Editor’s Note: Roy Spencer, Ph.D., is an award-winning meteorologist and a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. With his colleague Dr. John Christy, Spencer developed the first system for monitoring global temperatures by combining data from a variety of operational meteorological satellites, and he served as the lead NASA scientist on a research satellite instrument for monitoring the climate system. This interview was conducted after Spencer received the Fredrick Seitz Memorial Award at the America First Energy Conference in New Orleans in August 2018, hosted by The Heartland Institute.
Burnett: Please tell our readers a little about your background and how you came to work on climate issues.
Spencer: I became interested in weather as a teenager when I lived in the snow belt of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I majored in meteorology at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, and specialized in using satellite data to measure various aspects of weather.
After being hired by NASA, and after James Hansen [then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City] testified before Congress about how sure he was the warm summer of 1988 was due to human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, John Christy and I collaborated on measuring global temperature changes with satellites, as a check on the surface thermometer measurements. At that time, atmospheric scientists were not well-versed in global climate issues. We’ve all had to learn about the emerging science of global warming as we went along.
Burnett: There are degrees of skepticism regarding the theory humans are responsible for climate change and whether its impacts will be negative. Some don’t believe humans are playing any role in present climate conditions, others think they have had a modest impact, and still others think humans are affecting climate but it’s not likely to have a dangerous impact. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Spencer: As far as the strength of warming is concerned, I believe some of the recent warming we have measured is due to humans, but that it is relatively weak. I reject the premise this is necessarily a bad thing, though. Certainly, life on Earth is benefitting from more CO2 in the atmosphere. Global greening has been measured by satellites in recent decades. The benefits to agriculture have been estimated in the trillions of dollars. Modest warming is likely to be beneficial overall.
We must keep in mind there is good evidence the climate system was just as warm 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, so it is not even obvious how much of the modest warming we are seeing now is actually due to human greenhouse gas emissions versus part of some natural cycle in the climate system.
Burnett: At the America First Energy Conference you discussed the influence of government grants on the scope, direction, and conclusions in climate science. Could you briefly summarize your thoughts on the matter?
Spencer: President Eisenhower, in his 1961 Farewell Address, warned about the pitfalls of science being taken over by major government-funded research projects. Essentially all climate research is now funded by government, and so is influenced by elected officials and political appointees if there are any policy implications of that research. As a result, the funding of climate science is biased in the direction of specific policy outcomes that favor more government control and power: for example, a carbon tax.
As a former government employee, I can say this isn’t a conspiracy theory; it’s just the way government works. Virtually all climate research now simply assumes climate change is almost entirely human-caused, and if a scientist has a theory about it being even partly naturally caused, he or she can forget about getting that research funded.
As Eisenhower predicted, a “scientific-technological elite” has taken the research field captive and determined the desired policy outcomes. This mutually benefits government and scientists whose careers depend upon a continuing stream of taxpayer dollars.
Burnett: What have you found to be the most disturbing aspect of the way the climate change debate and climate policy have developed?
Spencer: You might think I’d say the seven bullets that were fired into our building at the University of Alabama at Huntsville on the weekend of the 2017 March for Science is the most disturbing aspect. Instead, I’d say it is the way the global warming debate is framed by the media. The debate is typically described with two extremes: “real” scientists warning us of an inevitable climate catastrophe, versus “deniers” who won’t accept scientific truth and [who] spread disinformation as part of a heavily funded campaign by Big Oil.
This narrative only exists in people’s imaginations. No skeptical scientist I’m aware of is funded by Big Oil. No skeptical scientist I know of denies either climate change or that humans probably have some influence on climate. Only about 60 percent of professionals surveyed by the American Meteorological Society believe humans are mostly responsible for recent warming, showing there is much more uncertainty on the subject than journalists lead people to believe.
The “97 percent of scientists agree” meme mostly included research studies that simply assumed warming was human-caused; they didn’t even address how much nature might be involved. It’s a worthless statistic.
Possibly the best-kept secret is, even if humans are 100 percent responsible, the latest analyses of how much the atmosphere and ocean have warmed in the last century are consistent with the skeptics’ position the climate system is not very sensitive to human CO2 emissions.
Most journalists’ critical thinking skills have evidently been thrown out the window in their zeal to ‘Save the Earth’ and win the next Pulitzer Prize.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute.
Roy Spencer, “Academic Corruption Creates a False Climate Panic,” 2018 America First Energy Conference: https://youtu.be/T2tzT4zBfzc