George Will: wrong about climate change

george will

Mark Sorenson and I just published an op-ed in response to George Will’s misguided essay denying global warming.  Not anthropogenic global warming, but simply global warming.  He argued on Oct 4 in the WaPost (and countless other papers around the country) that the warming has plateaued.  Sadly, he is wrong.

Will picked up on an equally incorrect story, by the usually on target Andrew Revkin who runs the DotEarth blog.

Revkin said “temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade”…The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.” (link)

But there is no “plateau”.  The global temperature has continued to increase even during the last decade.

We have been blogging about (and attempting to correct) this for over a year (here, here, and here) as have many other bloggers and environmental writers including the NASA climate scientists who run the Real Climate web site (here). Their most recent article very succinctly debunks the “plateau” argument.  They include the graphic below, based on the NASA GISS dataset of global land and sea surface temperatures:


Global temperature according to NASA GISS data since 1980. The red line shows annual data, the larger red square a preliminary value for 2009, based on January-August. The green line shows the 25-year linear trend (0.19 ºC per decade). The blue lines show the two most recent ten-year trends (0.18 ºC per decade for 1998-2007, 0.19 ºC per decade for 1999-2008) and illustrate that these recent decadal trends are entirely consistent with the long-term trend and IPCC predictions. Even the highly “cherry-picked” 11-year period starting with the warm 1998 and ending with the cold 2008 still shows a warming trend of 0.11 ºC per decade (which may surprise some lay people who tend to connect the end points, rather than include all ten data points into a proper trend calculation). - from

Where’s the recent cooling or plateau you ask?  Nowhere in fact.

Below is a graphic of global temperature trends from five databases between 1999 and 2009.  They are all positive, i.e., no cooling, no plateau.  Note the hadcrut data (the green line)(the HadCRUT3v  data are developed in part by the Hadley Centre of the Met Office which is the UK’s National Weather Service and by the CRU ) displays the shallowest slope, yet the slope is still positive.

There is an incorrect meme in the blogosphere that this widely used dataset, unlike the NASA data (the rss  line in the graph below), does show a decline or at least a plateau.  But in fact it doesn’t:


It is well known that the Hadley data tend to run cool due to missing observations from the Arctic, one of the places on earth that have warmed the most (i.e., the Hadley HadCRUT3v  data tend to underestimate global warming – read the full explanation on RealClimate here).

The Met Office has posted a seemingly clear statement titled Climate change fact 2; temperatures continue to rise, in an attempt to make it clear that their data do not indicate warming has stopped.

Take another look at the Hadley data plotted below. The red line is the monthly temperature anomaly (deviations from a baseline) and the green line is the fitted curve beginning in 1999 (an intense El Nino year and the warmest year on record).  Note, again, there is no cooling or plateau.


The people coming to the conclusion that the earth is warming based on the Hadley data are not doing any type of trend analysis (or listening to the Hadley Centers interpretation).  They are instead simply drawing a line from the peak in 1999 to the dip in late 2008.  This is bogus for three reasons: (1) it is cherry-picking (picking the data to make a point, i.e., biased), (2) not a legitimate way to do a trend analysis (you can’t just ignore what happened in between the beginning and end points), and (3) it is totally irrelevant anyway!  It just doesn’t matter what happened last year or what happens next year.  The issue at hand is the effect of humans on climate not on day-to-day or year-to-year weather.  It is the long-term trend (see the graph below), that began over a hundred years ago, that we are concerned about.  (Can you see now why this whole issue – over the simple fact of whether the earth is even cooling – is driving scientists bonkers!)


Finally, as we point out in our op-ed; “According to NASA, the hottest ten years since 1880 (when continuous instrument records begin) have occurred since 1996, and the planet’s temperature is still increasing.”  You can see the current ranking (for what it’s worth) here.

To recap, we can see the data don’t show a plateau or a cooling trend and the British government even says their Hadley data don’t show a plateau or a cooling trend.

George Will’s WaPost colleague Ezra Kline has a great article explaining all this (again) to Will and millions of other AGW skeptics:

Will, whether he knows it or not, is relying on temperature measurements out of the U.K. Met’s office. Will thinks they show a “plateau” in global warming. Here’s what the Met says: “The rise in global surface temperature has averaged more than 0.15 °C per decade since the mid-1970s. Warming has been unprecedented in at least the last 50 years, and the 17 warmest years have all occurred in the last 20 years. This does not mean that next year will necessarily be warmer than last year, but the long-term trend is for rising temperatures.”

Brad Johnson, a climate blogger who does spend his days immersed in this stuff, writes that Will’s thesis is “pinned on an ambiguity of the English language. Just as the Yankees are a winning team but did not win their last game, global warming is terribly real even if 2008, one of the hottest years in recorded history, was cooler than 2007.” As Johnson explains, global warming is not shorthand for “every day will be hotter than the next everywhere on the planet.” It is shorthand for the observation that an “anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is amplifying the natural radiative forcing of the troposphere’s temperature,” thus creating a general trend toward higher temperatures. The year-to-year variability that forms the basis of Will’s column is not a challenge to this theory. It is built into it.   [the Global Climate Models that have forecasted long-term warming over the next several centuries actually predict lots of year-to-year variability and even short-term declines, read about this here]

Is there a chance Will will issue a correction?  This is a matter of fact after all, not simply an opinion of political interpretation.  Will the WaPost Ombudsman suggest such a correction?  Or the editorial page editor?  This isn’t the first time Will has made demonstrably incorrect misstatements about global warming in his column  (see an account of his last run in with “facts”  here and a compilation of all the articles debunking his arguments here).  And in the past he and the WaPost editorial page editor haven’t been willing to make corrections or to even discuss the factual accuracy of his pieces rejecting that the earth is even warming.

Although I am more or less liberal and Will is a conservative (in the traditional, non-neo-conservative sense) I often find his arguments at least well-reasoned and sometimes insightful.  I even agree with him sometimes and he has more than once changed my mind.  But jeez, how can a guy who understands the Federal tax code and baseball get himself so confused about climate change?  I do not think he has ulterior motives or is in anyway corrupt.  I also don’t think he comes from this position out of ideology-he is usually, but not always, a skeptic, even of conservative ideology.  I suspect he is just getting bad information from the wrong places. Although, ironically, this time he was misled by the New York Times and moreover, by a highly respected enviro-journalist.

But I suspect Will has other sources.  As many have pointed out, the “the earth is cooling” and “global warming has plateaued” memes are taking over the blogosphere.  There are also passages in Will’s op-ed that are suspiciously similar to another recent op-ed by house member Joe Barton. Somebody is probably distributing briefings with talking points for climate change skeptics:

…to achieve the Waxman-Markey legislation’s 83 percent baseline reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050, we will have to reduce the CO2 output in the United States to the level that we had back in 1910.  – Barton

The U.S. goal is an 80 percent reduction by 2050. But Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute says that would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the 1910 level. – Will

The link to our op-ed in the Raleigh NC based News & Observer is here.  My co-author Dr. Mark Sorensen is a biological anthropologist at UNC.  We are co-teaching a class for non-majors on global change: From the Equator to the Poles: Case Studies in Global Environmental Change.  Dr. Carol Arnosti, a biogeochemist in my department assisted with the piece and is also an instructor in the class.

One question that keeps coming up in our class is why so few americans believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming (< 50% by some estimates).  The students have come up with a number of good explanations.  One is that the public – e.g., their parents – is so frequently misinformed, i.e., lied to, by widely respected authorities in the media such as Will. As Ezra Kline put it (link):

All this might be fine, if not for the credibility Will has by virtue of his column. But people who are reading Will’s column at their breakfast table and are not otherwise immersed in this debate might find Will’s thinking convincing, unaware that the points he’s raising have been continually and convincingly rebutted, and that his read of the evidence sharply differs from those of the scientists who are actually collecting and analyzing the evidence. That would be a shame.

We agree and essentially made the same point at the end of our op-ed:

Given the clarity and relative certainty of the science and the scale of the potential social and economic impacts, why do newspapers publish articles denying climate change is happening? Social commentators like George Will certainly have freedom of speech and a general license to express their opinions on the editorial page. But would newspaper editors publish essays denying other major threats to humanity? Imagine an editorial arguing that cancer, poverty, HIV-AIDS or genocide don’t exist and are merely the product of a well-orchestrated scientific hoax. In some countries, you actually do see such lies in the media. To Americans, this seems crazy, which is what the rest of the world thinks when they read denials about global warming in our newspapers. To everybody else, climate change is something they are already experiencing and are trying to find solutions to, rather than just another talking point in a never-ending culture war.

1 thought on “George Will: wrong about climate change

  1. I too read Will’s column in our local Phoenix newspaper, and had the identical reaction to yours. What is most sad is that the average reader will not be able to understand why Will’s argumentation is misleading. Our country has become a poster child of the media becoming ‘enablers’ of denialist rants. As I have said to our local op-ed writers, the gap between scientific research today and the press and public is so enormous that I doubt we will ever be able to bridge it.

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