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.