The next time the Plain Dealer writes about climate change, maybe it should interview an actual scientist

On July 23, Plain Dealer reporter and editor Cliff Pinckard published an article titled “A ‘pause’ in global warming keeps the climate-change debate in play.” As you can probably guess from the title, the post – which purported to report on recent research regarding the so-called “warming plateau” – ended up turning into a flawed, irresponsible piece that misrepresented climate science and gave climate deniers disproportionate footing and credibility.

The piece begins with a brief discussion of a recent series of three reports released by the Met Office Hadley Centre on the recent “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. It is accurate to say that global surface temperatures have not increased at as rapid a rate since 1998 as they did in the previous 30 years. As the first of the three Met Office reports (PDF) notes, “Global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.”

Climate deniers routinely use 1998 as the year to begin making their patently absurd claim that the Earth has been cooling over the past 15 years. This decision is strategic, as an abnormally active El Niño event that year led to a massive transfer of heat from the Pacific Ocean to the atmosphere. Since this point, the Pacific Ocean has largely remained in a neutral state, though a moderate La Niña period in the past few years has contributed to a moderate cooling trend in the region. Additionally, 1998 is no longer the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization (PDF), 9 of the years from 2000-2010 were among the 10 warmest in recorded history, with 2010 and 2005 ranking first and second, respectively.

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

It is important to note, as Mr. Pinckard does briefly, that the Met Office and other climate scientists have attributed this purported “pause” in warming to a variety of potential causes, particularly the trapping of heat in the deep oceans. The first report continues:

Careful processing of the available deep ocean records shows that the heat content of the upper 2,000m increased by 24 x 1022J over the 1955–2010 period (Levitus, 2012), equivalent to 0.09°C warming of this layer. To put this into context, if the same energy had warmed the lower 10km of the atmosphere, it would have warmed by 36°C! While this will not happen, it does illustrate the importance of the ocean as a heat store.

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Had Mr. Pinckard stopped there, his article would have been relatively accurate and innocuous. But instead, he ventured into false equivalence land, feeling the irrepressible need to provide “balance” by quoting climate deniers. James Fallows, who has spent far too much of his outstanding career at The Atlantic reporting on the media’s penchant for false equivalence, has settled on its definition:

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

Mr. Pinckard devotes the next 329 words of his article – 36.4% of the whole piece! – to quoting at length from professional climate denier/right wing columnist Rupert Darwall (who has no background in climate science) and someone named Nirav Kothari writing on a random Indian financial site. I’m not sure how these two gentlemen warrant mentioning or quoting at length, but actual climate scientists are shut out of the piece. Perhaps Mr. Picknard can elaborate.

Even more disturbingly, Mr. Pinckard grants equal footing to the claims of these deniers. He argues in both the piece’s headline and the caption under its sole picture that the Met Office’s work means the “the climate-change debate is in play” and that “some people [are] wondering if man-made emissions really have an impact on the environment.”

Mr. Pinckard’s decision to use a complex debate within the climate science community as a reason to launch these patently false and absurd claims is highly irresponsible, if not journalistic malpractice.

There is no debate within the scientific community as whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions “have an impact on the environment.” Svante Arrenhius first discovered that greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, could alter the heat budget of the atmosphere and lead to global warming in 1895.

We know for a fact that  greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Based on evidence from tree rings and ice cores, we know that the average concentrate of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Holocene, the mild and fair geological age in which human civilization has developed, stood at a fairly stead 280ppm. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and C02 concentrations have spiked by more than 40%, reaching 400ppm in May for the first time in at least 3,000,000 years.

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly after 1850 (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly within the last 200 years (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

During this period, the atmosphere has begun trapping an additional 1.6 watts per square meter of heat every second, equivalent to the amount of energy stored in four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

We know that the warming has primarily been caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, other heat-trapping gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Scientists are able to determine this by measuring the wavelengths of long-wave infrared radiation as it reaches the ground and as it leaves the Earth. Sure enough, the mass spectrometers show spikes in radiation levels grouped around CO2 and other known greenhouse gases.

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth, drawn from Evans (2006). As the chart shows, the overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from CH4 (methane), O3 (ozone), and N2O (nitrous oxide), all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth. The overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide, all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Moreover, had Mr. Pinckard bothered to actually read the reports from the Met Office, he might have discovered that a decade or two of relatively flat temperatures has been predicted by climate models.

[T]he results show that a pause of 10 years’ duration is likely to occur due to internal fluctuations about twice every century.

The third Met Office report (PDF) also notes that the recent pause will not continue for long and will have almost no impact on the long-term trends in warming. The authors conclude first that “the physical basis of climate models and the projections they produce have not been invalidated by the recent pause.” Additionally, they argue “the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of dangerous climate change.”

Mr. Pinckard fails to provide this important context to his readers or offer the additional evidence, besides average land surface temperatures, that global warming has continued apace. It is called global warming, not land warming, for a reason.

The next time that The Plain Dealer wants to cover an issue involving our global climate, which is easily one of the most complex and misunderstood topics in the world, I would suggest their reporter(s) do the following:

    • Go to Google and type the following: site:skepticalscience.com climate-related search term.
    • Watch the following video from NASA for further proof that, yes, the planet is warming

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