Science Criticized in Cancún for Timing of Paper on Cloud Feedback

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A climate skeptic has suggested that Science tried to influence the climate change talks ending today in Cancún, Mexico, by publishing a paper that supports the idea that clouds tend to, at least in the short term, enhance global warming. An editor at the journal says that's not the case.

Roy Spencer, a climate researcher at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, made his claim yesterday afternoon at a press conference at the climate meeting held immediately after the paper appeared online. Spencer also discussed the paper in a blog post. The paper, by climate scientist Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, College Station, analyzes how past El Niño and La Niña events have actually influenced clouds. It finds that the high, wispy clouds that trap heat tend to expand under warmer conditions, creating a small positive feedback loop. (Dessler's response is here. (A podcast with the author is also available.)

In the post, Spencer says the timing of the publication of the paper by Science was:

Very Curious. ... Dessler's paper is being announced on probably THE best day for it to support the IPCC's COP-16 meeting here in Cancun, and whatever agreement is announced tomorrow in the way of international climate policy.

I suspect - but have no proof of it - that Dessler was under pressure to get this paper published to blunt the negative impact our work has had on the IPCC's efforts.

ScienceInsider asked the paper's editor at Science, H. Jesse Smith, about Spencer's assertion about the paper's timing.

"There was never a word about Cancún," he says. The paper was submitted in May and received "a lot of review and re-review" before completing revisions on 21 October. It was officially accepted on 9 November, Smith says.

"Dessler never asked to get the paper expedited," says Smith. But once peer review was complete, Smith says, the editors pushed to have it published in time for the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, California, which begins on Monday, 13 December. "I wanted to get it out before AGU."

Posted in Climate