ResearchBlogging.orgThe question of whether clouds are the cause of global warming has been settled:

No, they are not.

The question was raised in July in a paper by Spencer and Braswell, published in the Peer Reviewed Journal Remote Sensing called “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance.” (See this.) Spencer and Braswell’s paper claimed that the Earth’s temperature was not really rising due to fossil carbon in the form of CO2 being pushed into atmosphere. Rather, they said, any variation we see in global temperature is a result of natural cycles and have a lot to do with clouds. Spencer and Braswell’s paper was very obviously flawed and this was pointed out in many places. But it wasn’t just flawed. It was so badly flawed that the question was asked, “What were the editors of this journal thinking?”

Well, less than a week ago, the Editor-in-Chief of that journal resigned his position as a way of both admitting and trying to rectify the effects of having overseen one of the worst blunders possible in peer reviewed research publication: Being tricked by nefarious authors (Spencer and Braswell) into publishing an unpublishable paper.

Papers that could be considered unpublishable, depending on who you ask, are of course published all the time, but almost all of them have some value and are at least an honest attempt at conducting and presenting real research. But the Spencer and Braswell paper is not that. It isn’t the outcome of incompetence, it does not represent a difference of opinion, it isn’t even a poorly considered hypothesis. Rather, “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” is a bald faced attempt to make stuff up in order to cloud (pardon the pun) the discussion of anthropogenic climate change with manufactured dissent. It is the sort of thing that makes intelligent observers ask “Who is paying them to do this, and why?” It is the sort of thing that the authors should lose their academic appointments over.

Nonetheless, scientists can never leave well enough alone! Even though the paper was obviously flawed, and the resignation of the journal’s editor was a powerful signal that should chagrin even the members of the press who insist on keeping alive the debate over whether bigfoot is real1, there is an idea in Spencer and Braswell’s paper that is sort of testable. And some scientist went ahead and did just that, with the results being released just moments ago.

The paper is “Cloud variations and the Earth’s energy budget” by Andy Dessler of Texas A&M University.

In his paper, Dessler starts with the concept of Energy Balance, where tracking the change in the balance involves looking at “deposits” (of energy) and “withdrawals.”

The flawed and discredited paper by Spencer and Braswell was based in part on a paper previously published, and also seemingly rather flawed, by Lindzen and Choi2. This flaw made the “deposits” part of the equation that is caused by clouds too big. The papers use clouds and oceans as sources of atmospheric heat, and they assumed incorrect values for those climate features.

Dessler uses actual measurements and real data to make a superior and scientifically valid model with correct values for these “deposits” that can be and have been independently verified. The result is a pretty good match between model and reality and indicate that medium to short term (“ENSO”) climate changes are primarily due to the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Dessler also shoes that the models presented in Spencer and Braswell’s paper were inappropriately cherry picked from a larger set of models which they did in fact look at, chosen in order to rather dishonestly support their invalid point. In sum, Dessler demonstrates that there is no merit to the suggestions that clouds cause climate change, no merit to the claims that climate models as a whole are somehow wrong, and no evidence that revisions to mainstream climate science are needed.

Here is a link that should get you to a presentation by Dessler summarizing his paper.

____________________________

1No, Bigfoot is NOT real. And no, the press I’m speaking of does not try to keep that idea alive. I am making a reference to a larger idea here.

2That paper also has a seemingly dicey publication history having, according to rumor … and if you know, correct me if I’m wrong … been rejected by one or more key journals before ending up where it did.

Dessler, A. (2011). Cloud variations and the Earth’s energy budget Geophysical Research Letters DOI: 10.1029/2011GL049236

Comments

  1. #1 Steve Ortman
    September 6, 2011

    “Powerful message” Bwah ha ha! So a hyper-politicized issue suffers a casualty to political correctness – I’m shocked. By the guy’s own explanation his reasonable publishing guidelines required him to publish the paper as the peer review issues had been addressed. You’re nothing but an apologist for global warming alarmism. Don’t you lefty pointy heads realize the more you circle the wagons the more you make yourselves look partisan hacks?

  2. #2 Dennis Schmitz
    September 6, 2011

    People who think CO2 causes global warming do not know a thing
    about chemistry and physics.

  3. #3 Steve Ortman
    September 6, 2011

    Is that your picture on your blog? You’re one ugly looking girlie-man.

  4. #4 Mary Luce
    September 6, 2011

    I guess that is the best argument science denialists can put forth, that they think Greg looks like a girlie-man? Sad. I kind of like the penguin though, just for the record.

  5. #5 John Sherouse
    September 6, 2011

    Yes, the paper that says clouds do not reflect sunlight and only warm the planet. The paper that says 10 years is sufficient time to detect a trend. The paper that does not even address SB11. The paper that uses numerology to to try and convince humans that cloudy days are hotter than sunny days.

    The climate shark has been jumped.

    What fools! Keep digging!!!!

  6. #6 Drivebyposter
    September 6, 2011

    Don’t you righty dipshits realize the more you avoid facts to back up your accusations of fraud the more you make yourselves look like liars? And stupid? And like knee jerk reactionaries? And anti-intellectual?

    Why do conservatives hate America so much? THINK OF THE CHILDRENZ!111111111111!!!1!

    So do you have anything? Or are you just gonna keep on ignoring evidence?

  7. #7 maxwell
    September 6, 2011

    Without being an expert in cloud or atmospheric physics, I could guess that this post is totally irrelevant from the first two lines.

    The IPCC pointed out in their last assessment that the most uncertainty associated with predictions of future climate change comes from clouds dynamics and feedbacks. Now the claim is that after a 5 page journal article that took 18 days for GRL to vet has ‘settled’ what clouds can and can’t do with respect to affecting climate?

    That’s all it took to figure out the largest part of uncertainty associated with future climate change? A 5 page paper?

    It seems to me that most people took great exception to the preposterous claims made by non-scientists and the media with respect to the implications of the Spencer and Braswell paper from July. Now, the same people are doing the exact same thing with Dressler’s new paper.

    The standards in this ‘debate’ just keep on getting lower and lower…

  8. #8 Raging Bee
    September 6, 2011

    Steve Ortman, you are one desperate-sounding denialist crybaby.

    Oh, and Dennis? Why don’t you try to enlighten us on the chemistry and physics you think we’ve missed?

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    September 6, 2011

    I kind of like the penguin though, just for the record.

    Aside from the software aspect, enjoy ‘em while we got ‘em.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    September 6, 2011

    I could guess that this post is totally irrelevant from the first two lines.

    It would be a wrong guess. Consider reading the rest.

    The IPCC pointed out in their last assessment that the most uncertainty associated with predictions of future climate change comes from clouds dynamics and feedbacks. Now the claim is that after a 5 page journal article that took 18 days for GRL to vet has ‘settled’ what clouds can and can’t do with respect to affecting climate?

    No. Clouds are known to be part of a feedback system. Feedback systems don’t cause climate change (they are not “forcing mechanisms”). So, for instance, the timing of the conversion of solar heat into upper atmosphere temperature, or the timing of the redistribution of energy from ocean reservoirs could be affected by clouds as clouds absorb and then release energy. But this just changes some details of the model outcomes, not anything basic.

    The IPCC knows this, climate scientists generally know this. This is not something that was figured out or discovered in the paper I wrote about here. It is something, however, that you apparently were unaware of.

    It seems to me that most people took great exception to the preposterous claims made by non-scientists and the media with respect to the implications of the Spencer and Braswell paper from July. Now, the same people are doing the exact same thing with Dressler’s new paper.

    If I’ve misrepresented Dressler’s paper he’ll no doubt let me know. Have a look at his presentation (see link in the blog post). I think you’ll find that your breathless claim that I’ve ruined it for everyone just like Fox News does is incorrect.

    Thanks for commenting, though.

  11. #11 SoapyGuy
    September 6, 2011

    This comment thread needs more levity (and panic!):

  12. #12 SoapyGuy
    September 6, 2011

    Drat. Trying again with the link: http://onion.com/owPoul

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    September 6, 2011

    I actually skimmed the paper (I have access to GRL at work), and AFAICT Greg is accurately representing the substance of the paper.

    Dessler explicitly neglects the change in forcing due to greenhouse gasses, which he says is negligible on the time scale considered (10 years). I am not an atmospheric scientist, so I do not know if this is correct, but if Dessler were wrong about this the error would make global warming appear to be a less serious problem than would actually be the case.

    GRL is specifically designed for rapid dissemination of research results. Eighteen days from submission to acceptance is not out of line for this journal if the paper needed only minor revision, particularly if the referees and the author were motivated to act quickly (a reasonable assumption in this case). According to statistics reported by the publisher, the median time from submission to final decision in GRL as of September 2010 was 27 days.

  14. #14 maxwell
    September 6, 2011

    Greg,

    The major point I was making concerns claims that a single paper are going to ‘settle’ an ongoing scientific debate. That was the main issue that the resigning editor-in-chief of Remote Sensing took with the Spencer and Braswell paper dealt with the way its implications were misrepresented in ridiculous headlines in the conservative media.

    Having a similar headline claiming that clouds don’t cause climate change because a 5 page paper studied a single 10 year span of time is equally misleading.

    As per the IPCC’s take on cloud’s import on climate let’s just take a look at what they actual say rather than putting words in their mouths….

    In section 10.2.1.3 Comparison of Modeled Forcings to Estimates in Chapter 2 the authors of the AR4 point out that the ensemble of global circulation models used to estimate sensitivity vary, with some including forcings associated with ‘…the indirect effects of clouds…’

    Section 10.3.2.2 also refers to BOTH the forcings and feedbacks associated with cloud cover and even directs the reader to the ‘cloud radiative forcing diagnostic’ in chapter 8 in order to understand the ways that clouds affect the TOA radiative fluxes AS A FORCING.

    I’ll let you go through each and every the rest of the AR4 WGI assessment that treats cloud forcings. It seems like it would educationally beneficial to you.

    And that seems like the whole point that both sides of this argument are missing.

    Spencer wants people to draw the conclusion that clouds can cause what we’ve observed, despite the fact that his analysis really can’t support such a conclusion while Dressler et al. want people to believe that ONLY greenhouse gases matter, even though the ‘conservative’ reading of Spencer’s analysis raises concerns over the direction of the forcing/feedback balance that clouds play in the climate at any point in time.

    The truth, like with so many other things, lies somewhere in between.

    But going out of your way to make silly headlines that you can’t even support in the first comment you make is not going to help your cause in any way.

  15. #15 AK
    September 6, 2011

    Feedback systems don’t cause climate change

    This is a semantic quibble. Feedback can amplify (with either sign) warming and other heat retention activity from forcing or other feedbacks. This contributes to climate change exactly as the original “forcing”.

    (For the record, the distinction between “forcing” and “feedback” depends on assumptions that aren’t really valid in non-linear systems.)

    So, for instance, the timing of the conversion of solar heat into upper atmosphere temperature, or the timing of the redistribution of energy from ocean reservoirs could be affected by clouds as clouds absorb and then release energy. But this just changes some details of the model outcomes, not anything basic.

    Oh, much more than that. Clouds normally increase the albedo, substantially reducing the original amount of radiant energy absorbed. They also have a greenhouse effect much stronger than any of the vapors involved (because they cover the entire spectrum rather than just a few bands). These two opposed effects have to be balanced in modeling. High clouds tend to have a warming effect (increasing the planetary heat retention) especially during the night, while low clouds tend to have a cooling effect, especially during the day.

    Increased warming and other heat retention (the additional retained heat energy can go directly into evaporation without increasing the surface temperature) from GHG’s and other forcing (e.g. solar) will tend (usually) to produce more of both kinds, as well as the in-betweeners. The models have to balance all this.

    The IPCC knows this, climate scientists generally know this. (To quote you.) Evidently you don’t, or else don’t care enough about being precise to produce a valid comment. I’d suggest you slow down (and Firefox has a spellchecker that works in the comment boxes), and take the time to make sure of your accuracy.

    If you really don’t understand climate science well enough, I’d suggest you vet your comments with somebody who does, and also agrees with your politics (as I don’t). Perhaps Michael Tobis.

  16. #16 Jason Thibeault
    September 6, 2011

    I can’t help but read the first five drive-by postings and think “okay, no, there is no bought-and-paid-for dissent seeding the anti-science astroturf”. This Ben guy must be right, I must just be paranoid.

  17. #17 Paul S
    September 7, 2011

    In section 10.2.1.3 Comparison of Modeled Forcings to Estimates in Chapter 2 the authors of the AR4 point out that the ensemble of global circulation models used to estimate sensitivity vary, with some including forcings associated with ‘…the indirect effects of clouds…’

    maxwell,

    I find it’s usually a good idea to check out the missing parts when a quote contains ellipses as in your post. This is probably the first time I’ve done so and found the most important part of the sentence has been omitted without any declaration whatsoever. The complete quote is ‘Other types of forcing that vary across the ensemble include solar variability, the indirect effects of aerosols on clouds and the effects of land use change on land surface albedo and other land surface properties (Table 10.1).’

    Should I continue looking through your post or are all your points this dubious?

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    Nice job, Paul.

  19. #19 Steve Ortman
    September 7, 2011

    The douche that runs this site sends out emails without an unsubscribe link. I’ve asked said douche to stop spamming me on multiple occasions but said douche continues to send me his spam. So I’ll show up on the little turd’s blog and continue to comment off topic until Greggy Douche takes me off his spam list.

  20. #20 maxwell
    September 7, 2011

    Paul,

    thanks for catching that. I had mistakenly thought it said ‘aerosols AND clouds’. That’s my mistake.

    But please, do look through the rest. As I am as prone to mistakes as the next person, I have made sure to make as few of them as possible in this instance.

    Obviously, sometimes my diligence is not good enough, as is the case of the first quote.

    See Greg, that’s called ‘accountability’.

    Greg,

    As for the misrepresentation of the paper, having now looked at it in its entirety, your headline is totally off base.

    Dressler points out in the conclusion (my highlighting),

    ‘These calculations show that clouds did not cause significant climate change over the last decade (over the decades or centuries relevant for long-term climate change, on the other hand, clouds CAN indeed cause significant warming).’

    Therefore, according to the paper for which you are ‘research blogging’, you can’t even present the conclusion of the paper correctly on top of the fact that you have misrepresented how science works in general. One paper doesn’t decide a debate.

    The headline should read more like ‘Via simple calculations ,paper shows climate of last decade not affected by clouds’ or ‘Clouds have small role in recent climate’. Not ‘Clouds Do NOT Cause Global Warming’. Clearly such a proposition is not supported by the actual paper and you ARE playing the same games as Forbes and Fox did with Spencer’s original Remote Sensing paper.

    So are you going to get off your high horse and admit your wrong like the rest of us can be or are you going to continue to delude yourself and your readers that your arguments are always impervious to criticism, no matter how unsubstantiated they are?

  21. #21 Raging Bee
    September 7, 2011

    Steve, I think you’re lying. Why the hell would Greg send you spam?

  22. #22 Raging Bee
    September 7, 2011

    maxwell, the passage you quote says that clouds CAN cause warming, not that they DO cause warming in the present. So no, Greg’s headline is not “off-base.” It’s YOU who needs to get off the high horse. You’re just another denialist who has to resort to nitpicking like this because you’ve lost the larger argument.

  23. #23 maxwell
    September 7, 2011

    RB,

    thanks for proving to me yet again that this debate has nothing to do with standards and everything to do with validation. I appreciate you helping me realize that it’s a total and utter waste of my time. I needed that.

  24. #24 Raging Bee
    September 7, 2011

    And having lost the argument, maxwell now needs an excuse to run away. Don’t let the “Back” button hit you in the ass on the way out…

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    Maxewell, “Global Warming” refers to the increase in temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans which happens to be due to the release of CO2 in the atmosphere from fossil sources during the last two centuries.

    A proposal was made that clouds are a forcing mechanism for this effect, rather than the CO2.

    The paper I write up here demonstrates that that paper is wrong and that this is not caused by clouds.

    Again, you are cherry picking and distorting and playing games.

    I’m wondering what motivates you to be a liar? I want you to address that question before you do anything else.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    The douche that runs this site sends out emails without an unsubscribe link. I’ve asked said douche to stop spamming me on multiple occasions but said douche continues to send me his spam. So I’ll show up on the little turd’s blog and continue to comment off topic until Greggy Douche takes me off his spam list.

    Steve, you are welcome here as long as you behave. I suspect you wont.

    Yes, I sent you some emails with links I thought you’d be interested in. Then you asked me to not send you emails. So I didn’t. Have you gotten the two I sent out to the same list of people interested in climate yesterday? No. Because I took you off the list.

    You see, if you ask me to take you off the list, and I do, you really have no way to know that I did that, do you?

    Of course, the reason I sent you anything to begin with was because of the unsolicited emails you sent me some time back … I thought you were interested in an email dialog. The fact that those emails were obnoxious and threatening sort of like your comments on this blog tell us something about your character, but that’s cool, because I think that reflects global warming denialist activists in general.

  27. #27 Neil Bates
    September 7, 2011

    Greg, I wish you had been more careful when you wrote in a comment (September 6, 2011 3:42 PM): “No. Clouds are known to be part of a feedback system. Feedback systems don’t cause climate change (they are not “forcing mechanisms”).” I think you meant, “negative feedback system” don’t cause climate change? Surely positive (reinforcing, i.e. “forcing”) mechanisms like loss of ice can, that’s one of the big worries for why the warming will get worse.

  28. #28 Composer99
    September 7, 2011

    Neil, I don’t think Greg needs to correct himself. Feedbacks, whether positive or negative, by definition do not cause climate change, even if they amplify it (in the case of positive feedbacks).

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    Neil, think of the climate system as a bell. You strike a bell to get it to ring. Then, the ringing is a combination of factors that cause kinetic energy to move around in the system. If the bell was really large and you were really small, you might primarily observe that this big piece of metal you can see off in the distance gets farther and closer over time. That is the bell ringing.

    Now, to explain the bell ringing you would have to discover that it is struck now and then by a clapper or hammer or something. that is the forcing mechanism. You would also have to uderstand what makes the metal go back and forth the way it does, rather than to just move or bend or fall to pieces or something else. The propoerties of the metal, the position of the bell in space, the relationship between the bell and whatever it is attached to, the relationship between the bell and the air around it, etc. etc. would be the feedback.

    In climate studies related to global temperature, the forcing mechanisms are things like the primary properties of the atmosphere (does it even exist? Does it hold heat? How much?) and the sources of heat (like the sun, but more speficially, variation in sources, so, like the sun’s energy over time).

    Within that system energy moves around, between the ocean and the atmosphere, or between different layers of the atmosphere, or between vapor and other gasses, etc. Those are the feedbacks.

    Clouds are primarily involved in feedback systems. Changes in that which relates to clouds can be a forcing mechanism: Venus has more of a greenhouse effect than earth because it has more cloud. If you changed the dynamics of the earth’s atmosphere to get lots more or lots less cloud, which may also mean more or less vapor, and certainly means more or less albeto, then you’ve got a difference in the fundemental dynamics, the forcing mechanisms.

    In the current climate system and the one that has been running for far longer than this conversation addresses, clouds appear to be mainly a feedback system and not a forcing mechanism.

  30. #30 Raging Bee
    September 7, 2011

    Greg: speaking of obnoxious and threatening emails, are you going to show us that email you got from socially-challenged “tech geek” John Welch? We could all use a laugh on this dreary rainy day, and Welch’s obnoxious nonsense is probably a lot more entertaining than what we’ve seen from Steve here.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    Maybe.

  32. #32 Steve Ortman
    September 7, 2011

    Douche – the reason I showed up on your stupid blog today is ’cause I got more spam from you. Today.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2011

    Steve, that would be you checking your email a couple of days late. Now, apologize for calling me a douche.

  34. #34 Stephanie Z
    September 7, 2011

    To be fair, Greg, it is possible that Steve has a large number of email addresses from which he engages in his spamming…er, congenial discussions.