Missing the point by miles

I have been steering clear of Wishart-related material for the last week or two (on the “wrestling with pigs” principle), but I can’t let this post at his blog pass without comment. It begins:

In the climate debate, we can choose to listen to truffle fanciers like Gareth at Hot Topic, journalists like myself or politicians like Al Gore, or one of the leading scientists in the climate field, like Roy Spencer from University of Alabama-Huntsville. The following is a fascinating essay from his blogsite, which backs up the central thesis in Air Con – most of the CO2 increase is natural, not man-made:

He then reposts Spencer’s blog item in full, adding in the comments:

Spencer’s study suggests strong evidence that oceanic CO2 is the primary driver of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere. (Looking at the graphs, very strong evidence).

Not a squeak out of Hot Topic and no one posting here challenges it.

Notice how a blog post became a “study”? Ah well, here’s a squeak…

Spencer poses this question:

“If warming of the oceans causes an increase in atmospheric CO2 on a year-to-year basis, is it possible that long-term warming of the oceans (say, due to a natural change in cloud cover) might be causing some portion of the long-term increase in atmospheric CO2?”

This is based on a statistical correlation he finds between sea surface temperature and CO2 levels at Mauna Loa (Hawaii) with a six month lag.

Spencer first tried his oceans and CO2 idea out in a blog post earlier this year, and it didn’t go down well — even with his fans amongst the cranks. To Spencer’s credit, he even posted a reply by Ferdinand Englebeen, no climate “alarmist”, patiently explaining why he was wrong. It seems Spencer is now happy to ignore Englebeen (as is Wishart), because the “ocean warming causes the observed CO2 increase” idea is just too attractive.

Unfortunately for Wishart’s “central thesis”, there are three good reasons why this argument just won’t run. The first and most obvious is that we have a very good idea of the amount of fossil fuel that’s been burnt over the last century, and not all of it has shown up in the atmosphere (see Englebeen’s graph here). A large chunk of the carbon we’ve emitted has been absorbed by sinks, of which the largest (by far) is the world’s oceans. To go with that, relatively recent technology allows us to track oxygen level in the atmosphere, and it’s going down. If as Spencer postulates (and Wishart swallows whole) most of the accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the oceans, then where has all the rest gone?

The second reason is equally straightforward. Over the last century, the ocean has become more acidic — a 30% increase in hydrogen ion concentration (or 0.1pH units) caused by oceans absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. If the oceans were emitting large amounts of CO2, their acidity would be dropping.

Carbon isotopes provide the clincher, if one were needed. Carbon exists in two common isotopes C12 and C13 (there are others, but much less easy to find). C13 makes up about 1% of all carbon, and about 2% of the atmosphere. Plants prefer to use the lighter (C12) isotope, so fossil fuels and CO2 emitted by plant respiration and decay tend to have more C12. Fossil fuels, being derived from plant materials, are therefore C12 rich, and burning them adds to the C12 in the atmosphere. Careful measurements show that as we’ve burned fossil fuels, so the C12/C13 ratio has shifted to favour the lighter isotope (fuller description here).

There is a fourth objection but it’s not related to the underlying science, rather to the way that science is usually done. Spencer’s thoughts on CO2 have only been published in a blog post at his own web site, and relayed by the crank echo chamber. Roy Spencer is a publishing climate scientist, well able to get material into major journals. If his thesis has any merit, why has he not written it up and submitted it to Nature or Science or Geophysical Research Letters? After all, if he’s right, this is revolutionary, Nobel Prize-worthy material. Why are his thoughts only to be found on Wishart’s blog (and book) and Watts Up With That? Perhaps because he knows that a jury of his peers would reject his ideas for all of the reasons outlined above.

And so back to Wishart. His “central thesis”, based as it is on Spencer’s folly, is clearly wrong. If, as Wishart claims, he has “read the IPCC reports and all the major studies since” then he would understand enough to know where he’s going wrong. But one has to suspect he hasn’t, and clearly doesn’t. Unfortunately you can’t say the same for Spencer.

22 thoughts on “Missing the point by miles”

  1. Interesting tactic, putting up a blog post of a scientific theory. On the one hand it seems like a quick way of getting people (preferably scientists, like Englebeen there I presume) to conduct something of a peer review, perhaps letting one avoid problems with the REAL peer review process later on. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a little irresponsible to do so, knowing that a lot of people out there are going to rush to push what Spencer has said on his website. Do you think Spencer is looking for people like Wishart to do the latter Gareth?

  2. Stephen, you might note that RealClimate in its 2008 end of year review gave Spencer the “Climate scientist with biggest disconnect between his peer-reviewed papers and his online discussions” award…

    It’s all about “plausible deniability”. Spencer knows this stuff won’t fly in scientific circles, so he puts it out onto the intertubes and feeds the crank machine. Then the likes of Wishart can point to Spencer as an expert who doesn’t accept the mainstream view.

  3. FYI, lately Spencer’s been having a bit of a hard time getting his stuff through peer review. This refers to his attempts to revive Lindzen’s iris hypothesis, about which it was at one time possible to make an argument so long as paleoclimate was ignored. The “oceans drive CO2” business is an old denialist idea that never had credibility, and Spencer promoting it at this point in time is pure crackpottery.

    BTW, I noticed that Wishart’s book dropped to third place in its second week of sales. The new #1 is a baking book. The crockpot books persevere.

  4. BTW, I noticed that Wishart’s book dropped to third place in its second week of sales. The new #1 is a baking book. The crockpot books persevere.

    Whilst we should be grateful for small mercies, depressingly Wishart’s book is outselling Morgan’s book by 3-1 on this weeks book chart. I have been stunned at how well Wishart’s book has sold. 772 dunce-heads bought the book last week and 1,242 the week before (Mother’s Day week) and it sold almost 1,500 copies in its first week!! Now that is around 2,500 NZers that have bought this idiot’s book.
    They say you shouldn’t judge a book buy its cover but unfortunately most people do. Wishart’s cover (copied or not) is excellent and obviously many people look at it and go ‘oh, what a lovely cover – what’s inside must be true’.
    This is the only explanation I can think of that doesn’t make me incredibly depressed at the complete and utter ignorance of some folk out there!!! Rant over…

  5. Kim, I think the crockpots will prevail shortly. Other books (such as the one by the psychic gentleman) have shown far more longevity on the book chart than Air Con. Perhaps the dunce-head market is nearing saturation.

  6. In another life, under another name, I’ve been engaging with a denier who has swallowed Air Con whole. (He keeps saying human CO2 flux is 1.4% of the natural flux, though it’s awfully hard to find out exactly what he thinks this means.) And I’ve been looking at Spencer’s blog posts and some of the science. This is not my field by the way, not that I admit to being a scientist, but if I were, this wouldn’t be my field.

    The decline in atmospheric C13/C12 and oxygen both rule out an ocean source, as does the increase in ocean inorganic carbon (though on that last one I haven’t yet reviewed the evidence for myself yet). But the decline in C13/C12 and oxygen don’t rule out a land-biosphere source. If (and I say if) the biosphere had decided 150 years ago to start releasing carbon, in amounts comparable to fossil fuel CO2 and well in excess of the amounts estimated for deforestation, and if this were still happening, would we necessarily see this, eg in large drops in biomass, or in a different chemical state of the atmosphere? In other words, can we exclude this based on the evidence?

    I realise the “spontaneous large drop in land biomass” hypothesis also has another serious obstacle. Why has something like this not happened in the last 800,000 years (at least), through big swings in the climate, including periods like the Eemian interglacial when the Earth was warmer than it is now (for the time being) and then happened just as we started to burn fossil fuels in large amounts?

    Not that I expect any of this my pet denier, who is beyond hope. The funny thing is, he seems like a sincere and otherwise sane person, and he is good-natured in a bombastic way, but his scepticism is horribly one-sided. You know the sort of thing: conspiracy of scientists raking in huge amounts of money for conning the public.

  7. The real problem for the “spontaneous large drop in land biomass” postulate is that we know we’ve been burning a lot of fossil fuel. As I said in the original post, if the CO2 in the atmosphere’s coming from somewhere else, where did all the fossil carbon go?

    1. I think the hypothesis would have to be: in addition to all the fossil fuel CO2 and the input from the deforestation we can account for, there’s been a large, unnoticed input from the land biosphere. As you say, where has it all gone? The ocean, I guess, in substantially larger amounts than we already believe has occurred. Can we exclude this possibility from the ocean inventory? I have no idea.

      I’m trying to construct a falsifiable hypothesis from all this talk about large natural fluxes dwarfing the anthropogenic effects. My denier friend hasn’t been much help. I’d read Air Con to see if this is what he means, but: a) I don’t want to pay Ian Wishart any money; b) I don’t think I could stand it.

  8. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2009/mar/12/climate-change-deniers-conference

    CO2 from here CO2 from there, what difference does it make? The planet doesn’t seem to have warmed in the past from CO2, it isn’t today, it may not in the future.

    I think people like Wishart fall into the trap of trying to PROVE another source of CO2, or PROVE solar variation, orbital cycles etc. I don’t believe solar variation is DEFINITELY driving the climate anymore than I think CO2 is definitely driving the climate. Solar variation fits today, just like CO2 fit yesterday. People using solar variation to predict climate are right at the moment, but maybe next year the climate will change again and everyone will point to pacific oscillation, who knows.

    What is clear is that it is a complicated beast, and like the last few years, just when people think they have it sorted it will through another spanner at us. Best to enjoy the cold years on the slops, and the warm ones on the beach, and live happily ever after I say! (go mount hutt! 52cm and counting!)

    (And Mark H, although you think that you are right and your friend crazy, take a second to look at your self in another light. You are both sincere in your beliefs, neither is trying to con the other, neither can POSSIBLY know who is DEFIANTLY right, maybe you are both wrong! But it is not fair to come on websites and talk about mates that way, listen to Socrates;

    “This ignorance, which claims to no what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable, and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbor in any respect, it would be this, that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes, I am also conscious that I do not possess it.”

    Think about what people KNEW 2500 years ago in the time of Socrates? How many of those people, either side of each debate, were right?? Where will we be in another 2500 years?

  9. “People using solar variation to predict climate are right at the moment(.)”

    Source for that? Only the ignorant or crackpots believe this. Which are you, R2?

  10. Mark H, a large input from the land biosphere would get noticed. Making use of the fact that the NH has distinctly more land than the SH, among other things such an input should turn up in the difference between NH and SH amounts (since they don’t mix immediately), in NH seasonal cycle amplitude (since any such effect would be unlikely to be even across the seasons), and in differences between land and ocean measuring sites. Researchers put a lot of effort into looking for changes in natural source and sink behavior, emphasizing the oceans since the ocean sink is likely to start saturating at some point (and may already be in the early stages), but land areas get plenty of attention due to e.g. deforestation concerns . There should be an FAQ or review article on this somewhere, but I don’t know where.

    “Why has something like this not happened in the last 800,000 years (at least), through big swings in the climate, including periods like the Eemian interglacial when the Earth was warmer than it is now (for the time being) and then happened just as we started to burn fossil fuels in large amounts?”

    This is why Spencer and Lindzen don’t like talking paleo.

  11. Mark H, the January and September 2008 AMS seminars (available here) should have at least part of what you want. The presenters are leading scientists.

    The CDIAC site does have an FAQ among other things and is definitely worth a look, but I couldn’t see anything entirely on point relative to your question.

    See also here. Lisa (her email is on her linked home page) may be able to help you out. Please link back here with anything you get from her, as there are a couple of FAQ sites that could use it.

  12. Thanks to everyone for the replies. I’ll look at the links you have given, Steve. My question seems to be answered on a RealClimate post by Corinne Lequere:


    Based on several different methods, the carbon content of the oceans is increasing at ~ 2±1 PgC per year (and 118±19 PgC in the last 200 years). With fossil fuel burning at ~7 PgC per year, the atmospheric carbon content increasing at ~ 3 PgC per year, there isn’t room for a land biosphere source and in fact there must be a land biosphere sink of ~ 1.2 pgC per year. Given that the land biosphere flux includes a source of ~0.7 pgC per year for deforestation, the remainder of the land biosphere must be absorbing ~ 2 pgC per year. There are uncertainties on all these numbers but a large (several pgC per year) land biosphere source is ruled out.

    (You’ll find the ocean uptake & fossil fuel numbers in the 6th paragraph of Corinne’s post and the atmosphere and land biosphere numbers are my approximations to estimates she quotes in following paragraph for the period 1980-1999. There’s a citation to Sabine et al, 2004, but no reference. I’ll get my mate Gavin 🙂 to fix this. I think it’s Sabine et al, 2004. The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2. Science 305 (5682), 367-371.)

    R2D2, I do see your point about slagging off your mates on WWW sites, either behind their backs or to their faces (virtually speaking). However I do think that on the specific question we have been discussing, reasons for the recent rise in CO2, my position is much more rationally based than his and, therefore, more likely to be correct. I could be wrong about this, as I could be wrong about the roundness of the Earth. My opinions on why he thinks the way he does and how he arrives at his opinions are admittedly more speculative. I don’t think he’s crazy–I know he’s not–and yet some of his opinions appear to be irrationally based. It’s odd. Incidentally, though you may find my remarks about him uncharitable and mean, it’s by no means one way. Here is what he says about people I know and respect: “Scientists have become a tool for the politicians agendas feeding them crap to enable their goals whilst taking the spoils of research money and grants to keep them going through greed at the cost of facts and truth, shame shame shame.”

    PS: The dialogue I am referring to is here:


    I come in at post 251. Read & weep.

  13. Those estimates of the spatial distribution of sources and sinks of CO2 from data-assimilating atmospheric models are pretty amazing, aren’t they? NOAA’s Carbon Tracker is a bit of a plaything, really, but on a global, multi-year scale it appears to be a very powerful technique.

  14. Steve Bloom: you have latched onto half a sentence and taken it of context, my point was that if 5 people predict next years weather, 1 by solar variation, 1 by pacific oscillation, 1 by CO2, etc, it doesn’t matter what the true reason is, one will be right. I’m sorry you missed this point.

    So I don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to defend solar variation climate theory, as I myself do not feel it any more proven than CO2 theory.

    But you ask who has predicted cold whether, I’m not sure a lot of people have made bold predictions about the next couple of years of weather in scientific literature, it would be very hard to get an article out before the data was superseded. But plenty of people make these predictions on YouTube! I saw a Melbourne University lecturer predict cold weather a few years back but the video seems to have been pulled. He was basing it on the length of time between cycles and predicted a decade simular to the 70’s.

    The bellow are worth a watch. But I stress, I’m not trying to argue solar variation drives climate!


  15. R2: “…I myself do not feel (solar variation clinate theory) it any more proven than CO2 theory.”

    Not much better, I’m afraid. You’d have a clue about this had you read the material you were referred to a few weeks ago. To all appearances, you just don’t want to believe “CO2 theory” and don’t especially care what the science has to say.

    FYI, anybody predicting next year’s weather isn’t basing it on climate science.

  16. Good find, Mark H, although good luck with getting your friend to absorb the material and admit that he’s wrong. Even if that happens, the typical denialist will simply make up something else or fall back on the “all those scientists are being paid to lie” catch-all. Let us know if your friend turns out to be any sort of exception to the rule.

  17. R2D2 on fashion meets climate science……..
    Last year it was CO2, this year it’s TSI, next year its PDO, or ENSO.
    And one of them must apparently be right?

    Actually they would all be wrong and even a model which goes to the extreme of including them all would be wrong.

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