The controversy over a paper published last month in an obscure journal questioning the scientific consensus around man-made global warming is drawing attention to one of its authors, an outspoken skeptic of mainstream climate science who's come under fire before because of problems with his work.
A research scientist with the University of Alabama at Huntsville's Earth System Science Center (ESSC), Roy Spencer is a climate contrarian with solid academic credentials. And his website bio notes that he "has never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service. Not even Exxon-Mobil."
But Spencer doesn't disclose his leadership roles in climate skeptic groups financed by Exxon and other key players in what's been dubbed the "climate denial machine": the network of companies, think tanks and foundations that have sought to deny and downplay the scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused in large part by human activity.
First, though, some background on the controversial paper, which is under fire not for taking a minority position but for failing to adequately consider the scientific arguments of the majority.
In July, Spencer and his ESSC colleague William D. "Danny" Braswell had a paper [pdf] published in the geography journal Remote Sensing that looked at the effect of clouds on global warming. Spencer has long argued that Earth's climate is insensitive to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and that most warming can be attributed to natural variations in cloud cover. Unlike most comparable studies, Spencer's latest paper found that variations in clouds appeared to be more a cause of warming than an effect and concluded that clouds' role "remains an unsolved problem."
The paper soon made headlines, with Forbes reporting that "New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism" and Fox News asking, "Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?" That coverage was guided by press statements put out by the University of Alabama and Spencer himself that made dramatic claims about the study's findings.
But the paper immediately came under criticism from other climate scientists, who among other things pointed out that attempting to refute a large and growing body of scientific insights into global warming with one satellite data set is impossible. Writing for the climate science blog RealClimate, Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Climate Analysis Section pointed to the paper's flaws and concluded:
...[I]t is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should not have been published. ... The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper.
Soon after, the journal's editor-in-chief -- Vienna University of Technology professor Wolfgang Wagner -- resigned and apologized, saying the paper was not vetted properly:
From a purely formal point of view, there were no errors with the review process. But, as the case presents itself now, the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors. This selection by itself does not mean that the review process for this paper was wrong....
The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend also in the literature (cf. ), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers. In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal.
This wasn't the first time other scientists found serious problems with the work of Spencer and his ESSC colleagues, as Trenberth detailed in another article he wrote about the controversy with John Abraham and Peter Gleick at The Daily Climate:
Their errors date to the mid-1990s, when their satellite temperature record reportedly showed the lower atmosphere was cooling. As obvious and serious errors in that analysis were made public, Spencer and [current ESSC Director John] Christy were forced to revise their work several times and, not surprisingly, their findings agree better with those of other scientists around the world: the atmosphere is warming.
Over the years, Spencer and Christy developed a reputation for making serial mistakes that other scientists have been forced to uncover. Last Thursday, for instance, the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres published a study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Ben Santer. Their findings showed that Christy erred in claiming that recent atmospheric temperature trends are not replicated in models.
This trend continues: On Tuesday the journal Geophysical Research Letters will publish a peer-reviewed study by Texas A&M University atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler that undermines Spencer's arguments about the role of clouds in the Earth's energy budget.
Spencer is defending his paper on his blog. He blames the controversy surrounding it on those he calls the "gatekeepers" at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, founded in 1988 by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization, who he says "have once again put pressure on a journal for daring to publish anything that might hurt the IPCC's politically immovable position that climate change is almost entirely human-caused."
Trenberth served as a lead author for the 2001 and 2007 IPCC Scientific Assessment of Climate Change, which found that warming of the climate system is "unequivocal" and that most of the increase in global average temperatures since the mid-1900s "is very likely due" to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions -- a view that has been endorsed by leading scientific bodies including the National Academy of Sciences and the International Council for Science. Spencer also contributed to the IPCC's 2001 assessment.
Spencer's Big Oil connections
As a global-warming contrarian with strong climate-science credentials, Roy Spencer is a relative rarity. He earned his doctorate in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981 and went on to serve as a senior scientist for climate studies at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he and Christy received an award for their work monitoring global temperatures with satellites. Spencer became a research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville in 2001.
While his personal website notes that his research has been entirely supported by U.S. government agencies and not oil companies, he does have a leadership role in groups with financial ties to Big Oil. They include:
* George C. Marshall Institute. Spencer currently serves as a director at the George C. Marshall Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that receives substantial funding from oil and gas interests -- including Exxon, which has given the group at least $840,000 since 1998, according to Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets.org database. The Marshall Institute used to restrict its funding to private foundations and individual donors, but in the late 1990s, after it began working to cast doubt on global warming, the group made the decision to accept money from corporations and their foundations.
The Marshall Institute's former executive director, Matthew B. Crawford, wrote an essay for the New York Times back in 2009 that accused the group -- which he did not name -- of distorting facts in pursuit of its ideological agenda:
But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn't fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style -- that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.
* Cornwall Alliance. Spencer is a member of the board of advisors of the Cornwall Alliance, a conservative Christian public-policy group that promotes a free-market approach to environmental stewardship and whose "Resisting the Green Dragon" campaign portrays the climate-protection movement as a sort of false religion. The Cornwall Alliance has close ties to a conservative policy group called the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which has received over $580,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998, according to ExxonSecrets.org. Paul Driessen, who played a guiding role in forming the group now known as the Cornwall Alliance, also served as a consultant for ExxonMobil and CFACT, which has also received at least $60,500 from Chevron and $1.28 million from the the foundation of the Scaife family, whose wealth comes in part from Gulf Oil, as Think Progress reports.
* Encounter Books. Spencer is the author of three books critical of mainstream climate science: Climate Confusion, published in 2008, and The Great Global Warming Blunder and The Bad Science and Bad Policy of Obama's Global Warming Agenda, both released last year. All of those works were published by Encounter Books, which is a project of the conservative nonprofit Encounter for Culture and Education. That group's major funders include the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, which in turn is controlled by one of the owners of Kansas-based Koch Industries, among the world's richest privately held companies with extensive holdings in oil refineries and pipelines. The Kochs have played a critical role in funding climate-denial efforts, contributing $24.9 million to organizations that have worked to cast doubt on mainstream climate science.
* Tech Central Station. Spencer served as a columnist and a member of the science roundtable for Tech Central Station. Until 2006, TCS was run by DCI Group, a lobbying and public-relations firm that has represented ExxonMobil.
So while Spencer may have "never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service," he has certainly served the oil industry's interest in amplifying doubt about climate change and downplaying the scientific consensus that it's real and caused in large part by human activity.