Climate Scientists Ring Alarm Bell, NY Times Hits Snooze Button

The planet just keeps warming, as NASA data makes clear (via Tamino). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So the New York Times asserts today, “As unlikely as this may sound, we have lucked out in recent years when it comes to global warming.” But just last week, some of the country’s top climatologists wrote in the Washington Post about global warming: Legions of studies support the view that, left unabated, this warming will produce dangerous effects…. Man-made heat-trapping gases are warming our planet and leading to increases in extreme weather events. Droughts are becoming longer and deeper in many areas. The risk of wildfires is increasing. The year 2012, the hottest on record for the United States, illustrated this risk with severe, widespread drought accompanied by extensive wildfires…. We know a lot, more than enough to recognize that the alarm bells are ringing. Increases in heat waves and record high temperatures; record lows in Arctic sea ice; more severe rainstorms, droughts and wildfires; and coastal communities threatened by rising seas all offer a preview of the new normal in a warmer world. In this tale of two city newspapers, who is right? You won’t be surprised that I side with the climate scientists. The Times piece focuses on the recent seeming slowdown in one indicator of global warming — surface air temperatures — and uses some especially inartful language to describe it. The headline is “What to Make of a Warming Plateau.” I’m sure that the super-sophisticated word-smiths at the Times (who filed this story under “science/earth”) are aware that “in geology and earth science” a plateau is “an area of highland, usually consisting of relatively flat terrain.” Memo to Times: We ain’t at a flat highpoint. We aren’t anywhere near the highpoint and we’re not even close to flat on any scale of time relevant to human civilization. Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming this century on humanity’s current emissions path (in red, via recent literature). Then the caption on their lead photo reads, “Despite a recent lull, climate scientists say it is an open question whether the pace of warming has undergone any lasting shift.” Of course, lull means “A temporary interval of quiet or lack of activity.” It’s pretty hard to find any evidence of “quiet” in this country (between superstorm Sandy and record-smashing heat) or up in the Arctic (where the ice is disintegrating decades ahead of schedule, which appears to be driving more extreme weather) or in the deep ocean (see the 3/13 piece, “Global Warming Has Accelerated In Past 15 Years, New Study Of Oceans Confirms”). Indeed, it’s absurd to claim “climate scientists say it is an open question whether the pace of warming has undergone any lasting shift.” It’s not an “open question” (see “Video And Charts Make Clear The Planet Is Still Warming“). I doubt the Times could find any leading climate scientist who thinks we’re going to see slower warming over the next 50 years than we saw in the last 50. Certainly the piece doesn’t quote a single scientist expressing such an absurd view. In fact, the ten climate scientists who collaborated to write the Washington Post op-ed explain matter of factly: Much has been made of a short-term reduction in the rate of atmospheric warming. But “global” warming requires looking at the entire planet. While the increase in atmospheric temperature has slowed, ocean warming rose dramatically after 2000. Excess heat is being trapped in Earth’s climate system, and observations of the Global Climate Observing System and others are increasingly able to locate it. Simplistic interpretations of cherry-picked data hide the realities. You can see a summary of the science the climatologists are referring to here: “New Study: When You Account For The Oceans, Global Warming Continues Apace.” The reality is warming continues unabated and you have to read deep into the Times piece — something that only a small fraction of readers who see the headline will bother doing — to find that that last time there was a “lull” in warming, it was followed by “an extremely rapid warming of the planet.” I suspect that this was once again a pretty reasonable piece of research by the Times reporter that was shoe-horned into a more “newsy” narrative by the editors. It isn’t the best of times or the worst of times — yet. It’s the best of times to act if we want to have a serious chance of preventing the worst of times.

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