The Damaging Impact of Roy Spencer’s Science

By Kevin Trenberth, John Abraham, and Peter Gleick. Originally published by

The widely publicized paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, published in the journal “Remote Sensing” in July, has seen a number of follow-ups and repercussions.

The latest came Friday in a remarkable development, when the journal's editor-in-chief, Wolfgang Wagner, submitted his resignation and apologized for the paper.

As we noted on when the paper was published, the hype surrounding Spencer's and Braswell's paper was impressive; unfortunately the paper itself was not. “Remote Sensing” is a fine journal for geographers, but it does not deal much with atmospheric and climate science, and it is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should have received an honest vetting.

Friday that truth became apparent. Kevin Trenberth received a personal note of apology from both the editor-in-chief and the publisher of “Remote Sensing.” Wagner took this unusual and admirable step after becoming aware of the paper's serious flaws. By resigning publicly in an editorial posted online, Wagner hopes that at least some of this damage can be undone.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the science conducted by Roy Spencer and colleagues has been found lacking.

Spencer, a University of Alabama, Huntsville, climatologist, and his colleagues have a history of making serious technical errors in their effort to cast doubt on the seriousness of climate change. 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 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.

We only wish the media would cover these scientific discoveries with similar vigor and enthusiasm that they displayed in tackling Spencer's now-discredited findings.

Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. John Abraham is a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering in Minneapolis, Minn. Peter Gleick is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, Calif. is a nonprofit news service covering climate change and a Climate Central content partner. Opinions expressed are the views of the authors and not or Climate Central.