Open Mind

Ross Clark Turns Crybaby in the U.K. <i>Spectator</i>


Ross Clark, in the U.K. Spectator, whines about “Global temperatures have fallen — so why isn’t it being reported?

Because it’s not news, Ross.

As Ross himself points out, one of the big reasons recent temperatures have been so hot is the strong el Niño event. Heat is transferred from oceans to atmosphere, raising surface temperature and causing a peak in global temperature (measured at the surface). But el Niño is only a temporary warming influence. When it subsides, temperature soon follows suit. We all knew it would happen — it’s not news.

What is news to some people (but not to scientists) is that el Niño isn’t the only reason for the recent record-breaking heat. The other part of the reason is global warming. While el Niño brings a warming fluctuation, global warming means a warming trend, and when trend and fluctuation combine we get record-hot months, and years. Like this year will end up. Like last year was. Like the year before that was. Yes, 2016 will break the record for hottest year for the third time in a row. Now that is newsworthy.

The last time we had a really strong el Niño was 1997-1998. Man-made climate change was already under way back then, so the el Niño-induced fluctuation combined with the global warming-induced trend to make 1998 a record-smashing hot year.

The years that followed weren’t as hot because they lacked that strong el Niño influence. For years, climate deniers jumped at the chance to tout failure to exceed the 1998 record as evidence against global warming. Scientists tried to explain that it was only because the el Niño influence was so strong that the global warming trend took some time to catch up and overtake it. But deniers denied. It’s what they do.

The thing about a trend is that it persists. Year after year, it keeps creeping upward, and seven years later, in 2005, the trend had accumulated enough heating for Earth to overtake the 1998 el Niño peak, and broke the record for hottest year. It did again in 2010. And again in 2014. And again in 2015. And will again in 2016.

But it’s not until this year that we’ve seen a really big el Niño like in 1998. When a monster el Niño combines with a persistent trend you not only get record-breaking heat, you get monster record-breaking heat. And that, my friends, is news.

The fact that, like all el Niño events, it was only temporary — that’s not news. But because he wants to downplay climate change, Ross Clark thinks it is:

… wouldn’t it be a bit more newsworthy for Nasa to make a little more of its own data on global temperatures, which show that the sharp rise in 2015 and early 2016 has been equally sharply-reversed. You have to search for it yourself. It is on the last graph, titled ‘Monthly Mean Global Surface Temperature’.

The graph he refers to is this one:

The huge peak is rather obvious. One might even say “blatant.” Or “stunning.” But the return to the pre-existing trend isn’t exactly stunning news, is it?

Ross Clark doesn’t just imply that the trend is no big deal, he says it outright:

It is still possible to see in the data a gentle upwards trend over the past 40 years. But it is somewhat misleading — as Nasa, the Guardian and many others have done — to interpret the sharp rise in global temperatures in 2015 and early 2016 as a shocking new acceleration in climate change, and then to keep quiet when temperatures fall back again to their much more modest, long-term trend.

The trend isn’t “modest,” Ross. If we examine the data for those “last 40 years” we see this:

That upward trend is rather obvious. One might even say “blatant.” Or “stunning.”

The drop due to fluctuation that Ross Clark wants shouted from the mountaintops is this big:

But the rise due to trend is even bigger:

The trend rise isn’t just bigger than the fluctuation fall, the most important difference is that it will persist. As in, keep going. El Niño events come and go, but the trend keeps going. That’s why scientists are sounding the alarm.

From the point of view of public perception, here’s the most important thing about the recent string of record-breaking years: the recent el Niño was so strong that it will take several years for the continuing trend to overtake it and break the record again. That means we’ll be subjected to years of climate deniers crowing about how global warming has stopped because there’s been “no warming since 2016.” They won’t mention that it’s only because of the 2016 el Niño — despite having done their best to blame the record on el Niño in the first place.

Scientists, meanwhile, will pay attention to the trend. The one that’s rising. Because of us. The one that’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

Three record-breaking hot years in a row is a sign from nature. It’s persuasive. It’s news. The fact that el Niño doesn’t last is not news. Snivel about it all you want, Ross. The only places that will run your “news” that isn’t news, are those that cater to deniers of man-made climate change.

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