A scientist who spearheaded findings of rising greenhouse gas emissions is rebuking a Forbes columnist who incorrectly claimed that temperatures have been "flat" to question the manmade causes of climate change.
Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data showed a dramatic rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 2012. Pieter Tans, who heads NOAA's greenhouse gas measurement group, told AP that "The prospects of keeping climate change below" 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100, as world leaders agreed to do, "are fading away." He added that the carbon jump is "just a testament to human influence being dominant."
Rather than using the news to evaluate the costs associated with our addiction to fossil fuel and discuss the steps we must take to avert the worst consequences of climate change, James Taylor of the industry-funded Heartland Institute used it to deny science. Taylor claimed that global temperatures are "essentially the same today" as they were in 1995 despite a contemporaneous rise in carbon emissions, and that this was a "devastating rebuke to assertions that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing a global warming crisis."
But Tans told Media Matters in an email that Taylor is "factually wrong" even using his short-term example -- 2012 was actually warmer than 1995 by about 0.16°C -- and that Taylor cherry-picked a date that had higher temperatures than surrounding years:
Taylor is factually wrong about the global temperature. According to the NASA GISS web site the year 1995 was 0.16 deg.C cooler than 2012. He could have compared to 1994 or 1996, in which case the difference from 2012 would have been 0.31 and 0.25 C cooler respectively. Therefore it makes sense to not compare individual years, but to take a 10-year smoothed average. In that case 1995 was cooler than 2012 by about 0.28 C. The second decimal depends a little on your smoothing technique.
In any case, long-term temperatures trends, a far more relevant indicator of climate change, aren't "flat" at all: each of the 12 years since the turn of the century have ranked among the 14 warmest on record. But Taylor obscured the long-term temperature rise by using a short period of data, as seen in this graphic from Skeptical Science:
Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate experts that human activity is contributing to rising global temperatures, 66 percent of Americans incorrectly believe there is "a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening." The conservative media has fueled this confusion by distorting scientific research, hyping faux-scandals, and giving voice to groups funded by industries that have a financial interest in blocking action on climate change. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have shied away from the "controversy" over climate change and have failed to press U.S. policymakers on how they will address this global threat. When climate change is discussed, mainstream outlets sometimes strive for a false balance that elevates marginal voices and enables them to sow doubt about the science even in the face of mounting evidence.
Here, Media Matters looks at how conservative media outlets give industry-funded "experts" a platform, creating a polarized misunderstanding of climate science.
The Economist has called the libertarian Heartland Institute "the world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change." Every year, Heartland hosts an "International Conference on Climate Change," bringing together a small group of contrarians (mostly non-scientists) who deny that manmade climate change is a serious problem. To promote its most recent conference, Heartland launched a short-lived billboard campaign associating acceptance of climate science with "murderers, tyrants, and madmen" including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Facing backlash from corporate donors and even some of its own staff, Heartland removed the billboard, but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Heartland does not disclose its donors, but internal documents obtained in February reveal that Heartland received $25,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2011 and anticipated $200,000 in additional funding in 2012. Charles Koch is CEO and co-owner of Koch Industries, a corporation with major oil interests. Along with his brother David Koch, he has donated millions to groups that spread climate misinformation. Heartland also receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science. ExxonMobil contributed over $600,000 to Heartland between 1998 and 2006, but has since pledged to stop funding groups that cast doubt on climate change.
Despite their industry ties and lack of scientific expertise, Heartland Institute fellows are often given a media platform to promote their marginal views on climate change. Most visible is James Taylor, a lawyer with no climate science background who heads Heartland's environmental initiative. Taylor dismisses "alarmist propaganda that global warming is a human-caused problem that needs to be addressed," and suggests that taking action to reduce emissions could cause a return to the "the Little Ice Age and the Black Death." But that hasn't stopped Forbes from publishing his weekly column, which he uses to spout climate misinformation and accuse scientists of "doctoring" temperature data to fabricate a warming trend. It also hasn't stopped Fox News from promoting his misinformation.
In order to distract from the announcement this week that Arctic sea ice is at a record low, right-wing media are pointing to Antarctic sea ice as proof that climate change isn't occurring. But Antarctic sea ice gains have been slight, whereas Arctic ice decline -- a key indicator of climate change -- has been extreme. Furthermore, scientists have long expected the Arctic to experience the first impacts of climate change, and still project that in the long run, sea ice in both regions will decline as greenhouse gas concentrations increase.
On September 16, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for the year and the lowest seasonal minimum measured since record keeping began in 1979. But in a blog post published the day of that record low, climate contrarian Steven Goddard changed the subject, asserting that Antarctic ice on "day 256" (September 12 in a leap year) was the highest ever recorded for that date, and the eighth highest daily recording ever. A few days earlier, contrarian Anthony Watts cited satellite readings showing "mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet" to similar end.
Heartland Institute fellow and Forbes contributor James Taylor quickly seized on the argument, complaining that instead of covering the Antarctic, news reporters were "breathlessly spreading fear and warning of calamity because Arctic sea ice recently set a 33-year low." Investor's Business Daily used the Antarctic ice growth to pass judgment on "global warming alarmists" for noting record summer temperatures across much of the U.S. and concluded " The alarmists' bible has turned out to be full of false prophets."
But the low Arctic sea ice came on the heels of a "record-breaking summer," and it is lower than any since observation began "by a wide margin." According to a NASA release on the record, the difference between the new Arctic sea ice extent and the old mark is larger than the state of Texas, whereas, as National Snow & Ice Date Center [NSIDC] Director Mark Serreze told LiveScience, "Antarctic sea ice hasn't seen these big reductions we've seen in the Arctic."
Indeed, the daily sea ice extent for the Arctic is well outside of two standard deviations from the 1997-2000 average, while the Antarctic daily sea ice extent is only slightly outside of this range for 2012:
And according to a study published in Nature of 69 sites around the Arctic, the drop in late summer sea ice in the Arctic is unprecedented in over a thousand years:
Natural gas can help the U.S. transition away from reliance on coal in the near-term if it is produced responsibly. But conservative media have dismissed the risks involved with the rapid spread of natural gas extraction to push for deregulation, attack the Obama administration, and ignore the need for a comprehensive energy policy to transition to renewable energy.
A recent Forbes column alleges that federal scientists are "doctoring" temperature data to fabricate a warming trend, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the last 12-month period was the warmest on record for the continental U.S.
But what the column paints as a nefarious conspiracy is actually just proper science -- NOAA painstakingly applies peer-reviewed adjustments to account for errors and gaps in the raw data from thousands of temperature stations across the country. The resulting temperature record has been independently evaluated and corroborated.
The column is by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, the libertarian group that recently made headlines with a short-lived billboard campaign tastelessly invoking the Unabomber. This is not the first time Taylor has used his platform at Forbes to malign scientists and spread bad information about climate research.
At issue are the corrections NOAA uses to eliminate errors and known sources of bias from the raw weather station data (which Taylor likes to call "the real-world data"). Keep in mind that the U.S. represents just 2% of the Earth's surface so the data we're talking about are a small part of the evidence of global climate change.
The scientists (Taylor calls them "bureaucrats") know that the raw data have flaws -- stations are moved, natural disasters knock stations offline, measuring instruments change -- so NOAA performs quality control using methods that are published in peer-reviewed papers. Taylor concedes that "it is, of course, possible that certain factors can influence the real-world temperature readings such that a correction in real-world temperature data may be justified." But when he doesn't like the results, he concludes that the adjustments aren't valid corrections but "doctored data."
(UPDATE 4:31PM: The Heartland Institute tells the Washington Post that the billboard will be taken down today. Heartland CEO Joseph Bast said: "The Heartland Institute knew this was a risk when deciding to test it, but decided it was a necessary price to make an emotional appeal to people who otherwise aren't following the climate change debate.")
As the evidence continues to mount that humans are changing the climate with serious consequences, the libertarian Heartland Institute is becoming increasingly desperate to recast concern about climate change as "radical." This week the organization, usually so sensitive about logical fallacies, launched a billboard campaign in Chicago associating "belief" in global warming with murderers and tyrants, including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.
"The point" of the billboards, according to Heartland, "is that believing in global warming is not 'mainstream,' smart or sophisticated" and "the people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society."
The message is an uphill climb for Heartland, to say the least. Basic physics indicates that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause warming, confirmed by decades of research. And surveys show that a vast majority of scientists, and particularly those who specialize in fields related to climate, have concluded that human-induced warming is occurring, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other major scientific body.
By Heartland's standard, the "radical fringe of society" also includes the Pope, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, Evangelical Christian leaders and Republican climate scientists.
Anonymous hackers recently released another batch of emails taken from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia in 2009, along with a document containing numbered excerpts of purportedly incriminating material. Many of these selections have been cropped in a way that completely distorts their meaning, but they were nonetheless repeated by conservative media outlets who believe climate change is a "hoax" and a "conspiracy."
The Heartland Institute's James Taylor is on the defensive after an independent study undermined critics of the temperature records establishing global warming. In his most recent Forbes.com column, Taylor accuses media outlets of knocking down a straw man in their reports on the study. But in doing so, Taylor himself advances a bad argument which misconstrues the basic physics of the climate.
Dismissing as old news the warming trend confirmed by the study, Taylor writes that temperatures have increased because the climate is "recovering from the Little Ice Age":
Very few if any skeptics assert that the earth is still in the Little Ice Age. While the Little Ice Age raged from approximately 1300 to 1900 AD, it is pretty well accepted that the Little Ice Age did indeed end by approximately 1900 AD. The mere fact that the Little Ice Age ended a little over 100 years ago, and that temperatures have warmed during the course of recovering from the Little Ice Age, tells us absolutely nothing about the remaining components necessary to support an assertion that humans are creating a global warming crisis.
This is not the first time Taylor has claimed in his weekly Forbes column that "the earth continues to recover from the abnormally cold conditions of the centuries-long Little Ice Age" and that "there was little room for temperatures to go at the time but up." But it's an entirely hollow argument.
"Recovery" from the Little Ice Age is not an explanation for warming any more than "recovery from falling" is an explanation for why a basketball bounces. University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes said via email that Taylor's claim is "as unscientific and uninformative as that other old chestnut, that 'climate has always varied,'" adding, "Science is about how things work."
We noted in June that Fox News' iPad app was sponsored exclusively by ExxonMobil, a corporation known for paying think tanks to obfuscate the scientific consensus on climate change. Now FoxNews.com's "Planet Earth" section is also brought to you by the oil giant:
In at least 40 instances since the beginning of 2011, conservative media outlets wrongly told consumers that the light bulb efficiency standards scheduled to take effect in 2012 will require them to use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).