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.

Here in his signature style is Dr. Alley smashing the “it stopped warming in 1998” meme, so popular among Fox-perts.

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:


31 Responses to “Richard Alley Back with More on How to Talk to an Ostrich – “It Stopped Warming in 1998””

  1. omnologos Says:

    Nice. Does this mean 55 years is long enough a timespan to tell if it’s getting warmer or not… /sarc

    • otter17 Says:

      Sure, when you also gather many lines of evidence from both paleo records and models, as well as current biological indicators all showing warming. The only folks that are using too short of a time span are those that bypass the scientific method and communicate directly with the public sphere. These are the people that disagree with the science and also try to influence the policy debate via blogs, op-eds, books, etc. The “no warming since 1998” crock would get shot down in peer review easily.

      This is why we have misguided people gaming start and end points for various years. For example, 1998 to xxxx year produces no warming, but if you go even one year back it shows warming. If one goes the long view route, one looks at the hockey stick graph, and its various companion sticks from other reconstructions. Here, we see a rate of warming that, when extrapolated, seems to lead to a quite warmer period as quickly as within this century. This HAS passed peer review, multiple times, and has been cited, multiple times. The scientific method has spoken, and while it is possible to change, the current state of the hockey stick is the most robust one.

      In my opinion, I have seen a pattern among lay people that disagree with the vast majority of scientists, NAS, etc. Some feel that the solution is impossible; this belief is stronger than evidence presented to them about climate change, and thus minimize or deny quite a bit of evidence from climate science. Some dislike the cultural identification with Al Gore, and similar politics. Still, others fear government intrusion. These are all beliefs that seem to greatly outweigh climate science in some people’s minds. Thus, a rational risk mitigation assessment is not made when up against an immovable belief.

      • omnologos Says:

        otter17 – that’s not what Richard Alley says in the video. He simply replaces “14 years” with “55 years”…

        • otter17 Says:

          But… he also mentions the various other lines of evidence that support the graphic he made. My point is that Dr. Alley isn’t fooling himself, or anybody else, by using that 55 years graph since he has a substantial amount of evidence to show that the trend is indeed real.

          Your point (sarcastic point, but still) seemed to be that his 55 year period is probably no better, but you seem to miss the fact that the short periods are obviously deceptive.

          His graph in the early part of the video was illustrative of a point, and done rather well. It exposes the easily debunked notion that warming can be shown to have stopped by specifically choosing start and end times. I don’t see a way to nitpick that.

          Then again, I see something about the 1998 crock on your blog, in a “Addendum to Skeptics Dictionary”. Before nitpicking a renowned scientist, maybe clean up your own egregious errors.

          • omnologos Says:

            Temperatures have not risen since 1998. Is that still contentious to say? Even SkS says 1998, 2005 and 2010 are “in a statistical tie”: ie, temperatures have not risen since 1998.

          • otter17 Says:

            Yes, it is contentious since it is very misleading.

            1) The year 1998 is chosen specifically since it was a strong El Nino year. Other years nearby 1998 do not produce the same result. Decadal averages show the last decade warmer than the 90’s, 80’s, and so on.

            2) It focuses attention on a short time frame while ignoring the rest of the record.

            Rather than look at the big picture and use a running average, some people use this as a means to focus attention on a small portion of the record and make unfounded claims that the warming trend will reverse, somehow. This is likely not going to be the case, barring some departure from the current path (large volcano eruption cooling, increase in aerosol emissions, reduction of GHG emissions, etc).

    • Martin Lack Says:

      No. But I think 7000 years may just be long enough basis to judge whether 200 years of warming is significant.

      • omnologos Says:

        why not 12000?

        • Martin Lack Says:

          Presumably, you are referring to the fact that 12,000 years ago the Earth began to come out of an Ice Age that almost wiped hominids out? If so, you are simultaneously ignoring the fact that we would not be here to argue had it not been for the 7,000 years of relative climate and sea level stability that have followed. Therefore, as I feel sure I have said to you before, any greater variability in the Earth’s climate (going further back in time) is utterly irrelevant: All life on Earth is adapted to the way things are now and, in the midst of an interglacial epoch, we have discovered a way to melt all remaining ice on the planet – which will eventually push sea levels 75 metres above where they are now.

          What I would like to know, therefore, is why it does not seem to bother you that 1 billion live within just 25 metres of current sea level?

          • omnologos Says:

            Martin – my point was actually that any timespan is “cherry-picking”. Climate varies at all possible frequencies.

            As for the billions to be submerged, I’m sure anybody believing in species adaptation will welcome that round of “survival of the fittest” /sarc

          • Martin Lack Says:

            “…any timespan is ‘cherry picking’…” – complete b0ll0cks!

            In general, the longer the time period considered, the greater the confidence one can have that any long-term trend (or stability) is significant.

            Given everything else we can and should learn from palaeoclimatology, your optimism is completely illogical.

          • otter17 Says:

            This is an attempted cop out. Climate does not necessarily vary at all possible frequencies and that statement cannot be posed as fact. If temperature varied at all possible frequencies, it would look like a white noise signal. Furthermore, unless you can find and explain some mechanism behind a cycle that operates at a certain frequency, there is no reason to believe one exists, particularly if we see no precedent in the paleo records.

            Heck, one could believe we are in the middle of a natural cycle where the temperature shoots up rapidly by 2 degrees and then back down to normal by the end of the century. I call it the “BSO”, Bull Shit Oscillation. It happens to be a coincidence that it starts during a period of rapidly increasing greenhouse gases. What a coincidence, right?

  2. daveburton Says:

    The last couple of decades have, indeed, been warm. They were certainly warmer than the chilly 1960s and 1970s, and much warmer than the frigid 1700s. But (despite dubious adjustments of the data to create the appearance of warming) it’s doubtful that the last couple of decades have been warmer than the 1930s.

    • Mike Says:

      29000 data sets documenting range shifts of all manner of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria (especially large slow reproducing tree species) demonstrates that it is indeed much warmer now than anytime in the last century. Of course other proxies also demonstrate that its also warmer now than any in the last couple of millenia.
      Erroneous claims of ‘dubious’ data adjustments are also unhelpful, particularly when it suggests you don’t understand why temperature data is homogenised. A full and detailed, open and honest explanation is given on the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website, complete with access to the raw data and all the mathematical and statistical information you need, to do it yourself for the Australian data sets. I imagine there are similar sources for others around the world. There certainly is in the literature. I would suggest that rather than make unsubstantiated claims linked to some nobody’s blogsite, you examine the BOM site, others like it and the peer-reviewed literature and then explain in some detail how their reasons and methodology are incorrect.

      • omnologos Says:

        Mike – are those the 29,000 data sets mentioned in AR4 and shortly afterwards in a paper?

        • Mike Says:

          I have a link to the paper there plus quite a few more concerning range shifts due to AGW and HICC.

          It may be in AR4. I don’t have time to read the whole IPCC reports. I work 12 hours a day as it is.

        • daveburton Says:

          The Climate Movement activists are in denial, and I don’t mean a river in Egypt.

          Global temperatures haven’t risen since the Clinton Administration, but the Climate Movement activists refuse to accept it; 1.5 decades isn’t long enough to discern a trend, they think; no matter how long the plateau persists, you’ve got to go back to the chilly 1970s before it’s long enough.

          Not the 1930s, though. If 40 years is long enough, twice that is too long, I guess. Where we have actual temperature measurements documenting the hot 1930s, at in some places, like the U.S., the Climate Movement activists insist the measurements are too localized, and are trumped by much more extremely localized indirect “proxy” evidence (and manipulate the data to hide the problems with those proxies). “It is clear that 1998 did not match the record warmth of 1934,” wrote James Hansen, et al, about U.S. temps, before someone adjusted the U.S. temperature record, to add 0.7 C of warming, 0.4 C of of it unexplained as far as Scott Mandia can find.

          Where we have no temperature measurements, but overwhelming historical evidence of a very warm MWP (e.g., agricultural communities in Greenland and using wood for construction for >400 years, where it’s too cold to grow crops and trees now), the Climate Movement activists do the same thing, denying the undeniable, and insisting that highly localized & dubious proxies trump real historical records.

          Real evidence has a conservative bias and can’t be trusted, unlike computer models, which have the advantage of being financed from the billion$ (with a “B”) poured down the Climate Movement rathole each year by the world’s governments. So pay no attention to the actual sea level record behind that curtain, the great and mighty CO2 will certainly cause the rate of sea level rise to soar, any minute now. Do NOT pull back this curtain, Toto:

          • Mike Says:

            “Where we have no temperature measurements, but overwhelming historical evidence of a very warm MWP (e.g., agricultural communities in Greenland and using wood for construction for >400 years, where it’s too cold to grow crops and trees now), the Climate Movement activists do the same thing, denying the undeniable, and insisting that highly localized & dubious proxies trump real historical records.”

            Even if what you are saying about wood in Greenland and evidence for farming communities were true, what have you got to say that it wasn’t localised due to some anomalous sea current or other? Are you extrapolating what allegedly happened in Greenland to be a global phenomenon? I’ll cut to the chase here to save some exchanges. You are saying that the global warming of today is not as serious as the global warming of MWP and you are relying on some localised physical evidence to do so. The only way you could possibly extrapolate the localised evidence from Greenland, is to rely on “dubious proxies” from elsewhere in the world. But let’s pretend for a moment that you can actually miraculously establish a global MWP without using the “dubious proxies” and you can establish some sort of measurement for temperatures. Let’s also pretend that your global MWP temperatures were as high or even higher than today. My question is, what caused it? Presumably you are suggesting some sort of natural cause? With that in mind, what sort of natural cause are you postulating for the current warming? Oh, that’s right, you’re saying the data has been fudged, which brings me back to range shifts in various species. Why are species moving to areas where they have never been before? If it was indeed warmer in the 30’s surely the critters would have presumably moved into those new areas, moved back out when it cooled again and moved back as they are now? Since you are so fond of real historical records………

            As for the rest of your post, propaganda is a very weak argument.

          • otter17 Says:


            Get over your “us versus them” mentality. Real evidence does not have a conservative bias, or any political bias for that matter.

            A majority of people in the USA want to sit at the table to come up with a plan or policy to mitigate climate change in the coming decades, but if you refuse to sit at that table, your ideas will likely be excluded. Nobody is making things up or over-reacting in order to make an excuse for action. Heck, I would love it if climate change didn’t exist, one fewer problem to solve. I’m sure others feel the same way.

            So, please, stop ranting like a conspiracy theorist. People that want to take action on climate change are not your enemy. Help us find a way that works best for everybody.

    • otter17 Says:

      Just because you say that it is doubtful that the last couple of decades have been warmer than the 30’s doesn’t make it true. Furthermore, have you checked the raw data for yourself to see if the adjustments make a difference and “create an appearance of warming”? You have basically been spoon-fed the code, yet you produce nothing of value.

      Look man, this unwillingness to even do basic fact checking begs the question. What is your hang-up? Do you dislike the solutions to climate change? It’s ok to change your mind, but it would be more helpful to get to the root of the issue.

      • donaldbroatch Says:

        daveburton is an intelligent designer. I suppose it is possible that an intelligence designed it so burning the coal and oil would screw up the planet, but it would have to be a fairly malevolent intelligence with a sick sense of humour – quite the opposite of what IDers believe in I’m sure. Therefore AGW has to be wrong.

        • otter17 Says:

          Ah, yes. Some religious views get in the way of acceptance of evidence. I didn’t know he is an IDer.

          I told my father once that “maybe God put the fossil fuels there as a test, to see if we would use them for good, yet not be too gluttonous”. I don’t believe that, but it seemed to make sense to him, haha.

  3. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    How can a senator say to a world famous,accomplished scientist that they know more than than the scientist?? I cannot understand it??

  4. Over time, an object’s surface temperature reliably increases when the object is accumulating more heat than it is emitting. If much of the surface is a fluid, the graph of the inevitable increase will not be a straight line.

  5. […] Richard Alley Back with More on How to Talk to an Ostrich – “It Stopped Warming in 1998″ « Cl…  […]

  6. “Temperatures have not risen since 1998. Is that still contentious to say? ”


    Look up Dunning-Kruger. Really.

    Then explain your understanding of probability and statistics.

    Stop pretending. You are not a scientist. There is a reason they make people take tests in school. We want people who know what they are doing, piloting aircraft, doing surgery, designing bridges. No, not just anyone can do it. Ponder that. Look up Dunning-Kruger. Rinse and repeat.

  7. otter17 Says:

    Here is a great Youtube channel I discovered recently. This video in particular is very illustrative of the lay people who somehow think they know more than the collective knowledge from peer review literature. I think it ought to be featured.

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