Last week, a new, peer-reviewed paper from scientists at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute was published in the journal Nature Geoscience. The paper is important: for the first time, it shows that scientists can use incredibly old permafrost to find out what temperatures were like in Siberia thousands of years ago. By using this permafrost, the scientists found that temperatures in Siberia have been gradually rising for the past 7,000 years.
Enter the climate denier media. After the findings were published, notorious climate denier Anthony Watts re-published portions of the Alfred Wegener Institute’s press release for the research on his site, Watts Up With That. It was then picked up by Michael Bastasch at the Daily Caller, who wrote that “solar radiation has been melting Siberian ice for 7,000 years,” evidence that “global warming is nothing new.”
In other words, the Daily Caller is using the research to reinforce a common trope among climate deniers: that the climate has always been changing, and humans therefore have no effect. In this case, it implies that Siberian permafrost is thawing due to natural causes. Greenhouse gases have nothing to do with it.
Here’s the problem. The research does not say any of that. It does not show that Siberian ice is “melting,” and certainly does not show that “solar radiation” is the cause. It also does not imply that global warming — a term that describes the effects of man-made climate change — is a phenomenon that has existed prior to the Industrial Revolution, when humans began pumping exorbitant amounts of carbon into the air.
How do we know this? ThinkProgress asked one of the study’s authors, Dr. Thomas Laepple, to explain the significance of his findings. Of the Caller’s article, Laepple said that while the wording looked “very close” to his press release, “subtle changes were made” to make it seem like “the climate always warmed and therefore the human impact would not be important.”
“This is certainly not reflected in our published work,” Laepple said.
One point Laepple took issue with was the Caller headline’s claim that “solar radiation has been melting Siberian ice for 7,000 years.” For one, he said, the permafrost he and his team measured is still frozen, despite the fact that warming has been happening in the region. This permafrost has been warming for the last 7,000 years, he said, but it has not been melting. Conversely, Laepple noted, studies do predict that Siberian permafrost is more rapidly warming now and will eventually melt due to higher levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “But this was not the topic of our research,” he said.
Laepple also pointed out that there’s a difference between gradual warming of the Siberian Arctic for the last 7,000 years and the more rapid warming of the entire earth for the last 200 years.
Because of that, Laepple said the Caller’s claim that “global warming is nothing new” was “misleading,” as it attempts to equate a global phenomenon with a seasonal, regional, long-term trend. In reality, he said, man-made greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming “in all seasons at a pace that is faster than anything we experienced during the last millennia.”
It’s also worth pointing out that climate scientists had already predicted that Arctic winters had been gradually warming for the last 7,000 years. In the study’s press release, Laepple himself notes that one of the biggest triumphs of his study was that it reinforced climate models that attempted to recreate Siberia’s long-term temperatures. “Most climate models indicate a long-term cooling in the summer and long-term warming in the winter for the Arctic over the past 7,000 years,” he said in the release. “But until now, there has been no temperature data to support the second claim, essentially because the majority of climate archives record information from the summer. Now we can finally demonstrate that ice wedges contain similar winter-temperature information as predicted by climate models.”
Finally, the Caller reported that Laepple’s research showed permafrost melting simply because of “solar radiation,” a finding that the conservative site said “would support arguments that the sun plays a large role in the Earth’s climate history.” This is another common denier trope — that the sun, not human-caused carbon emissions, is causing the earth to warm.
This claim also hit a nerve with Laepple. Climatologists have long said that changes in solar radiation contributed to a the slow warming of Siberia over the last 7,000 years, he said, but this is a well-known effect that is not related to the planet-wide warming seen in the last century. Laepple said The Caller’s claim that the sun “plays a large role” in climate change is “misleading, as it suggests that the sun has a stronger influence on the climate than previously thought by the climate research community.”
What this all comes down to is not only a debunking of one climate denier’s attempt to prove that climate change is fake, clearly a position that is becoming harder to defend. It’s also just one more illustration of why the American public and U.S. scientists are so far apart on their understanding of scientific issues. Survey work by the Pew Research Center released Thursday showed that on eight out of 13 science-oriented issues, the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are separated by a 20-percentage-point or higher gap. Vaccines, genetically modified food, overpopulation, and of course, climate change — Americans just don’t think the same way about those issues as scientists do. Indeed, 84 percent of scientists said it is a major problem that “the public does not know very much about science.”
That’s not the Daily Caller’s fault. But publishing those kinds of articles isn’t helping.