Climate Quitters: Sorry You Lose

Despite what deniers claim, carbon pollution is a leading cause of climate change and the science is under no threat of being knocked out cold.

The recent claims by Texas Governor and presidential aspirant Rick Perry that climate change is far from proven and that climate researchers are in it for the money demonstrate just how persistent the belief is in some quarters that the theory of anthropogenic climate change science is just a couple of punches away from being knocked out cold.

Such skepticism is not unique to putative presidential Texans. Norwegian physicist Ivan Giaver, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics, resigned from the American Physical Society (APS) on Tuesday, in protest against its official position that, "The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring." Giaver took particular issue with the use of 'incontrovertible,' writing in his resignation letter that, "In the APS it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible?" His refusal to pay the $128 annual dues to maintain his membership is clearly based on a disagreement over phraseology rather than the very existence of climate change.

"I am Norwegian, should I really worry about a little bit of warming?" he stated previously, ignoring the fact that (a) yes, Arctic regions in particular are seeing profound change as a result of climate change, and (b) the impacts extend far beyond Norway and are of concern to many. "I am unfortunately becoming an old man. We have heard many similar warnings about the acid rain 30 years ago and the ozone hole 10 years ago or deforestation but the humanity is still around," he continued, ignoring the fact that acid rain and ozone depletion prompted mitigative measures of the sort that climate change still has not.

Giaver's resignation comes at the end of a few weeks in which conservative media outlets trumpeted a pair of studies that they purported to demonstrate that all the climate science that has been conducted over the past decades has, at a stroke, been proven wrong. In neither case did that claim withstand scrutiny, and the editor of the journal that published one of those studies resigned when confronted with the paper's inadequacies.

At the end of August, certain sections of the media exulted that the results of research from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, somehow turned climate change theory on its head overnight. As reported by Media Matters for America, an item on the Fox Business Channel opened with this excited claim:

We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world's largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it's the sun's rays, not human activity, which controls the earth's climate ... So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?

Well, no. They aren't. Because it hasn't. What the research did show is that ionization from cosmic rays may play a role in the formation of aerosols, which are thought to be responsible for a large fraction of the seeds that form cloud droplets. This was certainly a major discovery, and one that caught the attention of plenty of scientists and research institutions. It did not, however, even slightly suggest that cosmic rays, and not human activity, are responsible for global warming.

In fact, if anything, it underlines the opposite. This is the only way the deniers' interpretation could make sense (if it were ever this thoroughly thought through): Cosmic rays play a large role in the formation of clouds, which provide a cooling effect. More cosmic rays equals more clouds equals more cooling. So if there is more warming it is because there are fewer cosmic rays and thus fewer clouds.

The really, really big hole in that argument? There haven't been fewer cosmic rays reaching Earth. As the graph here shows, there is no noticeable long-term trend at all, no correlation between cosmic rays and global temperature increases. (The same problem holds if the argument is that more clouds trap more heat, rather than reflect it. There is simply no correlation between cosmic rays and global temperature trends.) In fact, although the CERN study demonstrated that cosmic rays could increase aerosol formation, those particles were not close to the size required to seed clouds.

As lead author Jasper Kirkby pointed out, "At the moment, it actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it's a very important first step."

A couple of weeks before the cosmic ray brouhaha, professional climate change deniers in the media were positively giddy about a study in the journal Remote Sensing co-authored by University of Alabama in Huntsville scientist Roy Spencer. In a blog that was published by Forbes and picked up by Yahoo!, James Taylor of the Heartland Institute ululated that "New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism." He summed up the conclusions of the paper thus:

In short, the central premise of alarmist global warming theory is that carbon dioxide emissions should be directly and indirectly trapping a certain amount of heat in the Earth's atmosphere and preventing it from escaping into space. Real-world measurements, however, show far less heat is being trapped in the Earth's atmosphere than the alarmist computer models predict, and far more heat is escaping into space than the alarmist computer models predict.

That set off a succession of other, similarly triumphalist headlines – again, well documented by Media Matters- such as, "Scientist Says His Study May Disprove Global Warming," and "Climate Change Far Less Serious Than 'Alarmists' Predict, Says NASA Scientist."

Spencer sought to distance himself from some of the wilder claims, retorting that they "are overstating what the research found." But unlike the CERN research, which was solid science reported extremely poorly, Spencer's study itself, and not just the excited coverage of it, attracted opprobrium from climate researchers.

Spencer, it is fair to say, does not have a sparkling reputation among climate scientists, not least because he and UAH colleague James Christy previously maintained that their data showed no warming in Earth's atmosphere, a claim long embraced by deniers but one that Spencer and Christy now concede is not correct. And many of those scientists were swift to tear into the latest paper. Writing in the RealClimate blog, Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo criticized the model used in the paper as being "too simple", argued that "the basic material in the paper has very basic shortcomings," and concluded that, "the bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper." It is evident, they wrote, "that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should not have been published."

They were not alone in thinking so. Earlier this month, the editor-in-chief of Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner, acknowledging that the peer review process had in this instance failed and that the paper was "fundamentally flawed," announced his resignation:

With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate skeptics have much exaggerated the paper's conclusions in public statements ... Unfortunately, their campaign apparently was very successful as witnessed by the over 56,000 downloads of the full paper within only one month after its publication. But trying to refute all scientific insights into the global warming phenomenon just based on the comparison of one particular observational satellite data set with model predictions is strictly impossible. Aside from ignoring all the other observational data sets (such as the rapidly shrinking sea ice extent and changes in the flora and fauna) and contrasting theoretical studies, such a simple conclusion simply cannot be drawn considering the complexity of the involved models and satellite measurements.

Indeed. As NASA's Gavin Schmidt, frustrated at the media attention the paper received, put it, "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." However, such is the determination in some quarters to believe that climate change theory is wrong and that climate change science is weak, that Fox Nation can publish a patently Onion-worthy headline like "Reuters Bombshell: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduce Global Warming" with a presumably straight face.

Unfortunately, the evidence that human activities are changing the climate is voluminous and compelling. Wishful thinking and excited headlines may sow confusion, but they can't change the facts.

IMAGE: The glacier underneath "Sass Queder" on Diavolezza Mountain, 3,000 meters above sea level is covered with white sheets above the village of Pontresina in the canton of Grisons, Switzerland, pictured on August 17, 2011. The sheets are to help prevent the glacier's rapid melting due to climate change. (KEYSTONE/Arno Balzarini/Corbis)