Criticisms from Climatic Change


In November 2008, I submitted to the Springer-Verlag journal Climatic Change the following article:

Garrett, T. J., 2011 Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?   Climatic Change 104, 437-455,  doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9717-9

The article was subsequently published over two years later in January 2011 alongside two strongly critical companion articles. Behind the critiques and the long delay is an editorial process that I have never previously encountered, nor ever heard of anyone else encountering.

The initial submission to Climatic Change received three extremely positive and supportive reviews, all recommending that the article either be accepted “as is” or recommending only minor clarifications. The paper was accepted for publication by then Chief Editor Stephen Schneider in August 2009.

Seven months after the article’s formal acceptance, a new editorial leadership under Michael Oppenheimer and Gary Yohe solicited without my knowledge two strongly critical commentaries to counter my article. One was called Psychohistory revisited: fundamental issues in forecasting climate futures by Danny Cullenward,  Lee Schipper, Anant Sudarshan and Richard Howarth. The second, by Irene Scher and Jonathan Koomey, was entitled Is accurate forecasting of economic systems possible?.

These commentaries did not go through the normal peer-review process, and were accepted by the editors within a week of their being received. Because they were published alongside my article, my article had its formal publication date delayed until eighteen months after its acceptance and twenty-seven months after its submission.

Some part of the commentaries was philosophically interesting, but the basis in both cases was unfortunately a very basic misinterpretation of my paper, akin to confusing speed with acceleration.
The Cullenward et al. commentary went further to state they were unable to reproduce my empirical results, while I found out in later email correspondence that this was only because the lead author didn't consider it worth trying. There were also condescending comments. One was a reference to this (otherwise quite funny) cartoon on the left. And the critique concluded with the remark “Perhaps in the future a particularly brilliant scientist will discover a robust and verifiable means for deterministically predicting energy system dynamics. Until that time, however, the evidence suggests we should err on the side of humility and uncertainty in making projections about the future.”

Normally, editors would reject such pompous behavior (and Cullenward and Koomey continue to employ condescension in another recent critique).  At the very least, editors would inform the author so they could draft a reply. But I only found out about the critiques at the point of their publication.  I was then denied a reply, contrary to the stated Editorial Policy of Climatic Change for situations where there might be a “paradigm dispute” that calls for commentary (see p. 2).  I submitted a short article on persistence in growth to Climatic Change that clarifies the misrepresentations of my work. But this was rejected within hours by the new chief editor Michael Oppenheimer who said that any form of rebuttal was inappropriate. Repeated appeals to the Climatic Change Editorial Board went nowhere.

I am a journal editor myself for the open-access Copernicus journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and I find this editorial approach difficult to understand. Why would the Climatic Change editorial board accept a peer-reviewed article for publication, but then secretly solicit two unfavorable commentaries that are not then peer-reviewed themselves, are personally critical, and badly misrepresent the work in question, and then actively deny any opportunity for the article’s author to respond after their publication? I have never heard of such a thing happening in scientific journals elsewhere, and I have had no explanation from Gary Yohe and Michael Oppenheimer, other than a re-iteration of the fallacies presented in the commentaries.

How should a journal behave when the editors disagree with the contents of an article they have chosen to publish, as presumably they did here? My own belief is that openness is paramount. As discussed by someone else here, it can be very important for journal editors to allow authors to defend their work where they choose to solicit critiques. This is because there is always the potential for the author’s work to be misunderstood. It is equally important for those writing critiques to contact the authors ahead of time to avoid any potential for misrepresentation.

Everyone makes mistakes, in papers, reviews, and editorial decisions. Sometimes it is excusable, and other times less so. But in all cases, good science requires that we strive for fairness and to set aside our personal political or philosophical views, particularly where the potential is that others’ work might be mistakenly cast in a negative light. This is the spirit that tends to guide science since we are not politicians. Most of the time we are simply working together to try to figure things out.