The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Grey Lady Acknowledges Global Warming Slowdown

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Earth’s surface temperatures aren’t rising at the rate scientists predicted. It’s yet another example of how quickly our understanding of the Earth’s climate is changing, and a major blow to the green movement, which has aggressively pushed these predictions to get their preferred policies through. Now, even the New York Times is acknowledging this fact:

The rise in the surface temperature of earth has been markedly slower over the last 15 years than in the 20 years before that. And that lull in warming has occurred even as greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere at a record pace. [...]

[G]iven how much is riding on the scientific forecast, the practitioners of climate science would like to understand exactly what is going on. They admit that they do not, even though some potential mechanisms of the slowdown have been suggested. The situation highlights important gaps in our knowledge of the climate system, some of which cannot be closed until we get better measurements from high in space and from deep in the ocean.

We know that we’re continuing to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses at record rates. We know that these gasses trap the sun’s heat, like the glass in a greenhouse. But we don’t know where this heat is going, because for the past decade or so it hasn’t been showing up in surface temperature readings.

This looks like a major scientific failing, but it’s not particularly surprising that we can’t predict the future of a system as complex as the global climate. There are countless variables and relationships between variables, many of which we do not yet understand. The consensus within the scientific community seems to be that this recent warming “plateau” is happening because deep oceans are storing the heat, but scientific consensus has a tendency to change over time as new information is discovered.

What this means for our future climate is unclear. Given what we do know, it makes sense to continue to go after the so-called “low hanging fruit” of emissions reduction policy, like phasing out HFCs, increasing energy efficiency, or embracing telework. These kinds of changes will make life better, and will be worthwhile even if we’re not on track for catastrophic warming in the near future.

But what’s most remarkable here is that the NYT is acknowledging a point that would have been banished to the underworld of “climate-skeptic” blogs only a few years ago. Our knowledge of our climate is limited, and the green movement has hurt its credibility by clinging to its doctrine of “settled science” even as the science changes around it.

[Earth image courtesy of Wikimedia]

Published on June 13, 2013 8:15 am
  • Fat_Man

    “EPIC FAIL: 73 Climate Models vs. Observations for Tropical Tropospheric Temperature” June 4th, 2013 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
    http://www.drroyspencer.com/2013/06/epic-fail-73-climate-models-vs-observations-for-tropical-tropospheric-temperature/

    “STILL Epic Fail: 73 Climate Models vs. Measurements, Running 5-Year Means” June 6th, 2013 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
    http://www.drroyspencer.com/2013/06/still-epic-fail-73-climate-models-vs-measurements-running-5-year-means/

    “The modellers and the IPCC have willingly ignored the evidence for low climate sensitivity for many years, despite the fact that some of us have shown that simply confusing cause and effect when examining cloud and temperature variations can totally mislead you on cloud feedbacks (e.g. Spencer & Braswell, 2010). The discrepancy between models and observations is not a new issue…just one that is becoming more glaring over time. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the coming years. I frankly don’t see how the IPCC can keep claiming that the models are “not inconsistent with” the observations. Any sane person can see otherwise.”

  • bpuharic

    I guess there’s a difference between scientists and non scientists. No scientist would call a small data set evidence of a ‘scientific failing’. WRM is right to say we don’t have a good understanding of AGW, but to pretend a short term deviation is evidence of the need not to take major steps is whistling past the cemetery. It’s kind of like the folks who say the fact their 90 year old grandpa smokes means we don’t need to do anything about smoking.

    This is a situation with a high risk factor. We need a balanced scientific approach rather than letting political conservatives and politicians pretend we don’t have to really do anything since the problem is ‘ not understood’.

    • Corlyss

      There ain’t no cemetery, BP. It’s a religious myth.

  • Richard Quigley

    I highly recommend that your climate commentators take an hour and watch this presentation by Prof. Murray Salby given in Hamburg in April this year.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=2ROw_cDKwc0
    The first 2:50 is just an introduction in German. The bulk of the presentation is highly technical although comprehensible to those with a science background. The “executive summary” may be found in the final 10 minutes.
    Very much worth your time.

  • Ken G

    With regard to telework: here’s a study I did for AEI looking at the benefits of having governments expand telework for its employees: http://www.aei.org/article/energy-and-the-environment/should-the-government-expand-telework/

  • Corlyss

    “The situation highlights important gaps in our knowledge of the climate system . . . ”

    OMG! A stunning concession to reality from the home of Prog Fantasies. I may have to lie down before I recover completely from the shock.

    “. . . some of which cannot be closed until we get better measurements from high in space and from deep in the ocean.”

    Not to mention the restoration of the 5000 temperature monitoring stations closed in the 90s, many of which were in cold-temp locations. The entire religion of climate change needs to be reconciled with reality. None of their pet theories involves the relationship between that big yellow ball up in the sky and the 3rd planet. Until they start taking that into account, I don’t believe even the punctuation in climate science articles.

  • Andrew Allison

    The Grey Lady is obfuscating. The “rise” in surface temperature since late 1996 (over 16 years) has been negative, i.e., the temperature is falling, albeit slowly. It should also be pointed out that prior to the 20 years of warming, there was a 30-year plateau during which atmospheric CO2 rose. Simply put, the impact of atmospheric CO2 on temperature in very much less than whatever caused these roughly 30-year cycles.
    The fact remains that the world is much warmer than in the recent past, and this will surely have repercussions. However, until scientists come up with an explanation for global temperature changes which explains the measured data, we would be better employed figuring out how to deal with it than misguided efforts to control it.

    • Kavanna

      It’s just the Earth recovering from the Little Ice Age, a four- to five-century episode. The variation of temperatures since the late first millennium show no sign of anything out of the full range since the last ice age.

  • Tom

    It is a fact that carbon dioxide( Co2) is heavier than air. So how can it rise up in the Earth’s atmosphere ?

    • dankingbooks

      Easy. Gravity is a very weak force, and it takes a long time for heavier particles to settle out. Temperatures above absolute zero will make such settling impossible. But you are correct in that as you go several miles up in the atmosphere, the concentration of CO2 will diminish slightly.

      Even small dust particles remain suspended in air more or less indefinitely, and they’re much heavier than a CO2 molecule.

  • charris208

    because deep oceans are storing the heat

    It’s not the least bit convincing, not least because there is no understanding of how heat flows into the deep, the flow can’t be seen in the measurements. But the hypotheses does have the advantage that the measurements to support it are essentially in the noise. That’s always a good place to be when pursuing the AGW MacGuffin.

    • Kavanna

      Actually, there is good data from the last 15 years or so on ocean heat, and ocean temperatures are not rising.

      The main effect of rising temperatures in the lower atmosphere on the oceans would be to accelerate evaporation from the oceans, not to raise their temperatures (although the latter effect is not negligible). The extra clear-air water vapor is the main (absurdly misnamed) “greenhouse” gas, not CO2 or CH4. That extra clear-air H2O vapor is what amplifies the effect of the CO2 and CH4.

      The big thing missing from this picture (and all climate models) is that a large fraction of this extra water vapor will condense into extra clouds, reducing incoming sunlight and leading to more precipitation. No climate model has enough resolution to model cloud formation, precipitation, and cloud dissipation. That part is stuck in indirectly through rules of thumb (uncontrolled approximations called “climate parameterizations”). These rules of thumb have known, severe limitations, but they’re used anyway, for lack something better.

      Completely different and better approaches to these problems have been blocked for a generation now by the climate hysteria, which took over funding and research programs in the 1990s. Even now, after all the failures and exposed frauds, the tide has not turned here.