Dark Powers Resurrect Dead Argument, Demonstrate Need for Direct Action

Many years ago, when I was still fairly new at this whole climate blogging thing, I came across a fantastic website called Skeptical Science that had a list of all the arguments against the scientific consensus on man-made global warming, along with their rebuttals. I was also an avid consumer of Peter Sinclair’s work, and between those resources, and my old hobby of arguing with deniers on the internet, I ran into the claim that the planet hadn’t been warming in years – over a decade, in fact. Specifically, the claim was that global warming stopped in 1998.

This was, of course, a dishonest argument. 1998 was the ultimate cherry-pick, because of an unusually strong El Niño that caused ’98 to stand out from the broader trend. Because it was such an outlier, using it as a starting point allowed dishonest actors to draw a line showing an apparent temperature decline, by ignoring the years prior. From Climate.gov:

Did global warming stop in 1998?

No, but thanks to natural variability, volcanic eruptions, and relatively low solar activity, the rate of average global surface warming from 1998-2012 was slower than it had been for two to three decades leading up to it.

How much slower depends on the fine print: which global temperature dataset you look at, whether it includes the Arctic, and the exact time periods you compare. Regardless, the big picture of long-term global warming remained unchanged.

Global temperature trends by decade

(top) Based on NOAA data, global average surface temperature (orange line) has risen 0.13°F (0.07°C) per decade since 1880 (red line), which is nearly identical to the rate of warming during the 15-year period from 1998-2012 (gray line). (bottom) The rate of warming from 1998-2012 was slower than the two preceding 15-year periods, but faster than the two 15-year periods before that. NOAA Climate.gov graph, based on data from NCEI.

Those who deny the scientific evidence of human-caused global warming turned the slowdown into a slogan: “Global warming stopped in 1998.” In scientific journals and assessment reports, climate experts described the episode as a “pause” or “hiatus” in the previous decades’ rapid warming: they knew it wouldn’t last.

Not only was 1998-2012 the warmest 15-year period on record at the time, but greenhouse gases continued to climb to new record highs, and other climate indicators continued to show the impacts of long-term, global-scale warming: subsurface ocean heating, global sea level rise, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and record-low Arctic sea ice extent.

The argument was dead on arrival, but it was never meant to be truly alive. It was designed to spread doubt among people who didn’t know enough to spot the lie, and to support the beliefs of those already committed to denial. Understanding the intent of an argument like that is important, if you want to understand why, a decade later and a good bit warmer, some people are trying to bring it back to life:

For those who can't see it, this is a screenshot of a tweet by one John Shewchuck that reads:

For those who can’t see it, this is a screenshot of a tweet by one John Shewchuck that reads: “After over 1,000 queries via Twitter, Youtube comments, various blogs, and during my talks, every #ClimateScam alarmist completely avoids answering the question … Why are we in a 7-year cooling trend? They fear data – like a vampire fears the sun.” Followed by a graph showing Lower Tropospheric Global Temperature Anomalies from 2015 to 2022, with a trendline showing a very slight decline.

They don’t need real arguments, because the climate denial “movement” exists to support the interests of some of the most wealthy and unscrupulous people on the planet. On the one hand, I feel almost nostalgic. I was so much younger and more naïve when I first met this particular bullshit. On the other hand, it’s a testament to just how much power stands against real action on climate change. All they have to do is keep spending money, and the arguments they like will hang around forever, no many how many times they’ve been refuted. More than that, bought politicians will continue pretending that arguments like this have even a shred of merit. Still, this means I get to bring out one of my favorite gifs, at least from this particular debate:

The gif shows 7 previous "cooling periods", each one warmer than the last, between 1970 and 2020.

The gif shows 7 previous “cooling periods”, each one warmer than the last, between 1970 and 2020.

This is called The Escalator, and it shows very nicely how cherry-picked data sets can show a “cooling trend”, even in the midst of a rise in temperature that has climate scientists shitting their proverbial pants. The most recent iteration of this lie was debunked earlier this year, but I doubt you could convince Mr. Shewchuck of that. I particularly appreciated this tweet from climate scientists Zeke Hausfather:

The tweet reads:

The tweet reads: “While our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are driving long-term warming, natural variability in the form of El Nino and La Nina (ENSO) events can have a big impact on year-to-year changes. If we remove the effects of ENSO from the record, we see clearer warming:” Followed by a graph showing the Berkley Earth temperature record (blue), with a recent “pause” visible over the last few years, along with the temperature record with ENSO removed (orange) showing a more steady rise in temperature.

The thing is, I feel pretty comfortable saying that this “cooling trend” is about to reach its end, and we’re all going to be worse off because of that. The deniers will be worse off, of course, because it’ll kill their zombie talking point, and they’ll have to wait a bit before they can re-animate it and go back to insisting it’s alive and well. The rest of us will be worse off, because this whole global warming thing is getting to be a serious problem.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, scientists have detected an anomalous spike in sea surface temperatures that seems to be separate from the coming El Niño. By itself, that would already herald an increase in extreme weather, and an increase in air temperature. Add in El Niño, and it seems likely that things could get pretty wild. More than that, there’s some concern that the temperature spike might indicate that a line has been crossed, with regard to the ocean’s ability to absorb heat. If that absorption is slowing down, or if some of that heat is returning to the atmosphere in a new way, then the rate of warming may be about to increase dramatically.

The problem with this “cooling trend” line is that even if it were sincere, it relies on a vague hope that there’s some causal factor, still undiscovered, that explains the apparent pause. Even were that the case, we’d still need to account for the known thermal properties of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, because as I’ve said before, it’s physically impossible to pour that stuff into the atmosphere without trapping more heat. It’d be like putting on a heavy winter coat, and expecting to cool off over time.

I’m posting this in part because it’s worth having more rebuttals out in the world. More that that, though I’m posting this to point out the way that the concentrated power of capital – the aristocrats at the top of big corporations – can keep arguments going forever, no matter how much evidence is provided to prove them wrong. We can work to debunk and persuade, but by itself, that will never be enough. If we want change, we have to make change. We have to organize, coordinate our actions, and bring and end to this greed-fueled rush to extinction.

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  1. Bruce says

    The historical data shows an actual decline in the 1940s. For nuts who prefer ideas such as the sunspot hypothesis, the obvious implication is that Hitler scared the sun into a different amount of sunspots.
    For the fact-based among us, the data might better support the hypothesis that the destruction of WWII decreased industrial production and thus decreased fossil fuel consumption over the whole decade. When people ask for experimental evidence, you can’t get better than that.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Bruce @ # 1: … the destruction of WWII decreased industrial production…

    Yes and no: the factories on all sides cranked away to the absolute limits that fuel and materials allowed during the war, then fell quiet during the lull afterwards. Doubtlessly, the smoke, ash, and dust of the bombing and battles cooled things down, probably moreso (temporarily) than the increased CO2 production raised temps, but had a shorter-term climate effect.

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