Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World's Top Scientists / Roy W. Spencer -- N.Y.: Encounter Books, 2010

Lately, I've read several books by authors who deny either the reality, the causes, or the dangers of climate change. I have sought out the most well-respected denial authors to be sure that I have seen the best arguments. They run the gamut from patently false to cleverly specious. Several climate deniers clearly seem intent on disregarding science and promoting confusion in an effort to advance their economic or political goals. It is not clear to me that these are Roy Spencer's motives. He seems quite sincere, if perhaps a little over confident; however, there is circumstantial evidence that his scientific judgement is clouded by other motives. In any case, his scientific research is highly suspect.

In The Great Global Warming Blunder Spencer writes, "I find it difficult to believe that I am the first researcher to figure out what I describe in this book. Either I'm smarter than the rest of the world's climate scientists -- which seems unlikely -- or there are other scientists who also have evidence that global warming could be mostly natural, but have been hiding it." What escapes Spencer is that he simply may be wrong and that the rest of the world's climate scientists understand that he is wrong.

To his credit, Spencer addresses the most important questions for the science of climate change: what temperature feedbacks exist and are they on balance positive or negative? Spencer's answers depend on his assessment of the effects of clouds and cloud formation. It is in "Chapter 5: How Mother Nature Fooled the World's Top Scientists" that he presents his case. While his book is written for a lay audience, Chapter 5 necessarily becomes a bit more technical. It is not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, of the quality of professional peer reviewed science. As such, Spencer fails to make a clear case for his lay audience and provides insufficient detail to withstand scientific scrutiny.

The chapter is of a piece with a number of articles by Spencer which the scientific community has panned. Most recently, Spencer published an article in the journal Remote Sensing which was trumpeted by him, his University, the right-wing blogosphere, and the traditional media. Forbes Magazine wrote that Spencer's data "blow a gaping hole in global warming alarmism." In contrast, Spencer's article was soundly refuted by climate scientists. The certainty of the refutation prompted Wolfgang Wagner, the editor-in-chief of Remote Sensing, to revisit his decision to publish it. Upon review, he determined that it was not of publishable quality and, taking responsibility for his lapse in editorial rigor, Wagner resigned his editorship.

In his resignation announcement, Wagner wrote that there were "fundamental methodological errors" and "false claims" in Spencer's paper, and that "comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper." He concluded, "I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal." While it is not unusual that scientific papers meet criticism after publication, the resignation of an editor-in-chief is quite unusual. This underscores the weakness of Spencer's research.

There is, however, much in The Great Global Warming Blunder that has little to do with climate science and a lot to do with economics and politics. The views that Spencer presents are familiar: (1) free market economic policies will produce sufficient wealth to deal with whatever future problems climate change might pose and (2) regulation of greenhouse gas emissions will cripple economies and prevent us from alleviating more pressing humanitarian problems. These arguments fail for two reasons.

First, they are predicated on an economic theory that is controversial in the best of times. Since the onset of the 2008 depression, the prospect of economic growth under any economic regime appears doubtful, particularly as the era of cheap energy is over. Employing the world's current wealth to mitigate the effects of global warming may be our first and last chance to escape disaster.

Second, the arguments against addressing global warming now require that the effects of climate change will not be as damaging as the scientists believes. If the widely-reviewed scientific research is correct, then no amount of accumulated wealth will be able to reverse the disastrous feedbacks that are expected from a 3 degree centigrade increase in the world's surface temperature. (For an excellent, well-researched description of the consequences we can expect from rising temperatures, degree by degree, see Mark Lynas's Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.)

Spencer asks us to risk everything on his faith in free markets and his widely criticized research. The real "great global warming blunder" would be if we were to listen to Spencer and delay action to mitigate global warming.


  1. Alan, thanks for this post. It's not many people who seriously read and seriously critique books by their intellectual opposition. Here's hoping some of Spencer's fans stumble on this review by mistake and gain a different perspective.

  2. Thanks, Pamela. Listening to the arguments of people we agree with will only provide incremental learning at best. Listening to the arguments of people we disagree with can lead us out of darkness and completely transform our understanding of the world.

    I am, however, about ready to give up (for now at least) on reading the work of the deniers. I was always reluctant to call them "deniers," as opposed to "skeptics," as it seemed disrespectful, but after reading their work, I think they really are in denial about what's happen to the planet. Of course, we all are to some extent.