Richard Alley Back with More on How to Talk to an Ostrich – “It Stopped Warming in 1998”
May 14, 2012
The tobacco industry showed us decades ago that if you put out bad information, and repeat it often enough, a certain percentage of people will keep believing it, and repeating it, endlessly. The whole premise of the climate crock series is to tackle those crunchy nuggets of ignorance head on. I’ve been so pleased to see Richard Alley and Geoffrey Haines-Stiles of PBS’s “Earth the Operator’s Manual” series taking the same approach.
During a meeting in 2008, a U.S. senator told me about the many claims that global warming stopped in 1998, suggesting that we really don’t need to be concerned about future warming and that climate scientists were misleading the public.
Google the phrase “global warming stopped in 1998” for yourself, and you’ll see tens of thousands of results. A quick reading of these “results” finds many agreeing with the senator’s sources, with many others debunking this claim. So what were the senator and I to do? The variability of nature often fools us. Everyday experiences with weather — an unexpectedly warm winter, or a cooler-than-anticipated summer — get many folks confused. But science has a way of connecting the dots of temperature over time, to find out what nature is really telling us.
When the senator quizzed me, the hottest year in thermometer records was either 1998 or 2005, depending on which compilation you chose. A huge El Niño had cranked up the 1998 temperature. But, if 1998 was the hottest or second-hottest year through 2007, didn’t that in fact show that global warming had stopped, just as some people argued?
To find out what’s really going on, the analysis is best done with extensions of statistical tests developed by a mathematician working for the Guinness brewery more than a century ago. (But that’s a tale for another day.) Let me walk you through some dates in the past 50 years of Earth’s climate history, keying them to a few personal milestones, and with my tongue somewhat in cheek. Do be aware that Latin for wandering about is “errare”, the root of our word, error.
I’ve delved into this at least twice myself, see below: