Claims that 2016 was “the hottest year on record” are drawing sharp criticism from scientists who say it reflects how global warming has become more social crusade than evidence-based science.
“The Obama administration relentlessly politicized science and it aggressively pushed a campaign about that politicized science,” said Steven E. Koonin, who served as under secretary for science in Obama’s Department of Energy from 2009 to 2011.
Koonin, a theoretical physicist at New York University who once worked for energy giant BP, also blamed a “happily complicit” media for trumpeting the now-departed Obama administration’s dubious claim.
The controversy began in mid-January when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report declaring that “the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2016 was the highest among all years since record-keeping began in 1880.”
NOAA fixed the 2016 increase at 0.04 degrees Celsius. The British Met Office reported an even lower rise, of 0.01C. Both increases are well within the margin of error for such calculations, approximately 0.1 degrees, and therefore are dismissed by many scientists as meaningless.
The reports, however, set the global warming bell towers ringing. Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was quoted at Climate Central referring to the past temperature record and saying “2016 has really blown that out of the water.”
Following the lead of the Schmidt and government press releases, USA Today wrote that “the planet sizzled to its third straight record warm year in 2016.” The New York Times’ front-page headline said, “Earth Sets Temperature Record for Third Straight Year.” The article declared that the latest readings were “trouncing” earlier numbers and the planet had thus “blown past” the previous records.
Such characterizations are absurd, according to Richard Lindzen, a meteorology professor at MIT and one of the world’s foremost skeptics that global warming represents an existential threat.
“It’s typical misleading nonsense,” Lindzen said in an e-mail. “We’re talking about less than a tenth of degree with an uncertainty of about a quarter of a degree. Moreover, such small fluctuations – even if real – don’t change the fact that the trend for the past 20 years has been much less than models have predicted.”
Koonin suggested the White House and the media could consider an alternative presentation of what’s happening.
“I think simply by having the government press releases on the changing climate be fulsomely scientific – that is, putting in all the relevant facts – we would see more genuine science in the media discussions,” he said.
As an example, he offered a headline that read, “Global Temperatures Up 0.0X for 2016; Within Margin of Error for Last N Years.” Rather than exclaim “Sea Levels Highest on Record,” Koonin said, the press releases could encourage, and perhaps media outlets accept, one that reads, “Sea Level Rose 0.1 Inches Last Year, Consistent With Century-Long Trend.”
But would that stir public opinion or sell papers?
“It’s not my job to sell papers,” Koonin said. “The White House positions, the press releases, the published stories – all of that is not exactly inaccurate but it is promoting something considerably less alarming or certain than the layperson might conclude from reading it all.”
The issue is not one of fake news or manipulated data but of emphasis.
The Times said it did not rely solely on data sets that showed a 0.01C increase. The paper’s coverage incorporated other studies that showed a greater increase in average temperatures, particularly those that take Arctic changes into account, said Justin Gillis, who covers global warming for The Times. Gillis provided a bar graph to RealClearInvestigations that showed three other conclusions reflecting higher temperature jumps than those recorded by NOAA and the British meteorology office in conjunction with East Anglia University, one of the world’s centers of global warming research.
Judith Curry, a former Georgia Tech scientist who left her academic post this month largely because of the charged politics surrounding global warming, said the other temperature data sets are less precise.
She said there are “some good reasons” why one of the British 0.01C sources elects not to extend its coverage to the Arctic Ocean. “There is little to no data, and the extrapolation methods are dubious,” Curry wrote in an e-mail.
Neither USA Today nor Schmidt replied to requests for comment.
In addition to Curry, Koonin and Lindzen, five other experts told RealClearInvestigations the layman’s understanding of the issue would improve if the Trump administration adopted a more neutral stance toward global warming stories. That would be certain to be interpreted as one of “denial” about global warming, and already several figures in the emerging Trump team have been denounced by The Times and others as climate deniers.
This rhetoric again obscures the real issue, according to the skeptics, who insist the important question for government and taxpayers isn’t global warming’s reality but rather its extent and, consequently, the best policies that can be crafted to address it. Some experts pointed with approval to the incoming administration stripping global-warming material from the White House website literally moments after power changed hands. One suggested the Office of Science and Technology Policy could be transformed and its mission redirected.
“It will be a huge cross-agency effort to stem this flood, perhaps led by OSTP,” said David Wojick, a government contractor who has tracked federal spending on global warming research for years. “Alarmist federal press releases, websites and reports are very big beer indeed.”
Correction: Jan. 30, 2017, 5:53 PM Eastern
An earlier version of this article misstated the global average temperature rise for 2016 reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is 0.04 degrees Celsius, not 0.01, the increase reported by the British Met Office.