03/03/2008 04:25 am ET Updated 6 days ago

Media Enable Denier Spin: A (Sort of) Cold January Doesn't Mean Climate Stopped Warming

I fully understand why the spreaders of climate disinformation have hyped up a (sort-of) cold January as if it somehow provided scientific evidence to support their campaign to undermine the well-established scientific understanding of human-caused climate change. That's their job (literally, in many cases).

But I can't understand why the media keeps treating such disinformers as if they were a genuine part of the scientific process who deserve free publicity, rather than as dangerous serial misleaders who don't believe in either science and real-world observations (but who repeatedly misuse one or the other to confuse to the general public).

Our deep understanding of the climate is, as I've noted, based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that themselves are based on countless real-world observations over decades (and paleoclimate data extending back hundreds of thousands of years). It can't be undercut by a few weeks of cool weather. And the really annoying thing, you may be surprised to learn, is that it hasn't even been remarkably cool!

So I don't understand why the usually thoughtful Andrew Revkin would enable the disinformers write a NYT article titled "Climate Skeptics Seize on Cold Spell," or why the usually thoughtful WSJ blog would write a similarly misguided piece, "Little Ice Age? Cold Snap Sparks Cooling Debate." Seriously. Who cares what non-climate-related factoid or piece of pseudo-science so-called 'Climate Skeptics' seize on? And the only "debate" that has been sparked is one created by the disinformers and the media.

This internet meme began with a misleading post by a meteorologist about how cool January 2008 was compared to January 2007 (but who made no connection to global warming). It got picked up by the climate disinformers at (what else would you call people who publish articles like "Solar Activity Diminishes; Researchers Predict Another Ice Age"). They wrote an article titled, "Temperature Monitors Report Widescale Global Cooling," with the subhead "Twelve-month long drop in world temperatures wipes out a century of warming." The Drudge Report linked to it, and the traditional media got suckered picked it up with blaring subheads like "An Unusually Cold Winter."

You might think from all this that 2007 was a cold year, surely much colder than 2006, or even that we've had an unusually cold winter. NOT! Let's start with the relevant facts that I didn't think needed to keep being repeated, but obviously do.


As NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies explains, "The eight warmest years in the GISS record have all occurred since 1998, and the 14 warmest years in the record have all occurred since 1990." What about 2007? NASA explains "2007 tied with 1998 for Earth's second warmest year in a century" (NOAA puts the 2007 ranking slightly lower, at a close fifth). NASA's James Hansen explains:

"As we predicted last year, 2007 was warmer than 2006, continuing the strong warming trend of the past 30 years that has been confidently attributed to the effect of increasing human-made greenhouse gases."


Are you confused yet? It certainly seems like the climate has kept warming. And the best way to convince yourself the climate is going to keep warming is to challenge anyone to make a $1000 bet that the next decade will not be warmer than this one. Heck give them 2-to-1 odds. That should be a no-brainer for anybody who repeats the nonsense that human-caused global warming isn't really or has somehow stopped. Yet nobody ever takes the bet.

But the New York Times says we've had "an unusually cold winter." If this were actually true in any meaningful sense of the word "unusually" it would still have no bearing on the climate issue. But is it true? To check, let's go to maybe the best source for analyzing and comparing historical trends in monthly data -- I hate to reveal this secret data source, but circumstances demand it.

NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) issues a report each and every month. So let's see what their taxpayer-funded analysis concludes. Winter begins in December. How bitterly cold was December?

... the globally averaged combined land and sea surface temperature was the eighth warmest on record for December.

Now NCDC did note that it might get a wee bit colder in coming months since, "Cold phase (La Niña) ENSO conditions intensified during December."

Okay, well, how bitterly cold was January?

The contiguous U.S. temperature during January 2008 was near average....

The combined global land and ocean surface temperature for January was the 31st warmest on record [since 1880], 0.32°F/0.18°C above the 20th century mean.

The 31st warmest on record? Are you really confused yet??? As the old saying goes, anybody who isn't confused here doesn't understand what is going on.

So what exactly is the news here? What is all the fuss about?

The major answer is big media swallowed the spin of disinformers. The minor answer is two sow's ears of relatively meaningless weather-related factoids that the disinformers have spun into a climate disinformation silk purse:

First, while January 2008 was not especially warm compared to recent years and only 0.18°C (+0.32°F) warmer than the 1961-1990 mean, January 2007 just happened to be the warmest January in recorded history, a full 0.83°C (1.49°F) warmer than the mean. That means the difference between January 2007 and January 2008 was anomalously large, over a full degree Fahrenheit. This made for a factoid that was interesting from a weather/ meteorological perspective, but totally irrelevant from a climate science perspective.

You can call this a twelve-month long drop if you inclined to such meaningless hype, but only a disinformer would say this drop is "large enough to wipe out most of the warming recorded over the past 100 years." Even the meteorologist who uncovered the original weather factoid disavowed that statement and posted:

There has been no "erasure". This is an anomaly with a large magnitude, and it coincides with other anecdotal weather evidence. It is curious, it is unusual, it is large, it is unexpected, but it does not "erase" anything.

Second, what of the cold winter? Well, it turns out that the January 2008 temperature data just for the land was only the 63rd warmest globally, essentially right at the 1961-1990 mean, and it was the the 70th warmest (60th coolest) for the northern hemisphere's land, a full 0.17°C (0.31°F) below the global mean. That is interesting. Not surprisingly, this has lead to some interesting weather phenomena, such as snow in Baghdad in January, as the NYT notes in their story.

But part of the planet being somewhat cool for one month certainly has no meaningful bearing on the astonishing trends in global climate in recent decades. It certainly provides no evidence whatsoever against the scientific understanding about human-caused global warming. And to repeat a point NASA made in Demcember (blogged on here), not only are we in the"cool phase of its natural El Niño -- La Niña cycle," we are also at a solar irradiance minimum:


As NASA notes, "The natural variations of the Southern Oscillation and the solar cycle thus have minor but not entirely insignificant effects on year-to-year temperature change." No surprise the land was a bit cool in January. Except to big media.

Yes, the point that this is "mostly good old-fashioned weather" is something the NYT eventually gets to. But for the large number of people who just read headlines and maybe skim the opening paragraph or two, they would see this:

Skeptics on Human Climate Impact Seize on Cold Spell

The world has seen some extraordinary winter conditions in both hemispheres over the past year: snow in Johannesburg last June and in Baghdad in January, Arctic sea ice returning with a vengeance after a record retreat last summer, paralyzing blizzards in China, and a sharp drop in the globe's average temperature.

It is no wonder that some scientists, opinion writers, political operatives and other people who challenge warnings about dangerous human-caused global warming have jumped on this as a teachable moment.

"Earth's 'Fever' Breaks: Global COOLING Currently Under Way," read a blog post and news release on Wednesday from Marc Morano, the communications director for the Republican minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The truth of the matter -- that this is just weather hyped as climate -- is buried. And we are still stuck with the blaring sub-headline "An Unusually Cold Winter," which can't be considered true unless you define the phrase "unusually cold" as "warmer than average."

The WSJ blog post is even more problemmatic:

Little Ice Age? Cold Snap Sparks Cooling Debate

There's snow in Baghdad, and global temperatures have seen their biggest one-year change--in this case, downward--in recorded history. So is global warming kaput?

Well, the first sentence isn't even true in any meaningful sense. We had a very hot January that just happened to be followed by a warmish January. Then the WSJ presents disinformer spin from, of all places, the widely debunked Planet Gore [to see how widely debunked just run "Planet Gore" in quotes in the Climate Progress search engine]:

Hopefully this will cool the hysteria in the U.S. Congress and parliaments around the world so that we can understand the science of our climate before we pursue policies that could wreck our economy and quality of life.

Seriously. Then the WSJ 'balances' this out with a quote from Environmental Defense:

Global warming is a process that occurs over decades. It can't be proven or disproven by a single month's temperature.

Duh. But then the WSJ says:

There are theories for all tastes....

I kid you not. Yes, and there are theories for all tastes on whether or not the moon landings were faked. And yet for some reason I believe the "theory" that we landed men on the moon a bunch of times.

The bottom line question for journalists (and bloggers) for any story is -- am I providing useful and accurate information to the public starting from the headline and first sentence through the end of the piece, including the figures? If so, run it. If not, then you may be confusing the public and helping to spread disinformation.

And that's not your job. That's the (often well-paid) job of the disinformers.