Climate Scientists Debunk Latest Bunk by Denier Roy Spencer

Long wrong climate science disinformer Roy Spencer has published another deeply flawed article. That ain’t news. What is news is that the deniers have a couple of new tricks up their sleeves.

First, the disinformers have figured out they should focus on journals that don’t seem to have a very deep understanding of climate science. In May, it was a paper in a statistics journal, which was ultimately withdrawn because of “evidence of plagiarism and complaints about the peer-review process.” This time it’s an article in the open-access Remote Sensing co-authored by Spencer.

It bears repeating that Spencer committed one of the most egregious blunders in the history of remote sensing — committing multiple errors in analyzing the satellite data and creating one of the enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did.

It also bears repeating that Spencer wrote this month, “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

That doesn’t mean Spencer’s new paper on remote sensing is wrong, but it means his work on the subject does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, as most climate journals would know. And it means we should pay attention to serious climate scientists when they explain how Spencer is, once again, pushing denier bunk.

As the famous critique goes, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good”:

  1. “He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct,” Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.
  2. “It is not newsworthy,” Daniel Murphy, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cloud researcher, wrote in an email to LiveScience.
  3. NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth in an email: “I have read the paper. I can not believe it got published. Maybe it got through because it is not in a journal that deals with atmospheric science much?”
  4. Trenberth and John Fasullo at RealClimate: “The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper.”

As for the second denier trick, well, they got Yahoo News to host a “news story” on the article — written by James Taylor. Not the brilliant singer song-writer who wrote, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.” No, the uber-denier James Taylor whose Heartland Institute wants to bring to America’s heartland too much fire and too much rain — and heat waves that you thought would never end. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

And so Yahoo enables this headline of denier bunk — “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism” — to spread through the web like so much kudzu. LiveScience noted in its debunking post:

The paper was mostly unnoticed in the public sphere until the Forbes blogger declared it “extremely important.”

In fact, as Dessler emailed me, Spencer’s “paper is not really intended for other scientists, since they do not take him seriously anymore (he’s been wrong too many times).” Here are his full comments:

To understand this paper, you have to understand the difference, between a “forcing” and a “feedback.” Forcings are imposed changes to, the climate, while feedbacks are processes that respond to changes in, the climate and amplify or ameliorate them. So the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by humans is a forcing — it is simply an imposition on the climate. Water vapor, on the other hand, is a feedback because the amount of water vapor is set by the surface temperature of the planet. As the planet warms, you get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and since water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, this leads to additional warming.

The canonical way to think about clouds is that they are a feedback — as the climate warms, clouds will change in response and either amplify, (positive cloud feedback) or ameliorate (negative cloud feedback) the initial change.

What this new paper is arguing is that clouds are forcing the climate, rather than the more traditional way of thinking of them as a feedback. This is not, in fact, a new argument. Spencer’s 2010 JGR, paper as well as the new Lindzen and Choi 2011 paper both make this argument.

Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.

I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles — which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.

Finally, the best way to put Roy’s paper into context it is to recognize how Roy views his job: “I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.” (he wrote that on his blog).

Thus, his paper is not really intended for other scientists, since they do not take him seriously anymore (he’s been wrong too many times). Rather, he’s writing his papers for Fox News, the editorial board of the Wall St. Journal, Congressional staffers, and the blogs. These are his audience and the people for whom this research is actually useful — in stopping policies to reduce GHG emissions — which is what Roy wants.

NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt said of the paper’s findings:

“If you want to do a story then write one pointing to the ridiculousness of people jumping onto every random press release as if well-established science gets dismissed on a dime,” Schmidt said. “Climate sensitivity is not constrained by the last two decades of imperfect satellite data, but rather the paleoclimate record.”

Spencer agreed that his work could not disprove the existence of manmade global warming. But he dismissed research on the ancient climate, calling it a “gray science.”

That would be funny if it weren’t tragic. So the vast paleoclimate literature is “gray science.” What disclaimer would one stick in front of Spencer’s “science” in the area of remote sensing? How about “anti-”? As RealClimate explained:

We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming , and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.

So after that history, we’re supposed to savor all Roy’s new cookery?

That’s an awful lot to swallow.

Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide. But it remains hilarious that the deniers and delayers still quote Spencer lovingly, but to this day dismiss real science no matter how much it has been vindicated and verified by subsequent independent research.

UPDATE: Trenberth and John Fasullo have a post at RealClimate debunking the piece, which I reprint below:

The hype surrounding a new paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell is impressive (see for instance Fox News); unfortunately the paper itself is not. News releases and blogs on climate denier web sites have publicized the claim from the paper’s news release that “Climate models get energy balance wrong, make too hot forecasts of global warming”. The paper has been published in a journal called Remote sensing which is a fine journal for geographers, but it does not deal with atmospheric and climate science, and it is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should not have been published.

The paper’s title “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” is provocative and should have raised red flags with the editors. The basic material in the paper has very basic shortcomings because no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. Moreover the description of methods of what was done is not sufficient to be able to replicate results. As a first step, some quick checks have been made to see whether results can be replicated and we find some points of contention.

The basic observational result seems to be similar to what we can produce but use of slightly different datasets, such as the EBAF CERES dataset, changes the results to be somewhat less in magnitude. And some parts of the results do appear to be significant. So are they replicated in climate models? Spencer and Braswell say no, but this is where attempts to replicate their results require clarification. In contrast, some model results do appear to fall well within the range of uncertainties of the observations. How can that be? For one, the observations cover a 10 year period. The models cover a hundred year period for the 20th century. The latter were detrended by Spencer but for the 20th century that should not be necessary. One could and perhaps should treat the 100 years as 10 sets of 10 years and see whether the observations match any of the ten year periods, but instead what appears to have been done is to use only the one hundred year set by itself.

We have done exactly this and the result is in the Figure. What this figure shows is the results for the observations, as in Spencer and Braswell, but with the EBAF dataset in black. Then we show results from 2 different models, one which does not replicate ENSO well (top) and one which does (second panel). Here we give the average result (red curve) for all 10 decades, plus the range of results that reflects the variations from one decade to the next. The MPI-Echam5 model replicates the observations very well. When all model results from CMIP3 are included, the bottom panel results, showing the red curve not too dis-similar from Spencer and Braswell, but with a huge range, due both to the spread among models, and also the spread due to decadal variability.

Consequently, our results suggest that there are good models and some not so good, but rather than stratifying them by climate sensitivity, one should, in this case, stratify them by ability to simulate ENSO. In the Figure, the model that replicates the observations better has high sensitivity while the other has low sensitivity. The net result is that the models agree within reasonable bounds with the observations.

To help interpret the results, Spencer uses a simple model. But the simple model used by Spencer is too simple (Einstein says that things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler): well this has gone way beyond being too simple (see for instance this post by Barry Bickmore). The model has no realistic ocean, no El Niño, and no hydrological cycle, and it was tuned to give the result it gave. Most of what goes on in the real world of significance that causes the relationship in the paper is ENSO. We have already rebutted Lindzen’s work on exactly this point. The clouds respond to ENSO, not the other way round [see: Trenberth, K. E., J. T. Fasullo, C. O’Dell, and T. Wong, 2010: Relationships between tropical sea surface temperatures and top-of-atmosphere radiation. Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L03702, doi:10.1029/2009GL042314.] During ENSO there is a major uptake of heat by the ocean during the La Niña phase and the heat is moved around and stored in the ocean in the tropical western Pacific, setting the stage for the next El Niño, as which point it is redistributed across the tropical Pacific. The ocean cools as the atmosphere responds with characteristic El Niño weather patterns forced from the region that influence weather patterns world wide. Ocean dynamics play a major role in moving heat around, and atmosphere-ocean interaction is a key to the ENSO cycle. None of those processes are included in the Spencer model.

Even so, the Spencer interpretation has no merit. The interannual global temperature variations were not radiatively forced, as claimed for the 2000s, and therefore cannot be used to say anything about climate sensitivity. Clouds are not a forcing of the climate system (except for the small portion related to human related aerosol effects, which have a small effect on clouds). Clouds mainly occur because of weather systems (e.g., warm air rises and produces convection, and so on); they do not cause the weather systems. Clouds may provide feedbacks on the weather systems. Spencer has made this error of confounding forcing and feedback before and it leads to a misinterpretation of his results.

The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper. It turns out that Spencer and Braswell have an almost perfect title for their paper: “the misdiagnosis of surface temperature feedbacks from variations in the Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” (leaving out the “On”).

Below are old comments from the previous Facebook commenting system:

Marty Weirick

I hope someone writes a peer reviewed paper debunking this drivel.

July 29 at 4:06pm


To paraphrase Mark Twain, Spencer’s lies travel halfway around the world while the true science is putting on its shoes 🙁

July 29 at 4:17pm


you got that right. sad and at this point dangerous …(Susan Anderson)

July 29 at 5:54pm


Precisely why we need to continue the climate rapid response effort, along with readers posting links or Google references on article threads to analyses like Joe’s. In the electronic age, we should be able to get truth’s boots on in time for it to be nipping at the heels of mis/disinformation.

Sunday at 6:44pm

Paul Coppock

Can Dessler really be that bad at using commas?

July 29 at 4:42pmRichard Brenne

Yes, he, can.

July 29 at 5:11pm

Joseph Romm

My bad — copied an email via outlook.

July 29 at 5:58pm

Richard Brenne

My bad making a superficial joke when I so agree with the substance of Dessler’s comment, an additional comma or two or not. Trenberth thinks highly of Dessler’s understanding and communication, and an endorsement from Kevin is one I’m going to listen to.

July 29 at 7:48pm

Peter S. Mizla

It comes into question who is paying this guy? Yes, it is at every ‘Liberty’ and American First’ and ‘Freedom’ site. I wonder how long it gets significant mileage in the media- let alone the ‘scientific community’, if any.

July 29 at 4:51pm


He’s been employed by the Heartland Institute as well — which is funded by….ExxonMobil.

July 29 at 10:45pm

Peter S. Mizla

I might have guessed.

July 30 at 10:37am

Richard Brenne

The next time karmic tornadoes go looking for Spencer please inform them, before anyone else gets hurt, that he’s on the Alabama Huntsville campus. And Spencer’s honesty about his ideology informing (motivating, determining?) his science is a little like Jeffrey Dahmer writing a recipe book — it really doesn’t make it okay.

July 29 at 5:24pmWesley Rolley

If the killing of a single homo sapien is homicide, and the attempted killing of an entire race or ethnic group is genocide, what word do we have for the murder of the human race?

July 29 at 5:55pm


Maybe you mean ecocide

noun/ˈekōˌsīd/ /ˈēkō-/

1. Destruction of the natural environment, esp. when willfully done

July 29 at 6:17pm

Wit’s End

It’s worse than the murder of the human race. Our addiction to fossil fuels, over-population, over-consumption, and pollution is killing many if not most other species, including not only animals but plants and trees, and there is a word for that — ecocide.

July 30 at 7:45am

Killian O’Brien

I have called it sui-genocide for years. Or is that geno-suicide? Anywho, Roy, et al., are sui-genocidal, imo. I sometimes think such people are convinced we need a collapse in population to achieve sustainability, are doing their best to ensure — and insure — it, and I think they think they and theirs will be among the Adams and Eves that reboot in a sustainable world… or perhaps one where they can continue the same destructive behavior for a couple hundred more years after die off.

I’m not sure this is so, but I take the idea more seriously all the time. Does anything else fit the denialist/Teapublican agenda and behavior other than pure stupidity and/or selfishness?

Sunday at 3:05am

Tom Peifer

Thanks Joe, I put your response right back to the magazine editor here in Costa Rica who sent me the piece from Yahoo.

July 29 at 6:49pm


Roy Spencer truly is the Michael Behe of climate science.

July 29 at 8:09pm


Damage already done..

Climate models make too hot forecasts of global warming​s/2011-07-climate-energy-w​rong-hot-global.html.

July 29 at 8:49pmJoan Savage

Spencer & Braswell base their paper largely on just one premise.To paraphrase, they claim there is “an inability to distinguish between radiative forcing and radiative feedback in satellite radiative budget observations,” and in their minds that would be sufficient to cause “atmospheric feedback diagnosis of the climate system [to remain] an unsolved problem.”That just doesn’t sound logical.Satellite data are available for both cloud cover and clear sky conditions throughout the seasons, so there are some options for studying feedback as compared to forcing. Other data such as radiation flux at ground level and in the ocean can be correlated.I haven’t dug into the literature to see what all has been done on the topic, but the hand-wringing position that it’s going to remain unsolved doesn’t show much gumption for looking at ways to study feedback patterns with available data.

July 29 at 8:56pmJoan Savage

The UPDATE from Trenberth and Fasullo is appreciated

July 29 at 9:31pm

Barry Saxifrage

It seems to me that the American public has made it clear they are NOT going to be persuaded by scientific papers either way. Sadly they seem to be waiting for personal experience of floods, tornadoes, droughts, extreme rain-hail-snow, heat domes, crop-failures and wildfires to get them to shift into action.

July 30 at 1:26amLeif Erik Knutsen

The American people are getting that as we speak and it appears to be of no avail.

July 30 at 11:11am

Joan Savage

Leif, maybe we need a little time and a common phrase. One insight from history is that people experienced the Industrial Revolution for decades before there was a name for it. Now, the younger generation’s terms “global weirding” or “climate weirding” might help coalesce the weather experiences into a single term. “Climate change” is just too sedate, too neutral to capture the whole view, and a recycled word like “apocalypse” comes with imagery baggage that isn’t a good fit, either.

July 30 at 2:21pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

I tend to like “ecocide”. But I am open.

July 30 at 3:55pm

Tim Curtin

Dessler says “To understand this [Spencer] paper, you have to understand the difference, between a “forcing” and a “feedback.” Forcings are imposed changes to, the climate, while feedbacks are processes that respond to changes in, the climate and amplify or ameliorate them. So the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by humans is a forcing — it is simply an imposition on the climate. Water vapor, on the other hand, is a feedback because the amount of water vapor is set by the surface temperature of the planet. As the planet warms, you get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and since water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, this leads to additional warming”.

Well, fancy that! John Tyndall (1861) would be very surprised to read it, as also the claim by Trenberth (12th July at Skeptical Science) that since primary (i.e. solar induced) evaporation gets “rained out” within 10 days, it is of no consequence as a forcing agent, since the average value of this primary water vapor for him is nil, while his & Dessler’s water vapor never gets rained out and thereby magically produces the runaway feedback effect.

July 30 at 3:27amKillian O’Brien

You don’t seem to understand what you read or wrote for you perfectly explained why water vapor isn’t a forcing but is a feedback, but think you did the opposite.

The atmosphere is pretty well mixed, but, of course, local evaporation can make things hot and sticky locally. But the air can hold only so much water, so it rains when some portion of the atmosphere has too much water. Air can hold more water at higher temperatures, so as the atmosphere heats up, more water, more rain when it does saturate. But, this water can’t rise above the saturation rate because it falls as rain at that point. Thus, water vapor rises and falls as the planet heats or cools, not the other way around.

Try to imagine water jumping into the atmosphere without cause. Or perhaps you think all the little H2O atoms hold hands and refuse to fall?

Sunday at 3:14am

Gerard Van der Leun

You know, if you go back after posting and cut and swap material out you really should make a point of saying so, Joe.

July 30 at 6:56amThomas Jamison

By his own words his work is political, not scientific. We can all disregard this foolishness. Anyone who takes it seriously has only to be reminded that Spencer admitted, bragged even, that his pursuit is political, not science. I means about as much as a science paper written by Newt Gingrich.

July 30 at 8:02amJames Lumpkin

Do tell us Romm why you are censoring your climate scientists?

Why did you leave this out of Trenbreths analysis?

“The external radiative forcing of the climate system is mostly well known and comes.from the changes in atmospheric composition (greenhouse gases) and the sun spot.cycle etc.”

July 30 at 3:29pmJohn Tucker

I’m glad some had the basic courage and integrity to speak out. Too much of this falls on the shoulders of people like Gavin Schmidt and blogs like this while academia cowers in the shadows. This isn’t the expressive humanities, its science, governed by facts and reason. Its not art or a where some aspect of aesthetic perspective would lend validity to political posturing.

Why is that so difficult for people in the scientific community to understand. As an artist I wouldn’t dream of countering scientific consensus on a political basis in public. No institution would support me in it either. However in my field there are valid pursuits with political underpinnings.

If Spencer wants to defend his political positions in a proper venue he should.

I see not only ignorance and naivety, but a disrespect and perhaps even a anti art undercurrent in the scientific community in that they cannot muster even a basic understanding of how and where their field fits into academia, even society and its relationship to other areas of study.

Where is the AMS and other professional organizations? What does the? University of Colorado say? How can they maintain accreditation while their lead professor disseminates political misinformation?

July 30 at 4:33pmJohn Tucker

Goodness, my sincere apologies; I was getting my amateur climate performance art theater venues confused. It should be the the University of Alabama troupe. Colorado has its own distinct performer.

July 30 at 4:57pm

Peter Joseph

Joe, please be sure to let us know when Forbes prints their retraction after reading your analysis.

July 30 at 8:54pmJoseph Romm


Sunday at 7:55am

Stephen Quantrill

Climate change has arrived stop burying your heads in the sand , if we don’t stop fossil fuels now it will only get worse.

Sunday at 7:29amKaren Winnett

will copy paste.Well said,incidentally.

Sunday at 7:35am

Anja Van Leeuwen

offtopic I’m sure:

i wishwishi couldREADthe commentsbut control plus only increases the article font, not the eyes are old and squinty…

so I suppose I’ll have to scuttle over to climateect and realclimate to read what probably already is encapsulated below, this way and that way, in a really tiny font.

Sunday at 8:18amRoger Colley

Another instance that makes the point “science is never done”.

Monday at 7:43pmEric Carlson

Thank Dr. Romm! A nice historical recap of how climate denier myths get propagated and echoed for years. Thanks, too, for including the fine rebuttal of the Spencer and Braswell paper by Trenberth and Fasullo. The journal, Remote Sensing, should publish a retraction or risk losing their bona fides as a serious science publication.. Nice to see these things being addressed as soon as they come off the press. Maybe by cutting these absurd arguments down to size as soon as they appear, the public will eventually “get it” and begin to elect leaders who will actually lead us to appropriate legislation where economic growth is not placed above all other considerations and where real costs to the environmental commons are factored into the economic models.

Yesterday at 12:50am