When Fox News host Glenn Beck or conservative columnist George Will talk about how global warming “ended” sometime in the last 10 years, it’s worrying but not altogether surprising. But what about when a New York Times science writer spins a similar tale in a news story?
The Times’ former climate change reporter, Andrew Revkin, wrote a piece published online on September 21, 2009 (it appeared in the print edition two days later) that seemed designed to bolster one of the key messages from the climate deniers. It told of the “intricate challenge” facing world leaders seeking to make progress on climate policy while “global temperatures have been stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.”
As blogger Joseph Romm (Climate Progress, 9/22/09) wrote in a takedown of Revkin’s piece, this article was published at the end of a period of obvious and unambiguous global warming. Romm noted that the same British climate change research unit that Revkin was citing for evidence of temperature stability, the Met Office, was reporting that “all the years from 2000 to 2008 have been in the top 14 warmest years on record.” This is the time frame that Revkin remarkably called the “recent spate of relatively cool years.”
Andrew Revkin is no George Will—a proud climate change denier who used similar data earlier in the year (Washington Post, 2/13/09; see FAIR Action Alert, 2/18/09) to claim that “there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” The Times reporter attributed the view that the “plateau in temperatures” was “evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown” to “skeptics,” while “scientists” in his articles said “the pattern of the last decade...has no bearing on the long-term warming effects of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere.”
But Revkin’s assumption that there is “a plateau of temperatures” for skeptics to seize upon was itself a strange reading of the data. It’s true that in the Met Office’s temperature records, 1998—which saw a peak in the El Niño climate cycle—was a record-setting year. But as Climate Progress’ Romm pointed out, NASA’s temperature records are slightly different, and show 2005 as being warmer than 1998—which would essentially erase the notion of temperature stability, plateauing or cooling.
The entire article rests on the premise that a meaningful trend can be discerned from looking at the last 12 years of temperature records in isolation. About a month after Revkin’s piece, the Associated Press explained matters more clearly (10/26/09):
In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.
AP added that “the ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.”
The article on the climate “plateau” was not the first Revkin piece to be criticized for seeming to put the fringe of global warming deniers on par with the scientific consensus (e.g., Climate Progress, 8/4/09). One article (2/24/09) juxtaposed Al Gore’s correcting one of the slides in his climate change presentation with George Will’s sticking by false claims about icecap increases, using this as evidence for Revkin’s thesis that “hyperbole is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the [climate change] debate.”
As Romm and other critics took Revkin’s September 2009 piece to task, certain discrepancies between the original version of the piece and newer versions surfaced. The first Web version claimed that the “global average temperature is now only an imperceptible .01 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999.” The print version, published two days later, reported that this average was “now only 0.13 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999”—a tenfold increase from the earlier claim. And at some point Revkin’s reference to the “recent spate of relatively cool years” was changed on the web to read the “recent spate of years with stable temperatures” in the print edition—still misleading, but arguably less so.
Revkin’s “plateau” piece, unsurprisingly, was a source of some comfort—and crowing—for the climate change denial crowd. George Will penned an October 1 Washington Post column that led with the Times’ headline (“Plateau in Temperatures Adds Difficulty to Task of Reaching a Solution”), though on balance he argued that Revkin’s piece didn’t go quite far enough. Given Will’s history of misleading readers about climate change, he can at least say that he speaks with considerable authority on the subject.