How a Global Warming Satirist Breaks the Ice
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Witness the headlines: "Pristine Alaskan Glacier Turns Into Tropical Wasteland." "More Polar Bears Suffering Heat Exhaustion." And "Dolphins Discovered Fleeing Warming Tropical Waters." Global warming warnings intended to give you the shivers.
But upon further clicking and reading, visitors to EcoEnquirer.com might think, hmm: Is the Smithsonian Institution really buying up virgin arctic sea ice on the black market? Did attention-weary penguins actually chase bewildered researchers back onto their ships? And what's this about the EPA mandating a reduction in emissions from . . . volcanoes?
Somewhere in an office about 600 miles southwest of here, former NASA scientist Roy W. Spencer is laughing. The 50-year-old, white-haired PhD dreamed up the spoof site -- sort of the Onion meets the Weather Channel -- because he thinks people are overreacting to the threat of climate change.
Now a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Spencer says human activities have "likely" contributed to climate change, but he argues that "since we do not understand natural climate fluctuations, we don't really know how much, quantitatively, of the present warmth is man-made versus natural."
Spencer describes his Web site as "a spur-of-the moment effort that resulted from the increasing number of news stories that quoted people who blamed global warming for events such as tsunamis and the latest flood, drought or hurricane. . . . Also, I have a somewhat twisted sense of humor, and the Web site gives me an additional creative outlet." His other creative outlet: He's lead guitarist in a contemporary Christian rock band at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Huntsville. (His environmentalist-mocking alternative lyrics to Supertramp's "Give a Little Bit": "I'll take a little bit, I'll take a little bit of your wealth from you/So give a little bit, oh, give a little more than a dime to me.")
It's all a way of keeping his sanity, Spencer explains.
"Being in the minority is difficult," he says, adding that while he now earns a small amount of money writing for TCS Daily, a Web site funded in part by ExxonMobil, "I have always said, if you want to make money in this business, the skeptics' side is not the side you want to work on."
His Web site has maintained a relatively low profile. Spencer was on two nationally syndicated AM talk radio shows in early March, leading to 150,000 page views that month, but things have trailed off; EcoEnquirer got about 43,000 page views the first three weeks of this month.
So it's just a fun thing. Well, mostly. "I was surprised at the number of people that thought the EcoEnquirer stories were real."
Signs of the Times, a leftist Web forum, mistakenly published the article from EcoEnquirer on March 6 about dolphins fleeing the warming tropics. (The "news" item includes this quote from a Dr. Fisherman: "If you had hot water poured on you, you would flee, wouldn't you?") Signs of the Times issued an editorial two days later calling Spencer's Web site "a waste of cyberspace."
Spencer's serious academic work has sparked controversy. While at NASA -- between 1984 and 2001 -- he and University of Alabama at Huntsville professor John Christy pioneered satellite monitoring that indicated the Earth was warming more slowly than surface temperature readings would indicate. In 1991 the two researchers won NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for that work, but this month a government study concluded there was no statistical difference between the two climate records.
Spencer acknowledged that other satellite experts have found two errors in how he and Christy processed their data. Christy, who has known Spencer for nearly two decades, called his colleague "one of those traditional weather nerds" who get excited every time there's a big storm.
Naturally, Spencer is less than popular with scientists who believe that industrialized nations need to take swift action to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"It tends to cloud the issue by playing media attention to the uncertainties," said Drew Shindell, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "In fact, we know a lot more about this issue than a lot of things we take action on."
But EcoEnquirer.com has its fans, too. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee counsel John Shanahan, whose boss, James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), has called global warming "a hoax," likes Spencer for his research as well as his wit.
"It wasn't until I first saw his Web site that I realized that he's an amazingly funny guy," says Shanahan. "It's refreshing to see a scientist keep his sense of humor in a highly polarized debate."