2017 was warm. The next few years will be more important.

Summary: The world’s temperature is in the news again, showing that 2017 was another warm year. Now that it is in the record books, let’s look at the more important question — about future warming, if a new pause has begun — and what might be the political implications.

One of the most important datasets of our time.

NOAA: Global Temperatures - 1950 - 2017

Another warm year!

The world has been warming for two centuries, since the Little Ice Age ended. “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” {from AR5, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report). See the above graph. So we have had a lot of headlines like this: “For the globe, 2017 was the third warmest year on record and the warmest year without an El Niño present.

Look at the numbers (from NOAA’s Climate at a Glance interactive graph).

  • The total 18 year increase from the 1998 El Niño to the 2016 El Niño was 0.31°C (0.56°F).
  • That is 0.18°C (0.32°F) per decade.
  • That is faster than the warming of 0.11°C (0.20°F) per decade during 1950 – 1998.
  • That is 4x faster than the warming of 0.04°C (0.07°F) per decade from 1880-1950.

We did not get these headlines during the “pause” (aka “hiatus”) from 1999 through 2014. The global surface temperature did not exceed the 1998 high (by more than the ~0.1°F margin of error) until the 2014-2016 period of El Niño conditions. Scores of papers discussed the pause; scores explored its causes.

Climate activists responded by denying the science and concealing these papers from the public (examples here and here). For good reason. Frequent stories about warming are the core of their messaging. The long pause disrupted that program. They had to rely on scary but false predictions (more & bigger hurricanes after Katrina) and falsely blaming most extreme weather on global warming (e.g., 2017’s hurricanes).

What comes next?

“Mr. President, if that’s what you want there is only one way to get it. That is to …scare the hell out of the country.”

— Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s advice to Truman about starting the Cold War. Truman did so in his famous speech on 12 March 1947. From Put yourself in Marshall’s place by James Warburg (he helped develop the US WWII propaganda programs).

Unfortunately, motivating America to action is more easily done using fear than reason. Fears ‘R us (it makes us easy to rule).  So our news is presented as a series of hysteric fits. That is why we live in the crisis crisis. Hence the misuse of the worst-scenario in the IPCC’s AR5 (RCP8.5), ubiquitously described by activists as the “business as usual” scenario (which it is not; it is unlikely — and becoming more so).

That’s why the pause had such a large political effect, disproportionate to its significance to scientists — it interrupted the flow of scary stories about global temperature records.

What happens if we get another plateau, a step up only one or two tenths of a degree C (0.2 or 0.3°F) higher than the previous plateau? A pause perhaps lasting 10 or 15 years. Can the climate policy campaign continue without new record highs in temperature? A post by James Hanson et al. describes why this is “plausible, if not likely” — “Global Temperature in 2017.” Excerpt…

“The record 2016 temperature was abetted by the effects of both a strong El Niño and maximum warming from the solar irradiance cycle. …Therefore, because of the combination of the strong 2016 El Niño and the phase of the solar cycle, it is plausible, if not likely, that the next 10 years of global temperature change will leave an impression of a ‘global warming hiatus’. …Therefore, temperature change during even the next few years is of interest, to determine whether a significant excursion above the trend line is underway.”

A new pause might already have begun. To see tentative signs of a new plateau, watch the YoY seasonal temperature changes in temperature. Like the following graph showing the average temperature per year for October to December. The September – December and August – December graphs are similar, but weaker. The passage of time will tell the answer.

NOAA: Global Temperatures - December 2017

What do Activists have without new temperature records? Thirty years of blaming extreme cold and warm, drought and floods, on CO2 has accomplished little (details here). Activists’ favorite tactic of focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.

Activists could try science instead. Stop exaggerating the research, stick with reports from the IPCC and major climate agencies, and accurately describe the large uncertainty of climate forecasts. Of course, that is not as scary as their usual tactics.

Stand back I'm trying science.

Why the (possible) stair steps in warming?

Where did the heat come from in the massive warming during the 2014-2016 El Nino period? A new paper proposes an answer: “Big Jump of Record Warm Global Mean Surface Temperature in 2014-2016 Related to Unusually Large Oceanic Heat Releases” by Jianjun Yin et al. in Geophysical Research Letters (in press).

A recent paper give an explanation of this pattern: “Reconciling the signal and noise of atmospheric warming on decadal timescales“ by Roger N. Jones and James H. Ricketts in Earth System Dynamics, 8 (1), 2017 — Abstract…

“Interactions between externally forced and internally generated climate variations on decadal timescales is a major determinant of changing climate risk. Severe testing is applied to observed global and regional surface and satellite temperatures and modelled surface temperatures to determine whether these interactions are independent, as in the traditional signal-to-noise model, or whether they interact, resulting in step-like warming.

“This model indicates that in situ warming of the atmosphere does not occur; instead, a store-and-release mechanism from the ocean to the atmosphere is proposed. It is physically plausible and theoretically sound. The presence of step-like – rather than gradual – warming is important information for characterising and managing future climate risk.”

This paper points us to another perspective on climate change. Ocean heat content (OHC) is in many ways the best metric of warming. This was controversial when Roger Pielke Sr. first said it in 2003 (despite his eminent record, Skeptical Science called him a “climate misinformer” – for bogus reasons). Some scientists point to changes in the ocean’s heat content as an explanation for the pause.

Graphs of OHC should convert any remaining deniers of global warming (there are some out there). This shows the increasing temperature of the top 700 meters of the oceans, from NOAA’s OHC page. See here for more information about the increase in OHC. It is in a sense the clearest metric of global warming. Why do we not see this graph more often? Probably because it is not scary.

Ocean temperature 0-700m

That’s all a sideshow. Here’s the center ring.

Information about past and present warming is important. But for making public policy decisions, we need to know about future warming. What are the odds of severe warming during the 21st century? There is no easy answer, and no consensus of climate scientists about it. So climate activists either ignore the research (e.g., 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”.

The smart way to bet is on inaction, as both sides continue their food fight while climate scientists make incremental progress (insufficient to affect the public policy debate). America will not prepare for the repeat of past extreme weather, let alone what we can reasonably expect in the future.

There are ways to break this deadlock, but neither climate scientists nor the US government will push for them. So we hope for pleasant weather. Hope is not a plan.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, and especially these …

  1. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. My proposal: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  3. Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
  4. Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
  5. Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
  6. Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
  7. Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
  8. We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.

See these books to learn more about the state of climate change.

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Professor Roger Pielke Jr. See my review of it.

Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change by Dr. Susan Crockford. See my review of it.

 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.
Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change
Available at Amazon.


15 thoughts on “2017 was warm. The next few years will be more important.”

  1. On the topic of methane, here’s some newer studies:

    “Ocean waters prevent release of ancient methane” – https://phys.org/news/2018-01-ocean-ancient-methane.html#nRlv
    “Methane dissociation off Spitsbergen not due to climate change” – https://phys.org/news/2018-01-methane-hydrate-dissociation-spitsbergen-climate.html#nRlv

    I expect an upcoming tack of research and alarmism both will be examining the shifts of established patterns of weather, which probably do have substantial impacts on the intermediate level; for instance, if there isn’t much of a winter freeze, certain forests might change around, or certain crop pests and diseases might become more prevalent.

  2. Dear Mr Kummer,

    As usual, your clear reasoning is expressed in clear writing. One of the problems with the public understanding of science is that we are generally taught fairly simple concepts in reductionist terms and this does not scale to large, complex systems. Moreover, something on the scale of the global climate is hard to model and impossible predict with much certainty. It’s a truism that people refuse to learn, and unfortunately one that many who know it don’t want to teach. It’s equally willfully ignorant to suppose that mankind’s activities don’t affect the climate whether it’s local or global. You’re chipping away at this willfulness with posts like these.

    Back in the day, I attended an American Geophysical Union conference and there was a guy with a poster summarizing his research. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name. He had done some modeling where a reduced flow of water from the Nile raised the salinity of the Mediterranean and the change might induce a current that could deflect the gulf stream and cause Canada and Europe to accumulate moisture and induce a localized mini-ice age. Now, he didn’t say this was going to happen, merely that the physics and water mass balance suggested it could. Moreover, warming trends due to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations wouldn’t necessarily prevent the accumulation from happening.

    What could happen does not completely characterize the probability that it will happen. With sensor and computing costs coming down and capabilities going up, the data sets will get much more comprehensive and accurate and the models better at predicting. It will be interesting to see. The only prediction I’ll hazard here is that there will be no abatement in hysteria or willfulness in refusing to engage the facts.

    With kind regards,


    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “we are generally taught fairly simple concepts in reductionist terms and this does not scale to large, complex systems.”

      That is a powerful observation. It’s not only a problem, but one seldom discussed. For a great discussion of this see Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braidby Douglas Hofstadter (see Wikipedia).

      “The only prediction I’ll hazard here is that there will be no abatement in hysteria or willfulness in refusing to engage the facts.”

      I’ll bet big on that outcome, unfortunately! It’s rooted in the bedrock of the climate debate: the nature of modern Americans.

  3. James Macdonald, meteorologist, MS MIT

    Regarding ocean influence on temperatures, the ending of the “pause” was caused by El Nino. Now that it has subsided and possibly replaced by La Nina, it will be interesting to see if the pause returns.

  4. You left out the big scare – all the Arctic ice melting. But that is OK because you had so many to choose from.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      The post was about only one subject, so I “left out” everything else. My guess is that changes in global surface temperature are the main event in the climate policy war (unless we get some extraordinary big and destructive extreme weather that changes the debate).

      A little more arctic ice melting won’t change the debate, imo.

  5. Thanks for you posts on this subject. The temperature data itself is even still suspect, according to some experts. The rise in temperature looks very probable, but the last 20-30 years may be suffering from a bias. If you look at some of the uncertainty bands in the temps it is very telling.

    Anyway, I agree with your conclusion/prediction, that the next 5-10 years will be very telling in this whole episode.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “The temperature data itself is even still suspect”

      No, it’s not. It’s not perfect, but the margins of error are well understood. Also, there are now multiple measurements producing similar results: the global surface atmosphere data, two satellite datasets of the lower troposphere, and ocean heat content measurements.

  6. Larry Kummer, Editor

    Tamino gives us some good old fashioned science denial!

    How to FAKE a “Pause” in Global Warming

    First, this post discusses the possibility of a future pause, as described by Hanson et al on Jan 18. If that happens, it would be evidence supporting the proposed “store and release” mechanism described by Jones and Ricketts (2017). Full citations and links are in my post.

    Second, I conclude by putting this discussion in a larger context. First by showing the steady rise in ocean heat content (in some ways the best metric for global warming). Second, by pointing out “That’s all a sideshow” to the more important issues about climate change.

    Third, it is entertaining to see you give us some old-fashioned science denial! (That’s gallows humor, since such behavior is one reason the climate policy debate has deadlocked in the US.)

    For any of your readers who are interested in science — here are two dozen papers describing the pause (aka “hiatus”), with full citations, abstracts, and links:

    In the past few years attention shifted to analysis about possible causes of the pause. Here are four score papers about this. It’s a sample, not comprehensive. ~17 of these are from 2017, with Jones & Ricketts one of the most recent (with full citations, abstracts, links).

    A last note — I’m confident that the policy debate will advance despite folks like you (so similar in tactics to those on the other side). As they say, “the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

    1. The Greek tutor of this wayward adolescent Roman should chastise him by demanding an Attic translation of :

      For no fib , however great ,
      Can stretch a thread, however fine
      Into a bogus thermocline
      that is anything but straight.

  7. This post strikes me as coming from someone who’s more worried about facts than taking side, which is my favorite kind of source. Here’s a question that has been nagging me about temperature reconstitution models. My understanding is that we’re still missing a lot of temperature measurement in the sets used for the reference curves, that is was ridiculously worse pre 1950 and more or less inexistant prior to 1800. I understand the curves build on those missing datas are derived from heavy modeling from proxy measurements : trees, ice, maybe other stuff. It strikes as absolutely inadequate to produce any form of information about global temperature because

    1) the proxies themselves are sparsers than 1900’s thermometers, so that’s a very small fraction of the globe being tracked

    2) how do you check models vs real temperature, if you don’t *know* the real temperature ? I understand you can do this over the last 50 years for a proxy and extrapolate, but it can’t be enough when it’s not about “checking my proxy measured it’s areas temperature”, but “checking my proxies and models measured global temperature”. Say you take 1830, have a few pins on the globe from proxies and measurement : how do you validate the model you use to translate all of this into a point on a global temperature graph ?

    Would you by any chance have posted about this already ? I am having a hard time finding non partisan discussion on this…

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “how do you check models vs real temperature, if you don’t *know* the real temperature?”

      Past records are certainly less accurate than modern records. But the warming signal is unmistakable as the world came out of the Little Ice Age.

      Models are primarily concerned with the response of the climate system to anthropogenic factors plus natural factors — such as volcanoes, solar, and ENSO. For that the post-WWII data — which is quite accurate — suffices.

      The modern era (after 1979) provides both high-quality surface data and two satellite datasets. After 2007 we hae data from the Argo floats measuring ocean heat content. The picture of warming in all four datasets is roughly similar, giving confidence that it is correct. Hence there is a solid basis for comparison of model’s predictions with observed temperatures.

      “the proxies themselves are sparsers than 1900’s”

      Proxies are used for the pre-instrument era. Their data is not an input to climate models, and so are not relevant to the policy questions about future warming. The battles over the “hockey stick” are mostly public relations.

  8. Your response made me go read some of the later papers. I have been following this in the literature for over 20 years (I’m a trained scientist, for what that’s worth- and have a day job). In about 2015, it looks like there were a few good efforts at reanalyzing many data sets using modern methods, e.g. “leave one out”, etc. Note that it took until 2015 (in my reading of it), until some of the anomalies were resolved.

    The study of the Berkeley group stands out (again).

    So, as time goes on, and the “real” scientific method is given time to work (instead of “scientists” publishing in the popular literature, and litigating!!??), the certainty of the data improves.

    Thanks again.

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