Put the stories about record 2016 warming in a useful context

Summary: Alarmists have gone hysterical about the third year of record global warming. Should we be hysterical? Fortunately NOAA and NASA provide graphics showing us the temperature record, so we can put the current warming in a larger context. The temperature trend is not the only piece in the climate change puzzle, but it’s an important one — worth taking a few minutes to understand. The climate does not care about our politics, and will have the last work in the policy debate.

Global Warming

Current trends: what’s the weather doing now?

The big news is that 2016 temperature anomaly was a record high: 0.07°F warmer than 2015 and 0.4°F warmer than the previous El Nino peak in 1998 (0.04 by the satellite data). Measuring temperatures from El Nino peak to peak is a crude but effect measure of warming because ENSO cycles are so powerful. NOAA “The global temperatures in 2016 were majorly influenced by strong El Niño conditions…“.UK Met Office: “A particularly strong El Niño event contributed about 0.2C to the annual average for 2016…

Also, neither increase is even close to statistically significant. The 2016 anomaly was 1.69°F  ±  0.27°F). Alarmists ignore the actual numbers, preferring to make alarming pronouncements about the coming climate apocalypse (vagueness is the alarmist’s best friend).

There is no one true way to show trends in global temperature. Here are three different perspectives; all give roughly similar results. First, a graph by NOAA of the global average surface temperature in Decembers (their excellent interactive website shows data since the reliable instrument era began in 1880). This graph minimizes the overall warming trend, which is concentrated in the months of May, June, & July. Click to enlarge.

NOAA: Global surface temperatures for month of December.

Surface atmosphere temperatures for Decembers to 2016

This shows the modern global warming story: warming starts in 1979, the temperature jumps during the 1997-98 El Nino, pauses during 1998-2013, and jumps during the 2014-16 El Nino. The trend of warming is 0.25°F per decade since 1950, the era dominated by anthropogenic warming (0.29°F/decade since 1979).

What comes next? Will the temperature continue to rise, pause at the new high level (as after the 1998 El Nino), fall back to the level during 1998-2013, or begin steady growth? Each scenario has its own political implications. Unfortunately climate models cannot yet reliably make predictions for periods of five to ten years.

For a second perspective, see the lower troposphere temperatures recorded by satellites (prepared for NASA by U AL-Huntsville). The below graph is by lead scientists Roy Spencer. It tells a roughly similar story. Showing the full time series (not just Decembers) gives more detail than the above graph — with more noise. It shows an El Nino spike in 2015-16, followed by a drop. Will it return to the previous plateau, start a new plateau, or begin steady growth? The graph gives no clues.

UAH Lower troposphere temperature: December 2016

In 2003 Roger Pielke Sr. said that the best measure of global warming is the total heat content of the world’s oceans (OHC). He was called a “denier”. Now ocean heat content (OHC) is the third measure of warming commonly used by climate scientists. NOAA posts this graph of annual OHC, showing the temperature anomaly vs. the reference period 1955-2006. The trend since 1970 is only 0.04°F per decade, even slower than the surface atmosphere trend of 0.31°F). OHC is little affected by the weather, and clearly shows the warming trend since 1970.

Ocean heat content, the best measure of global warming, has risen slowly since 1970.

Ocean Heat Content Anomaly - 0-700 - September 2016

Vital background about the temperature record

“It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”
— One of the most important conclusions of IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I

This statement about past warming is important. But for making public policy decisions future warming we need to know the odds of various amounts of warming during the 21st century. There is no easy answer to this, let alone a consensus of climate scientists about it. So climate activists either ignore the research (such as the 4 scenarios described in AR5) or focus on the worst of these (the truly horrific RCP8.5) while ignoring its unlikely assumptions.

So far the weather has sided with the skeptics, with little of the extreme weather activists predicted. No surge of hurricanes after Katrina (despite the predictions). No sign of the methane monster. Northern hemisphere snow extent has risen since in both the Fall and the Winter. There is little evidence that we have passed one of the often declared “tipping points”.

So it is logical that — despite the efforts of government agencies, academia, and many ngo’s — the public’s policy priorities have been unaffected by the warming campaign (details here). Republican control of the Presidency, Congress, and most States makes policy action almost impossible for the next 4 years (ceteris paribus). As a result, activists are going thru the 5 stages of grief for their campaign.

For More Information

Interesting article at the WaPo: “Scientists react to Earth’s warmest year: ‘We are heading into a new unknown’”. They included two eminent scientists, Judith Curry and Roger Pielke Sr., known as skeptics, who were the only ones discussing the data. The others gave advocacy.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about the politics of climate change…

  1. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  3. A story of the climate change debate. How it ran; why it failed.
  4. Science into agitprop: “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans”.
  5. Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change.
  6. A leaked memo about climate change explains why we’re unprepared.
  7. The 5 stages of grief for the failure of the climate change campaign.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

…see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

29 thoughts on “Put the stories about record 2016 warming in a useful context

  1. I’ll put NOAA press release: “Climate change to shift global pattern of mild weather” — “New research shows the global average of mild weather days will drop, with dramatic declines for some, increases for others.” here for you too, as a fellow night owl, so more people can see it. Hoot hoot. :)

    I’ve heard there has been some surging lately in methane levels, even if it’s nowhere near the RCP 8.5 horror show. (Source data) That said, my amateur analysis seems to suggest that methane spikes are associated with El Nino periods – or, in the 80s, with leaky Soviet gas pipes.

    1. Dana,

      The increase in methane levels has started some interesting research about its causes. So far we have some early stage research plus a flood of inspired guessing.

      The NOAA press release you cite describes a research milestone: “Shifting patterns of mild weather in response to projected radiative forcing” by Karin van der Wiel, Sarah B. Kapnick, and Gabriel A. Vecchi in Climate Change, January 2017. It’s quite a change from the barrage of apocalyptic forecasts that have dominated papers about climate forecasts.

      Perhaps more importantly, this is the first paper about long-term forecasts that does not even mention RCP8.5 (or one of the equivalent worst-case scenarios). It discusses only RCP4.5, a much milder scenario. Perhaps this reflects the growing realization that RCP8.5’s assumptions are unlikely — and becoming more so (e.g., China just canceled more coal plants — 103 of them, some already under construction). No matter how they dress it up, its difficult to nightmarish predictions from RCP4.5.

    2. On methane I heard they looked at the isotopic ratios or something like that, and found the upsurge is probably more biological than leakological. (To coin a term.)

      As for the forecasts – yes, it’s quite true. If I had to guess for a reason which wasn’t rooted in politics, it might be that the general trajectory of CO2 emissions *was* tracking the RCP8.5 scenario for a while but after three years of being relatively flat – with world economic growth, yet – the trend is breaking, even if we do have a few more up-ticks ahead of us.

      One thing that’s always bugged me about a lot of these graphs of projected emissions is how it’s often not clearly labelled whether it’s talking about CO2 or carbon emissions – which is quite an important difference because the mass figures are very different! So it is *extremely* easy to get mixed up on various estimates.

    3. Dana,

      Good point about the poor quality of graphics in climate science. A lot of them qualify for “what not to do” in Edward Tufte’s next book.

      “the general trajectory of CO2 emissions *was* tracking the RCP8.5 scenario”

      The CO2 emissions of the four RCP’s don’t diverge until after 2030. See thee graph shown in this post — CO2 emissions by year for each RCP — from Vuuren et al. The RCP’s have a range of 2% between best and worst by 2020, 5% by 2030, 18% by 2050, and 55% by 2100.

      The massive body of infrastructure producing CO2 changes only slowly. Neither normal economic or political measures can have large effects on emissions excerpt over decades. Depressions or wars would, of course, have large rapid effects.

    4. The graphs on CO2 vs. carbon emissions are at least saying basically the same thing, there’s just a high possibility of a freak-out or confusion if you mix the two up in your head and suddenly see “We’re emitting 36 gigatons where this graph says we would be emitting ten at most?!” When of course, they’re the same thing, expressed in different ways…

      With the temperature graphs it’s often not clear at all what the anomaly is in relationship *to*, which can make a large difference. I will give the Paris talks messaging credit for being clear that they’re saying “in relationship to pre-industrial temperatures” quite reliably, although even there we have the difference between the transient near-term response and the ultimate global response, which can take centuries.

    5. Dana,

      “With the temperature graphs it’s often not clear at all what the anomaly is in relationship *to*,”

      Good point. Professional sources always list the reference period. Excerpts from those sources, like given here, often don’t when they are shown to indicate trends (not levels).

      Experience has taught be that adding too many details confuses readers — and drastically reduces pageviews. However I always give the link to the source article or page, for people who want the supporting information.

  2. Interesting to compare the 2015 press release on global temperatures with that from 2017. The uncertainty in the estimates is not clearly brought out.

    Met Office in 2015: “2014 one of the warmest years on record globally“. Quote:

    “Colin Morice, a climate monitoring scientist at the Met Office, said: ‘Uncertainties in the estimates of global temperature are larger than the differences between the warmest years. This limits what we can say about rankings of individual years. We can say with confidence that 2014 is one of ten warmest years in the series and that it adds to the set of near-record temperatures we have seen over the last two decades.'”

    And 2017: “2016: one of the warmest two years on record“. Quote:

    “Peter Stott is Acting Director of the Met Office Hadley Centre. He said: “The final figures confirm that 2016 was yet another extremely warm year. In the HadCRUT4 dataset the temperature for last year was very close to the year before, temperatures for 2016 exceeding those for 2015 by a small margin. 2015 was remarkable for having stood out so clearly from previous years as the warmest year since 1850 and now 2016 turns out to have been just as warm.”

    One got to love the careful choice of words, “yet another extremely warm year” when one gets the impression that 2016 was a record year from the headline and text. Also the table at the end enhances that impression

    1. Rune,

      That’s a good catch. NOAA also omited mention of statistical significance in their State of the Climate report about record warming in 2016. I considered mentioning this, but dislike giving criticism of NOAA unless essential. They didn’t highlight it in their report about 2014, but it was clearly shown (details here).

      Also, they mentioned the large of the El Nino at the start of the report (which I quoted in this post), but developed amnesia about when writing the remainder of the report.

  3. I’m sure you saw that Judith Curry “retired” (technically term) from GIT. She is experiencing exactly what I have posted about and predicted almost 20 years ago now in correspondence with some bigwigs publishing in that area. Even the academic publishing (not to mention the funding and academic job position jockeying) is highly subject to bias, conflict of interest, etc.

    I have long marveled at the unwillingness of the publications refusal to admit to what Curry calls the “uncertainty monster”.

    I hope she finds another leg in her career to pursue some productive activities.

    1. I tried reading some of Curry’s papers and for the life of me I could not follow fully what she was talking about with uncertainty. Can you give me the general gist there? I mean I could tell the general line of her own research/estimates.

      Is it just the ratchet where the outliers get more reporting because they create more drama?

    2. wkeview,

      “Even the academic publishing (not to mention the funding and academic job position jockeying) is highly subject to bias, conflict of interest, etc.”

      It is. It has always been so. It probably will always be so until our future AI overlords run these organizations.

      “I hope she finds another leg in her career to pursue some productive activities.”

      See the website of her firm, Climate Forecast Applications Network. They’re doing great things.

  4. There is an excellent (maybe the best I have ever seen) Youtube talk by Ms. Curry exactly on the subject of the uncertainty monster. If I understand her correctly, 1. there are so many items that the models do not account for, e.g. fewer weather extremes- droughts, powerful storms (yes, really) in recent decades, 2. the uncertainty in the main measurement, temperature, is larger than the practitioners want to admit 3. the natural causes of warming are very poorly understood. There are more, but if you sum up the uncertainties, even the “widest error bars” on the historical and predicted temperature charts are likely understated (my understanding of what she is saying).

    Perfect example- all the social scientists (these guys get A LOT of statistical training), were saying things like 70-90% chance that Clinton would win the election. They obviously didn’t know how to apply their statistical models correctly. The same is probably happening in climate science- it’s not easy.

    1. wkeview,

      To learn about Curry’s analysis of what she calls the “uncertainty monster”, see these posts at her website.

      “Perfect example- all the social scientists (these guys get A LOT of statistical training), were saying things like 70-90% chance that Clinton would win the election. They obviously didn’t know how to apply their statistical models correctly.”

      I doubt that. Rather, it’s the pressure of business. People want to know how confident you are about your forecasts, and they demand unrealistic confidence. The successful people tend to be those who give people what they want. I’ve seen that countless times in my field, finance. The pressure to say that you know what will happen is overwhelming. Everybody has families to feed.

      Note that the predictions of the popular vote were accurate, within their margin of error. Predicting the electoral vote outcome is far more difficult; I couldn’t find anyone giving margins of error on those forecasts.

      “The same is probably happening in climate science- it’s not easy.”

      Yep. Nothing is easy.

    1. ATTP,

      You are capable of doing better. Try giving a substantive critique, instead of these snide remarks (i.e., derogatory or mocking in a passive-aggressive manner).

      “your preferences, not useful in some objective sense.”

      That’s just dumb. I provide useful context as best I can, showing both sides of the issue — with the IPCC’s work as my benchmark. There are no “objective” observers; everybody has biaes, preconceptions, and limitations of knowledge and perspective.

    2. Fabius,
      It was a largely serious comment, even if you don’t want to recognise it. The context you provide is to largely underplay the potential future risks. That may be useful for you and others who agree with you. Probably less useful if one is actually interested in understanding the potential future risks which – as might be obvious – depend more on what we might do in the future, than on what is happening now, or on what has happened in the past (although, that’s not to suggest that the past and present don’t provide any useful context).

    3. ATTP,

      (1) “It was a largely serious comment, even if you don’t want to recognise it.”

      It was garbage. It neither stated a basis for complaint or provided any support for the claim. It was a schoolyard insult.

      (2) “The context you provide is to largely underplay the potential future risks.”

      This is your usual schtick. Big claims with not the slightest effort to support them. If you have an actual criticism, state it. Were facts misstated or misrepresented? Did the 3 supporting graphs not accurately depict the warming of the past 50 years? Were any of the summary statements incorrect? Such as…

      “What comes next? Will the temperature continue to rise, pause at the new high level (as after the 1998 El Nino), fall back to the level during 1998-2013, or begin steady growth? Each scenario has its own political implications. Unfortunately climate models cannot yet reliably make predictions for periods of five to ten years.”

      (3) “understanding the potential future risks which – as might be obvious – depend more on what we might do in the future, than on what is happening now, or on what has happened in the past (although, that’s not to suggest that the past and present don’t provide any useful context).”

      How is that serious criticism of this post? This post is a follow-up to the NOAA and Met Office reports about 2016’s weather, looking at how the weather affects the climate policy debate. Like those reports, it looks at 2016 in the context of longer-term warming.

      Also, you are wrong with regard to the specific focus of this post. Warming over the short-term (“five to ten years”) does not “depend more on what we might do in the future”. It will result from natural forces plus past actions of humanity. No likely actions of humanity (i.e., excluding nuclear war, banning fossil fuels) will have a substantive effect on weather over such a short time horizon.

    4. Fabius,

      It was garbage. It neither stated a basis for complaint or provided any support for the claim. It was a schoolyard insult.

      It wasn’t really a complaint, it was just a comment. Are you really suggesting that you’ve provided an objectively useful context, rather than a context that you find useful?

      This post is a follow-up to the NOAA and Met Office reports about 2016’s weather, looking at how the weather affects the climate policy debate.

      Are you suggesting that 2016 being the warmest year in record, after 2015 and then 2014, is just weather? If so, that’s almost certainly not a useful context.

      Like those reports, it looks at 2016 in the context of longer-term warming.

      You mean this? What comes next? Will the temperature continue to rise, pause at the new high level (as after the 1998 El Nino), fall back to the level during 1998-2013, or begin steady growth? Each scenario has its own political implications. Unfortunately climate models cannot yet reliably make predictions for periods of five to ten years.? That climate models can’t make realibe predictions for 5 to 10 years doesn’t mean that we don’t have a reasonable idea of what will probably happen if we continue to increase our emissions. Also 5-10 years isn’t what most regard as “longer-term”.

      If you really think that the next 5 to 10 years are the useful context that you’re providing, then you’re simply making my point. There’s nothing specifically wrong with putting something into some kind of context that you find useful, but suggesting that that isn’t what you’re doing is a little bit of a stretch.

    5. ATTP,

      You’re just hand-waving. As usual.

      (1) Ignoring the data.

      “Are you suggesting that 2016 being the warmest year in record, after 2015 and then 2014, is just weather? If so, that’s almost certainly not a useful context.”

      By NOAA’s own calculations, it was not a statistically significant change.

      (2) Ignoring the point of the post.
      “That climate models can’t make realibe predictions for 5 to 10 years doesn’t mean that we don’t have a reasonable idea of what will probably happen if we continue to increase our emissions.”

      Duh.

      “Also 5-10 years isn’t what most regard as “longer-term”.”

      Duh. This post is about the pubic policy change in the here and now. That’s clearly shown by the summary, buy the key quote in the body (which I cited in reply to your previous comment), and by the concluding section.

      In terms of mitigation, the current political context is where policy is made. It’s absolutely essential.

    6. I feel like you’re trying to suggest something from Fab here that he is not actually saying. From the other posts I’ve read, he accepts the IPCC analysis of the situation (though perhaps he reads it more conservatively than you) even if he has criticized the casual use of RCP8.5 as an inevitable “business as usual” situation for a range of reasons, as well as the media coverage of climate change and its projections.

      None of these are the same as “does not believe increased emissions of CO2 contribute to climate change/global warming.” Even if Klaatu came down and had Gort refit all our power plants and motor vehicles to run on zero point energy tomorrow, we would still have shifts in our climate from a variety of causes.

    7. Dana,

      I agree on all points, but these can be stated more strongly.

      (1) “he accepts the IPCC analysis of the situation”

      Dogmatically accept Working Group I reports (the physical sciences). It’s the foundation for everything I write about climate.

      (2) “though perhaps he reads it more conservatively than you”

      That’s not an appropriate formulation. It’s science. I “read” it literally. It has no meaning beyond the words. It is excellent science, and so stated precisely.

      (3) ” even if he has criticized the casual use of RCP8.5 as an inevitable “business as usual” situation for a range of reasons”

      Such as there being nothing in the peer-reviewed literature or IPCC reports supporting such a daft description. This is not really debated. I (tentatively) suspect this misrepresentation has become less common. I haven’t seen it in a p-r paper since September 2016 (but might have missed some).

    8. Dana,
      I was mainly just trying to point out that “useful context” is often in the eye of the beholder.

      Fabius,
      There do seem to be a number of people who up writing things, feel as though comments are then criticisms, and then claim to accept all the science. Sometimes the latter is not obvious based on what they’ve written. I often think it might help if they were more careful in what they wrote in the first place, but – of course – YMMV.

    9. ATTP,

      (1) “to point out that “useful context” is often in the eye of the beholder.”

      Nice that you remember your grade school lessons — and share them with us!

      Second, I said almost exactly that in my reply to you. One reason your comments are annoying rather than useful is that you ignore replies that address the points you raise. But then you are a propagandist, so that’s a feature for you — not a bug.

      Third, as I mentioned — you ignore the point of this post. It’s about the politics of climate policy. The short term environment is key to understanding that. You pretend to not understand that, which is just odd.

      (2) “There do seem to be a number of people who up writing things, feel as though comments are then criticisms, and then claim to accept all the science.”

      That’s a word salad, like your previous comments. You have not made a single specific critique to anything in this post, certainly not to any of the factual details. Just hand-waving.

    10. Fabius,

      Second, I said almost exactly that in my reply to you.

      Given that my initial comment was exactly that, why did you not then simply agree?

      One reason your comments are annoying rather than useful is that you ignore replies that address the points you raise.

      As far as I can tell, the reason my comments are annoying to you is because I don’t always agree with you. Not a fan of sycophants, but each to their own.

      But then you are a propagandist, so that’s a feature for you — not a bug.

      What am being a propagandist for?

      It’s about the politics of climate policy. The short term environment is key to understanding that. You pretend to not understand that, which is just odd.

      No, I do understand this. I simply do not regard this as a useful context. If we only ever based policy on the short-term environment we would almost always be ignoring the risks associated with climate change (well, until it became patently obvious that we should do something which – given the irreversibility that I suspect you do not understand – may be too late). I appreciate that you don’t like it when people disagree with you, but I don’t particularly care.

      You have not made a single specific critique to anything in this post, certainly not to any of the factual details.

      I have. I think that focusing on the short-term environment is not a useful context. Of course, if you’re goal is to delay doing anything (as your pseudonym would imply is your goal) then it probably is a useful context.

    11. ATTP,

      (1) “No, I do understand this. I simply do not regard this as a useful context. If we only ever based policy on the short-term environment we would…”

      In the real world people do make decisions based on past and present conditions. I doubt you seriously deny that. It’s just another example of your hand-waving, rather than discussing what I say.

      (2) “As far as I can tell, the reason my comments are annoying to you is because I don’t always agree with you.”

      False. I give specific objections, which you ignore.

      (3) “Given that my initial comment was exactly that, why did you not then simply agree?”

      False. Your initial comment was not “exactly that”.

      Your initial comment: “you mean useful in terms of satisfying your preferences, not useful in some objective sense.”

      My reply: “I provide useful context as best I can, showing both sides of the issue — with the IPCC’s work as my benchmark. There are no “objective” observers; everybody has biases, preconceptions, and limitations of knowledge and perspective.”

      Your reply: “I was mainly just trying to point out that ‘useful context’ is often in the eye of the beholder.”

    12. Fabius,

      In the real world people do make decisions based on past and present conditions. I doubt you seriously deny that. It’s just another example of your hand-waving, rather than discussing what I say.

      Of course, I didn’t say they didn’t (this isn’t going to be another case in which you dishonestly respresent what I’ve said, is it). I said that I don’t think the short-term is really a useful context. You can disagree, of course, but getting all uptight about the fact that I don’t really agree with you is rather an odd way to respond.

      False. I give specific objections, which you ignore.

      Of course you think this. It doesn’t make it true.

      You left out this bit of your first response.

      You are capable of doing better. Try giving a substantive critique, instead of these snide remarks (i.e., derogatory or mocking in a passive-aggressive manner).

      Since you claim to accept IPCC WGI, do you agree that anthropogenically-driven warming probably depends linearly on emissions and could be as high as 2.5C per 1000GtC?

      Another question. Are you capable of having a discussion with me that doesn’t degenerate into you throwing around insults? I don’t think it’s possible, but you could always prove me wrong.

    13. ATTP,

      “Are you capable of having a discussion with me that doesn’t degenerate into you throwing around insults?”

      Almost all your comments are less than trivia. The few that aren’t trivia, are vague — so the discussion concerns what you are attempting to express.

      I said: ” I doubt you seriously deny that.”
      You reply: “Of course, I didn’t say they didn’t”.

      Not only did I NOT say you said that “they didn’t”, I said that I doubt that you believe “they didn’t”.

      “I said that I don’t think the short-term is really a useful context.”

      Yes, you said that several times. You have never explained why analysis of political dynamics in terms of people reacting to what see — past and present — is “not a useful context”. It is the method almost always used in such discussions, both by political scientists and laypeople.

      “this isn’t going to be another case in which you dishonestly respresent what I’ve said, is it.”

      Lies, again. I almost always reply by giving direct quotes. On the few occasions I don’t and you question what I said, I reply with direct quotes. Look thru this thread. You almost never reply when I provide hard supporting data refuting your claims.

      I said: “I give specific objections, which you ignore.”
      Your reply: “Of course you think this. It doesn’t make it true.”

      I have given a series of specific replies, most of which you have ignored. I could cite them, but what’s the point? You’re trolling, not having a discussion.

      “do you agree that anthropogenically-driven warming probably depends linearly on emissions and could be as high as 2.5C per 1000GtC?”

      Over the past 5+ years I’ve written many scores of posts saying so. I’ve written dozens of posts about the RCPs, which discuss this in detail.

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