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Defending Science, Part 1

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

As scientists, it’s our job to pose important questions, investigate them thoroughly, and analyze them honestly. But I don’t believe it’s enough to let the fruits of our discovery lay fallow in a journal, hoping to be picked up by the media  – which they won’t, unless they can be twisted into headlines that run counter to the evidence-based narrative, facts be damned.

This latest scandal involving a paper coauthored by Dr. Roy Spencer, of UAH satellite infamy*, is a textbook example of how dysfunctional our media have become and the state of the “controversy” in climate science. For those who are out of the loop, courtesy of Prof. Michael Ashley via Prof. Scott Mandia’s blog:

Have Spencer & Braswell found a significant difference between observations and the IPCC models?

No. Their article contains a number of errors that have since been identified by climate scientists. These errors range from the trivial (using the wrong units for the radiative flux anomaly), to the serious (treating clouds as the cause of climate change, rather than resulting from day-to-day weather; comparing a 10 year observational period with a 100 year model period and not allowing for the spread in model outputs).

Within three days of the publication of Spencer & Braswell 2011, two climate scientists (Kevin Trenberth & John Fasullo) repeated the analysis and showed that the IPCC models are in agreement with the observations, thus refuting Spencer & Braswell’s claims. An independent analysis by Andrew Dessler also confirms the Trenberth & Fasullo result.

Furthermore, Trenberth and Fasullo showed that the better-performing IPCC models were distinguished by their ability to track the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, not by their climate sensitivity as claimed by Spencer & Braswell.

In other words, there is no evidence from the 10 years of satellite data that forecasts of global warming are too high. There are additional problems with the article, but these new analyses are sufficient to invalidate the conclusions made by Spencer & Braswell.

This paper was published in Remote Sensing, a journal primarily for geographers that does not deal in climate or atmospheric science. You may ask yourself – why would someone with a climate science paper choose a non-climate science journal? Because, as Kevin Trenberth points out at RealClimate, it would probably not even make it to peer review. Solution: choose a journal with little or no expertise in the subject and hope it gets published.

It does, and the right-wing media feeding frenzy commences.

Christian Post: Scientist Says His Study May Disprove Global Warming

Fox Nation: New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole in Global Warming Alarmism

Investor's Business Daily: Junk Science Unravels

FoxNews.com: Does NASA Data Show Global Warming Lost in Space?

Newsmax: NASA Study: Global Warming Alarmists Wrong

Hot Air: Sky-high hole blown in AGW theory?

Daily Mail: Climate change far less serious than 'alarmists' predict says NASA scientist

Let me note that Roy Spencer is not a NASA scientist. None of these articles brought into question his credibility, either.

*Roy Spencer is most famous for the UAH satellite controversy, which for years brought into question the reliability of our surface temperature records. Qiang Fu and others from the University of Washington discovered serious flaws in Spencer’s analysis, reported in Fu et al., 2004. The analysis was updated accordingly and is now consistent with the other temperature records. Roy also recently stated that he views his job “a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.” If I were a journalist I would consider these noteworthy details, but then again, none of these news outlets seem to consider themselves journalists.

But those are small details, as the rest is like mistaking the pile of pebbles in your backyard for the Rockies.

There are so many things wrong with these stories, but the most egregious is the media’s complete misunderstanding of climate change, and science in general. A single study in a single journal (especially an obscure one unrelated to the subject matter of the study) does not unravel what is now a mountain of evidence. Arrhenius, over 100 years ago, had already discovered the answer to why the earth was warmer than it should have been, given the amount of radiation it receives from the sun: greenhouse gases. They are the reason we are a temperate planet with a mild diurnal temperature range; why the moon, devoid of this protective layer, swings between hellishly hot and insufferably cold; and why Venus is a sweltering inferno.

In the late 1980’s computing technology and our understanding of the climate system had progressed to the point that we could model it, albeit crudely, and see our future unraveling before us. A long-ago debunked talking point says that climate models do not replicate reality – we know, in fact, that this is complete and utter B.S. Even the simplistic model that James Hansen used in his 1988 study shows decadal warming similar to that which has been observed.

Climate model simulations over the instrumental record from the IPCC AR3, 2001.

That is just one single line of inquiry into climate change attribution that we have, but the key principle is basic radiation physics – gases absorb and emit radiation in specific wavelengths. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit radiation in the peak emission wavelengths of the earth. They absorb and re-emit this radiation both back to the surface and out to space, raising the surface temperature of the earth to an equilibrium temperature higher than it would be in their absence. You can, with as simple or as complex a model you like, see what happens when you increase the concentration of these gases. Hint: things get warmer, and they have not stopped getting warmer according to all 5 major surface temperature and satellite records. In fact, I will show in a proceeding post that models are underestimating major changes in the climate system.

The idea that this one study, with it’s simplistic model that was tuned to give an answer, could topple decades and millions of hours of research, is absurd, but it sells a hell of a lot more headlines and placates everyone’s latent hope that global warming isn’t happening, and we really don’t have anything to worry about.

97.5% of climate scientists agree that human activities are increasing the planet’s temperatures.

Naomi Oreskes’ groundbreaking 2004 survey of all published, peer-reviewed studies of climate change between 1993 and 2003 found that not one…single…paper…rejected the fact that humans are causing global warming.

What has happened here?

I did!

The level of abuse that climate science has suffered, at the hands of the media and a certain political party, is nothing compared to the abuse that this planet has taken and is going to suffer in the coming century. Even now, as top presidential candidates call scientists frauds, proclaim their derision of global warming “alarmists”, and pray for rain that never comes, we are being greeted with ever more graphic images and disturbing details of the state of our climate system.

What has happened, and what can we do to fix it?

In this coming series of posts, I will dissect the political landscape and psychology of denial, and examine the current state of our climate and where it is headed. In doing so, I hope to gain an insight into ways that scientists and science advocates can engage and inform the populace and turn the tide against misinformation.

Brace yourself, because it’s going to be a hard landing.

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