"Has a central tenant [sic] of global warming just collapsed?" That's the first sentence of a July 29 Fox News article about a recent study which shows nothing of the sort, demonstrating just how broken climate change coverage is at news outlets like Fox, where scientific illiteracy meets political slant.
Last week, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), one of the few climate scientists who think we don't need to worry much about global warming, published a paper purportedly challenging mainstream climate models that is both limited in scope and, by many accounts, flawed. After a Forbes column by James Taylor of the libertarian Heartland Institute misinterpreted the study and declared that it blows a "gaping hole in global warming alarmism," an avalanche of conservative media outlets, including Fox, followed suit:
In fact, not one of these headlines is supported by the study, which itself suffers from important shortcomings, according to climate experts.
Even Spencer, who has said that part of his job is "to minimize the role of government," says media outlets "are overstating what the research found," according to the Associated Press. On his website, Spencer wrote that the Forbes column makes a key error: "Taylor's article makes it sound much more certain that we have shown that the models produce too much warming in the long term." It is important to note, however, that the UAH press release also overstates the findings and appears designed to attract this type of media attention.
Several climate scientists noticed the inability on the part of conservative media outlets to consider the study with an ounce of caution or nuance:
- NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt said: "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."
- Kerry Emanuel of MIT said those seizing on the study are misstating Spencer's findings and that their reports have "no basis in reality."
- Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology, a frequent critic of the IPCC, wrote of the Forbes piece: "it may be appropriate to use the word 'alarmist' in some circumstances, but not as an adjective to describe a computer model. This does not help the Heartland Institute to be taken seriously in the climate debate, even by skeptics."
- Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said via email that "a well-orchestrated effort to hype" the paper accounts for the media attention it has received, rather than its scientific merit or importance.
Indeed, the fact that this paper has attracted this level and type of media coverage, while other more robust research goes unmentioned, is exasperating for many climate scientists.
MEDIA COVERAGE SPINS OUT OF CONTROL
Conservative media outlets hyping the study repeated the false claim from the UAH press release and Taylor's Forbes column that the study refutes climate models' predictions of future warming. Fox News anchor Bret Baier even adopted Taylor's language, asserting that "satellite data from the last decade appears to be blowing a hole in global warming":
Working from the UAH press release and Taylor's Forbes piece, a number of conservative media outlets added their own faulty conclusions:
- The FoxNews.com article claimed the study shows that "the planet isn't heating up."
- NewsMax declared that the paper was a "NASA study" that "may prove global-warming alarmists have been wrong all along."
- The website Hot Air claimed the study "shows that the effects of carbon-based warming have been significantly exaggerated."
- The Christian Post claimed Spencer "thinks that data from a NASA satellite can disprove the theory of global warming."
- The 700 Club claimed that the study means "much less greenhouse gases are trapped in the upper atmosphere and that global warming is not a problem"
- Lou Dobbs announced that Spencer will appear on his Fox Business show this week to discuss the study and claimed that the findings "throw the entire global warming theory into question":
These claims are not supported by Spencer's paper. They represent an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of data.
The reason scientists are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions is not just because they cause the planet to warm by allowing less energy to escape to space, but also because that increase in temperatures changes the climate system in ways that amplify the warming.
Water vapor is an example of one of these "positive feedbacks" as it is a powerful greenhouse gas that increases in the atmosphere when the temperature increases. Melting sea ice also amplifies warming because sunshine that would otherwise be reflected by the ice is now being absorbed. Scientists try to account for all of these positive feedbacks as well as any negative feedbacks to determine "climate sensitivity," or how much warming we can expect from a doubling of greenhouse gases compared to pre-industrial levels.
Spencer thinks climate models are overestimating the magnitude of the positive feedbacks, but concedes that his paper doesn't prove that to be the case. Rather, he says his study had the limited aim of responding to a previous publication by Andy Dessler of Texas A&M University which estimated cloud feedback in a way Spencer believes is faulty. "Our paper would never have been written if not for the need to answer Dessler's paper," he said.
Spencer's study compared temperature measurements from 2000-2010 to data from a NASA satellite on how much energy is leaving the atmosphere. He then compared that information to six climate models ("the three most sensitive models and the three least sensitive models") over the 1900-1999 period and found what he calls "huge discrepancies" between the models and the observations regarding the relationship between temperature changes and the energy radiated. But he added: "While this discrepancy is nominally in the direction of lower climate sensitivity of the real climate system," a variety of other factors affecting the statistics "preclude any quantitative estimate of how large the feedback difference is."
In response to Spencer's paper NCAR scientists Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo ran their own comparison of the models and the observations and concluded that the results depend largely on which models are chosen. In other words, if you select the models in a different way from the 6 used by Spencer, the "huge discrepancies" disappear. Trenberth and Fasullo concluded that "there are some good models and some not so good," but "the net result is that the models agree within reasonable bounds with the observations." They also stated that Spencer's 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."
In the paper, Spencer goes on to use what's called a simple climate model to interpret his results and concludes that you can't estimate feedback from satellite data because "natural cloud variations" driving temperature changes can be mistaken for cloud feedback. This conclusion does not speak to the validity of the climate models but rather to the validity of attempts to test the models' estimates of climate sensitivity with satellite observations. For their part, Trenberth and others take issue with Spencer's model and say temperature changes drive cloud behavior, not the other way around.
Judith Curry wrote that the analysis by Trenberth and Fasullo "points out some significant flaws" in Spencer's paper. Curry said that while she agrees with part of the paper, Spencer and his co-author were "concluding too much from their analysis about feedback, sensitivity, and the performance of models," adding:
It needs to be understood that given the short period of their data set, Spencer and Braswell are looking only at fast feedback processes associated with clouds (not the longer feedbacks associated with oceans and ice sheets). How to translate all of this into a conclusion that climate models are producing incorrect sensitivity to greenhouse warming is not at all clear.
Kerry Emanuel similarly stated that "there is nothing in the paper that casts in doubt what the IPCC models are telling us, only that a particular technique for diagnosing climate feedback from short-term observations (not models) is suspect." He also said the paper "has no implications whatsoever" for the question of whether global warming is an urgent problem.
Conservative media continue to distort the study:
- After claiming that Spencer's research was "debunking climate change," Lou Dobbs hosted Spencer on the August 3 edition of his Fox Business show. During the interview, both Dobbs and Spencer overstated the findings of the study.
- On the August 4 edition of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh aired audio clips of Spencer's appearance on Dobbs' show and claimed that the study showed that "the whole thing has been" a "hoax."
- On the August 6 edition of Fox & Friends Saturday, guest host Juliet Huddy claimed that "a new NASA study seems to debunk whether [global warming] is actually manmade."
- On the August 6 edition of Fox Business Tom Sullivan Show, Marc Morano claimed Spencer's study shows "that the global warming alarm spread by Al Gore and the United Nations is in utter scientific collapse."
UPDATE (9/2): The editor of the journal that published Spencer's paper has resigned after concluding that it should "not have been published."