Fumbling the Climate Change Story – Again

Posted on October 9, 2013


A short while ago the latest IPCC report came out.  This is edition 5, building on four previous ones.  More than 2000 scientists were involved in compiling it.  About 9200 peer-reviewed studies were considered, which together represent more than 2 million gigs of numerical data.  This is major stuff.  Okay, the politicos may have influenced it, most importantly those politicos who want to go slow in rewriting the way we operate in the world, politicos who are fond of the old way of doing things.

You know that old way, the way that created climate change in the first place.

So you’ve got to expect this report to lean Pollyanna, which it does.

So what do climate scientists sound like when they’ve been edited down to sound as optimistic as possible?  Sorta like prophets of doom.  As opposed to *echoing voice* Prophets of D-O-O-O-OM!!! I guess.

Which just goes to show that when the matter concerns climate change, being optimistic is like being optimistic about a house on fire.  That’s hard to do without lying and distorting, which is the stock-in-trade of professional denier outfits like the Heartland Institute not the IPCC—an organization which, unlike the Heartland Institute, is hemmed in by the facts.

The IPCC is much surer of their facts than they used to be.  Their central conclusion, that climate change is happening and humans are the cause, has been upgraded to 95 to 100 percent certainty, about the same certainty that scientists have that smoking causes cancer.  The previous report claimed a 90% certainty, which itself was an upgrade from the 66% certainty in 2001.

But we all knew it was going on anyway.

Except, apparently, the media who are under the impression, after the hottest decade in 1400 years (see the report) that climate change has paused.

Here’s a bunch of headlines compiled by Climate Progress:  Warming Slowdown Seen as Emissions Rise to Record, says Business Week.  Global Warming Has Slowed in Last 15 Years Despite Record Greenhouse Gas Levels, Scientists Say, says the National Post.  Climate Change Report’s ‘Temperature Hiatus’ Fuels Skeptics, says CBC.

Remember what I said about lies and distortions?  Business Week and the National Post, notorious climate-denying organs, are already guilty of both, and we haven’t even gotten to the articles yet.

Distortion?  That emissions in a given year are related to climate change that year.  This is simply not true.  It takes a while for greenhouse gases to act.  For instance, it is projected that if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, temperatures would continue to rise at least 0.5 degrees C.  So the Business Week and National Post headlines linking current emissions rise to current warming is distortion on the face of it.

Or maybe, to be kind, just ignorance.

And what about that slowdown?  Are the scientists really struggling with it?  Well, not only are the scientists not struggling with it, even I have no trouble with it.  That’s because a) there is no slowdown, and b) we’ve been seeing the same argument from climate change deniers ever since 1998.

1998 was the year of the most extreme El Niño on record, leading to a large spike in air-ground temperatures worldwide that year.  An El Niño is a natural cycle characterized by warm surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific.  Since temperature flows from warm to cool, El Niño conditions tend to impair the flow of heat from the atmosphere to the oceans.  It’s like closing the window on a hot day and shutting out the breeze.  The day isn’t really any hotter, but it will sure feel like it.  1998 was like that.

The record temperatures worldwide that year were the result of climate change plus El Niño conditions.  But you have to subtract the effect of El Niño to really measure climate change in that year, and when you do it isn’t nearly as spectacular a year as it’s been played.  The record temperatures of 1998 have been exceeded at least twice this century—without the assistance of spectacularly warm tropical Pacific waters.  That’s like having the breeze blowing and still feeling warmer than you’ve ever felt before.

What does the IPCC say about the issue?

Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to +0.15] °C per decade), which begins with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951 (1951–2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade).

So how does that become a headline about global warming pausing?

Let’s ignore the liars and distorters and stop pretending that 1998 puzzles anyone.  That’s not the story in the IPCC report.  There’s a lot in there, of course, but the main new thing the fifth report addresses is the carbon limit.  Fundamentally, to avoid some of the worst outcomes of climate change, we have to limit it to 2 degrees Celsius of warming.  To have a 66% chance of doing that, we will have to leave 90% of the world’s present reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.

90% is a headline.

Leave 90% of Fossil Fuels in the Ground, Say Scientists.

66% is a headline.

Even If We Drastically Reduce Fossil Fuel Use, Still a One in Three Chance We Are Headed for Disaster, Say Scientists.

Possible climate futures are a headline:

USA May Experience 5 Degrees C of Warming Under IPCC Scenarios.  That’s more than 5 times more warming -than we’ve experienced already, say scientists. Worldwide action urgent.

But keeping fossil fuels in the ground includes tar sands.  It includes natural gas.  It includes coal.  It includes oil.   There are a lot of people with a lot of money and power who have a stake in these substances.

Ay, there’s the rub.  That’s the part of the report that everybody is avoiding talking about while addressing a non-issue.

Leaving 90% (or more) of fossil fuels in the ground means engaging in fundamental changes as a civilization.  That’s huge news.

Maybe that’s too big a story for our press corps to absorb and that’s why they are wasting our time addressing scientific red herrings.

But with so much at stake, it’s a horribly dangerous and irresponsible tactic.

The press has to do better.



Who Created the Global Warming Pause – Mother Jones

Alarming IPCC Prognosis – Climate Progress

How Not to Write a Headline About IPCC’s Climate Science Report – Climate Progress