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Current Events from a Science Perspective

Newsflash: The Earth's Temperature Is Still Going up

Conservative politicians and columnists like to say,”The Earth’s temperature hasn’t gone up since 1998″. That is certainly wrong, and creates doubts about them actually being “conservative”. Just a few weeks ago my Congressman said in a letter, “The Earth’s temperature hasn’t gone up since 1997”, stretching it a bit. That’s his excuse for not supporting action on climate change.

That untruth about the Earth’s temperature was popularized by George Will when he used it to attack John McCain during the 10warmest2008 election. George Will was apparently upset that a conservative Republican was recommending action on global warming. When I contacted George Will for an explanation, he said that 1998 was the warmest year on record and no year since had been hotter. Actually 2005 was, destroying his argument. There have been several warmers years since – as shown in the graph at the right. And so far, 2015 is setting a new record.

Not willing to give up on a good excuse, the politicians and pundits now claim the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed their deception. That’s not right, either. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report  stated that the global surface temperature “has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years [1998-2012] than over the past 30 to 60 years.” The apparent slowdown was termed a “hiatus” and cheered by the Skeptics, although a “smaller increasing linear trend” is not a hiatus. And it turned out that the “smaller increasing linear trend” was caused by a change in the way the Earth’s temperature was measured, not by an actual decrease in the rate of warming.

Dr. Tom Karl, director of the National Centers for Environmental Information,  is the lead author of the  study published in the journal Science. He explained the discrepancy came from a change in how ocean temperatures were measured. “Global ocean temperatures are estimated both by thousands of commercial ships, which record the temperature of the water entering their engines and by thousands of buoys. The buoys tend to get cooler temperature readings than the ships, likely because ships’ engines warm the water. Meanwhile, in recent years, buoys have become increasingly common.”  The result, Karl says, is that the oceans did not appear to be warming as much because more buoys are now being used instead of ships. So Karl’s team adjusted the buoy data to make them line up with the ship data. The corrected data,  shows that since 1998, the rate of warming is about the same as it has been since 1950: about two-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit per decade.

That should settle the matter but some politicians just are not willing to accept science  and, interestingly enough, one of them is the chair of the Congressional Science Committee.  Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has spent much of the last few years pressuring the National Science Foundation to ensure that it only funds science he thinks is worthwhile and “in the national interest.” He certainly didn’t think that Dr. Karl’s research,  showing the Earth’s temperature was still going up an alarming rate, was in the national interest. So, he sent a request that Dr. Karl and NOAA provide his office with “[a]ll data related to this study and the updated global datasets” along with the details of the analysis and “all documents and communications” related to part of that analysis.

The request was meant to be burdensome, but apparently Congressman Smith does not understand how science publications work. NOAA responded to Rep. Smith’s request by pointing him to the relevant data and methods, all of which had already been publicly available. Undeterred, Representative Smith asked for even more data, explanations, and communications. NOAA did not respond to that request or the following subpoena, citing a “confidentiality interest”.   Committee Member Bernice Johnson (D – TX), intervened  with a letter sent to Rep. Smith revealing and criticizing his actions. In it, she noted that Rep. Smith was looking into a scientific study and not a Federal policy decision. “As such,” she wrote, “this is not an area of delegated legislative authority by Congress  (unless you are proposing that Congress should somehow legislatively overrule peer-reviewed scientific findings).” Of course that is what Rep. Smith would like to do, but he will likely have to content himself with just harassing Dr. Karl and NOAA.

(C) 2015 J.C. Moore


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