Given the dogmatic fervor of global warming proponents, and their intolerance of skeptics who dare to question the latest commandment (see: cap-and-trade) in the green scripture, it is perhaps no coincidence that the environmentalist movement sometimes seems to have more in common with theology than with science. If that is true, then the logical word to describe those scientists who have challenged environmental hysteria and extremism is “heretics.” In a series of profiles, Front Page’s Rich Trzupek will spotlight prominent scientists whose “heretical” research, publications, and opinions have helped add a much-needed dose of balance and fact to environmental debates that for too long have been driven by fear mongering and alarmism. In a field that demands political conformity, they defiantly remain the heretics. Previous profiles in the series include Steve Milloy and Dr. Craig Idso. – The Editors
Former NASA climatologist Roy Spencer, currently a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), was drawn into the global warming debate by accident, while he was working at the space agency over two decades ago. “John Christy and I started looking at data that is used for weather forecasting and we wondered if it could be used for climate forecasting,” Spencer said.
As Spencer and Christy (also a professor at UAH) studied that data, they became convinced that, contrary to climate-alarmists’ claims, the climate is not all that sensitive to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some scientists, like NASA physicist James Hansen maintain that increasing concentrations of relatively weak man-made greenhouse gases will result in a disastrous increase in the atmosphere’s most powerful greenhouse gas: water vapor. Spencer and Christy, on the other hand, don’t completely discount the effect of carbon dioxide. They just don’t find it very significant. The climate, they say, has ways of correcting itself.
A great deal of the evidence that man-made global warming has indeed occurred is based on surface temperature records. Some scientists, most notably Anthony Watts, have questioned the validity of those records. Spencer focused on atmospheric temperature, as recorded by NASA satellites, which revealed a much different picture. “Over thirty years we didn’t get quite a much of a warming trend as the surface data gets,” he said. “It’s about thirty percent less.”
The satellite data compares closely to weather balloon data, Spencer said, but does not correlate with either surface station data or with the temperature increases predicted by International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models. The reason for the disconnect, he believes, is that the models don’t properly account for a ubiquitous feature of the earth’s atmosphere: clouds.
“The scientists who assume that global warming is man-made assume that cloud cover doesn’t change,” Spencer said. “All of their models assume that cloud cover remains the same.” The net effect of increased cloud cover is to cool the planet. When this effect is taken into account, Spencer asserts, the net effect of introducing more weak greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is minimal, compared to the natural phenomena that influence the climate.
Testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee in February 2009, Dr. John Christy commented on Spencer’s work:
“My colleague Dr. Roy Spencer has shown that in the real world – the world of observations from satellites – that during warming episodes, clouds respond by stepping up their cooling effect (the basic effect of clouds is the cool the climate already). When climate model output calculated in the same way is compared with observations, not one model mimics this cooling effect – in fact the models’ clouds lead to further warming, not cooling as it is in nature. We hypothesize that this poor representation of clouds in models is the reason we find the warming rates of model projections to have significantly overshot what has actually happened.”
It is difficult for climate change alarmists to criticize Spencer’s credentials. He is a degreed climatologist; he worked for NASA for fourteen years; he is still involved with NASA projects; and he has received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (1991) and the American Meteorological Society Special Award (1996). His colleague, Dr. Christy, was a lead author of the IPCC’s 2001 report on climate change, though Christy has long since distanced himself from the IPCC’s increasingly-alarmist views.
Accordingly, many critics resort to ad hominem attacks when it comes to Spencer’s work. For some, he has to be a paid minion of Exxon-Mobil. To others, he’s a Christian extremist. The supposed Exxon-Mobil connection most often attributed to Spencer relates to his involvement with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that, according to its web-site, has never received more than five percent of its funding from Exxon-Mobil. Since 2006, it has received no contributions at all from Exxon-Mobil.
Spencer’s critics frequently point to the fact that he was a co-author of a paper published by The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, “A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming,” in July 2006. Far from being a theological treatise, “A Call to Truth” lays out a scientific case for climate change skepticism. Citing scientific evidence, it urges Christians not to join in global-warming alarmism or to press for unneeded reductions in carbon emissions that would have disastrous effects for the world’s poor. It was written as a response to the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s (ECI) “Call to Action,” a document that advises Evangelicals to support massive reductions in greenhouse gases.
The tone of “Call to Truth” reflects the kind of reasoned approach that Spencer adopts when attempting to explain climate science to an audience:
It is important to speak directly to the issue of motive. We do not question the motive of those who produced or signed the ECI’s “Call to Action.” We assume that they acted out of genuine concern for the world’s poor and others and considered their action justified by scientific, economic, theological, and ethical facts. We trust that they will render us the same respect. It is not sufficient, however, to have good intentions. They must be linked to sound understanding of relevant principles, theories, and facts. As we shall argue below, that linkage is lacking for the ECI’s “Call to Action.”
Having worked with James Hansen, Spencer explained a core reason why the NASA physicist is so adamant that mankind is causing catastrophic climate change. “I think he has a pretty simplistic view of how the climate system works,” Spencer said. “He thinks he knows how the ice ages were started. He believes that tiny shifts in the earth’s orbit cause the ice ages and that leads him to conclude that the earth’s climate is very sensitive. Personally, I don’t think we know what caused the ice ages.”
Spencer, like many other skeptical scientists, doesn’t believe that earth’s climate is nearly as sensitive as Hansen and others in his camp assume. And, for Spencer, if the climate were in fact as “infinitely sensitive” as Hansen suggests, then nothing could be done except to adapt to the shifts in temperature to come. It’s the kind of cool-headed assessment that has turned the mild-mannered scientist into such a lightning rod for the more zealous champions of climate change.