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Journal Editor Resigns Over Contrarian Climate Paper

The editor-in-chief of the journal Remote Sensing has resigned over the publication of a paper questioning the reliability of climate models. Wolfgang Wagner of Vienna University of Technology concluded that reviewers of the paper, published 25 July in the open-access journal, failed "to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims," and the paper "should therefore not have been published."

"I don't blame anybody in the publication," Wagner told ScienceInsider, amplifying comments in an editorial posted today by the journal. It was just that the reviewing process at his journal broke down, he says. "Someone has to take responsibility. As editor-in-chief, I should be the one."

The paper, by remote sensing specialists Roy Spencer and William Braswell of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, drew plenty of media attention. Forbes trumpeted it as, "New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism."

Many climate scientists were more restrained and far more critical. Spencer and Braswell had drawn on NASA satellite data to try to show that the atmospheres in climate models retain more heat than the real atmosphere does, causing the models to predict too much warming under a strengthening greenhouse. But climate researchers such as Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, argued that "clouds don't do what they claim they do," that is, they don't react to cool the atmosphere.

Wagner came to agree with the critics. "The problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell," he writes in his editorial, "is not that it declared a minority view ... but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal." So he resigned "to make clear that the journal Remote Sensing takes the review process very seriously."

Wagner says he's not leaving because of any mistakes by those beneath him nor because of any pressure from above. (The journal and about 60 others are published by MDPI of Basel, Switzerland.) "Reviewing is difficult," he says. "It's not bullet-proof. I just wanted to make the statement" that the journal holds the reviewing process in the highest regard. No word on whether the paper will be retracted.

Others say the real problem stems from a fundamental mismatch between the journal and the paper in question. The journal "really deals with remote sensing used by geographers rather than by atmospheric scientists," says Trenberth. "I only recognized one name on the editorial board." That could explain why none of the three reviewers noticed any fatal flaws in the paper, he says.

"I don't totally disagree," says Wagner. "Yes, obviously, Remote Sensing did not have a strong climate board. On the other hand, you can't reject all interdisciplinary research out of hand. Spencer and Braswell used satellite data sets and checked them against models; that's what we [remote sensing researchers] do all the time."