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These Stairs Aren't Climbing -- They're Flat!

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There's been quite a bit of reaction to the article published by the Economist, dated March 30, suggesting that there may be evidence that climate change has been overestimated. The data that concern those cheering the Economist writers is an apparent lack of warming since 1998 or so. Here's a video package the Economist put together about the piece. Now first it's worth pointing out that the Economist writers are far from cheery, to a one noting that climate change is happening, it's clearly related to human activity, and it requires action. But those cheering the Economist cherry pick their data, focusing only on one piece that quotes NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies head James Hansen noting "the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade." Fortunately the nice thing about these webs is that as soon as people start making claims based on such quotations, responses emerge including clarifying data and context. This one, by Weather Underground cofounder Jeff Masters, does a masterful job of explaining how the data show the climate warming in something like a series of steps, as clearly presented by the site Skeptical Science.

Each cherry-picked step looks flat

Masters goes into thorough detail, showing how volcanic eruptions, El Nino, La Nina, and other variations create short-term temperature trends that flatten or shift the graph for a while. But then the long-term trend reasserts itself and it's up one more step. Skeptics are basically acting like North Carolina legislators and the sea level, measuring what they like and leaving the rest out. "I've measured from the lip to the back of the tread, and for more than a foot, this supposed 'stairway' is completely flat, not rising at all! Explain that away, stair alarmists!" Such a flat spot began in about 1998 with a strong El Nino heating things up, which was followed by many years of La Nina, keeping things comparatively cool. Despite the spate of hottest-years-on-record since then, the graph has remained flattish. This video explains the whole thing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=u_0JZRIHFtk

But if you do a moment's thinking you'll recognize that if we're having the hottest years on record during the weather patterns that keep us cool, uh-oh. And if you want to see what real science looks like, this update presents updated data that render the video as produced slightly inaccurate. It includes a new graph that very slightly weakens the force of the video, though not in a statistically significant way. But the creators wanted to make sure the best possible data was out there. Which is what scientists do.

Anyhow. Whenever, as the Economist did, a usually reasonably reliable publication produces work that makes me question a core scientific belief, I like to check it out to make sure new evidence hasn't suddenly emerged to change that belief. So it hasn't, and so I don't need to change my belief. Skeptical Science, by the way, remains a great site to go to when the turkeys have got you down. Between them and Weather Underground, it's pretty hard not to get the kind of data-based explanation for anything climate-based that's worrying you.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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