Skeptical Science Wins Award for Demolishing Denier Myths

John Cook, founder of the blog Skeptical Science, has won the New South Wales Government Eureka Prize for Advancement of Climate Change Knowledge.  It is “awarded to an Australian individual, group or organisation for communication that motivates action to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

I know what you’re thinking — there’s an English-speaking government that awards prizes for advancing climate change knowledge — let’s move there!  But there’s no need to move — the American government’s lack of climate knowledge means we’ll have Australia’s climate soon enough!

Cook richly deserves the $10,000 prize for Skeptical Science, the must-read myth-smashing blog he has put together on a shoestring budget.  Hmm.  My daughter’s shoes don’t have strings anymore.  Maybe it should be a “velcro-strap budget.”  Cook certainly has velcro’s sticktoitiveness —  especially in the face of the unremitting assault from the anti-science extremists of the bunkosphere who go after anyone who is a good communicator on climate science.

What follows is a recent example of the kind of post that makes Skeptical Science so invaluable:

Dessler Demolishes Three Crucial ‘Skeptic’ Myths

by dana1981 & Rob Painting

Andrew Dessler’s new paper, which we first examined in a post yesterday, has some very far-reaching implications in terms of refuting climate “skeptic” myths.  In fact, its results are relevant to three seperate myths in the Skeptical Science database. As a result, we have incorporated the findings of Dessler (2011) into the three myth rebuttals as follows.

It’s not internal variability

Roy Spencer is the driving force behind the “internal variability” hypothesis, which posits that some unknown and undefined mechanism is causing cloud cover to change, which, by changing the overall reflectivity of the Earth, is the driving force behind the current global warming.

In attempting to substantiate this internal variability hypothesis, Spencer & Braswell (2011) assumed that the change in top of the atmosphere (TOA) energy flux due to cloud cover changes from 2000 to 2010 was twice as large as the heating of the climate system through ocean circulation.  Dessler (2011) used observational data (such as surface temperature measurements and ARGO ocean temperature) to estimate and corroborate these values, and found that the heating of the climate system through ocean heat transport was 20 times larger than TOA energy flux changes due to cloud cover over the period in question.

This empirical finding contradicts Spencer’s hypothesis that cloud cover changes are driving global warming.  However, it is consistent with our current understanding of the climate: ocean heat is exchanged with the atmosphere, which causes surface warming, which alters atmospheric circulation, which alters cloud cover, which impacts surface temperature.  While Spencer hypothesizes that the changes in cloud cover are the main driver behind global warming, Dessler concludes that they’re only responsible for a small percentage of the changes in surface temperature from 2000 to 2010.  Spencer’s internal variability hypothesis is contradicted by the observational data.

Spencer and Braswell (2011) is Contradicted by Observational Data

A highly-touted (and exaggerated in the media) claim in Spencer & Braswell (2011) was that their results suggested that climate sensitivity is low because climate scientists are misinterpreting climate feedbacks as climate forcings. In their paper, Spencer and Braswell analyzed 14 models, but they only plotted the 3 with highest and 3 with lowest equilibrium climate sensitivities.  In the process, Spencer and Braswell excluded the three of the climate model runs which best matched the observational data, and also cherrypicked the data set furthest from the model runs (Figure 1).

dessler 2011

Figure 1: Dessler (2011) reconstruction of Spencer & Braswell’s Figure 3, showing relationship between top-of-atmosphere (TOA) net flux and surface temperature, as a function of lag between them.  The blue line is the observational data chosen by Spencer and Braswell.  The red lines show other available observational data.  The black lines show climate model results.  The black lines with crosses show the climate model runs chosen by Spencer and Braswell in their paper.

Dessler found that these three model runs excluded by Spencer which best matched the data are also among those which best simulate El Niño and La Niña, which is not surprising, given that much of the temperature change over 2000-2010 was due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  Thus Dessler concludes that

“since most of the climate variations over this period were due to ENSO, this suggests that the ability to reproduce ENSO is what’s being tested here, not anything directly related to equilibrium climate sensitivity.”

Spencer’s claim of low sensitivity and negative feedbacks is based on this test, which is actually a test of models’ ability to reproduce ENSO, and based on his internal variability hypothesis, which as noted above, Dessler’s paper has also put to rest.  Thus Spencer’s claim of low sensitivity and negative feedbacks is not supported by the empirical observational data.

Lindzen and Choi (2011) is Fundamentally Flawed

Lindzen and Choi (2009), slightly revised as Lindzen & Choi (2011), used measurements of sea surface temperature in the tropics and satellite measurements of outgoing radiation from 2000 to 2010 in an attempt to determine climate sensitivity, ultimately concluding that sensitivity is less than 1°C for doubled atmospheric CO2.

Lindzen and Choi plot a time regression of change in TOA energy flux due to cloud cover changes vs. sea surface temperature changes.  They find larger negative slopes in their regression when cloud changes happen before surface temperature changes, vs. positive slopes when temperature changes happen first, and thus conclude that clouds must be causing global warming.

However, Dessler also plots climate model results and finds that they also simulate negative time regression slopes when cloud changes lead temperature changes.  Crucially, sea surface temperatures are specified by the models.  This means that in these models, clouds respond to sea surface temperature changes, but not vice-versa.  This suggests that the lagged result first found by Lindzen and Choi is actually a result of variations in atmospheric circulation driven by changes in sea surface temperature, and contrary to Lindzen’s claims, is not evidence that clouds are causing climate change, because in the models which successfully replicate the cloud-temperature lag, temperatures cannot be driven by cloud changes.

Major Myth Mashing

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Dessler’s findings, because these are three of the most crucial arguments for climate “skeptics.”  In order for the man-made global warming theory to be incorrect, climate sensitivity must be low (see Climate Sensitivity: The Skeptic Endgame).  Since all previous studies using many different lines of evidence point to the same answer, that climate sensitivity is not low, climate “skeptics” had to rely on Spencer & Braswell and Lindzen & Choi as the only game in town arguing otherwise.  In one fell swoop, Dessler has demonstrated that the only two modern papers arguing for low climate sensitivity are both fundamentally flawed, and their assumptions are contradicted by observational data.  In short, there’s absolutely no reason to believe the IPCC’s equilibrium climate sensitivity range of 2 to 4.5°C for doubled CO2 is incorrect.

Additionally, climate “skeptics” have yet to put forth a plausible, coherent, internally consistent alternative to challenge the robust man-made global warming theory.  Despite its fundamental problems, Spencer’s internal variability hypothesis was probably the best alternative presented to this point, and Dessler drove another nail into its coffin by demonstrating what a small effect clouds have had on global temperature changes over the past decade.

— by dana1981 & Rob Painting for Skeptical Science

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13 Responses to Skeptical Science Wins Award for Demolishing Denier Myths

  1. Sou says:

    Congrats to John Cook. He has done and is doing an amazing job and is gathering a brilliant and hard working team to help unspin the spin.

    No sooner am I faced with a new denier diatribe than I find a thoughtful and thorough new post on skepticalscience to help debunk it.

    Thanks, John.

    And thanks Joe for the article – you are doing a brilliant job also, needless to say.

  2. RH factor says:

    Whew! Just in time after catching segments of the “freak show” on MSNBC TV last night. It’s nice to see not all of the world has gone completely over the falls of non-idiocy.

    Thank You Australia, and most especially to John Cook for all you have done, and even a shout out to John Huntsman for trying to steer 1/2 of the dumbest part of the my country into some logic train…

  3. dana1981 says:

    Thanks for the re-post Joe, and congrats to John on the award. Very well-deserved indeed.

  4. MapleLeaf says:

    Congratulations to John Cook and his team of writers.

    May this be the first of many accolades for John Cook.

  5. Michael Tucker says:

    I had no idea such awards existed anywhere, English speaking or not, and I am very pleased that John Cook received this award. It is more than well deserved. John’s site has been and continues to be an outstanding source for understanding the actual science and understanding the attacks on that science. Thank you John for all you do!

  6. John Mason says:

    Was jousting with someone elsewhere earlier who opined that SkS was “biased”.

    Sure, I told him. Biased in favour of reality!!

    Kudos to John & team for this.

    Cheers – John

  7. perceptiventity says:

    Tnank you, Sceptical Science, and congratulations.

  8. David B. Benson says:


    Congradulations to John Cook.

  9. Congratulations John! A richly deserved award.

  10. John has always been one of my heroes. I cannot think of a more deserving individual and his phenomenal team of writers. I cannot wait to finally meet him at AGU this December.

  11. otter17 says:

    All of you folks at Skeptical Science are doing such a wonderful job. Congratulations, John.

  12. Bernard J. says:

    As so many others have noted, Skeptical Science’s gong is a richly deserved reward. It’s a credit to Australia that we have prominence of this type, in the area of communication of critically important science.

    Although, having said that, it’s just as well that we have John and his team, because we desperately need to compensate for the fact that we also have an overweaningly ambitious science denialist for an opposition leader – one who, by his own words, would consider selling his arse for the Prime Ministership, even though he is a conservative God-fearing Catholic of the old-fashioned sort.

    Abbott, through his cynical machinations along his road to attain the Lodge, has put back by years Australia’s potential to lead the world in carbon emissions reduction. If the Mad Monk manages to scupper the impending carbon tax he could single-handedly put world inclination to act back by many more years, and really push matters beyond the “too late” mark.

    With such political craziness infecting our federal system, we need all the Skeptical Science-style help to educate the public, that we can find.

  13. This is so very cool!

    John is one of the great, persistent and against-all-odds fighters.

    We need hundreds more just like him!!!