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Climate Hustle

Climate scientists' open letter to the Wall Street Journal on its snow job

Posted on 28 January 2016 by Guest Author

This is a guest post from Emmanuel Vincent and Daniel Nethery for Climate Feedback (@ClimateFdbk)

An opinion piece by Patrick Michaels in the Wall Street Journal (“The Climate Snow Job,” Jan. 24, 2016) is riddled with inaccuracies, according to an evaluation by ten scientists with relevant expertise.

The article makes false or misleading statements on several aspects of climate science, including the global temperature record, the methodology for measuring global temperature, the effect of El Niño on global temperature, and the economic impact of climate change. The mention of so many distinct aspects of climate science is intended to allow the author to pass himself off as an authority on climate science, while at the same time bamboozling readers into accepting three startlingly spurious claims.

Claim 1: “It is therefore probably prudent to cut by 50% the modelled temperature forecasts for the rest of this century.”

This is the opinion of the author with no basis in science. Climate models have successfully projected changes in climate observed in recent years. These models are not perfect representations of our climate system, but they are our best tool for forecasting future climate change.

Claim 2: “The notion that world-wide weather is becoming more extreme is just that: a notion, or a testable hypothesis.”

The scientific consensus is that some extreme weather events are becoming more severe and occurring with greater frequency in relation with climate change and more importantly these are expected to increasingly affect societies in the future. The author attempts to cast doubt on the science by claiming that the economic cost of extreme weather has remained stable over the past quarter-century. The author misleads the reader into concluding that because the economic cost of extreme weather has not increased, then extreme weather cannot have increased. But this fallacious reasoning is only the tip of the iceberg. Dr Laurens Bouwer, a senior risk analysis advisor at Deltares, told Climate Feedback that the claim that losses caused by severe weather have remained stable over the past 25 years is “not accurate”. It also belies the extent to which insurance agencies recognize the risks that climate change poses. The article cites data from Munich Re, whose head of Geo Risks Research and its Corporate Climate Centre, Professor Peter Höppe, has publicly stated that “climate change is one of the greatest risks facing humankind this century. Through a part of its core business, the insurance industry is directly affected and therefore assumes a leading role in devising solutions for climate protection and adaptation to the inevitable changes.”

Claim 3: “Without El Niño, temperatures in 2015 would have been typical of the post-1998 regime.”

This is false. Scientists estimate that the current El Niño event contributed only a few tenths of a degree to the record global temperature observed in 2015. The year would have gone down as the hottest on record even without the El Niño event, as explained in this article by The Carbon Brief.

Patrick J. Michaels would have his readers believe that the observed increase in global temperature, underlined by the news of the hottest year on record, is “business as usual”. His readers should instead draw the conclusion that no matter how conclusive the evidence, climate contrarians like Michaels intend to go about their “business as usual”, casting doubt on the science.

The Wall Street Journal promises potential subscribers to help them “make better-informed decisions” by providing them with “expert commentary and insight”. This op-ed piece is objectively at odds with that ambition.

Many more claims made by Patrick Michaels have been debunked by scientists, read their detailed analysis.

Climate Feedback is a global network of scientists who collaborate to assess the credibility of major sources of climate change media coverage using cutting edge technology of web-annotations. 

The following scientists analyzed this op-ed:

Dr Rasmus Benestad, Norwegian Meteorological Institute

Dr Laurens M. Bouwer, Senior Advisor Risk Analysis, Deltares

Prof Peter de Menocal, Director, Center for Climate and Life, Columbia University

Prof Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University

Prof Shaun Lovejoy, McGill University

Dr Ken Mankoff, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Prof James Renwick, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Victor Venema, University of Bonn

Dr Emmanuel Vincent, University of California, Merced

Dr Britta Voss, U.S. Geological Survey

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Comments

Comments 1 to 20:

  1. Michaels: “Without El Niño, temperatures in 2015 would have been typical of the post-1998 regime.”   There's that stubborn obsession with 1998 as a start date again.  What was so special about 1998?  Oh yeah, an El Nino year.  Michaels now intends, for his business audience, to shackle 2015 with the same provision he just spent the last 18 years asking them to ignore of 1998.  And his curiously uncritical audience will probably buy it.

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  2. ubrew12...

    Re. "stubborn obsession with 1998", as someone mentioned a while back in a comment on tamino's board: El Ninos on the left side of a graph do not count to a denier.

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  3. Nature Climate Change has an editorial out entitled "Balancing Act" which calls for more attention to be paid to the steady rise in ocean heat content, as opposed to the variability in the global surface temperature charts.

    The editorial refers readers to an article published in the same issue, i.e. "An Imperative to Monitor Earth's Energy Imbalance" by Von Schuckmann et.al., (with Jim Hansen and Kevin Trenberth being two of the et.al.) Quoting from this article:

    "The current Earth's energy imbalance (EEI) is mostly caused by human activity, and is driving global warming. The absolute value of EEI represents the most fundamental metric defining the status of global climate change, and will be more useful than using global surface temperature."

    When debating such as Michaels, it seems to me that pointing out that this "most fundamental metric" is best estimated at present by measuring the change in ocean heat content, and further, that the fact that the planet is warming, beyond doubt, is shown by the relentless steady rise in ocean heat content even as the global surface temperature charts fluctuate.

    Nature Climate Change also recently published the Gleckler et.al. analysis of ocean heat content increase which contained this chart:

    Ocean heat content doubles since 1997

    which shows, according to their analysis, that ocean heat content doubled since 1997. 

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  4. The  comment here suggests the current, large El Nino had little impact on global temperatures:

    "Claim 3: “Without El Niño, temperatures in 2015 would have been typical of the post-1998 regime.”

    This is false. Scientists estimate that the current El Niño event contributed only a few tenths of a degree to the record globaltemperature observed in 2015.

    In contrast the comment at RealClimate on the 1998 El Nino (here) suggests it had a ignificant impact:

    "1998 was so warm in part because of the big El Niño event over the winter of 1997-1998 which directly warmed a large part of the Pacific, and indirectly warmed (via the large increase in water vapour) an even larger region"

    As both the El Ninos of 1998 and 2015 are of comparable  magnitude why does  the 2015  El Nino, apparently, have a lesser effect than that of 1998?

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  5. Ryland

    Surface temps may not follow the ENSO indicators exactly. The 1998 El Nino as indicated by the SOI actually had one peak in mid 1997 and a second around Jan 1998. But the SAT temperature peak was Feb to June 1998.

    We probably should wait 6 months before drawing conclusions.

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  6. Glenn Tamblyn@5 Thanks for that but if what you suggest does in fact occur in 2016, won't that lend some weight to "Claim 3"?  Was the writer somewhat premature in categorically stating "Claim 3" is false?

    But all that aside, is it correct to argue that as SST is higher now than in 1998 and as the 2015 El Nino is about the same as that in 1998, any El Nino associated rise will likely be in percentage terms, less than that in 1998?  I'd have thought so but I'm not a climate scientist 

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  7. Ryland,

    Tamino has an analysis that might answer your question.  Becasue the highest temperatures were aafter the El Nino peak in the Pacific we have not yet seen the full effect of the 2015 El Nino.  COme back in a year to see what the final data say.

    Claim 3 is false.  If the next six months show even more warming some of that might be the El Nino effect.  The claim made was that the temperatures already measured were due to El Nino.  Future temperatures cannot effect our analysis of wether past temperatures were unusually high.

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  8. Apologies.  On reflection it occurred to me that I don't know how the temperature increase  due to El Mino can be  estimated to "tenths of a degree".  Can an estimate be that precise?  And how is the estimation of the proportion due to El Nino actually made?  I also don't know how Patrick Michaels can assert the temperature rise in 2015 was due to El Nino without some attempt to substantiate that assertion.  

    I guess this is the problem with explaining climate science to the layman, its not possible to be as definitive as, for example, I can be in giving the results from some   biochemical measurement.

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  9. ryland @8.

    I have a graph that you may find useful here (usually 2 clicks to 'download your attachment'), that compares the 1997/98 monthly average temperatures (surface & satellite) with what's happened so far in 2015/16. MEI is the Multivariate ENSO Index.

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  10. alogar: Watch climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert's AGU conference lecture "Successful Predictions."

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  11. Alogar,

    Perhaps you should read Arhennius from 1896.  In this paper he predicts that the nights will warm more than days, winter will warm more than summer, the Northern Hemisphere faster than the Southern, faster over land than sea and fastest in the Arctic.  That is five predictions made over 100 years ago that all have been shown correct as data became available.  

    If you actually read about the science you will find out that scientists have made hundreds of correct predictions, you are just uninformed of the facts.  That is the problem in the Climate Debate.  People like you who are uninformed want their ignorant rants to count the same as thoughtful, informed commentary from scientists.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Typo fixed.

  12. @ 1:

     

    >>Michaels: “Without El Niño, temperatures in 2015 would have been typical of the post-1998 regime.” There's that stubborn obsession with 1998 as a start date again. What was so special about 1998? Oh yeah, an El Nino year. Michaels now intends, for his business audience, to shackle 2015 with the same provision he just spent the last 18 years asking them to ignore of 1998.<<

    I forecast some weeks ago here that the denialists would argue that the present el Nino is unusual and shouldn't count: the only thing that surprises me is that it took them so long to come up with it!

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  13. WoI@13  I don't think 1998 was chosen because it was an El Nino year per se as you suggest by your comment "What was so special about 1998? Oh yeah, an El Nino year."  but because the El Nino in both 1997 and 2015 were very large.  From comments above it may be that the 2015 El Nino, like the 1997 El Nino, will have a greater effect on the global temperatures in the following year. 

    It has been estimated by Gavin Schmidt (here) using the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI), that the 2015 El Nino contributed about 0.07C to the increased temperature.  Excluding that the temperature would have been 0.8C greater than the 1951-1980 average.  Others, using the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI), calculated that El Nino contributed about 0.09C.  All that said, after removing the El Nino contribution, 2015 was the hottest year by only 0.06C This is less than the margin of error for estimates of the global temperature between the 2015 temperature and the next hottest year 2014 which iself had only a 38% probability of being the hottest year ever.  Claiming hottest year ever, based on differences from the mean that are less than the error of estimate may be one of the reasons for the comment of alogar @10.

    This has been countered by climate scientists who claim 2014 had a greater chance of being the hottest year ever than did 2005 or 2010.  Prtesumably the same claim will b made for 2015. 

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  14. That should be WoI@15 not @13

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  15. "the post-1998 regime", in other words, abnormally warm.

    The "coolest" year of the 21st century, 2008, was still warmer than all but one year of the 20th century.

    I don't think people realize that a year which last century would have been warmer than 99 out of 100 years now counts as a very "cool" year. That's how much warmer the Earth is now. So, I don't think that's what they were trying to say, but yes, without the El Nino of 2015 we would still be having very abnormally high global temperatures.

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  16. I think we are too kind and tolerant of deniers.   Buzz Aldrin handled deniers differently https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wcrkxOgzhU

    We should remember this is not just impish public relations squabbling about history,  this is vital information to be used for future survival - and deceivers should not command our respect, nor our attention.  Such named obstacles should be routed around or ignored, but their actions not forgotten. 

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  17. ryland @13

    1998 (or 97) is the critics go-to simply because that's a good year to begin an analysis to get a slower or non warming trend, depending on data set. Starting at this point in the temp record coincides with the largest el Nino of the 20th century. Critics initially were not phased by that.

    Now that we're having another large el Nino and a record year, critics are suddenly interested in this short-term effect, and use it to downplay the heat of 2015, and any resulting uplift in trend (soon to be seen in the satellite record, which has a longer lag to el Nino than surface, and which they're already downplaying).

    If you want to remove the el Nino effect, then do it for all years and then rank the hottest years. There will be less variation and more overlap of the uncertainty intervals year to year. The trend, however, becomes less suceptible to interannual variation for the short periods critics are interested in. With ENSO removed, there is no pause. That's what selecting 1997/98 as a start point did for their arguments, and why they do not like to remove the effect, even though it's currently a hot topic to downplay 2015.

    HadCRUt4 and NOAA have 2015 at 1st rank even factoring the uncertainty. GISS has a very small overlap - 2015 is the hottest year to only 94% confidence.

    To repeat - remove ENSO from the record and there is no pause. Leave it in and 2015 is the hottest year beyond uncertainty in 2 out of 3 surface data sets (the Japanese global record looks like clearing this hurdle to, for 2015), and very nearly for the 3rd.

    I'm not sure what you're interested in, but I hope these comments help.

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  18. Ryland @ 13

    I take your point: I should have said what I meant, which was that 1998 (the start point for deniers' "pause") was a big "El Nino AFFECTED year" as regards global temperatures.

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  19. The simplest way to put this is that over the last 70 years since 1945 there has been between 0.3 and 0.6C temperature change depending on if you look at the homogenized land record produced by GISS (0.6C) or the satellite record, the unhomogenized land record, perfect thermostats, weather balloons or sea surface temperatures as recorded by ARGO buoys (0.3C).  In either case this is the result of pouring in approximately 30% of the CO2 of a doubling.  Since CO2 acts logarithmically this is closer to 40% of the effect we expect to see from another 200ppm of CO2.  So, the amount of change is another 0.4-0.7C between now and 2100 depending on if you want to depend on homogenization being able to continue to produce double the temperature change than the rest of the measuring apparatus can show.    That's simply a fact.  To expect anything more would be unscientific.  There is no basis to say temperatures will accelerate for the next 80 years compared to the last 70 years especially as it will be difficult to maintain the growth of CO2 output needed to keep the linear growth in co2 concentration and increasing heat.   

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  20. jmath@19 said: "between 0.3 and 0.6C temperature change... is the result of...  30% of... a doubling"  That suggests the sensitivity to a doubling = average(0.3,0.6)/0.3 = 1.5C per doubling, which is half the generally expected sensitivity.  Perhaps Earth's thermal system is not just a resistor but also a capacitor?  That would explain the shortfall: you're suggesting equilibrium in a nonequilibrium system.

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