Is Roy Spencer the World's Most Important Scientist?

Is Roy Spencer the World's Most Important Scientist?
May 10, 2013

Norman Rogers

Norman Rogers is a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, speaking and sometimes writing on the... (read full bio)

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 do 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  ncover."

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.

[First published at The American Thinker]

Norman Rogers

Norman Rogers is a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, speaking and sometimes writing on the... (read full bio)