Climate Scientists Ring Alarm Bell, NY Times Hits Snooze Button


The planet just keeps warming, as NASA data makes clear (via Tamino).

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

So the New York Times asserts today, “As unlikely as this may sound, we have lucked out in recent years when it comes to global warming.”

But just last week, some of the country’s top climatologists wrote in the Washington Post about global warming:

Legions of studies support the view that, left unabated, this warming will produce dangerous effects….

Man-made heat-trapping gases are warming our planet and leading to increases in extreme weather events. Droughts are becoming longer and deeper in many areas. The risk of wildfires is increasing. The year 2012, the hottest on record for the United States, illustrated this risk with severe, widespread drought accompanied by extensive wildfires….

We know a lot, more than enough to recognize that the alarm bells are ringing.

Increases in heat waves and record high temperatures; record lows in Arctic sea ice; more severe rainstorms, droughts and wildfires; and coastal communities threatened by rising seas all offer a preview of the new normal in a warmer world.

In this tale of two city newspapers, who is right? You won’t be surprised that I side with the climate scientists.

The Times piece focuses on the recent seeming slowdown in one indicator of global warming — surface air temperatures — and uses some especially inartful language to describe it.

The headline is “What to Make of a Warming Plateau.” I’m sure that the super-sophisticated word-smiths at the Times (who filed this story under “science/earth”) are aware that “in geology and earth science” a plateau is “an area of highland, usually consisting of relatively flat terrain.”

Memo to Times: We ain’t at a flat highpoint. We aren’t anywhere near the highpoint and we’re not even close to flat on any scale of time relevant to human civilization.

Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming this century on humanity’s current emissions path (in red, via recent literature).

Then the caption on their lead photo reads, “Despite a recent lull, climate scientists say it is an open question whether the pace of warming has undergone any lasting shift.” Of course, lull means “A temporary interval of quiet or lack of activity.”

It’s pretty hard to find any evidence of “quiet” in this country (between superstorm Sandy and record-smashing heat) or up in the Arctic (where the ice is disintegrating decades ahead of schedule, which appears to be driving more extreme weather) or in the deep ocean (see the 3/13 piece, “Global Warming Has Accelerated In Past 15 Years, New Study Of Oceans Confirms”).

Indeed, it’s absurd to claim “climate scientists say it is an open question whether the pace of warming has undergone any lasting shift.” It’s not an “open question” (see “Video And Charts Make Clear The Planet Is Still Warming“).

I doubt the Times could find any leading climate scientist who thinks we’re going to see slower warming over the next 50 years than we saw in the last 50. Certainly the piece doesn’t quote a single scientist expressing such an absurd view.

In fact, the ten climate scientists who collaborated to write the Washington Post op-ed explain matter of factly:

Much has been made of a short-term reduction in the rate of atmospheric warming. But “global” warming requires looking at the entire planet. While the increase in atmospheric temperature has slowed, ocean warming rose dramatically after 2000. Excess heat is being trapped in Earth’s climate system, and observations of the Global Climate Observing System and others are increasingly able to locate it. Simplistic interpretations of cherry-picked data hide the realities.

You can see a summary of the science the climatologists are referring to here: “New Study: When You Account For The Oceans, Global Warming Continues Apace.”

The reality is warming continues unabated and you have to read deep into the Times piece — something that only a small fraction of readers who see the headline will bother doing — to find that that last time there was a “lull” in warming, it was followed by “an extremely rapid warming of the planet.” I suspect that this was once again a pretty reasonable piece of research by the Times reporter that was shoe-horned into a more “newsy” narrative by the editors.

It isn’t the best of times or the worst of times — yet. It’s the best of times to act if we want to have a serious chance of preventing the worst of times.

45 Responses to Climate Scientists Ring Alarm Bell, NY Times Hits Snooze Button

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Does this editor of the NYT live in one of those areas destined to be flooded as per today’s CP news? Probably not, the rich usually live at the top of the hill, ME

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Heat Balance

    How many people, do you think, actually grasp the concept of a heat balance?

    And how many of those people actually have a reasonably good conception of the boundaries of the Earth-and-its-atmosphere system?

    Although a person’s understanding is not limited — thank goodness! — to her/his own academic background or professional discipline, it is nevertheless true, I think, that some ideas/concepts are not easy or “natural” to grasp unless one comes into contact with them fairly intimately and with some degree of rigor. I’m not sure these days how many fields/disciplines convey and require an understanding of heat balances: chemical engineering, some parts of mechanical engineering, some parts of physics, and …?

    It seems to me that not many people actually “get” why we should EXPECT the Earth to be warming, given what we know about the properties of CO2 and other GHGs, what we know about basic thermodynamics, and what we know about the entity “Earth-and-its-atmosphere” as it exists in the vacuum of space.

    I think that more emphasis should be placed on helping people understand and grasp the matter from that standpoint. Looking at dots on a graph go up and down, and very gradually up, when the variation between years is often more than the gradual slope, and with extrapolated lines that someone has added, will be less-than-convincing to most people (especially people who also don’t understand statistics very well) unless people have at least some grasp of what a heat balance is and why we should expect the Earth to be warming given how we are changing the composition of the atmosphere.

    (If I’m not mistaken, even most scientific and engineering disciplines don’t teach, or at least don’t emphasize, heat balances to the degree that one really “gets” the idea.)



  3. Bart Flaster says:

    And the Band Played On.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Essentially the media is still presenting “both sides of the debate”.

    What is missing, is the urgency and the connecting of dots in every day news, related to the crisis. It’s a systemic problem. Each news service should hire Scientists to help improve content.

  5. prokaryotes says:

    Speaking of hills.

    As Glaciers Melt, Alpine Mountains Lose Their Glue, Threatening Swiss Village

    A very boring article (imho) with a lots of unrelated variables, who just distract from the science. This kind of reporting is not enough.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    The important part…

    “Grindelwald stands as a stark example of what is happening these days to Switzerland’s glaciers, and there are more than a hundred, large and small. As the Lower Grindelwald Glacier shrank, its ice no longer buttressed the east wall of the Eiger, a 13,025-foot mountain that is part of the ring south of Grindelwald. Moreover, the warming reduces the effect of permafrost that once acted as a sort of glue binding together the mass of the mountains. On that day in 2006, a chunk of the Eiger amounting to about 900,000 cubic yards fell from the east face, causing the cloud of rock dust that startled Mr. Bomio and his friends.”

    But what is the state f the Science here? how is increased precip affecting this, or the accelerated weathering of rocks? Are there reports and estimates till the glaciers all are gone? What does this mean for the economy, in particular winter sport?

    To be fair, i might be not the average reader.

  7. BobbyL says:

    Newspaper headlines often don’t really fit the articles. This is one of the frustrating things about papers which seems unending. I suspect the headline writers are sometimes trying too hard to come up with something catchy and with tight deadlines some really bad headlines get into the papers or online. I thought the NY Times article was quite good and it mentioned that deep ocean warming is one of the leading of explanations of why atmospheric warming has somewhat leveled of during the last 10 or 15 years. What was really good about the article is that it pointed out important things that remain unknown such as an explanation of why increased warming of the deep oceans has recently occurred. It gave readers a good idea of what important questions remain unanswered which is what is exciting about science, trying to answer those questions. In this case answering such questions is critical for developing the climate models that we rely on for making decisions about the future.

  8. BBHY says:

    Surace warming is bad, but at least that heat has a chance to radiate into space. Storing heat in the oceans is much worse, that heat energy is going to be around for a very long time. It is going to do all sorts of unpleasant things like fuel hurricanes and eat away at the base of the WAIS, quite possibly causing 2 meters of very abrupt sea level rise. Once it starts the WAIS could produce 2 meters of rise in months, not decades.

    The next El Nino year will be another record breaking high temperature. Even La Nina years are now beating previous El Ninos, so we know we have a really huge problem.

  9. Bill G says:

    The NYT is more dangerous than the Koch brothers in that they are considered by some as ‘left’ and ‘progressive’ and give cover to the continuation of activities that are leading us down a dark road. They did that with Iraq (i.e. – Judith Miller) and they did that with their coverage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and related (they never once covered the MAI – multilateral agreement on investment). I have little respect for their institution.

  10. Sasparilla says:

    Very good points Bill G, Exxon and the Koch Bros are probably quite happy with it on the climate change front.

  11. It’s just hard to believe. It’s that simple. Today was beautiful in my blessed corner of the world. Sunny, 70, blue sky. The sensory inputs don’t match the projections.

    It does come down to what Jeff says: people aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to get past the superficial sensory input to understand the implications of phenomena they don’t observe directly. That doesn’t make them bad people. That makes them ordinary people, the same kind who have existed for centuries and never had to worry about this particular phenomenon, even remotely. Before it was real, it would have been like worrying about Martians.

    The idea that the atmosphere could turn on us is very, very strange, as is the fact that humans have caused it with so few parts per million of an otherwise benign gas that plants need for life and that we transpire with each breath.

    The reporters at the Times are human. They should aspire to a higher standard, I agree, since they’re at the presumed top of their profession. Our expectations for factuality and intelligence are high, and in this case, they are falling short. But at some level, I get their lack of passion and rigor. It is simply hard to believe. It is too impersonal and diffuse, and at odds with most daily experience.

    The challenge is communicating the urgent reality of what is happening without sounding like Chicken Little to the uninitiated, who may intellectually link Hurricane Sandy with a big bend in the jet stream but who can’t link that with their own behavior or even the daily weather.

  12. Jay Dee Are says:

    Time to trot out the Foster and Rahmstorf graph. See

  13. Thorn says:

    Isn’t it at least a little scary that there is so much headwind from everywhere on a very basic ‘to big to ignore’ problem.

  14. Jeff Poole says:

    I read it the other day – can’t for the life of me think how I got there.

    Soft, fluffy denial is in this year… Wear it with your snowshoes and sun visor as you shop for ever more expensive corn…

  15. Jeff Poole says:

    it does seem that the way Warming is reported in the US is ‘note results, soft pedal reasons’.

  16. The bourgeois liberals at the NY Times so wish things could be different without anything actually having to change — global warming would just disappear without our needing to make any changes to the economy or power structure.

    Maybe if things could just change gradually, imperceptibly. Maybe if we could use natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” Maybe we don’t need to talk too much about the Arctic death spiral.

    Then there’s Mother Nature. She says, “Maybe not.”

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Jeff, just a couple of points here. First, a lot of people I have interviewed really don’t understand that ‘heat’ is actually energy. That’s one of the reasons they don’t understand why AGW produces extreme cold or heavy snow. We should be talking about energy not heat. Second, many do not understand the basic science about GHGs ‘trapping heat’. When it is reduced to this level of explanation, they do understand it, ME

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Just a note on winter sports. The ski season opened here on 1st June but there was no snow and it was so warm that the manmade stuff melted and is now being washed away by rain. But stay tuned, anything could happen tomorrow, ME

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    WHEN it comes, the next El Nino is likely to be a monster, surpassing anything we have seen so far. Must get on with my underground house, ME

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    All those glacial melt-lakes are going to wreak havoc as they burst, too.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Note results, then pretend that they are insignificant, certainly in comparison to the delights of money-making for billionaires, they only people who really count anymore.’

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Murdoch MSM certainly does not promote ‘both sides’. Here it is overwhelmingly denialist, crudely, arrogantly and stupidly, and ferociously opposed to renewable energy and environmentalism as a whole. And getting worse.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Beware giant, mutant, earthworms! I hear them, at night, when all is quiet, munching away.

  24. Mark Belgium says:

    I think one of the great problems we face when communicating climate change is that this problem is almost abstract en surreal to many people. I think this has to do with the fact that our generation is living in a world totally disconnected with nature. We have the illusion that we are independent from the natural world. Our struggle for food has become nothing more than shopping stress on a Friday evening in the local supermarket. We live in air-conditioned rooms and cars totally independent from weather conditions. We don’t have to fear getting chased by a grizzly bear on the way to work, and little Tony won’t be late at school because he was chased by a wolf pack. Traffic jams will do the trick. Bears and wolfs where killed a long time ago because they don’t fit in our artificial brave new world. And now, when we face the biggest threat ever, we still hold on to our little world, talking about “market based solutions”, “the cost of mitigation in artificial value”. Desperately holding on to the artificial world we live in.

  25. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    From a recent read, “Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail” by William Ophuls:
    “The human mind is still fundamentally paleolithic. That is, it was hardwired for the life of a hunter-gatherer on the African savannahs – a life centered on survival in small bands of intimates and kinsmen. In practice this means that human beings excel at concrete perception but are much less adept at abstraction. They are quick to perceive the immediate and dramatic but likely to overlook long term trends and consequences. They are therefore strongly present oriented and tend to deglect or devalue the future.”
    Your mileage may vary – for instance I believe Ophuls description understates a significant percentage of humans who demonstrate significant abilities of abstraction and concerns for the future – although perhaps too few to tip the scales. But, IMHO, this quote does speak to your concerns about our species limitations.

  26. Raul M. says:

    Then one day the air conditioning just didn’t go far enough. Such is life when it is time to go outside for a few hours during midday. Yep, 95 does seem hot while walking carrying groceries etc. looks like it is already time to readjust the ag. zones again due to warming weather. Such is living in a changing world. Used to think that “a changing world” was only meaning that a new neighborhood or shopping mall was coming our way.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘concept of a heat balance’ is about to grasp them. Whether they understand what is hitting them is totally irrelevant.

  28. MarkfromLexington says:

    Here is another alarm bell ringing. Paul Beckwith predicts that 2013 will be the first year of an ice-free arctic.

    “For the record—I do not think that any sea ice will survive this summer. An event unprecedented in human history is today, this very moment, transpiring in the Arctic Ocean.

    This is abrupt climate change in real-time.”

    “I acknowledge that my sea ice-collapse timeframe is considered ‘out-there’ when compared to mainstream climate models (predicting sea ice will remain until 2050’ish), but I’m not alone in challenging the old playbook. For example, the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) volume trends suggest 2015 or 2016 will be the first year of a sea ice-free Arctic.”

  29. BobbyL says:

    If I am not mistaken, the New York Times has ran numerous op-ed pieces by their columnists calling for rapid action on climate change. I would guess far more often than the Washington Post has. I am not sure I see the point in singling out one story that focuses on the science rather than the actions needed.

  30. ltr says:

    I am grateful for this analysis, since the New York Times article was quite confusing to me and I imagine to many, many other readers.

  31. SecularAnimist says:

    Dennis Tomlinson quoted William Ophuls: “The human mind is still fundamentally paleolithic. That is, it was hardwired for the life of a hunter-gatherer on the African savannahs …”

    With all due respect, that’s completely false — it is little more than pseudo-scientific pop-sociobiology.

    The human brain is not “hard wired”. The opposite is true: neuroscientists have learned that the brain “rewires” itself constantly to an astonishing degree.

  32. Dave S. Nottear says:

    And the crowd keeps dancing to the same tired band.

    The most popular songs the crowd keeps requesting are called:

    1. “Let’s Make A Deal with Nature – I’m sure there’s still time” and

    2. “Hey Ma (nature), If you let me eat my hamburger today (more efficiently), my neighbors and children will gladly pay you tuesday.”

    Reality is so inconvenient.

  33. Mark Belgium says:

    Dennis, thank you for the quote. Decades ago I read “The Whispering Within” from David Barash. The book is an introduction in sociobiology. One of the good things of this book is the message that by understanding and becoming aware of our biological nature and psychology we could be able to free ourselves from that same biological nature and become a true intelligent species. Too often, and perhaps also in the book you are referring to, our biological nature is used to explain why things go wrong. Almost as an apology: “ sorry we can’t help it, we are just monkey’s with an attitude”. Be the way, native Americans had a much better understanding of their place in nature, perhaps not by science but with their hearts and souls.

  34. BobbyL says:

    Despite alarm bells being rung UN climate talks collapse in Bonn

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As they know in places like India, you just don’t do anything but rest during the heat of the day.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The intent is to confuse, and hope that a certain percentage are thereby dissuaded from taking an active interest.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Secular, unfortunately some human (or, rather, hominid) brains are intractably ‘hard-wired’. ‘Set in concrete’ might be more apt. We call that subspecies, ‘the Right’ for easy identification. I presume they are the creatures of whom Ophuls was speaking.

  38. Raul M. says:

    Thanks Mulga, I wasn’t expecting to told till the middle of July at the earliest.

  39. wili says:

    Well, there will certainly be ice in the sea – Greenland is melting at a record rate this year, and it will continue to dump ever bigger chunks of its ice sheet into the Arctic Ocean.

    (Thanks to dorlomin at POForums for the link.)

    But we will have to wait to find out how much that remains is sea ice in the traditional sense.

    Beckwith is certainly right that we are in a whole new world already in the Arctic, and little of what we know from past behavior can guide us as to what is about to happen.

    Another major specialist in the field, Jennifer Francis, when asked about the condition of the ice pack this year, said that this melt season would be ‘interesting.’ One of the contributors to Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice Blog pointed out that the last time she publicly used this word (that he could recall) was in the run up to Sandy.

  40. wili says:

    Interestingly, those who view their minds as ‘hardwired’ tend to show the least ‘plasticity.’

    If you think of your mind as a muscle that can grow, develop and learn new tricks all the time, you are much more likely to actually be able to make it do so.

  41. dick smith says:

    Any citation to 2 meters rise in months not decades?

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’ve had an interest in neuroscience for years, and I well remember the days when the brain was held to be more or less irreparable, say after CVAs. They have certainly ‘changed their minds’ since, but the earlier belief was pretty preposterous, particularly as we discovered how important early experiences were to brain development. It is a continuing tragedy, however, how little of our brains so many of us use, and how unimaginatively.

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’ll sool my 3 legged cat onto them, she’s amazing, ME

  44. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Oh stop the nonsense Mulga. There are people with beliefs, there are political parties,and there is an extended social field of values and ideals out there that is constantly in flux and influences human behaviour. Your ‘right’ is a reification and denies the human ability to learn, and change their mind. Look around you, it is happening every day, ME

  45. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Of course you are correct, ME. Some ‘Rightists’ (my shorthand for dangerous, psychologically disturbed, etcs) do change-look at Malcolm Fraser and….umm….err…those others that I’ve forgotten. As for the majority, their psychology, which determines their actions and interactions with others and the natural world, is set in concrete by heredity, upbringing and peer pressure. You are, I believe, too optimistic about human nature. The hierarchical, patriarchal, repressive social systems we suffer under are created by men, certain men, to reinforce their power and privilege. The ‘twisted timber of humanity’ came before the perverted social arrangements, in my opinion at least. Of course it would be better if you were proved correct, but I’m not optimistic.