Error-Riddled Matt Ridley Piece Lowballs Climate Change, Discredits Wall Street Journal. World Faces 10°F Warming.


Leading Scientists Debunk Ridley Piece, Even Climatologist Cited By Ridley Says He “Is Just Plain Wrong About Future Warming”

Memo to media, deniers: “Climate sensitivity” is NOT the same as projected future warming!

Projected warming even with (an unlikely) low climate sensitivity of between 1.5°C and 2.0°C from Michael Schlesinger et al 2012. A WSJ op-ed that cites this work absurdly concludes “Evidence points to a further rise of just 1°C by 2100.” Not even close — one of the key math errors in the piece.

Every major projection of future warming makes clear that if we keep listening to the falsehoods of the anti-science crowd and keep taking no serious action to reduce carbon pollution we face catastrophic 9°F to 11°F [5°C to 6°C] warming over most of the U.S. (see literature review here).

The Wall Street Journal, however, has published a piece, “Cooling Down the Fears of Climate Change,” that (falsely) asserts observations suggest global warming will be so low as to “be benificial.” This risible piece by Matt Ridley is so riddled with basic math and science errors it raises the question of how the Journal can possibly maintain its reputation as a credible source of news and financial analysis.

Ridley and the Journal apparently don’t know the difference between water vapor and clouds. They don’t understand the basic concept of climate sensitivity. And they can’t do simple math. Naturally, the climate deniers have embraced this nonsense and spread it across the internet.

UPDATE: Ridley has made an even more self-defaming response at Bishop Hill’s blog and WattsUpWithDisinformation. He doesn’t actually refute any of my points– just repeats his mistakes. His piece proves once and for all that Ridley doesn’t know the first thing about climate science or the IPCC.  As but the most astounding example, in my debunking below I explicitly quote the IPCC’s draft Fifth Assessment (AR5) — “the new IPCC draft report, upon which Ridley makes all his claims” — which summarizes the recent literature on clouds this way: “The net radiative feedback due to all cloud types is likely positive.” Ridley then absurdly asserts “He gives no backing for this dogmatic conclusion.” Seriously. It’s like he never read my piece — or the AR5! And he apparently thinks you can’t read either! I must say it is shocking that Bishop Hill would print such an easily falsifiable claim. It is not shocking Watts would.

I wasn’t going to waste time with the umpteenth debunking of the Wall Street Journal‘s nonsense — especially a piece written by someone whose “family leases land for coal mining”! But one of Ridley’s many basic mistakes is often seen in the media — the confusion of the “climate sensitivity” (to a doubling of CO2 levels to 560 parts per million) with projected warming (from actual greenhouse gas levels projected for this century plus carbon cycle feedbacks). That confusion needs clearing up (again).

First, though, let me start by quoting some of the country’s leading climate experts in an excellent debunking piece by Media Matters, “WSJ’s Climate ‘Dynamite’ Is A Dud“:

[A]s John Abraham, an IPCC reviewer and the director of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, put it to Media Matters: the column “has such elementary errors in it that [it] casts doubt on the author’s understanding of any aspects of climate change.”

… Boston University’s Robert Kaufmann, lead author of a 2011 sulfur emissions study [wrote]:

I know of no evidence that would suggest that the temperature effect of sulfur emissions are small.  This conclusion is totally at odds with my peer reviewed publication in the area, which indicate that sulfur emissions have a significant effect on temperature.

With regard to the feedback effect of water vapor: Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Media Matters in an email: “water vapor effects are well established as an amplifier (strong positive feedback).” Abraham further noted that Ridley has apparently confused water vapor with clouds, whose effects are not as well understood. He said, “it is very clear water vapor … is an amplifying effect. It is a very strong warmer for the climate” and challenged Ridley to name the anonymous scientist who gave him his information.

With regard to the rate of ocean heat absorption: Trenberth wrote: “On the contrary there is now very good evidence that a LOT of heat is going into the deep ocean in unprecedented ways, which completely undermines this sort of argument. OHC [Ocean Heat Content] keeps increasing at a fairly steady rate, just as sea level keeps going up.”

A good discussion of the latest science on ocean heat content can be found here.

To expand on what Abraham said, it is head-exploding and self-discrediting for Ridley and the Wall Street Journal to print this for millions to read:

And then, as one Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a senior role in combating climate change admitted to me the other day: “We don’t even know the sign” of water vapor’s effect—in other words, whether it speeds up or slows down a warming of the atmosphere.

Climate models are known to poorly simulate clouds, and given clouds’ very strong effect on the climate system—some types cooling the Earth either by shading it or by transporting heat up and cold down in thunderstorms, and others warming the Earth by blocking outgoing radiation—it remains highly plausible that there is no net positive feedback from water vapor.

An unnamed physicist? Seriously, WSJ? What’s next. “A guy I met in an underground parking lot”?

If Ridley did in fact talk to a Nobel prize-winning physicist then that person almost certainly did not make the mistake Ridley did and confuse “water vapor’s effect” — where we most certainly know the sign (it speeds up warming) — with cloud’s effect (where there is a tad more uncertainty). Yet even in that case, the new IPCC draft report, upon which Ridley makes all his claims finds:

Various feedbacks associated with water vapour can now be quantified, and together they are assessed to be very likely positive and therefore to amplify climate changes. The net radiative feedback due to all cloud types is likely positive.

UPDATE: Ridley wrote this transparent falsehood at Bishop Hill’s blog:

And this guy is a taken seriously by anyone? The “backing” — the draft AR5 — is here.

Memo to Ridley: You ought to actually read the assessments (and blog posts) you quote from! In case you didn’t know, the AR4 “consensus” was based primarily on the literature from before 2006. More recent science finds that the cloud feedback is positive:

Ridley and the WSJ cite on their behalf recent work by Ring and Schlesinger to help make the case that we face a warming of only another 1°C this century for a total cumulative warning of under 2°C:

Michael Ring and Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois, using the most trustworthy temperature record, also estimate 1.6°C [climate sensitivity].

The problem is that Ridley apparently doesn’t have the first clue what the climate sensitivity means, which is a key reason why Dr. Schlesinger has written a letter to the WSJ (below) explaining

“In his article, Mr. Ridley is just plain wrong about future global warming.”

It bears repeating that the amount of warming we are going to subject our children and countless future generations to depends primarily on three factors:

  1. The so-called “equilibrium climate sensitivity” — the sensitivity of the climate to fast feedbacks like sea ice and water vapor — or how much warming you get if  we only double CO2 emissions to 560 ppm and there are no major “slow” feedbacks.  We know the fast feedbacks, like water vapor, are strong by themselves (see Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius” and Skeptical Science piece here).
  2. The real-world slower (decade-scale) feedbacks, such as tundra melt (see “Carbon Feedback From Thawing Permafrost Will Likely Add 0.4°F – 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100“.
  3. The actual CO2 concentration level we are likely to hit, which is far beyond 550 ppm (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

Given that the anti-science, pro-pollution forces seem to be  succeeding in their fight to keep us on our current emissions path, it’s no surprise that multiple recent analyses conclude that we face a temperature rise that is far, far beyond dangerous (see links below).

Schlesinger’s full letter to the WSJ is:

In “Cooling Down the Fears of Climate Change” (WJS, 19 December 2012), Matt Ridley mentions the findings of my Climate Research Group’s paper “Causes of the Warming Observed Since the 19th Century” (

In his article, Mr. Ridley is just plain wrong about future global warming.

In our paper “A Fair Plan to Safeguard Earth’s Climate” (, we show that by the middle of this century the warming will exceed the 2°C (3.6°F) maximum allowed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

In that paper and its sequel, “A Revised Fair Plan to Safeguard Earth’s Climate” (, we phase out the emission of greenhouse gases this century such that the cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions by the Developing and Developed Countries are equal. Both Plans keep global warming below the UNFCCC allowable maximum of 2°C.

Schlesinger sent an email around to some journalists and scientists that included a figure from his work, which I posted at the top. Schlesinger notes that an aggressive  program of carbon mitigation can limit warming to 2°C and avoid the worst impacts.

It is worth pointing out that there is a healthy debate about Schlesinger’s low estimate (see here). Kevin Trenberth, for one, says the analysis is not correct.

Indeed, Trenberth coauthored a major new study of actual observations of relative humidity finds “that warming is likely to be on the high side of current projections … projecting a global temperature rise for doubled carbon dioxide of more than 7 degrees F” — see “Science Stunner: Observations Support Predictions Of Extreme Warming And Worse Droughts This Century.”

And Schlesinger himself says it would be unwise to plan on a low sensitivity given the very real risks that it is not so low. I queried Schlesinger about whether his analysis included the feedback from the permafrost. He wrote me back:

What will most likely happen is … permanent outgassing of carbon dioxide from permafrost and methane from clathrates/hydrates.  As you know, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. If we hedge not against this outgassing, it’s game over.

My Climate Research Group is now writing a paper about sea-level rise throughout this century.

You and the world want not to know about this.

In the scheme of things, we human beings are not a very intelligent species.

All species have a finite lifetime.

Most species do not self exterminate.

While this is a bit hyperbolic, it may not be far from the truth.

So I think it is quite safe to say that it is irresponsible and indefensible to quote Schlesinger’s work in an article that nonsensically concludes the “net effect [of global warming] on the planet may actually be beneficial.”

Ironically — or, rather, tragically — if the world listens to anti-science disinformation like Ridley’s piece in the WSJ, if it continues taking little action to reduce carbon pollution, then that would guarantee catastrophic impacts even in the unlikely event the equilibrium climate sensitivity is low.

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51 Responses to Error-Riddled Matt Ridley Piece Lowballs Climate Change, Discredits Wall Street Journal. World Faces 10°F Warming.

  1. Bishop Hill says:

    For those interested in the full scientific case which Ridley is citing, it’s here:

  2. Andy Skuce says:

    On Twitter, Ridley denied confusing clouds and water vapor when I challenged him. But he would, wouldn’t he?

    It’s a great pity to see a formerly first-class science writer descend to writing tripe like this. At best, he seems afflicted with a pathological optimism bias. At worst, his politics may have corrupted his integrity altogether.

  3. M Tucker says:

    The WSJ article is just food for the trolls that show up on other sites like Scientific American. “It will not be as bad as the alarmists predict” or “it will be beneficial” are the two favorite themes. I’m not sure how may folks actually believe that nonsense but arguing with them is like trying to clean up spilt mercury. They are wedded to their beliefs and they love to accuse scientists like Trenberth and others of having no actual data or models or science to back up their conclusions. I’m glad Joe put this rebuttal up but it will have no impact on those who distrust climate scientists, who seem to dominate the comments on other sites, and who might even be in the employ of denier organizations like Heartland.

  4. Robert says:

    You’re reading this all wrong, Joe. The glass is half full (or perhaps, 10%). WSJ opinion pages are in the penultimate staghe before final and full acceptance:

    They start with (1) it isn’t happening..
    Move to (2) It’s happening, but it’s natural…
    And have now reached (3) It’s happening, it’s human-caused, but it’ll be good for us!

    Final stage, yet to be achieved: (4) It’s happening, it’s us, it’s bad.

  5. Bishop Hill says:

    James Annan, a climate sensitivity specialist says:

    “I think a lot of what Nic Lewis says seems reasonable, though I also suspect that some of his choices will have served to underestimate sensitivity somewhat. Don’t forget, “the ipcc” does no research to estimate sensitivity, they only summarise the literature which generally lags the latest evidence.”

  6. caroza says:

    No Robert, two to go:

    (4) It’s happening, it’s us, it’s bad.

    (5) (shrieked rather than spoken) Why didn’t you warn us????!!!???

  7. A.J. says:

    And I ask again as someone who rarely reads the WSJ: Do they ever publish rebuttals like this or that on Media Matters? Or, excepting those who have the time and intellectual curiosity to fact-check, is this still largely a matter of preaching to the choir?

  8. Robert says:

    (Sadly) fair point. I stand corrected… ;-)

  9. Paul Klinkman says:

    There’s a big problem with refuting childlike screeds with ultraconservative (to the point of functional meaninglessness) scientific estimates — in doing so, we give some type of credence to the ultraconservative estimates.

    All of our current scientific estimates come with ample red-letter warnings that they don’t consider the effects of runaway positive feedback, despite the fact that the Arctic region is now demonstrating runaway positive feedback. Just for once on this planet, could we have some sane researcher attempt to have a high end that overshoots the target, in close prediction with known geological responses to slight climate driving forces?

  10. MapleLeaf says:

    Oh good, more pseudo science from blogland by Lewis and company. (/sarc).

    These folks take themselves, their misguided notions and their ability to undertake good scientific research far too seriously.

  11. Martin Lack says:

    I like your style Robert. Is your surname “Henson” by any chance? If it is, I apologise for creating a spoof cover of your 2007 book A Rough Guide to Climate Change; and re-formulating some of its content to derive my ‘Six Pillars of Climate Change Denial’, namely that:
    1. Global warming is not happening.
    2. Global warming is not man-made.
    3. Global warming is not significant.
    4. Global warming is not necessarily bad.
    5. Global warming is not a problem.
    6. Global warming is not worth fixing.
    (See Henson, 2007, p.257ff).

  12. The deniers NEVER put forward a coherent alternate to the anthropogenic CO2 hypothesis. They prefer to distract us with piecemeal quibbles that take time to read, and then are simply incoherent.

    It’s the same impulse children have to distract their parents from the truth when confronted directly. Not childlike, but childish. And with an adolescent tone of smug superiority thrown in.

  13. Peter Capen says:

    The error-riddled article in the WSJ by Matt Ridley may be as much a case of consciously continuing to sow confusion in the mind of the public about the dire implications of global warming, as it is a reflection of the author’s willful ignorance about the growing consensus of scientific research on the subject. If the former, it is far more pernicious, however, because it prevents the public from understanding just how serious the issue is and what it means to our future if we continue to largely avoid doing nothing to combat the effects of a planet that is growing hotter by the day. What may be at work in continued climate change denial is ultimately the perfectly rational but misguided understanding that to do anything to realistically combat the crisis we face means that we must “rethink” and “redirect” the nature of the industrial/consumer society, which has to be a terrifying thought, especially to those that have benefited and continue to benefit so handsomely from the prolonging of “business as usual.” And as for the public at large, “fear of change” and uncertainty as to what the future will be like creates a kind of systemic paralysis. Since the implications of an increasingly hotter planet “seem” to be unfolding “relatively” slowly, most people will simply wait to see what happens, always hoping for the best, believing they will be spared the worst. Moreover, there is the naive belief of many that we can always adapt to or mitigate the worst effects of climate change, the “silver bullet” rationalization. Unfortunately, the longer we wait, the worse are likely to be the consequences of our inaction, the fewer are the viable options open to us, and the more costly any “solution” will be, assuming, of course, there is a “solution.” We continue to waste time by our inaction to confront the very real threat of global warming. Whether intentional or not, the Ridley article serves only to prolong societal inaction. But time is running out and if we do nothing, we will all pay the price in the end.

  14. Robert says:

    No, I’m not Mr. Henson. I’ll look for the book, though…

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    OT –
    Joe ……. A picture of Lubbock, Texas from 35,000 feet yesterday :

  16. Joe Romm says:

    This blog’s readership extends far beyond the “choir” whatever that means in this case.

  17. Joe Romm says:

    Except that the recent literature supports a high sensitivity — and high feedbacks! You are truly getting desperate with this post.

  18. Joe Romm says:

    He clearly confused the two in the excerpt I provided.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ridley has never, in my opinion, been anything but a hard Right pseudo-libertarian propagandist, quite fitting for a man who inherited a lot of money and wants to make a whole lot more. One attempt to do so, running the Northern Rock Bank in the UK under Ponziform ‘Madoff rules’, resulted in the first bank run in the UK in centuries. Add failed wannabe bankster to pseudo-science peddler in the interests of the destruction of humanity.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The glass is actually twice as big as it needs to be. The hardcore denialists will never admit error. Even when things get really bad, they’ll still claim that it’s just ‘natural variability’ or the reversion to some prior state before civilization rose, or God’s judgment on gay marriage or a Chinese conspiracy or something. Society has moved on, but society does not rule in capitalist economies-the moneyed elites do. Only when they decide that it is in their pecuniary interests to do so will we be allowed to save ourselves, and their political stooges will finally move (too late!). The Bosses still love those petro-dollars more than their (and, certainly, our) children.

  21. Henry says:

    I’ll agree with Joe here, it’s definitely not just the ‘choir’ reading this blog.
    Allowing Bishop Hill to comment is further proof of that, kudos to Joe for doing so.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In my opinion anyone with the least familiarity with Ridley’s exudations knows that they emanate from a mind frozen with ideological rigidity. To even acknowledge his unscientific and deliberate disinformation is a total waste of effort. Creatures like this, even when their egregious errors are pointed out over and over again, just go on peddling them again and again and again.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Error-filled’ and ‘Matt Ridley’ go together like Astaire and Rogers, and are quite tautologous.

  24. Ian Forrester says:

    It is interesting to note that Ridley is the brother-in-law of the new UK environment secretary in charge of Defra:

    There are three main groups that are causing global economic and environmental problems, the fossil fuel industry, transnational agrochemical and seed companies and the banking system. Ridley is a key player in all three of these groups.

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    If that is what your business types read, it makes it easier to understand that business decision making and ethics may not be what they seem, ME

  26. A.J. says:

    Okay, the choir and the anti-choir. ;-)

    I agree that there are those still open to learning, and this is a great resource for them, and those fighting disinformation on the web. But it’d be interesting to know what percentage of the CP readership is still on the fence. I suspect that most people reading the WSJ (or even generally getting their info from the mainstream media) aren’t regulars. Hence my wonder as to how often these rebuttals reach that extended audience.

  27. Colorado Bob says:

    More than one camera over Texas yesterday –

    Dust Storm Over TX Panhandle As Seen From A Plane. Credit to Chris Manno.

  28. Steve Bloom says:

    Nor does that comment mean anything like what the Pap would like it to mean.

  29. Steve Bloom says:

    Think of this stuff as the National Enquirer (US scandal rag sold at grocery store checkout stands) for business executives and financial industry types.

  30. Steve Bloom says:

    IMO they’ll move seamlessly from denial to advocacy for the more extreme sorts of geo-engineering. That’s dangerous.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    PIK: Climate Science Lecture – Impacts of Climate Change

    In this Climate Change lecture Prof. Stefan Rahmstorf deals with the impacts (with a focus on extreme events and Sea-Level Rise) and the possibilities for holding Global Warming below 2°C.

  32. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Let me be the first to register: I am on the fence, trying to decide which is closer: The Hansen-McKibben view that we can leave a livable planet if we take immediate and drastic action; and the Guy McPherson view that we’re all screwed.
    And I read the WSJ – the above ground portion. I pay no heed nor any attention to its editorial pages (the sewer).

  33. John McCormick says:

    That’s where all this is heading, Steve. We don’t have much time remaining to head that off. Where is the international ‘code of conduct’?

    Haliburton smells the money.

  34. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Fred was the choreographer, the charmer – called the world’s greatest dancer by Baryshnikov. Is there a metaphor here? Can we plan an livable alternative to a hideous future, convince everyone to join, then dance our way gracefully into it? Or, as with Ginger, we do everything Fred does, but do it backwards… and in heels?

  35. Frank Rizzo says:

    The trouble is that Nic Lewis (who Ridley is citing) doesn’t seem to be calculating *equilibrium* climate sensitivity, but *effective* climate sensitivity (related but not directly comparable). This point was made in the comments of one of Bishop Hill’s posts (second page), and Nic Lewis seems to agree in principle:

    However, he (I believe incorrectly) still argues that his *effective* climate sensitivity IS STILL equilibrium sensitivity. I discussed it here:

  36. Mar says:

    Thank you Joe Romm for so clearly and methodically debunking the WSJ opinion piece! We need more journalists like you!

  37. D.B. says:

    The key term being “pillars.” Not stages. Deniers are quite capable of marshaling all of these arguments simultaneously in all their muddled, self-contradictory glory.

  38. P Baker says:

    Yes Ridley is a menace – he caused havoc as a banker. George Monbiot has got his number nicely though:

  39. Martin Lack says:

    Thanks for resolving that one. The book is well worth the read…

  40. Martin Lack says:

    Very true DB. Hence my much later post:
    ‘Pythagoras and plate-spinning for fake sceptics’, which details the way in which those ideologically-blinded to the nature of reality go around in circles; and flip continuously from one argument to another. Trying to refute their insanity is, as you Americans would say, “like trying to nail Jello to the wall!

  41. David B. Benson says:

    Even 2 K warming is way, way too much. Will lead to an SLR of 9+ meters according to a recent study from a Florida university.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Fred gave Ginger class, and Ginger gave Fred sex, or so some wag had it. I’m not in favour of ‘greatest’ labels, but Fred has to be up there with Nureyev, Nijinsky and very few others from non-classical dance. And I bet he could dance in heels, too.

  43. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Oh, so you means its a sort of more low-brow version of ‘The National Enquirer’. I haven’t seen a senior executive type here for years that I would rate above 100 on the IQ scale. Rat cunning and greed, however…

  44. Carbonicus says:

    You’re wasting your time with the Church circa 1630 here.

    The earth is still the center of the universe, because they say so, because that’s what their religion teaches.

    Time fixes all this. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 400 years for them to admit it.

    Another 16 years with no statistically significant warming, when atmospheric CO2 is over 425 ppm should make it harder to hide behind the religion in the face of empirical evidence.

  45. Damian Mccoll says:

    One of the key points of this article was that Greenland would only melt “slowly”. There was no explanation of how the “slow melting” with consequent 6 meter sea level rise would somehow be beneficial to lets say, Florida, or New York, which would be virtually inundated over time. There was also no discussion of the West Antartic Ice Sheet.

    This was the most egregious piece of disinformation among a multitude published by the WSJ. Enough!

  46. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Puerile’ comes to mind, but it is seldom used with that other epithet fit for this purpose-wicked.

  47. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The UK ruling class is quite incestuous and in-bred and, hence, more than a little intellectually challenged. The spiritual and moral deficiencies are also innate, and reinforced by upbringing, schooling and socialisation.

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Slowly’ for the disinformers means ‘after I am dead’. Far be it from me to wish Ridley more years of disinforming than the Fates have already allocated, but I’m not so certain that Ridley’s bet in this case will come off, to the regret of us all.

  49. Jameel A Khan says:

    Why not? As long as there are cows to milk, free gravy trains, new locales to attend COPS… I wish I could join.

    But wait. My moral values hold me back and I can’t commit such frauds

  50. bear it all says:

    the good news? human caused climate change is inarguable. the bad news? the depths of human ignorance is unfathomable.

  51. ccaissie says:

    UMM. Who owns the Wall St. Journal anyways?