If you ran the Twitter account for the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where do you reckon might you send your 178,000 followers for information on climate change?
Before you all shout “NASA”, we should first remember the GOP-led committee is chaired by Republican Lamar Smith and has a habit of calling climate science denialists and conservative commentators as supposed “expert” witnesses.
So instead of shouting “NASA” we should probably have guessed, and instead shouted “Breitbart”.
Indeed, the “science” committee just Tweeted a link to a story by a writer who once described NASA scientists as “talentless low-lives” and thinks that climate change is the “biggest scam in the history of the world.”
That writer is James Delingpole and the story was published on Breitbart – the same right-wing outlet that brought us gems like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”.
Quick reminder. Breitbart’s former executive chairman is Steve Bannon – the chair of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign who will become the President-elect’s chief strategist.
Delingpole’s polemic claimed that because global temperatures had dropped off in the last two months from their recent record high, mainstream journalists should have been screaming this from the rooftops.
Delingpole’s article was itself based on a flawed story published in popular UK newspaper the Daily Mail which one leading climate scientist has told me contained arguments that were entirely “bogus.”
So let’s look at that Daily Mail story.
Daily Mail Misinformation
In the Daily Mail, writer David Rose chose one narrow set of satellite data to make a claim that temperatures had seen a record fall.
Statistics expert Grant Foster has explained Rose selected only the satellite data taken over land, and only satellite data that inferred temperatures for the lower part of the troposphere (where nobody lives).
Also, a chart displayed on the Rose story focused only on temperatures since the late 90s, despite data being available since the late 70s.
The chart did not show any trends for the data which, if it did, Foster explained would show continued warming – even in the narrow dataset Rose chose to focus on.
This is what’s called cherry picking and Rose had to pick several juicy ones just to make his argument appear vaguely plausible.
The so-called “record drop” claimed by Rose also takes temperatures plummeting down to… well above the long term average.
Remembering too, that Rose wants people to consider a drop in temperatures over the course of a couple of months, during a year that will likely be declared the hottest on record.
So what’s going on with global temperatures?
Professor Steven Sherwood, director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, says there are several reasons why the claims in the Daily Mail story were unwarranted.
“Temperature averages from [satellite-based detectors] are very noisy, and tend to exaggerate swings due to El Nino compared with other data sources. I would not attach much significance to big upswings or downswings over periods of only a few months, especially when other indicators like sea ice are suggesting acceleration of warmth. What matters is the long-term upward trend, which is clear in every source of data we have.”
There has been a monotonous breaking of annual global temperature records in recent years. 2015 was the latest year to be declared “hottest on record”, but what shocked many climate scientists was the margin.
The early part of 2016 continued to break records, helped along by the natural El Nino climate pattern related to ocean temperatures in the Pacific.
El Nino years tend to boost global temperatures, with La Nina years having a cooling influence. But scientists have said the recently-faded El Nino alone can not account for the record temperatures.
Both La Nina and El Nino years have been getting warmer because they occur on the top of an underlying warming trend caused by the extra greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels.
Sherwood told me via email:
“The discussion in the [Daily Mail] of a disagreement among scientists as to whether the record-breaking global heat in 2015 and again in 2016 was “due to El Nino” vs. “due to global warming” is completely bogus. Experts on this will agree that both global warming and El Nino, added together, produced these records. El Nino by itself could never have produced such a warm planet as we have now. Everyone including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has been pointing out for some time that temperatures would dip for a while once the El Nino faded, but that’s just a bump on the road to a warmer and warmer planet.”
Sherwood added that temperature fluctuations from El Nino and La Nina tended to “oscillate around a mid-point.”
He said even using the Daily Mail’s chart; the mid-point suggests temperatures are now sitting at 0.6C above where they were in the period just before 1998, adding:
“Over a half a degree in two decades is a strong underlying warming rate—at least as fast as most climate models predict.”