivocal, since one might think that after all these corrections it must be getting pretty accurate by now:

    UAH Corrections

    Trying to decode the flowery Monckton-speak, his first "point" appears to be that while the planet has been warming, and the science that Monckton agrees with says that adding more CO2 will cause more warming, Spencer is right to say that nobody knows if it is currently warming — i.e. at this very instant — because in the short term natural variation can temporarily mask the underlying warming.

    To which I'd reply to Monckton: If you see something lying on the ground that looks like a dog turd, feels like a dog turd, and smells like a dog turd, by all means go ahead and taste it, because who knows, right? You might get lucky.

    In any case, defending Spencer's claim on the basis that it's possible that right at this very moment the underlying warming is possibly being masked in the surface temperature record (since he talks about the "17 year pause", which of course doesn't exist when the oceans are taken into account) by natural variability and we won't know that until sometime down the track is damning Spencer by faint praise indeed. "Charitable" doesn't begin to do it justice.

    Anyway, I gave up reading at that point; life's too short.

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  13. The comment "No one knows whether it is currently warming, because we only see warming "in the rearview mirror"...after it has occurred." is a bit like saying "we cant tell whether a skydiver is currently falling because we only see his falling "in the rearview mirror"... after it ocurred".  Of course we can't tell whether it is warming or cooling solely from observations over too short a timeframe, but that doesn't mean we don't know whether it actually is warming or cooling.  If someone shows you a photograph of a skydiver in mid air, most of us would be happy with the idea that he is falling, because we are aware of something called "gravity".  Similarly there is a good deal we do know about the physics of climate which suggests there is good reason to expect the climate to be warming, even though the observations do not unequvocally show this if you look at too short a period.

    Essentially this is just word games, with no scientific or statistical justification.

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  14. As  Monckton's first job was as a Catholic journalist, his latest venue is unsurprising. One shudders to think what claptrap he has laid on his fellow Knights of Malta, Pat Buchanan included.

    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition  to take action at this late date, but Christopher's making common cause with heretics so flagrant as the  Cornwall Alliance Calvinists should earn the censure of his Grand Master- if he can get a word in edgewise.

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  15. #11 Ray, the layman can easily see through Monckton's nonsens with a look at his scoring chart. Sóóó 'scientific', no? I don't think my post at WUWT will make it (they are of the free speech collective, read Orwell for the meaning of that). I found comparison with Iraqi democracy during Saddam when his election results were typically like 99.1% of the votes.

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  16. Alexandre @8

    You are being a little unfair in saying that no sceptic ever contradicts another.  Followers of the phony second law of thermodynamics and other deniers of any impact of CO2 on temperature do indeed get criticised by Spencer among others.

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  17. cRR Kampen  Having had a look I agree, the scoring chart is fatuous.  I didn't see your name in the comments.  Oh and I am familiar with the works of EAB.  Dikran Marsupial  I think Monckton is being pedantic in that it is true no one can say that the earth is warming as knowledge of global temperature is from measurements that are always in the past, obviously they can't be in the future and the present is an ephemeral and instantaneously (well to all intents and purposes) obsolete entity

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  18. To make Dikran Marsupial's alalogy to free fall and gravity a bit more explicit, while it is true that we can not say with certainty whether or not warming continues over a short enough time span, we can tell with certainty at any point in time whether or not Earth's energy flux is out of balance, which means we can say with certainty that therefore there must be continued warming.

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  19. It's hard to even get past the title of that WUWT post.  The words "factual" and "Monckton" do not belong in the same sentence.  Once I got past the headline, I was barraged by ad hominems.  Very professional.

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  20. Jim, Spencer would disagree even with that.  Roy Spencer is driving a Corvette.  On flat land.  Pedal to the metal.  Speedometer is racing up steadily, 30, 31, 32, .....  When it hits 80, his passenger freaks out, "Take your foot off the accelerator!"  Roy calmy replies "We don't know if we are accelerating right now!  We were a second ago....  And a second ago....  But maybe we are decelerating at this moment.  God would not have given me this Corvette if he had designed it to allow me to kill us in it."

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  21. Not much to say in response to Monckton's content.  Most of it is just plain wrong and wholly unsupported with any evidence whatsoever.  It's also mostly based on equating surface air warming with global warming, even though only about 2% of global warming goes into heating the atmosphere.  Overall, just a waste of time to read that tripe.

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  22. Reading & addressing anything Monckton writes is a waste of time. He's been shown to be consistently wrong so often on so many aspects of climate science that at this point if he claimed that the Sun rises in the east each morning, I would video-record dawn each day for a week to verify before agreeing with him.

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  23. Ray yes Spencer and Monckton are using pedantry to allow them to say something that is technically true (we can only look at observed temperatures in the rear view mirror) to make a claim that isn't true "we don't know whether it is warming or cooling". This is part of Monckton's trick of counting the true statements in Spencers interview, just because they are pedantically true, doesn't mean they actually support the argument presented (counting irrelevant statements such as Dr Spencers qualifications is another example of inflating the count).

    Sadly the climate debate is full of this kind of rhetorical device, and is generally an indication that the science doesn't actually support the argument - if it did, they would stick to the science.  Likewise Monckton's personalisation of the issue.


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  24. Most climate researchers simply assume recent warming is manmade, but human causation is only one possible explanation out of several

    Many 'skeptics' seem to argue from an unwritten assumption that warming happened, climate scientists saw it, asked 'what caused this warming', discovered Co2 as a good candidate and the AGW theory was born.  From this assumption it is not as unreasonable to point out that there are still things about solar and natural variability such as AMO that we don't understand, and perhaps these are viable alternative explanations for the warming we have seen.

    However the reality was that AGW was predicted before the modern warming period even started, with multiple reports commissioned by the government around 1980 to investigateg climate change all finding Co2 likely to cause significant warming in the future.

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  25. #13DIkran to correct your rather weird analogy further, if you are a skydiver freefallling from 10,000 ft you first of all accelerate until you reach a terminal speed ie stop accelerating due to gravity but, what would you think  if you actually measured that you had not only stopped accelerating but actually stopped falling and then even maybe started to drift away from the earth. Wouldn't you think other factors were in play other than gravity????

    your snap shot of the falling sky diver does not show what factors will act on him.

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  26. Warren it is a shame that whenever an analagy is used to make some point in a discussion on climate, you can almost guarantee that someone will over-extend it in such a way as to ignore the key point.  The point was that we can only have observations of the past for any physical process, so Spencers comment was vacuous and misleading.

    If the Earth were cooling, you may have a point, but it isn't.  The lack of a statistically significant warming trend in GMST does not mean that the planet isn't warming, firstly because GMST doesn't include the warming of the oceans (see many posts on ocean heat content) and secondly because a lack of a statistically significant warming trend doesn't mean that it isn't warming, just that it isn't warming at a sufficiently high rate to rule out the possibility of there being no warming over that period.

    The snap shot of the falling skydiver does not show what factors will act on him, I didn't say that it did, but our prior knowledge of the physics tells us that the skydiver is almost certainly falling (although there are highly unlikely circumstances in which he might not be).  Likewise we know enough climate physics to be confident that the planet is warming, without having access to observations from the future).

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  27. Warren Hindmarsh wrote: "if you actually measured that you had not only stopped accelerating but actually stopped falling and then even maybe started to drift away from the earth."


    But, you just broke the analogy beyond all resemblance to physical reality.

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  28. nuccitelli-gets-a-bruising-by-the-factual-hand-of-monckton

    Sometimes poetry is elevated to the realms of science. This is one of those occasions. The hand of Monkton has indeed been employed in a frequent and rapid manner.

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  29. Please don't judge all evangelicals by those like Roy Spencer who signed the Cornwall Alliance. Check out the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), which accepts climate science, takes the threat of climate change seriously, and calls on evangelical Christians to address the issue.

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  30. Good point Phil L,. And check this by  Professor of Public Policy, J Boston here

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  31. Phil L:

    I don't really see the Cornwall Alliance as being a matter of reflecting badly on evangelical Christians - at least not in the context of Dr Spencer.

    Rather, what I perceive is the case is that it reflects badly - very badly - on Dr Spencer.

    Basically, as far as I can see, as long as you have your scientific integrity intact, you can be corrupt, perjured, flawed, fallible, whatever - and still function effectively as a scientist.

    But if you compromise your scientific integrity, it doesn't matter how upstanding you are in every other area of your life - it's game over, as far as being taken seriously as a scientist goes.

    IMO Spencer signing on to the Cornwall Alliance means he has sacrificed his scientific integrity. Stick a fork in him: he's done.

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  32. I'm with composer99 and others on this. Whenever Spencer's name comes up in a positive light in a climate science related thread, inevitably flung out there by a contrarian, I now throw the Cornwall Alliance book right back at them. It's nearly always *crickets* after that.

    The poor man must carry a boatload of cognitive dissonance around with him.

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