The editor of the journal Remote Sensing has resigned over a climate-change paper that he admits should "not have been published". Wolfgang Wagner of the Vienna University of Technology in Austria announced his resignation on 2 September, taking responsibility for his reviewers’ decision to publish the "controversial paper".

The article was published in Remote Sensing – an open-access journal produced by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute – on 25 July. Entitled "On the misdiagnosis of surface temperature feedback from variations in Earth’s radiant energy balance", the paper was written by Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and his UAH colleague William Braswell.

The pair's paper questions the reliability of climate models following research on data obtained by NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System satellite. The scientists claim that the relationship between clouds and climate temperatures leads to results that are inconsistent with accepted models of climate change.

"We were trying to make a point about the role of clouds in the climate system. We demonstrated a big difference between satellite observations of how the climate behaves and climate models," says Spencer. "We were demonstrating something we had demonstrated before but that was ignored."

Opponents of the idea that humans contribute to climate change hailed the paper, with the US business magazine Forbes claiming "new NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism". However, climate scientists immediately focused on the paper's methodology. "It has no discussion of uncertainties or error bars," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the US's National Center for Atmospheric Research. "The observation record from space is only 10 years long. And Spencer and Braswell used only 6 of 14 climate-change models."

Wagner, however, decided to take responsibility for publishing the paper and step down as editor-in-chief. "I saw several basic problems [in the Spencer–Braswell paper], including that correlation does not imply causality, the fact that 10 years' of satellite data are not enough to come to such strong conclusions about the subtle and long-term changes in climate, and that, indeed, too little quantitative evidence was presented to support these strong claims," he told physicsworld.com.

Spencer sees the resignation as the result of political pressure from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "The IPCC was formed to build the scientific case that humans were the cause of climate change," he says. "It's becoming very difficult for a sceptic to get a paper published. Virtually all climate science that is funded goes to support the IPCC process." Wagner, however, rejects that accusation, adding that "nobody exerted any pressure on me or the journal".

Climate debate

Every year, one or two sceptical papers get published, and these are then trumpeted by sympathetic media outlets as if they had discovered the wheel Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University

Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the affair reflects the broad debate over climate change rather than the specific detail of the Spencer–Braswell paper. "There's a huge discrepancy between what the paper says and what people, including Roy Spencer, say that it says," he explains. "People seem to be replying to the climate-change sceptics rather than the paper itself."

Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University agrees. "Every month, dozens if not hundreds of papers are published that are in agreement with the mainstream theory of climate science," he says. "But every year, one or two sceptical papers get published, and these are then trumpeted by sympathetic media outlets as if they had discovered the wheel. It therefore appears to the general public that there's a debate."