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You can't explain away climate change

Some hold that global warming stopped in 1998, but scientists know better.

July 22, 2010

You probably won't hear it from columnist George F. Will, Fox News commentators or the plethora of conservative blogs that have claimed global warming essentially stopped in 1998, but recent figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that global land and ocean surface temperatures in June were the highest since record-keeping began in 1880. What's more, the first half of 2010 was the hottest such period ever recorded, and Arctic sea ice melted at a record-setting pace in June.

The heat can probably be attributed at least in part to periodic and entirely natural changes in ocean temperatures and surface air pressure — the El Niño/La Niña phenomena most likely played a role. But the fact that peak years are getting hotter while even relatively "cool" years now tend to remain above historical averages (the 10 warmest years on record all occurred within the last 15 years, according to the NOAA) shows that something else is at work. A consensus of climate scientists worldwide, including not only the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but the national scientific academies of the United States and the rest of the developed world, have identified that "something else" as anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases, which reflect the sun's heat back onto the Earth rather than letting it escape into space.

Climate skeptics such as Will et al either deny that this warming is happening — an increasingly untenable position in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is — or insist that it doesn't matter. They argue that it would be more expensive to try to solve the problem than to adapt to it, and that in any case, the effects of higher temperatures won't be all that damaging. Climate modelers, who have accurately forecast the currently observed climate oscillations, sea-level rise and ice melting, do not agree. They predict catastrophic destruction in coastal cities, droughts, crop failure, forest loss, insect infestations and other woes.

For us, it's not a difficult decision which side to believe: scientists who directly observe and measure climate changes and whose accuracy is rigorously tested by their peers, or pundits with little knowledge of climate science whose views are informed by a long-held resentment of environmentalists and government regulation. Yet the latter group, working hand in hand with big energy companies that profit from the filthy status quo, have injected enough doubt into the national debate to paralyze Congress — which seems little closer to imposing greenhouse-gas limits or placing a market price on emissions than it was during the laissez-faire George W. Bush administration — and confuse the public, who in recent polls are increasingly inclined to believe that the threat of climate change has been exaggerated.

Granted, scientists themselves deserve some blame for the shift in attitudes. Climatology, even more than other fields, is undergoing changes that are unsettling for those in the trenches. A relatively obscure line of work until policymakers started seriously considering carbon curbs in recent years, climate science is suddenly at the center of a raging international debate. Meanwhile, a sedate culture of publication and private peer review has been roiled by a new media environment; today, critics of a scientist's work don't have to publish a carefully reviewed study in a major journal, they just have to fire off an indignant blog post.

When scientists at the prestigious Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia responded to such critics by sending catty e-mails to their colleagues, and when those e-mails were made public by hackers last November, it did more to impede action on climate change than Big Oil could have achieved with an army of lobbyists. Yet investigations have shown that the e-mails amounted to little more than fits of pique. The most recent review, conducted by an independent team funded by the University of East Anglia, found no evidence that the researchers had undermined scientific findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or any other group, and that they neither withheld access to data nor tampered with it.

We'd love to hear climate skeptics explain away the results of such investigations and address the latest report from the NOAA. But we suspect they'll do what they usually do when confronted with facts that contradict their worldview: ignore them.

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