Climate Science Money Trail Calls into Question Motive of Editor’s Resignation


As President Clinton famously once observed, politics is a contact sport. And the politics surrounding climate science is no exception.

The latest example stems from the climate establishment’s reaction to a research paper by University of Alabama climatologist Roy Spencer published in the geography journal, Remote Sensing. (Dr. Spencer, who also happens to be on the board of George C. Marshall Institute, is best known for developing the only truly global temperature measurement system with his colleague John Christy.)

In the article in question, Spencer and his co-author’s article make a case that natural cloud variations have caused researchers to misdiagnose surface temperature feedbacks, making the resulting calculations inconsistent with observational data. As a result, the models used to project climate change decades into the future overstate the affect of greenhouse gas emissions.

This past Friday shortly after the article ran, Remote Sensing editor Wolfgang Wagner resigned because—according to his resignation letter—he read some blogs (aka “various internet discussion fora” [pdf]) that claimed Spencer’s analysis may be flawed. And over the past few days, climate advocacy blogs, trade press articles, and even The New York Times have parlayed Wagner’s departure into a political controversy.

This collective bruhaha over what should be a debate among scientists which is what science is about brings to mind an observation by late historian Daniel Boorstin’s that applies to real world data and model calculations. He noted that we have reached a point where reality is judged by the image instead of the image by reality.

Normally anyone who disagrees with any article published in a scientific journal submits a critique, which can spark productive debate within the journal and the scientific community at large. If critics demonstrate the article is flawed, the editor can retract it.

Yet, Wagner didn’t publish opposing views. Wagner didn’t retract Spencer’s article. Instead, he stepped down as editor and drafted a personal apology to someone not involved with the article or the journal: Kevin Trenberth. (Dr. Trenberth is a climate scientist who rose to infamy when the 2009 Climategate scandal made public his email which acknowledged “the fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”)

Trenberth chairs the Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment (GEWEX), a major funder of a Soil Moisture Network headed by Wagner. UK Telegraph reporter James Delingpole highlights investigative work by a blogger at Watts Up With That to substantiate this connection:

GEWEX in 2010 announced the appointment, by acclamation, of Kevin Trenberth, as its new Chairperson. (page 3 of this newsletter). On Page 4, is the announcement that the Soil Moisture Network (which is the department Wagner runs) is looking for help. Not, coincidentally, on Page 5 is an article on how cloud albedo is overestimated in models, thus it’s worse than we thought.

Spencer’s article calls Trenberth’s view of the role of clouds into question. So if Wagner’s resignation and apology no longer seems bizarre if viewed through the lens of “funding recipient” rather than “journal editor.” Yet, the media attention over this affair has not. And the result has been news coverage which marginalizes Spencer by making allegations about his research and credentials the focal point of debate instead of addressing the quality and accuracy of his research.

Over the years, both scientific and political communities have engaged in an ongoing debate over the use of climate models to make long range temperature and climate projections. In spite of extensive criticism of these models, activists continue to market them. None have yet to be validated, all rely mostly on assumptions as opposed to established science, none can backcast past temperature changes and all over predict temperature increases that have occurred over the past 30 years.

Clouds and water vapor are two climate variables that are critical to understanding the effect of greenhouse gases on temperatures. If Dr. Spencer’s research paper survives the attacks it is currently receiving, he will have not only validated a critical weakness in climate models but also have demonstrated why they overstate temperature increases. This could be fatal to the apocalyptics and may help explain the ad hominen attacks on him.

The story behind the story is not controversy over a research paper or even the resignation of a journal editor. The real story is the full scale attack on Roy Spencer which can only be intended to discredit him as a serious scholar and scientist. Younger climate scientists observing this are getting a message: don’t stray from the orthodoxy or you to will pay a price. That is shabby and disgraceful and in the end science is the victim.

Bill O'Keefe

4 Responses

  1. Slim Chance says:

    He is just a trained parrot and he squawks whatever his handlers request. His paper is flawed.

  2. Another guy says:

    GRL puts an emphasis on timeliness. For 90% of GRL papers, median time from submission to publication is 13 weeks, meaning something like 45% of the papers are published in less than 13 weeks. Thus, a six week turnaround is not unusual (the paper is still “in press”, so it has been accepted but has not even been formally published). Note that GRL does not publish comments or replies. They suggest that authors submit critiques as standalone papers. They have published some of these critiques. All of this information comes from, which you should probably read if you have questions about GRL’s policies. I would be surprised if a critique of Dessler submitted to GRL takes two years to be published, assuming it passes peer review. Note that I am unconnected with GRL or its editors, and I am not currently a member of the AGU.

  3. Huub Bakker says:

    Yes, it is rather amazing that Dressler should get his paper published in only six weeks; Spencer and Braswell’s (not Spencer and Christy) paper was held up for two years (and was, itself, an analysis of an earlier Dressler paper). Spencer has put together an analysis of Dressler’s paper at Wattsupwiththat that should be read before making sweeping comments. There is also a post on Steve McIntyre’s ClimateAudit site looking at the Dressler paper too. Dressler’s key observation comes from a regression fit with an R^2 value of 0.01. I’d be with the majority of statisticians in saying that anything with a regression fit of less than 0.5 is useless. Spencer says he will probably put in a comment to the 2011 Dressler paper but it will probably take another two years to wend it’s way through the system. Meanwhile some people will continue to make uninformed comments about “serious and embarrassing” mistakes at his expense and include other ad hominum attacks.

  4. Bill744 says:

    The conclusions and methods of the Spencer ~ Christy paper is indeed being refuted in the scientific literature. In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Andrew Dessler points out several errors in which Spencer and Christy incorrectly recognize clouds as a climate forcing, rather than a feedback. The Spencer/Christy paper – submitted to a journal whose editors had not seen much climate research – rehashed arguments that had already been refuted in previous research. It is a serious and embarrassing mistake to fail to do an adequate survey of published research. Be aware that the G C Marshall Inst also claims that CFCs didn’t cause the ozone hole and that second hand smoke is not harmful. I guess you should just light up and inhale from the burning end rather than through the filter, eh? Oh, and Spencer himself proudly states “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.” So, is he an objective scientist or a political operative?