No Turning Point For The IPCC

Dr. Roy SpencerThis time I noticed a blog post called “A Turning Point for the IPCC…and Humanity?” written by Dr. Roy Spencer that I think needs addressing.

Although the article is quite hard to address as he barely mentions any sources for what he’s basing his claims and arguments on. And he does make a lot of claims about climatology and the IPCC.

To show I’m not taking anything out of context his entire blog post is quoted by me, with my responses to the point he’s making below the quote. I’ve kept my responses as short as possible, which means I’ll be referring you to a lot of other sites/pages for further information.

But before I begin I’d like to point out that any bolded or emphasized text in the quotes is by Dr Roy Spencer. I copied the text as is from his blog so that I don’t distort what he’s saying. That being said lets begin:

I usually don’t comment on recently published climate research papers, partly because they rarely add much, and partly because other blogs do a pretty good job of covering them anyway. The reason why I say “they rarely add much” is that there are a myriad of theories that can be justified with some data, but rarely is the evidence convincing enough to hang your hat on them.

This is one of the vaguest criticisms on climate research that I’ve encountered. I have my suspicions about what he might be referring to with this passage but without any context it’s just rhetoric that you can’t judge if it has merit (I left a comment asking if he could clarify this).

But I do disagree with him that “there are a myriad of theories that can be justified with some data, but rarely is the evidence convincing enough to hang your hat on them.” As a scientist he should know better than this. In science you can’t just justify any idea you have with some data. If you can’t support it well enough it will be picked apart and rejected by other scientists.

One of the things I’ve learned in the climate research business is that it is really easy to be wrong, and really difficult to be right. There are many competing theories of what causes climate change, and they can’t all be correct.

Bit of a cheap shot, but considering how many errors people found in his UAH satellite temperature dataset and his other research I can imagine he has this position. Now if you’re not familiar with what I’m referring to I would suggest you read the articles ‘UAH Misrepresentation Anniversary, Part 1 – Overconfidence‘ and ‘UAH Misrepresentation Anniversary, Part 2 – Of Cherries and Volcanoes‘ from Skeptical Science. They do a good job of explaining it.

And yes there are many theories about what causes climate change as a vast array of causes can lead to climate change. But in the context of recent warming there’s only one cause that fits what we’re observing, which is that the increase in temperature is caused by human emissions of CO2.

But recent events are quite exceptional. A few recent papers on climate sensitivity, and on the previously under-appreciated role of natural climate variations, and the apparent backing-off by the IPCC on climate sensitivity in the upcoming AR5 report, now warrants a few comments from me. (We also have our own paper, slated to be published on October 31, which will present new results on climate sensitivity and the role of natural climate variations in recent warming.)

Normally I don’t talk about draft versions of IPCC reports as they are still subject to change. But I’ll make an exception this time.

What Spencer is referring to is the change of climate sensitivity from 2–4.5°C with a likely value of 3°C in the IPCC 2007 report, to 1.5–4.5°C with a likely value of 3°C in the IPCC AR5 draft report (more about that here). Not exactly a shocking change and it incorporates latest research on climate sensitivity based on short-term data. Although you have to be careful with the conclusions you draw from those studies. With the current masking of the rise in temperature these type of studies can underestimate climate sensitivity (earlier studies of this type tended to estimate it higher).

So this isn’t the IPCC backing-off from their earlier statements on what the scientific literature says about the likely value. There’s a lot of research that pegs our planets climate sensitivity around 3°C (something I also talked about):

Knutti, R., Hegerl, G. C., Nature Geoscience

By way of background, I have always been convinced that the IPCC was created by bureaucrats to achieve specific policy ends. I was even told so by one of those bureaucrats, Bob Watson, back in the early 1990s. Not that there aren’t ‘true believers’ in the movement. In my experience, the vast majority of the scientists and politicians involved in the IPCC process appear to really believe they are doing what is right for humanity by supporting restrictions on fossil fuel use.

Without actually providing what Bob Watson said, and the context in which he said it, makes this to me an unsubstantiated claim.

Also the IPCC wasn’t created to “achieve specific policy ends”, it was created to asses the science and give policy neutral advice on the science. Something that is very clearly stated in their mission statement:

The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies.

Which is exactly what they’ve done in their reports. But lets continue with what Spencer says next:

But now, with the IPCC unable to convincingly explain the recent stall in warming (some say a change to weak cooling), the fact that they are forced to actually recognize reality and make changes in their report — possibly reducing the lower bound for future warming, thus reducing the range of climate sensitivity — is quite momentous.

Considering we only have the draft I doubt this is a fair representation of what the IPCC will say on the subject.

Another thing is that we know the warming of our planet hasn’t stalled, it’s being masked by natural variability in our climate system. It’s something I’ve talked about and I’m not the only one explaining why this ignores a lot of data showing our planet is still warming. The following video by Richard Alley gives a good introduction on the subject:

Also the “some say a change to weak cooling” remark is not supported at all by the evidence we have, which should be obvious after the above video. It’s also meaningless as it’s never defined who said this and what they are basing it on; climate science isn’t Top Gear.

It might well be that so widespread is the public knowledge of the hiatus in warming, recovering Arctic sea ice (at least temporarily), continuing expansion of Antarctic sea ice, failed predictions of previous IPCC reports, etc., are forcing them to do something to save face. Maybe even to keep from being de-funded.

What we’re seeing in the Arctic isn’t a recovery, not even a temporary recovery. What we’re seeing in the Arctic is a rebound after a record year, something you expect to see (the exact same thing happened after the record year of 2007):

Arctic Escalator 2012

The “continuing expansion of Antarctic sea ice” is tiny, and can’t be used to cast doubt on global warming. The Southern Ocean is warming and the only reason the sea ice extent has slightly increased despite of that is the ozone hole. The hole in the ozone layer is causing the stratosphere to cool which then strengthens the cyclonic winds around the Antarctic continent. The interaction of these winds with the sea ice is what is causing the slight increase in coverage.

And no, the projections made by the IPCC haven’t failed. So far they have been exceptionally accurate. Despite the tendency of the IPCC to be conservative in their projections, which really shows in their projections of Arctic sea ice loss:


For the last 10-20 years or more, a few of us have been saying that the IPCC has been ignoring the elephant in the room…that the real climate system is simply not as sensitive to CO2 emissions as they claim. Of course, the lower the climate sensitivity, the less of a problem global warming and climate change becomes.

The IPCC isn’t in the claiming business, what they do is review the scientific literature and basically summarize it. As I’ve previously stated here it’s the literature that says that climate sensitivity is around 3°C. Even with a lower climate sensitivity we will have a big problem if we continue to emit CO2 at the same rate:


This elephant has had to be ignored at all costs. What, the globe isn’t warming from manmade CO2 as fast as we predicted? Then it must be manmade aerosols cooling things off. Or the warming is causing the deep ocean to heat up by hundredths or thousandths of a degree. Any reason except reduced climate sensitivity, because low climate sensitivity might mean we really don’t have to worry about global warming after all.

And, if that’s the case, the less relevant the IPCC becomes. Not good if your entire professional career has been invested in the IPCC.

This to me sounds like Roy Spencer is suggesting a conspiracy theory. Scientists and experts work on the IPCC reports to make sure the report represent the science as accurately as possible. If they colluded with each other to misrepresent the science it would end their careers. It’s not something you can hide as other scientists from the relevant fields would completely dismantle the reports if this was the case.

But forecasting the future state of the climate system was always a risky business. The Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, was correct: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Unlike daily forecasts made by meteorologists, the advantage to climate prognosticators of multi-decadal forecasts is that few people will remember how wrong you were when your forecast finally goes bust.

Yet, here we are, with over 20 years of forecasts from the early days of climate modelling, and the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

If you look at the First Assessment Report from the IPCC (released in 1990) and what it projected it was a very accurate:

FAR 2012 Projection

So far all of the IPCC reports made very accurate projections.

I’m sure the politicians believed we would have had new energy policies in place by now, in which case they could have (disingenuously) claimed their policies were responsible for global warming “ending”. Not likely, since atmospheric CO2 continues to increase, and even by the most optimistic estimates renewable energy won’t amount to more than 15% of global energy generation in the coming decades.

No, they couldn’t have. It takes 100 years before the expected temperature increase associated with the Charney Sensitivity will end (which is what the IPCC uses). If you look at Earth System Sensitivity it’s millennia we’re talking about. Real Climate has the article ‘On sensitivity: Part I‘ that explains this perfectly well.

The scenario Spencer describes wouldn’t work as it would not match our observations. Short term variations in surface temperatures cannot be used for that. If politicians did this they would be criticised by scientists, and rightly so.

But it’s been nearly 20 years since Al Gore privately blamed us (now, the UAH satellite temperature dataset) for the failure of his earliest attempt at CO2 legislation. Multiple attempts at carbon legislation have failed. The lack of understanding of basic economic principles on the part of politicians and scientists alike led to the unrealistic expectation that humanity would allow the lifeblood of the global economy — inexpensive energy — to be restricted.

If fossil fuels are so inexpensive, then why are there vast regions in developing countries with no electricity? In developing countries renewable sources of electricity is helping them develop and raise living standards.

This point also ignores that fossil fuels are “inexpensive” because they don’t include the cost of the damage global warming will cause.

Of course, in the U.S. we still have the EPA as a way to back-door policies some politicians desire, without having to go through the inconvenience of our elected representatives agreeing.

But, I digress. My main point is that nothing stands in the way of a popular theory (e.g. global warming) better than failed forecasts. We are now at the point in the age of global warming hysteria where the IPCC global warming theory has crashed into the hard reality of observations. A few of us are not that surprised, as we always distrusted the level of faith that climate modelers had in their understanding of the causes of climate change.

Again, not true. So far the IPCC projections are exceptionally accurate, although they tend to be conservative. Also anthropogenic global warming isn’t a theory that was proposed by the IPCC. This came from climate researchers and they raised it to a scientific theory.

I’ll also put into context how he’s using the word faith here:

Twenty years ago, as a PhD scientist, I intensely studied the evolution versus intelligent design controversy for about two years. And finally, despite my previous acceptance of evolutionary theory as ‘fact,’ I came to the realization that intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism.

In the scientific community, I am not alone. There are many fine books out there on the subject. Curiously, most of the books are written by scientists who lost faith in evolution as adults, after they learned how to apply the analytical tools they were taught in college

That’s from an article on TCS Daily where he states he doesn’t accept the theory of evolution and wonders why “so many people defend it so fervently.” He uses classic creationist arguments like that bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics doesn’t prove evolution, after all “they are still bacteria.” Or the claim that there are almost no transitional fossils. And I’m not making this up, read the article.

Faith has nothing to do with the validity of evolution, or on the validity of anthropogenic global warming. What this shows is that Spencer’s personal biasses can win against overwhelming evidence. Not a good sign if you’re a scientist.

I continue to suspect that, in the coming years, scientists will increasingly realize that more CO2 in the atmosphere is, on the whole, good for life on Earth. Given that CO2 is necessary for life, and that nature continues to gobble up 50% of the CO2 we produce as fast as we can produce it, I won’t be that surprised when that paradigm shift occurs, either.

No, more CO2 wouldn’t be good for plants. I’ve talked about it in my ‘CO2 is plant food‘ video and in the segment ‘28: CO2 Is Plant Food‘ from ‘Climate Changes, But Facts Don’t: Debunking Monckton‘.

And yes, nature indeed gobbles up about 50% of all the CO2 we produce, most of it going into the oceans. But this isn’t a good thing as more CO2 makes the oceans more acidic which will have real and serious consequences if we don’t reduce our CO2 emissions. This alone is an argument for action, not one for inaction.

This was just me skimming over the counter arguments, and most importantly, the evidence we have that shows that Spencer is wrong. There’s so much more that I could say or link you to for a better understanding of the subjects that he raised. But I think this suffices to show that he doesn’t have a point.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.