In some ways it’s been the “same old, same old” this week in the blogosphere. First, there was another confused piece on climate change from New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, this time postulating that “stable temperatures” and “a recent spate of relatively cool years” might blunt momentum for an international agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That was followed in short order by a scathing critique from Joe Romm at Climate Progress, excoriating Revkin’s “litany of misinformation and confusion” as something that might be expected from disinformation specialist Marc Morano of Climate Depot.
But this time it was different. For a closer examination shows that Revkin has corrected two of the most egregious errors in his article, presumably after reading Romm’s convincing and detailed deconstruction. So perhaps there is still hope for Revkin, at least someday. Unfortunately, major misinterpretations of climate science still remain in Revkin’s piece, and even worse, he gives credence to the views one of the most reprehensible fossil fuel industry apologists around, Patrick Michaels. All of that virtually ensures that Revkin’s latest essay will be a staple of contrarian disinformation for months to come.
[Update, Sept. 26: It's still not clear whether Revkin's corrections made it into the print edition of the Times. The article apparently ran on September 23 on page A6, a day or so after it appeared online.]
Romm’s critique gets right to the point with three direct quotes:
The top climate reporter for the NYT has published what is arguably the worst article of his career, replete with statements that simply are scientifically inaccurate or misleading beyond belief:
The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years….
The recent spate of relatively cool years is particularly noticeable because it followed a seesawing from unusually cool temperatures to unusually hot ones in the 1990s, said Vicky Pope of Britain’s climate agency, called the Met Office….
The global average temperature is now only an imperceptible .01 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999, according to the British meteorology office.
That litany of misinformation and confusion is what you expect from the Swift boat smearer’s website, not the paper of record.
I decided to check out the quotes, as I found it hard to believe that Revkin could get key information (conveniently put in bold by Romm) so wrong. And it turns out that Romm’s cut-and-paste skills are indeed intact (as seen in the original version copied at a hiking forum), but that Revkin had changed the quoted sentences in the mean time.
We’ll take the three quotes in reverse order.
The reference to global temperature now being “an imperceptible .01 degree higher” than 1999 was a mangled reference to a British Meteorology Office study on short-term trends. The passage now reads:
The global average temperature is now only 0.13 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999 … [Emphasis added].
Actually, Revkin still hasn’t got it quite right, as the quoted figure is the slope of the linear trend (or “increase”) over the decade 1999-2008. But a more serious problem is the omission of any reference to NASA’s GISS temperature analysis. NASA shows a much higher increase over that same decade, namely, 0.19 deg C, more than double the HadCRU trend of 0.07 deg C per decade. So not only is the so-called “plateau” more of a “slowdown”, but it rests very much on the choice of data sets.
The above reference to a “recent spate of relatively cool years” has been corrected as well:
The recent spate of years with stable temperatures is particularly noticeable because it followed a seesawing from unusually cool temperatures to unusually hot ones in the 1990s, said Vicky Pope of Britain’s climate office, called the Met Office. [Emphasis added]
However, the fact that the change was even necessary points up a confusion at the heart of Revkin’s treatment, namely the failure to distinguish clearly between variations within a decade and those from one decade to the next. Here, a quote from Vicky Pope in the same press release describing the above Met Office study would have been useful:
Decades like 1999–2008 occur quite frequently in our climate change simulations, but the underlying trend of increasing temperature remains.
That underlying trend can be clearly seen in this chart of decadal increases in global temperature:
As seen above, the increase in average global temperature in the 2000s relative to the 1990s ranges from 0.17 deg C in HadCRU to 0.19 deg C for NASA GISS. Astonishingly, this fact is not mentioned even once by Revkin. And yet it is much more relevant statistic for characterizing global warming than the short-term trends discussed at length by Revkin.
A similar confusion is evident in Revkin’s overarching thesis (only slightly altered from the original by insertion of the word “relatively”):
The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.
As Romm notes, this statement appears to be based, not on any scientific consensus, but on a single study ( Keenlyside et al. 2008 published in Nature). Here’s how Revkin understands that study:
[Co-author] Mojib Latif, a prize-winning climate and ocean scientist from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel, in Germany, wrote a paper last year positing that cyclical shifts in teh ocean were aligning in a way that could keep temperatures over the next decade or so relatively stable, even as the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming continued to increase.
[Update, Sept. 26: Clarification and elaboration of passage on Keenlyside et al.]
But, in fact, as has been pointed out by Romm and at RealClimate.org, the study projects an increase of close to 0.2 deg C for the “next decade” (i.e. 2010-2020 centred on 2015) over and above the decade about to end (centred on 2005). And very rapid warming is projected from 2015, “catching up” to the IPCC projection by 2030.
In all fairness to Revkin, it is true that the projection does show a possible “plateau” from now to 2015. On the other hand, the projection also clearly shows growing decadal increases, with no cooling whatsoever. The moderate projected increase for the decade just ended has already been surpassed by a long shot. It is projected to be followed by much larger increases in coming decades. It must be emphasized once again, this is just one study, one that is at odds with the overwhelming mainstream consensus. Revkin is wrong to highlight this one study as if it were one pole of current climate science.
Naturally, all of this confused discussion of a meaningless, short-term “plateau” or “pause” without any reference to the ongoing, relentless decade-over-decade warming trend plays right into the hands of uber-contrarian Patrick Michaels. And this is possibly the most galling part of Revkin’s exposition. Here we have someone who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret corporate funding over the years to push bogus science in the service of an anti-regulation agenda, and Revkin treats him as just another legitimate voice in the quest for journalistic “balance”.
In fact, the “pause in global warming” meme and its numerous variants are staples in the contrarians’ arsenal of arguments. Instead of lending it credence, Revkin should expose this tired contrarian talking point for the sham that it is. After all, the only ones pushing it are the so-called “skeptics” amply funded by hidden fossil fuel interests.
Even better would be an investigation, or at least acknowledgment, of the perfidy of phony science disinformation campaigns based on such memes, such as the imminent Monckton tour of Canada, sponsored by the Friends of Science. Or come to that, how about looking at the farce playing out in Washington – one in which Patrick Michaels happened to have played a large, if unwitting, role – namely the so-called suppression of the EPA’s Alan Carlin.
In the past, Revkin has lamented that communication of the urgency of tackling climate change has proved difficult. Surely, though, a large part of the responsibility lies with Revkin and other sincere journalists. They have continued the perpetuation of misunderstandings and failed abjectly to correct those misunderstandings or shed light on their dubious sources.
Andy Revkin, wake up. It’s time to start exposing the spin instead of succumbing to it.