Friday, December 4, 2009

Pork barrel spending on skeptical climate research? Earmarks from Alabama

Andrew Sullivan weighed in on “swifthack/climategate” yesterday morning. There’s nothing interesting in the post except for this assertion:

Scientists are as prone as anyone to taking part in "informational cascades," particularly when they are being funded by granting agencies that reward those who continue in an established line of inquiry (can you imagine funding going to a scientist who found a climate counter-trend?) and when they are trying to publish in peer-reviewed journals whose editorial staff refuse to consider papers that do not come up with the expected results.
It's a constant meme that scientists exaggerate claims of global warming to win research grants, but actually, it's pretty easy to imagine skeptic scientists also winning funding. In fact, two of the most vocal skeptics, Drs. Roy Spencer and John Christy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), recently had $1.8 million earmarked for their research by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) in the FY 2010 Energy and Water Appropriations bill (p. 144).
Of course, it's not exactly breaking news that Spencer's and Christy's research is funded by the US government. On his website, Roy Spencer makes pains to point out that "Dr. Spencer’s research has been entirely supported by U.S. government agencies: NASA, NOAA, and DOE. He has never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service. Not even Exxon-Mobil." (Funny that deniers don't think that government funding biases him - that only happens to the scientists they disagree with.)

What's interesting here is how the funding this time around comes from an earmark - one of only two climate research earmarks in the above appropriations bill. And it seems as though the earmark's author has in mind a very specific outcome for the research he's sponsoring. Here’s the press release from Sen. Shelby’s office:

The University of Alabama in Huntsville Climate Model Evaluation Project - $1.8 Million
This project will directly address the cost of energy for manufacturing, industrial, and residential electricity. This research will show how effective potential policies will be in impacting the climate and how confident one can be in their achieving the intended outcome. The University of Alabama in Huntsville will examine and evaluate climate model simulations to determine the level of performance these models achieve so that policymakers may develop a better understanding of the reliability of these forecasts.

“Given the tremendous burden that any climate change legislation would place on the U.S. economy, it is imperative that any steps are taken only after achieving reasonable certainty that they will produce the benefits necessary to justify the associated costs,” said Shelby. “Information gained from the Climate Model Evaluation Project will be of great benefit to policymakers, ensuring that they are better informed as climate legislation is debated."
Now it's possible that Shelby is just bringing research dollars home to Alabama, but he could have chosen any project at any state university. From the statement above, it's pretty clear why he chose this project: Sen. Shelby is opposed to climate legislation, and was looking for hired guns to make the case that there's not enough certainty about global warming to justify the costs of abating it; it's no coincidence he picked these two scientists to receive helpings from the pork barrel. Indeed, Drs. Spencer and Christy have long been darlings of the denialist community, publishing satellite data which for years showed little to no warming (although after correcting for errors, even their data now show a warming trend, albeit a smaller trend than other data show). If you want to "examine and evaluate" and poke holes in pesky climate models, these are the guys you want doing it. 

What this means, of course, is that the UAH scientists' vocal skepticism about climate changed has not prevented them from winning research dollars, as many deniers would have you think it would. Far from it - after years of telling conservative politicians what they want to hear, they've won a powerful patron in the US Senate. A small Alabama newspaper described it this way:

This might seem a little ironic, but taking the fight to global warming alarmists can be done with aid of the federal government.
None of the seven Alabama congressmen, four Republicans and three Democrats voted in favor of the cap-and-trade legislation that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, so it’s probably safe to assume based on their votes, the global warming issue isn’t a huge concern for the constituency in Alabama.
One of the tactics used by colleges and universities to secure grant money for research has been to apply for it under the guise of using it to achieve a better understanding of global warming, or climate change. However, the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) managed to get in on this with the help of Sen. Richard Shelby.

UAH is the home of Dr. Roy Spencer, a leading global warming skeptic and is also known as the official climatologist of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. And with your tax dollars, for better or for worse, Shelby has managed to secure money for Spencer and his colleagues to conduct research on global warming – some $1.8 million for the Climate Model Evaluation Project.

Here's where it could get more interesting. Because a project with an identical goal as the UAH project is mentioned in the East Anglia emails, and it reveals Dr. Christy was corresponding with a former oil industry PR man to try to win funding for it. In the email to two Energy Dept. officials in the Bush administration, Christy describes how he would like to use his satellite data to vet climate models, and how past requests for funding had been rejected:

From: John Christy [_mailto:john.christy@xxxxxxxxx.xxx_]
Sent: Tuesday, October 23, 2007 9:16 AM
To: Strayer, Michael
Cc: Salmon, Jeffrey
Subject: Climate Model Evaluation

Dr. Strayer:

Jeff Salmon is aware of a project we at UAHuntsville believe is
vital and that you may provide a way to see it accomplished.

This is pretty clearly an introduction - Salmon had passed along Strayer's contact info to Christy to help him win research funding for the "vital" project. Strayer seems like an innocent bystander, but who is this Jeff Salmon anyway? According to

Prior to moving to DOE, from 1991-2001 he was Executive Director of the George C. Marshall Institute, a key actor in the global warming disinformation campaign. In 1998 he participated in the development of a now-notorious oil industry-sponsored plan to wage a campaign against the mainstream science community on global warming. Before that, he was senior speechwriter for Dick Cheney, when Cheney was Secretary of Defense.
The purpose of the 1998 campaign was to

Recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap the sun’s heat near Earth... Victory will be achieved when… recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the "conventional wisdom."
So a man responsible for much of the disinformation out there about global warming is the same person who was helping Christy navigate the DOE in his search for funding. What was he hoping to fund? The email continues:

As you
know, our nation's energy and climate change policies are being
driven by output from global climate models. However, there has
never been a true "red team" assessment of these model
in the way other government programs are subjected to hard-nosed,
independent evaluations. To date, most of the "evaluation" of
models has been left in the hands of the climate modelers
themselves. This has the potential of biasing the entire process.

It is often a climate modeler's claim (and promoted in IPCC
documents - see attached) that the models must be correct because
the global surface
temperature variations since 1850 are reproduced (somewhat) by
models when run in hindcast mode. However, this is not a
experiment for the simple reason that every climate modeler
saw the
answer ahead of time. It is terribly easy to get the right answer
for the wrong reason, especially if you already know the answer.

A legitimate experiment is to test the models' output against
variables to which modelers did not have access ... a true blind
test of the models.

I have proposed and have had rejected a model evaluation
project to
DOE based on the utilization of global datasets we build here at
UAH. We have published many of these datasets (most are
satellite-based) which document the complexity of the climate
system and which we think models should replicate in some way,
to aid in model development where shortcomings are found.
These are
datasets of quantities that modelers in general were not aware of
when doing model testing. We have performed
a few of these tests and have found models reveal serious
shortcomings in some of the most fundamental aspects of energy
distribution. We believe a rigorous test of climate models is in
order as the congress starts considering energy reduction
strategies which can have significant consequences on our
Below is an abstract of a retooled proposal I am working on.

If you see a possible avenue for research along these lines,
let me know. Too, we have been considering some type of
with Oakridge since the facility is nearby, and this may be a way
to do that.

John C.

Understanding the vertical energy distribution of the Earth's
and its expression in global climate model simulations

John R. Christy, P.I., University of Alabama in Huntsville


Sets of independent observations indicate, unexpectedly, that the
warming of the tropical atmosphere since 1978 is proceeding at a
rate much less than that anticipated from climate model
Specifically, while the surface has warmed, the lower troposphere
has experienced less warming. In contrast, all climate models we
and others have examined indicate the lower tropical atmosphere
should be warming at a rate 1.2 to 1.5 times greater than the
surface when forced with increasing greenhouse gases within the
context of other observed forcings (the so-called "negative lapse
rate feedback".) We propose to diagnose this curious phenomenon
with several satellite-based datasets to document its relation to
other climate variables. We shall do the same for climate model
output of the same simulated variables. This will
enable us to propose an integrated conceptual framework of the
phenomenon for further testing. Tied in with this research are
answers to fundamental questions such as the following: (1) In
response to increasing surface temperatures, is the lower
atmosphere reconfiguring the way heat energy is transported which
allows for an increasing amount of heat to more freely escape to
space? (2) Could there be a natural thermostatic effect in the
climate system which acts in a different way than parameterized
convective-adjustment schemes dependent upon current
assumptions of
heat deposition and retention? (3)
If observed atmospheric heat retention is considerably less than
model projections, what impact will lower retention rates have on
anticipated increases in surface temperatures in the 21st

This last paragraph probably gives a sense for what Sen. Shelby's $1.8 million in pork spending is going to fund: "evaluating" climate models using the UAH satellite data that are so prized by the denial movement. The motive? "We believe a rigorous test of climate models is in order as the congress starts considering energy reduction strategies which can have significant consequences on our economy." Which is code for, "we want to cast doubt on climate models so Congress never passes energy reduction strategies."

In other words, it's possible that Christy was receiving help on the inside - not from a climatologist or a bureaucratic grunt, but from a PR professional who had previously led climate science disinformation campaigns on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. I'm making some conjectures here, but we at least know that Christy sought help from Salmon, and that Salmon made introductions for him. 

It's long been known that the fossil fuel industry has funded junk science against global warming. But Spencer and Christy have made pains to distance themselves from the carbon lobby. Remember, Roy Spencer's website states bluntly that "He has never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service. Not even Exxon-Mobil." But now we find out that in 2007, an ally of the oil companies was helping skeptics at UAH to secure funding for research. What happened after that letter is anyone's guess, and who knows what role Jeff Salmon played in follow up. But two years later, your tax dollars are being earmarked for vocal skeptics to “evaluate” climate models, by a US Senator who fears climate legislation will “place a tremendous burden on the U.S. economy.” And remember, Jeff Salmons is still in the DOE.

I don't really have a problem with my tax dollars going to fund skeptical research. It's good to have the models subjected to analysis by devoted skeptics - if even Christy and Spencer can't find anything wrong with them, it strengthens the case further (so I guess we ought to be watching for what comes out of UAH in the next year or so).

My point is simply this: the myth of the climate scientist raising alarm to generate research dollars is officially busted. The fact is, there are plenty of politicians who want this global warming business to just go away so they don't have to ask their constituents for sacrifices. Meaning there are plenty of government dollars to go around for research skeptical of climate change - if only there were enough scientists to take advantage of it. As I've argued before, every conceivable material incentive should be pushing scientists away from the consensus, given the number of people desperate to believe that global warming is a hoax. Getting research grants from oil companies or think tanks, selling books, getting time on talk shows – it’s all easier when people are looking for a viewpoint, and you’re one of the few people who’s got it. And yet, 97% of climatologists have refused to buck the consensus, despite the vast economic rents to be earned by doing so.

Pork barrel spending for skeptical climate research? Who’s feeding at the trough now?



  1. Although acceptance of funding from pro-carbon lobbying groups is evidence of a denialism bias, one must be careful not to assume the contrapositive. Those who claim to receive no such funding can still harbour the hard-to-shift denialism idea. There are many fans of the laissez-faire Libertarian message who have never asked to be paid.

    BTW. Isn't it strange or a coincidence that the Climategate/Swifthack story finds most traction in forums that promote extreme forms of Libertarianism?

  2. Yes, I actually think the laissez-faire/libertarian ideology is more of a driver of climate change denial than links to the carbon lobby. Deniers are much to emotional to be driven just by economic concerns. I'm writing a post on this subject over the next couple days.

  3. It seems to drive strange beliefs in other similar things, such as the New World Order junk and all it's variants. Everyone's favourite libertarian, Ron Paul, believes in the threat of the Amero conspiracy and the NAFTA superhighway, for example, as do contributors to Financial Sense -- also big doubters of AGW.
    Sci-fi writer Jerry Pournell carries on in the tradition of Michael Crichton. And we have Geeks with Guns founder Eric S. Raymond in on the action too. Even Bullsh!t host, Penn Jillette, is in denial.

    And yet, the former president of the James Randi Foundation accepts the AGW theory and is a vehement defender of the CRU scientists.

    So why does one charlatan exposer call BS on AGW and the other actually defends it? No wide conspiracy of oil money and SIG lobbies required. This is a mind virus little different from those hosted by 9/11 truthers, moon hoaxers, NWO conspiracists, etc. It has many features in common with cult beliefs.

    The leftwing progressives are still stuck on their old narrative of Big Oil=Big Tobacco. When were cancer researchers accused of conspiracy and hoax? This is why the Left has been caught floundering (C. Mooney is still talking about frames) and their anti-Corporation bias prevents them from seeing it for what it is: a cultural memetic virus, and quite a dangerous one at that.