Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error”

Trenberth: The flaws in Lindzen-Choi paper “have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got.”

Consistently being wrong and consistently producing one-sided analyses that are quickly debunked in the literature should lead scientific journals and the entire scientific community (and possibly the media) to start ignoring your work.

But when you are one of the last remaining “serious” professional scientists spreading global warming disinformation who retains a (nano)ounce of credibility because you are associated with a major university — M.I.T. — and your name is Richard Lindzen, apparently you can just keep publishing and repeating the same crap over and over and over again.

It’s not just that Lindzen’s popular disinformation tracts have been widely debunked — see RealClimate here.  Or that his one remaining big idea — that clouds are negative feedback — has been refuted in the literature [see Science: “Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming,”an amplifying feedback (sorry Lindzen and fellow deniers)].   That idea of course meant ignored the myriad observations that climate impacts are occurring faster, not slower, than the models had predicted, and that therefore the multiple strong amplifying feedbacks are overwhelming whatever few week negative feedbacks occur in the climate system — see Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius” (and below).

At the Heartland conference of climate-change disinformers last year, Lindzen went from disinformation to defamation as he smeared the reputation of one of the greatest living climate scientists, Wallace Broecker (see “Shame on Richard Lindzen, MIT’s uber-hypocritical anti-scientific scientist“).

But still his shoddy work manages to make it through the peer review process of a few journals, and the antiscience crowd eat it up and regurgitates it over the blogosphere like a toddler with H1N1.  His latest nonsense is about to be thoroughly eviscerated in the literature, and RealClimate his multiple posts on how flawed Lindzen’s analysis was and how the peer review process failed.  You should start with “Lindzen and Choi Unraveled” by climate scientists John Fasullo, Kevin Trenberth and Chris O’Dell:

A recent paper by Lindzen and Choi in GRL (2009) (LC09) purported to demonstrate that climate had a strong negative feedback and that climate models are quite wrong in their relationships between changes in surface temperature and corresponding changes in outgoing radiation escaping to space. This publication has been subject to a considerable amount of hype, for instance apparently “[LC09] has absolutely, convincingly, and irrefutably proven the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming to be completely false.” and “we now know that the effect of CO2 on temperature is small, we know why it is small, and we know that it is having very little effect on the climate”. Not surprisingly, LC09 has also been highly publicized in various contrarian circles.

Our initial reading of their article had us independently asking, how we could have missed such explicit evidence of the cloud feedback as shown in LC09? Why would such a significant finding have gone undiscovered when these feedbacks are widely studied and recognised as central to the projections of climate change? We discovered these common concerns at a meeting last year and then teamed up to address these questions.

With the hype surrounding the manuscript, one would think that the article provides a sound, rock solid basis for a reduced climate sensitivity. However, our examination of the study’s methods demonstrates that this is not the case. In an article in press (Trenberth et al. 2010 (sub. requ.), hereafter TFOW), we show that LC09 is gravely flawed and its results are wrong on multiple fronts. These are the major issues we found:

The LC09 results are not robust….

LC09 misinterpret air-sea interactions in the tropics….

More robust methods show no discrepancies between models and observations….

LC09 have compared observations to models prescribed with incomplete forcings….

LC09 incorrectly compute the climate sensitivity.

The paper itself is behind a firewall, but finds:

Atmospheric model results are explored and found to be consistent with observations.  From 1985 to 1999 the largest perturbation in TOA [top-of-atmosphere] radiative fluxes was from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and clearly models which do not include that forcing will not simulate the effects. Consequently, regressions of radiation with SSTs in the tropics may have nothing to say about climate sensitivity….

As shown here, the approach taken by LC09 is flawed, and its results are seriously in error.  The LC09 choice of dates has distorted their results and underscores the defective nature of their

I’m shocked, shocked that Lindzen did shoddy, one-sided analysis and was wrong about feedbacks and sensitivity.

But, seriously, how could such crap make it into a serious journal?  Gavin Schmidt prints a long explanation from O’Dell:

Given the large number of comments on the peer-review process in general and in the LC09 case in particular, it is probably worthwhile to give a bit more backstory to our Trenberth et al. paper. On my first reading of LC09, I was quite amazed and thought if the results were true, it would be incredible (and, in fact, a good thing!) and hence warranted independent checking. Very simple attempts to reproduce the LC09 numbers simply didn’t work out and revealed some flaws in their process. To find out more, I contacted Dr. Takmeng Wong at NASA Langley, a member of the CERES and ERBE science teams (and major player in the ERBE data set) and found out to my surprise that no one on these teams was a reviewer of LC09. Dr. Wong was doing his own verification of LC09 and so we decided to team up.

After some further checking, I came across a paper very similar to LC09 but written 3 years earlier – Forster & Gregory (2006) , hereafter FG06. FG06, however, came to essentially opposite conclusions from LC09, namely that the data implied an overall positive feedback to the earth’s climate system, though the results were somewhat uncertain for various reasons as described in the paper (they attempted a proper error analysis). The big question of course was, how is it that LC09 did not even bother to reference FG06, let alone explain the major differences in their results? Maybe Lindzen & Choi didn’t know about the existence of FG06, but certainly at least one reviewer should have. And if they also didn’t, well then, a very poor choice of reviewers was made.

This became clear when Dr. Wong presented a joint analysis he & I made at the CERES science team meeting held in Fort Collins, Colorado in November. At this meeting, Drs. Trenberth and Fasullo approached us and said they had done much the same thing as we had, and had already submitted a paper to GRL, specifically a comment paper on LC09. This comment was rejected out of hand by GRL, with essentially no reason given. With some more inquiry, it was discovered that:

  1. The reviews of LC09 were “extremely favorable”
  2. GRL doesn’t like comments and is thinking of doing away with them altogether.
  3. GRL wouldn’t accept comments on LC09 (and certainly not multiple comments), and instead it was recommended that the four of us submit a stand-alone paper rather than a comment on LC09.

We all felt strongly that we simply wanted to publish a comment directly on LC09, but gave in to GRL and submitted a stand-alone paper. This is why, for instance, LC09 is not directly referenced in our paper abstract. The implication of statement (1) above is that LC09 basically skated through the peer-review process unchanged, and the selected reviewers had no problems with the paper. This, and for GRL to summarily reject all comments on LC09 appears extremely sketchy.

In my opinion, there is a case to be made on the peer-review process being flawed, at least for certain papers. Many commenters say the system isn’t perfect, but it in general works. I would counter that it certainly could be better. For AGU journals, authors are invited to give a list of proposed reviewers for their paper. When the editor is lazy or tight on time or whatever, they may just use the suggested reviewers, whether or not those reviewers are appropriate for the paper in question. Also, when a comment on a paper is submitted, the comment goes to the editor that accepted the original paper – a clear conflict of interest.

So yes, the system may work most of the time, but LC09 is a clear example that it doesn’t work all of the time. I’m not saying LC09 should have been rejected or wasn’t ultimately worthy of publication, but reviewers should have required major modifications before it was accepted for publication.

It is typical for the few bad papers that make it through peer-review to fail to reference the multiple analyses in the literature that prove the opposite position.  The question is why journals allow that.

Shouldn’t the fact that it had Lindzen’s name on it wrung alarm bells that called for extra scrutiny.  Few people have been as consistently wrong as he has.

UPDATE:  I see climate scientist Tom Wigley commented on Gavin’s first post here:

You say “LC09 was not a nonsense paper – that is, it didn’t have completely obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer review “. I beg to differ.

It is a priori obvious that one cannot determine the climate sensitivity from an incomplete energy balance over the tropics. LC09 ignores the fluxes of heat into and/or out of the region via the atmosphere, and the flux of heat into the ocean. As Trenberth et al. point out, these are large terms, and they simply cannot be ignored. This is a glaringly obvious error that any competent reviewer should have picked up. It undermines the whole analysis and makes it worthless. In my view, the other issues raised by Trenberth et al. are important, but secondary to this fundamental problem.

DotEarth’s Revkin interviewed Trenberth, who has some choice quotes:

In a telephone interview today, Dr. Trenberth told me that the flaws in the Lindzen-Choi paper “have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got.”

… I asked Dr. Trenberth to run the numbers on how much the difference in analysis amounts to in terms of warming from a doubling of the carbon dioxide concentration that long prevailed before the industrial revolution. He said that, if done correctly, the Lindzen-Choi analysis would have produced a 1.5 degree Fahrenheit warming instead of the 0.9 degree warming the paper initially contained. But rectifying an additional flaw “” the paper’s selection of sea temperatures in a way that did not appear to be objective “” produces a warming of 4.1 degrees, a level at the heart of what most climate simulations and other studies project. That did not include issues related to the original paper restricting its analysis to the tropics, he added.

And again, most climate models focus on the getting the fast-feedbacks right, like water vapor and polar amplification, but utterly neglect the ones that operate over decades:

Truly only one negative feedback in the planet’s overall carbon cycle can act with sufficient speed and strength to avert catastrophic climate impacts: The dominant carbon-based life form on this planet will have to respond to the already painfully clear impacts of our carbon emissions by slashing those emissions sharply and eventually running the planet on carbon-negative power.

The time for this negative feedback is now.

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18 Responses to Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error”

  1. Hazel Fleming says:

    What is “carbon negative power”?

    [JR: Power whose use reduced total carbon emissions, typically biomass power with sequestration.]

  2. Chris Dudley says:


    We may get carbon negative without making it an explicit part of the power system. For example, one can make syngas while producing biochar for a soil amendment and use it for cooking or electricity generation, but one could also just flare it and still sequester carbon.

    One could also devote renewable energy to capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or to expanding the range of coral in the oceans using illumination at depth. That could make the generating system as a whole carbon negative but without involving biomass pyrolysis. It is possible that solar energy will be so cheap that this kind of approach will make the most sense.

    I agree that chances are pretty good that we will need to go carbon negative and not just carbon neutral. Perhaps one could call it backdated carbon neutrality.

  3. Andy Revkin says:

    So is this more, or less, support for the calls of some — most notably James Annan — for journals to shift at least some of the peer review cycle to an open format?

    Also, Gavin seemed to say that — with or without flaws– this paper’s approach was “a useful contribution to the literature”:

    “Even if it now turns out that the analysis was not robust, it was not that the analysis was not worth trying, and the work being done to re-examine these questions is a useful contributions to the literature –- even if the conclusion is that this approach to the analysis is flawed.”

    Moreover, on Dot Earth, Lindzen conceded that some of the points made by critics his approach were “certainly valid” (while he predicts his main point will still be proved correct, no surprise…).

    This leads back to the questions I raised over the weekend. Is the problem less with the paper and publishing process than the tendency of commentators (whether on blogs or elsewhere) to seize on particular findings as the new “truth” — and for public not attuned to the tussles of science to swallow such proclamations?

    [JR: Well, I think Gavin has conceded that the peer review process let this paper go by without addressing serious flaws. Lindzen’s “problem” is that he does narrow, flawed analyses and draws broad, deeply flawed conclusions — and hose conclusions happen to fly in the face of a vast literature. Turns out his narrow analyses also fly in the face of a smaller literature.]

  4. mike roddy says:

    I hope Lindzen is debunked once and for all this time, and the result published in mainstream media outlets.

    I’m glad that you are moving in the direction of benign geoengineering in the form of encouraging sequestration in forests, but there are simpler ways to do it, as the Stern Report pointed out. Allowing natural regrowth of denuded forest land would have immediate positive consequences. CO2 would not be entering the atmosphere from logging activities, and trees would remain and continue to capture it.

    Offsets in tropical areas won’t necessarily succeed, because of leakage. People will buy wood products from a forest someplace else. There needs to be a carbon tax on all forest products, especially since, unlike oil and coal, there are cost effective substitutes available in today’s marketplace.

    Particular attention needs to be paid to North American forests, which keep getting a pass. They continue to be clearcut here for packaging and two by fours on a massive scale. The US is the world’s leading producer and consumer of wood products, and this has to change. Our logging practices are worse than those in the tropics, because we apply herbicides to clearcuts, killing soil biota and reducing overall biological productivity. Similarly, fires in the Rockies and elsewhere are worse where logging has occurred, due to hotter conditions in tree plantations and less fire resistance in younger trees. Beetle kills are also worse in monoculture plantation areas.

    A detailed post on this is overdue. There are several American forest carbon specialists who could cover this ground well.

  5. Lamont says:

    I’d have to agree with #3 that its only because of the blogosphere immediately seizing on every new paper as proof that we think there’s an issue with the peer-review process. For the scientists involved, this was a useful exercise in thinking about this problem, and moved the ball forwards rather than backwards overall. But we had to put up with way too much crap in the blogosphere in between the time when the paper was published and these rebuttals came out.

  6. Tony Noerpel says:

    Andy makes good points. Lots of lousy papers get published. And occasionally good papers get rejected. The fault is not with the peer-review process. A bad paper’s results will not be reproducible and that will be the end of that, provided the author was just mistake and not deceitful. The problem in this case is with the media and the blogs and the amplification of the mistake.

    Andy, I enjoyed your article at Dot Earth.

  7. Lore says:

    I’ve also noticed, unless I missed it somewhere, that while WUWT gave Lindzen posts crediting this to be a “block buster” of a report there is no mention of this debunking. Although, there was good piece in which even Spencer had his doubts.

    Maybe they are just too preoccupied with the cold snap? Andy has a good point.

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    It’s nice to see the exchange of ideas here, not only between Lindzen (if those are ideas) and Trenberth, but also between Revkin and Romm.

  9. Leif says:

    Another point about Carbon negative, (C-) By using heat from harvested biomass such as slash from forest under-story we get to harvest the energy of inevitable forest fires and thus improveing the efficiency of Earth’s natural abilities of sequestration. Large trees retain and capture CO2 more efficiently than small. The harvest value of large trees is higher. Controlled burning produces less soot and smog. Big trees resist fire better than small dead slash so remain to capture CO2 the very next day should fire start. Using a system similar to “Cyclone Power Technologies,” (not affiliated.) to generate electricity on site, that energy can be a meaningful cottage industry, this saving commute time to a dead end job and paying Big Coal to produce and sell you the same power. Win, win,… almost add infinitum.

  10. Doug Bostrom says:

    “This leads back to the questions I raised over the weekend. Is the problem less with the paper and publishing process than the tendency of commentators (whether on blogs or elsewhere) to seize on particular findings as the new “truth” — and for public not attuned to the tussles of science to swallow such proclamations?”

    If I may humbly suggest, the requirements of scientific publishing are not now and should not be in tune with the needs of fluid public discourse. Meanwhile, the problem of people leaping to conclusions and making ill-considered remarks in any available venue will remain, as they actually should.

    What is mutable is public susceptibility to being swayed by shoddy arguments. This is a matter of continuing adult education, which should never be considered complete. For most of us the opportunity for being kept up to date with research findings that we can apply to our daily lives and to policy questions we’re responsible for as voters lies in print and broadcast media.

    So if there’s a problem here, it lies with popular media. To the extent that individual reporters can both find jobs and make a scrupulous effort to report facts to their readers, we’ll do better. To the extent that editors are sensitive to the fundamentally different requirements of reporting science versus reporting human affairs and thus understand that science reporting is not always going to produce an interesting narrative of tension between opposing forces, so much the better.

    As it stands, the destruction of science journalism is going to lead to more and worse confusion on the part of the public.

  11. Doug Bostrom says:

    Here’s an example of what goes wrong when the editor’s need for drama and pushing circulation transcends the responsibility to do education properly:

    “A leading scientist has hit out at misleading newspaper reports that linked his research to claims that the current cold weather undermines the scientific case for manmade global warming.

    Mojib Latif, a climate expert at the Leibniz Institute at Kiel University in Germany, said he “cannot understand” reports that used his research to question the scientific consensus on climate change.

    He told the Guardian: “It comes as a surprise to me that people would try to use my statements to try to dispute the nature of global warming. I believe in manmade global warming. I have said that if my name was not Mojib Latif it would be global warming.”

    He added: “There is no doubt within the scientific community that we are affecting the climate, that the climate is changing and responding to our emissions of greenhouse gases.”

    A report in the Mail on Sunday said that Latif’s results “challenge some of the global warming orthodoxy’s most deeply cherished beliefs” and “undermine the standard climate computer models”. Monday’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph repeated the claims.”

    Imagine if university courses were done the same way, yet as I say, for most people this is the only exposure to science they’ll get.

  12. Lore says:

    Doug Bostrom:

    “A report in the Mail on Sunday said that Latif’s results “challenge some of the global warming orthodoxy’s most deeply cherished beliefs” and “undermine the standard climate computer models”. Monday’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph repeated the claims.”

    Yes, and this is what gets slung around the internet on the short news cycles and which WUWT has just posted on their site.

  13. Doug Bostrom says:


    “Yes, and this is what gets slung around the internet on the short news cycles and which WUWT has just posted on their site.”

    I hope the site remains just as it is; the general tone of reader posts there is so unflattering, it seems like some sort of put-up job by Friends of the Earth. As though the worst of FreeRepublic were handed a drink and shown to a table. An “own goal”, as they say.

    The particular thread I inadvertently stepped in was to do with a television appearance featuring Gavin Schmidt. Did you know, Dr. Schmidt is a “thug”? Where’s the moderation?

  14. Lou Grinzo says:


    I would normally agree, as I’ve long said that there are some people you can most seriously damage simply by handing them a microphone and stepping back.

    But in the case of WUWT, as with Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, et al., the problem is that they do have an effect. Two effects, in fact: First, they corrupt the newcomers who simply don’t know any better than to swallow the lies and half-truths these people shovel day after day. Second, they provide material for the ideologically driven foot soldiers, the people who rush from blog to blog, write LTE’s, etc., and repeat the same nonsense endlessly, which in turn helps fool more newcomers by presenting a manufactured debate that looks like a real one.

    They don’t care how stupid they sound or how many times they’re proved wrong. It’s not about winning the debate with the scientists, it’s about fooling enough of the non-scientists into siding with them politically. The person who wrote the book “What’s wrong with Kansas” might be overdue for a sequel that covers the whole country.

  15. Doug Bostrom says:

    Lou, I agree the material Mr. Watts himself publishes is pernicious and unfortunately I suppose a lot of folks won’t notice the kindred spirits he fosters in his comments section.

  16. WAG says:

    One of my favorite comments from WUWT:

    1:57 am December 1, 2009
    John wrote:
    Understand there are people who cant fathom that Global Warming Climate Change was a political monster that had nothing to do with science.. Leftists, Communists, eliteists snakes that prey on our children in their quest to take over the world.. One would think the stewarts of the planet would be happy we are not all doomed? Far from it my friends they couldn’t care less.. POWER and killing Capitalism is their game..

    Wait… that one was from the Wall Street Journal. I guess the rotting fruit doesn’t fall far from the ideological tree.

  17. TrueSceptic says:

    12 Lore,

    I know I’m being a pendant but I must correct a spelling error:-

    Yes, and this is what gets slung around the internet on the short news cycles and which WUWT has just posted on their shite.

    Correction in bold.

  18. Dano says:

    Lou and Doug:

    What you write is true, but voting wins by majority, not minority. Big Money is slowing the process, not an ignorant, arrogant and boorish 12% of the population.