Back in 2013, research started to surface that identified a “pause” in the rate of global warming. At the time, we made the point that, while the basic science behind climate change and humanity’s role in it is well understood, the details and the models those details are based upon are shakier than greens make them out to be.
Scientists scrambled to explain the causes behind this pause. Some alleged that heat was being stored in our oceans that wasn’t being reflected in surface temperature measurements. Others pointed to volcanoes as a possible explanation for the discrepancy between measured temperatures and what climate models had predicted we’d be seeing. None of these researchers were disputing the fact that greenhouse gases raise surface temperatures, or that industrialized societies are major contributors of these GHGs—those fundamental components of climate science at this point are well understood—but there was plenty of uncertainty over why our best models were getting it wrong.
Then, in 2015, Thomas Karl of the National Centers for Environmental Information published a study that claimed that this “pause” in warming never really happened—that it was just a misreading of the data. Greens rejoiced, skeptics were deflated, and scientists went back to work trying to better understand the extraordinarily complicated system that is our climate.
This debate flared up again this week, however, after John Bates, a scientist familiar with the data set used by the author of the 2015 study, said that Karl’s information was “unverified.” The AP reports:
The hubbub was sparked when retired NOAA data scientist John Bates claimed in a blog post that his boss, then-director of the National Centers for Environmental Information Thomas Karl, “constantly had his ‘thumb on the scale’ – in the documentation, scientific choices and release of datasets – in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus” and rushed a study published in the journal Science before international climate negotiations.
Bates said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press that he was most concerned about the way data was handled, documented and stored, raising issues of transparency and availability. He said Karl didn’t follow the more than 20 crucial data storage and handling steps that Bates created for NOAA. He said it looked like the June 2015 study was pushed out to influence the December 2015 climate treaty negotiations in Paris.
That last allegation—that Karl’s climate study might have been expedited to affect the outcome of the 2015 Paris climate summit—sounds serious. But let’s be clear here: Bates told the AP that Karl’s study had “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious. He added that “[i]t’s not trumped up data in any way shape or form,” seeming to defuse the situation while also raising questions of why he brought these concerns up in the first place. But Bates’ hesitance to follow through with the more incendiary allegations he initially raised hasn’t stopped U.S. Representatives, led by House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith, from renewing their criticisms of the 2015 paper this week.
This fracas seems to be more about procedure than misinformation, but the politicization of the study aside, this is an excellent illustration of the scientific process. Science doesn’t end with the publishing of a study. Any conclusion is tested and retested, and this recent flare-up over a two-year-old study can be seen as scientific progress at work.
This is also a good time to remind environmentalists that climate science is not “settled,” not just because science itself is never over, but also because there’s still a lot we don’t know about the minutiae of our complex planet and its climate. Greens do themselves a disservice by claiming that the science is further advanced or more certain than it is, because if and when studies are called into question, skeptics have more material to work with. As we’ve said before, overconfident cheerleaders of climate science are one of the leading causes of climate denialism.