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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 05/ 5/2008

Freedman: Global Warming Has Not Been Canceled

By Andrew Freedman

Many stories were written last week about a study in the scientific journal Nature [subscription required] showing that, during the next few years, naturally shifting ocean currents may offset some of the greenhouse gas-induced warming trend for parts of North America and Europe. The trouble with the study was that its many gray areas were lost in the black and white world of climate change discourse in the United States.

"Global Warming Will Stop," blared the typically shrill headline of the latest 'contrarian-gram' press release from Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe's office.

Sorry senator, but the study did not show that global warming has been canceled. At the most it showed that further significant increases in global temperatures might be slightly postponed until after about 2015, or potentially earlier, by natural climate trends.

The study by a group of European climate researchers, led by Noel Keenlyside of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Germany, was based on preliminary results from a new method that uses computer models to generate shorter-term (decadal) climate predictions based on real world oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Keenlyside and his co-authors fed recent ocean surface temperature data into the models to produce their results.

As Joseph Romm pointed out on ClimateProgress, the study used a decadal timescale in a way that was easily misinterpreted by many journalists and rabble-rousers such as Inhofe. The study compared the mean temperature during the period between 2005 and 2015 with the mean temperature of the period between 2000 and 2010. That's not the same as saying that the next ten years, from 2008 to 2018, are going to be colder than normal in North America and Europe, which is how some reported the story. Romm wrote that the study's conclusion is actually consistent with other studies that have shown that rapid warming may commence again sometime soon after 2010.

The recent Nature study demonstrates that manmade, or anthropogenic, climate change needs to be viewed in its proper context. Too often it seems that there is scant room within the competing popular paradigms on climate change to convey the reality that global climate change doesn't mean that the climate will warm significantly, or even at all, every single year.

As National Center for Atmospheric Research climate scientist Kevin Trenberth succinctly put it to Andrew Revkin in the May 1 edition of the New York Times, "Too many think global warming means monotonic relentless warming everywhere year after year."

"It does not happen that way."

This is a key point that has not penetrated far into the public's (or the media's) conscience.

Global warming is taking place in fits and starts, with an overall upward trend in temperatures amidst the background noise of significant year-to-year variations. What the recent study did was try to clarify some of this background noise.

It's because of the natural climate variability that I cringe every time I see someone in the environmental community or in journalism try to link a single severe weather event to climate change, such as Hurricane Katrina. I worry that support for taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is thereby being built on the shoddy foundation of weather variability, rather than on the messier but more significant long-term record of climate change.

Take a look at any graph of temperature trends over the past 100 years and you'll see the tug of war between natural climate variability and manmade climate change caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The overall temperature trend is clearly one of warming, but some years are colder than the year before it.

But if such a cooling trend came to pass, would the momentum for climate change action, which is based upon ever increasing temperatures, be sustainable? As Revkin asked in a piece on his "Dot Earth" blog on May 1: "Can Climate Campaigns Withstand a Cooling Test?"

The answer, in my view, is that climate campaigns would not be sustainable if they are built around a simplistic view of climate change that holds that the world will be warmer with each passing day, week, month, and year. The answer is yes if scientists, policymakers, and journalists succeed in moving the debate to its proper context within the broader issues of contemporary global challenges, such as energy security and population growth.

Keep in mind that even if the Nature study had shown that Londoners and New Yorkers will be shivering throughout the next decade, it would not have necessarily negated the scientific consensus pointing to long-term warming due to human activities. Still, judging from the confusion that greeted the study this week, I doubt that an actual prolonged cold period would be treated as anything other than the collapse of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Revkin's question reminded me of the fact that in 1988, former Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado and his colleagues deliberately scheduled the first major hearings on global warming on one of the statistically hottest days of the year in Washington, and then had aides turn off the air conditioning in the hearing room for added effect. That human interference with the indoor climate demonstrated that people, and poll-driven politicians in particular, respond to the weather and the climate that they feel, not the atmosphere that they see projected years into the future. If warming were to halt for a decade, it's entirely possible that momentum to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would come to a standstill as well, even though from a scientific perspective it should do no such thing.

I invite you to share your thoughts about how a few years without significant warming might affect climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Will there be fewer incentives to act? Do you feel that the media, environmentalists, and politicians are clearly conveying the distinction between natural variability and human influences on the climate system?

By Andrew Freedman  | May 5, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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I disagree completely.

I think this column on Stubborn Facts best summarizes my thoughts on this issue.

---begin quote---
Well, I'd really hate to misunderstand this, so let's sum up. If there is a slight rise in global temperatures over a few decades that falls entirely within natural variation consistent with historical world climate, we must all panic and spend trillions and trillions of dollars to change our ways, even starve some folks pursuing alternate fuels, because someone's theoretical and unverifiable model says we might raise the temperature of the planet a bit. But if temperatures fail to actually accomodate the models and theory, as they have for the last several years, it's just natural variation interfering with the upward temperature trend signal. And if that lack of predicted temperature trend persists, then it must actually be due to an unanticipated effect of global warming and natural variation.

Because it can't possibly be that the theory underlying the model simply does not correspond all that well to the real world in the first place. When the data and the model do not match, obviously there's something wrong with reality, not with the model! At worst, it just means we need to add another epicycle to the model to get all those temperature trends smoothed out. Because, you know, sooner or later the model will win!
---end quote---

source of quote -

How much does it take for some people to begin questioning the model or the underlying theory?

I look forward to the day when everyone who advocated teaching this unsubstantiated theory to small children via the public education system gets their pants sued off. It is unconscionable to scare little children with this theory. Everyone who advocated scaring kids should pay the price for their actions.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | May 5, 2008 11:18 AM | Report abuse

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, George Bush the elder said he wasn't going to gloat, and I remember thinking at the time that I wished he would gloat, loud and long, and ridicule the idiot lefties who had been assuring us that socialism would triumph over decadent, ineffecient capitalism, all evidence to the contrary. Now the global warming hysteria has jumped the shark, and I just pray that James Inhofe isn't the gentleman that Bush was. I want gloating now!

Posted by: Frank Lee | May 5, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I believe there is one important aspect of the study that thus far has been overlooked. Specifically, the results are based upon the run of a single model, which may or may not provide a reasonable estimate of the future as a function of model deficiencies, errors in specification of imposed boundary conditions (e.g., SST) or simply as a function of chance. Individual state-of-the-art climate models, such as those used in the IPCC investigations, have somewhat unique characteristics, biases as well as being subject to random errors. IPPC recognizes this fact by basing its conclusions upon multiple runs of many different models to determine the signal from the noise of multiple outcomes. In weather prediction, the same approach - for essentially the same purpose - is incorporated into ensemble prediction systems and strategies, i.e., to account for the inevitable uncertainties in any single model run. So, until the conclusions from the European study referenced by Andrew are subject to the same approach and rigor as the IPCC studies, the results should be taken with nothing more than the colloquial grain of salt. It's apparent that the European investigators recognize this. What they obviously did not recognize or sufficiently appreciate is the misuse of the information of their press release. Should the results ultimately prove correct, namely, a decrease in the rate of global warming over the next decade, just remember how fast the drive for fuel efficient vehicles and alternative energy sources subsided after the last gas crisis ran its course and gas prices dropped.

Posted by: Steve Tracton | May 5, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm happy to hear that global warming's course may be hindered, no matter how slightly, in the next few years. It means more snow for us (hooray!), less drought for those in undeveloped nations (double hooray!) and more time to develop alternative energy sources (triple hooray!)

This is news that everyone, skeptic or believer, can celebrate. (Just not with carbonated drinks, please. We already have too much CO2 in the atmosphere.)

Posted by: mcleaNed | May 5, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Steve Tracton, you're right that the study should be looked at as a preliminary result. The study was written up as such, but it raised some interesting questions nonetheless. Unfortunately, the "preliminary" aspect didn't exactly make it into many of the news stories about the study.
mcleaNed: While a slowing down of global warming would be welcome news, it's not very good news that warming would accelerate rapidly after the cooling influence wanes.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | May 5, 2008 9:34 PM | Report abuse


Your comments today seem to be somewhat on the defensive.

Ultimately, success or failure of any discourse, is highly influenced by public perception. To deny this, is to cuddle to lunacy!

My perception indicates that the ten year year pause,(or quagmire), may give the evolutionary process time to kick in. I have always believed that those who foolishly bought into the idea of global consensus for meaningful CO2 reduction were searching for beachfront property in Elkins W.Va.

The historically high inflationary rate of crude will encourage a solution, negotiation will not!!!

We all desire a cleaner environment. We just can't agree on a tolerance of muck, to achieve that panacea and we will not tolerate apocalypse tomorrow in pursuit of a possible paradise 100 years from now.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | May 5, 2008 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Having not personally reviewed the data, I am certainly not an expert on global warming. However, I do disagree with Al Gore's recommendation to get a programmable thermostat. If interested, more thoughts at:

Posted by: S.P. Gass | May 5, 2008 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, I think your column is right on in noting the perils of linking climate change to shorter term weather patterns and individual weather events.

Unfortunately, you don't point the finger of blame squarely where it belongs - at self-proclaimed climate advocate Al Gore. The former Vice President's documentary, featuring huge tidal waves and other depictions of single disastourous events, was really the beginning of this public misperception. Some of Gore's lesser-educated followers, like Sen. John Kerry, have continued to stoke public perception that weather events can be blamed on global warming (recall Kerry linking climate change to the tornado outbreaks in February).

As a result of this public perception problem, a few years of cooler than average temperatures will either further stall efforts to address climate change, or lead to efforts to roll back any efforts we make before that time. The public, convinced that global warming was a hoax because it was cold last year, will be outraged at their increased electric and gas bills. And we can thank Al Gore, who pretends to be an advocate for the climate, while instead doing nothing more than promoting himself and ingratiating himself with the Hollywood elite.

When will those advocating a sensible change in our behavior and energy use to combat the very real problem of climate change disown Gore? It can can't come soon enough. But it might also be too late.

Posted by: Southside FFX | May 6, 2008 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman, you wrote, "As Joseph Romm pointed out on ClimateProgress, the study used a decadal timescale in a way that was easily misinterpreted by many journalists and rabble-rousers such as Inhofe."

It is very disrespectful to refer to a United States Senator in such a manner. You should refer to him as Senator Inhofe.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | May 6, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Former Vice President Al Gore is trying to link the disaster in Myanmar with global warming.

He has to know that what he is saying is false. There is simply no way that he can not know that. Somebody has to have told him.

First, there is no evidence or model that supports the theory that warmer oceans will increase the severity of storms.

Second, the oceans have actually been cooling since 2003.

So the obvious question is why is Former Vice President Al Gore lying? He must be getting desperate as he watches the global warming scam collapse. I can think of no other rational explanation.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | May 6, 2008 8:59 PM | Report abuse

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