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Global Warming Blog

Did Heat Hit the Fan?
This week's apocalyptic headlines
Posted September 28, 2006 by Nathan Cool

Sometimes the media just can't make up their minds--or so it seems. After last week's news of cooling oceans, which experts say was merely a "speed bump" on the highway to heat, the media this week has latched onto a recently published paper calling for ill-boding dire: temperatures that could reach heights never before seen within the last million years (with could being the operative, and carefully targeted word). While the scientific paper that spawned this discussion is more or less a rehash of previous papers and studies published back in 1988, some news organizations couldn't resist razzmatazz'ing this story to the fullest height of hyperbole with Voice of America headlining, "Earth's Temperatures Near Million-Year High." Other news organizations though swayed a bit more toward reality, such as ABC, which touted, "Global Temperature Highest in Millennia", which is of course much less severe than the million-year fear blazoned by Voice of America. All in all, a Google search revealed over 250 stories covering this bit of news, most of which--not surprisingly--opted for the end-of-the-world angle on this scientific scoop. In so doing, a few things got distorted, and the truth was buried deep between the proverbial lines.

The scientific paper that spawned this whirlwind of world-ending headlines was an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academies, written by a team of scientists headed up by James Hansen, a well-known pro-global-warming researcher from Columbia University, and doyen for those preparing for the sky to fall (click here to access the full article). This article doesn't really include any significantly new studies, but does do a great job at covering Hansen's original research back in the 1980s while showing how some of his predictions seem to have come to fruition. Hansen does however carefully construct his comments with disclaimers of uncertainties, which is to be expected from a man of science, but something the media conveniently ignored.

For instance, after elaborating on climate events that could ravage our world like "Super El Niños," Hansen points out that he "...makes no suggestion about changes to El Niño frequency..." and that "...El Niños [are] affected by chaotic ocean and atmospheric variations..." Additional topics in Hansen's paper use cautious wording such as "infer" when discussing various circumstances, as well as "could," "propose" and "likely." Nevertheless, Hansen's team of researchers did a darn good job at outlining possible scenarios, similar to Hansen's 1988 paper. One of these scenarios served as impetus to the recent media frenzy, where Hansen discusses that the Western Equatorial Pacific (not the entire world though) is about 1°C (almost 2°F) away from reaching what is believed to be the maximum temperature that topped-out about a million years ago. But will the entire world reach those temperatures? And if so, when? Well, that's the tricky part.

Hansen has based his predictions of global warming cataclysm on a chart he made many years ago, which he's used time and again as ammo in fighting the war on skepticism (click here as well as here to see examples of this graph in battle). This chart is much like the infamous hockey stick graph I discuss in my new book, Is it Hot in Here?--The simple truth about global warming, except that Hansen's temperatures start from about 1960 and continue to present day. Indeed, Hansen shows how global temperatures have risen, but three other lines exist on this chart, all of which have been attacked during the ongoing quarrel of our climate.

Hansen's multi-line chart shows scenarios of temperatures--some are not so bad, while others are far more frightening. These scenarios are based primarily on worst-case scenarios of what could happen if greenhouse gases continue to increase, and--here's the real kicker--if the world's climate continues to react as it has in recent times. The latter is the sticky point. In the 1970s, there was concern that we were headed for another ice age. There were papers published in the journal Science, studies by the National Academies of Science, and news articles in the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek that stirred concern of colder weather to come--not warming--just 30 years ago. Climate science has been much improved in the past 30 years, yet there is still much we don't know about our world and its climate. A prime example of uncertainties is the recent cooling of our oceans that was revealed last week (more on that here). It's because of surprises like these from Mother Nature that scientists, including James Hansen, use cautious wording, and construct multiple scenarios of what may come. Science is still learning.

Hansen's research and recent article though are not to be construed as hogwash--we are faced with a serious situation. Nevertheless, belief is no substitute for knowledge, especially in a field where within 30 years the findings have flip-flopped. Hansen and his team of scientists are undoubtedly among some of the brightest minds working on the issue of global warming today. But having already presented these recently published findings nearly 20 years ago--during a time when battles over ice ages were still underway--it seems practically inevitable that bias could come into the picture. Even so, Hansen has taken the high road: that of scientific methodology. The media reporting on his studies though have decided to drive down a different street--one painted brightly with danger signs, and not the more appropriate yellow flags of caution.

More information on skeptics, uncertainties of climate change, debates over rising temperatures and other topics discussed in this blog can be found in my new book, Is it Hot in Here?--The simple truth about global warming. Click here to get your copy.