Why you sound so stupid when you say "global warming has stopped"

Science is good at seeing things that you can’t really see. For example, science can provide an accurate three dimensional model of a critically important molecule even though no one has ever directly seen what this molecule looks like. That three dimensional model of the molecule can be used to understand things such as a) how life works and b) how to address some important disease.

Science can measure the exact proportions of each of several elements that are invisible that make up the air. We can sense the air but we can’t see Nitrogen vs. Oxygen vs. CO2 in the air, while Science can. Science can ascertain the invisible and the unpalpable. The actions and effects of those elements in the air are critically important. Were it not for Science’s ability to “see” them we would understand very little about some very important things.

There is a neat device some biology teachers use to get this point across. It is called The Ob=Scertainer. It is a device that demands that a student make the leap from thinking that if you can’t see something you can’t “see” it, to understanding that we can “see” what we can’t “see” if we are just a little smart about it. Or more accurately, if something does not leap to full realization of your usual senses, that does not mean it can’t be understood and no conclusions can be reached about it.

Before I describe that device, a small digression.

Years ago I was teaching a seminar in which we read a paper that would fit well into the modern “skeptics” community (I don’t mean science denialist here, but rather, regular skeptic) very much on the hyperskeptical end of the skeptical spectrum. The paper was about a certain skeleton found at a certain site, a very important one. Everybody who was anybody thought this skeleton was a burial, where a dead guy was put in the ground and covered over. The author of the paper argued that you could not say this. Every tiny bit of evidence that the skeleton was a burial was examined by the author and discounted. At the end there was not one stitch of evidence left uncriticized, unquestioned, in this paper. The students in the seminar all agreed that this set of bones was not a burial, and indeed, may not have even been an articulated skeleton.

One example of the critique involved the measurement of the distance between bones that normally adjoin in the human body. In most cases the distances between articular surfaces was outside the range found in normal humans, suggesting that the “skeleton” may not be “articulated.” In my view, all of these arguments were irrelevant. The bones were all in approximately the right place, the individuals was in a fetal position, sort of, and although it was not clear that there was a hole dug (the nature of the excavation did not allow this) there was a scattering of stones on top of the bones, which were then in turn buried over 60,000 years or so of accumulation of sediment above the skeleton.

In other words, the skeleton was to me clearly a burial, and the students had all been talked out of thinking this by a hypercritical, almost post-modern attack on the original conception. Which is a good thing, even if it is wrong. Evidence unassailed is never as good. But still, the thing was probably a burial.

So, I did this. I told the students that I was going to buy a beer for everyone in the room except the one person who was under 21, and she would have a non-alcoholic beverage of her choice. But only under one condition. Everyone was to write on the index cards I was passing out whether or not they thought this skeleton was a burial (write “burial”) or not (write “not burial”), without anyone else seeing their card. If everyone had the same exact opinion, everyone got a drink. Otherwise, nobody got a drink.

The cards were distributed, stuff written on them, and collected. The decision was unanimous. When push came to shove, when something very important (a beer) was at stake, each student decided that the burial was a burial.

Because a) it was a burial and b) the scales had cleared from the eyes of the students.

Now, back to this device that biology teachers use sometimes.

The Ob-Scertainer. The Ob-Scertainer.

It is a box with a certain shape inside. The space inside the box has various little walls or pegs or whatever inside the hollow area. Inside the box is a ball bearing that can move freely around in two dimensions. By tilting the box this way and that one can get a sense for what sorts of obstructions are inside the box, and attempt to draw a map of the interior space.

The students are in this way challenged to draw a two dimensional model of something they can’t see using indirect (and admittedly fuzzy) evidence. It takes time, there are sometimes errors, but they manage.

Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh are in a boat. They are in the middle of a deep, cold lake. If the boat sinks they will die of hypothermia and their corpses will sink to the bottom. There is a device in the boat that will sink it instantly, or alternatively, propel the boat to the safety of the shoreline where there are three martinis waiting for them, but it all depends on all three of them correctly answering a question. Notice that this is different from the scenario above, where the students only had to all agree. The students in my seminar were in fact interested in the truth, while the three people in this boat in this lake are not. So getting it right is the thing.

The question is, “Is global warming real, human caused, and important, yes or no.”

They don’t know who is asking the question. It could be the Heritage Institute, it could be Michael Mann with his finger on a remote that operates the device. But they are told that the best available science will be used to determine if they are wrong or right.

They will all answer “yes.”

Scientists know that greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, are increasing in the atmosphere. They know that this increases the amount of the sunlight that gets converted to heat staying around on the Earth longer, as opposed to going into outer space. They know that this heat is distributed among several parts of the earth approximately as follows:

  • Ocean 93.4%
  • Atmosphere 2.3%
  • Everything else 4.3%

Everything else includes the land surface of the earth and various ice sheets and so on.

Over the last several decades the overall temperature of the atmosphere, that 2.3% part of the equation, has gone up on average. Given any reasonable time period, i,e 10 or 15 years, it really has never gone down, though it has failed to go up very much now and then. The overall trend is up.

However, we have really good measurements (for the last several decades) for the Atmosphere, and for the surface of (but not the deeper parts of) the Ocean. This means that when the heat goes up more than expected in the Atmosphere, which it has done now and then, we can guess that this involves less heat going into the Ocean or to those other things. Conversely, when the temperature goes up less in the atmosphere than expected, we can guess that the “missing” heat went into the Ocean or one of the other places heat might go. For example, the heat in the atmosphere has not gone up over the last few years as much as predicted by drawing a straight line covering the last few decades, but instead,

  • Greenland ice cap has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The Arctic sea has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The few measurements in the deep ocean that we have show that it has gained a lot of heat.

It all makes sense and pretty much fits together, but there are many who claim that “global warming has plateaued” or that there is a “hiatus” in global warming.

See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6). See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6).

OK here’s an analogy. You make $50,000 a year. You pay out 10,000 in taxes. Then, suddenly, taxes go up and now you are paying $20,000 a year in taxes. Would you claim that $10,000 a year has disappeared into thin air? No. The money still exists. Its just not you YOUR pocket (you are the Atmosphere) It is now in the Government’s pocket (the Government is the Ocean). And, in fact, since you are so small and the Government is so big, this shift in heat, er, money, will be noticed by you (the person) a lot, but very little by the big giant government.

People can see or feel when it is hot and cold, to a lesser extend they can know when there is drought, when there are major storms, when there are fires, and if they are paying attention they can observe when the sea rises up and eats part of New Jersey. But they can’t see when the surface of the earth, the ground, below your feet, goes up a half a degree, or when the ocean at depth gets a tiny bit warmer. They can see, on the news, the melting of the Arctic ice, but they may not “see” (as in “get”) the connection whereby Arctic ice melts and sucks energy out of the atmosphere that might otherwise have been a heat wave in Paramus.

But Science can see that!

There is not a hiatus in global warming. There is not a plateau in global warming. Global warming has not stopped. However, climate change (including and especially global warming) is one or two orders of magnitude more complex that, say, the plot of this book:

Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, who apparently can't find their belly buttons.

But you wouldn’t know that from what we often see in the press, among commenters who demand that global warming be simple, or at least, exploit the belief that it is simple to misconstrue the meaning of any evidence of complexity. Shame on them.

The Ob-Scertainer requires that a student admit that she or he can know something unseeable. Modern medicine does that too. As does every electronic device you use, pretty much. And so does understanding climate change.

We don’t have time any more to mess around with denialism, false balance, and willful ignorance. Get on board or get a D, or even an F.

Graph of global temperatures from HERE.

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Very nice, Greg. Thanks.

And the Coulter, O'Reilly, Limbaugh situation seems like a win-win no matter what they answer. (btw, check the spelling on Coulter.)

This is great, Greg! The boat in the middle of a deep lake was extra special.

By Tenney Naumer (not verified) on 19 Jun 2013 #permalink

Id like permission to re-post this on the AGU Blogosphere.

ps Well said!

By dan satterfield (not verified) on 19 Jun 2013 #permalink

Note that when denialists insist "global warming has stopped," they do not actually believe their absurd assertion. I have a $1,000 wager offered to the first person who will bet against the proposition that a new record high global year average temperature will be recorded within the next four years--- I have notified several dozen denialists, and I also have a web site for the wager, but NEVER, NOT EVEN ONCE, has any denialist stepped forward to accept my US$1,000.

Meanwhile, if human-caused climate change were to ever suddenly "stop," whatever will have stopped it would likely be far worse to life on Earth than global warming has been and will be.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 19 Jun 2013 #permalink

Freedom of speech does not give someone the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater. When the World is in peril and the people on it in jeopardy, engaging in or taking part of a program of disinformation about climate change should be punishable by fines and incarceration.

If you want, try a little thought experiment. Imagine what you would do if you had to leave this planet and go live out in space or try to travel to another world. Give yourself advanced technology, like what you would have in two or three hundred years. Really think about it.

How would you create an Ark that would last a few hundred years travel time to another star system? You can't simply uproot a forest and plunk it down in a huge cylinder. You would need more than gravity, you would also need tides. There would have to be an incredible balance of insects and microorganisms in the soils and different ecosystems (savanna, jungle, woods, mountains) that would have to interact with each other.

If you continue to dig down deep into the problem, what you end up with is a planet. A planet is the perfect "spaceship" to travel through space in and generate a food supply and recycle our waste products. And that's what we have but the problem is, we're wrecking it. And we have no other place to jump off to if/when the whole thing gets borked. This is serious stuff. The Oil Industry needs to be reeled in and put under control. If we don't take them down, they will kill the planet.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 19 Jun 2013 #permalink

Dubious, you're right, that graphs sucked. It did not really give the best presentation of the data ... I just threw up a handy temperature graph as the "featured image" of the post instead of the child trying to save the earth (from you) picture.

So, I put up a better graph, more years, with a moving average, error bars etc.

Still looks like global warming is real, though.

Since when are computer "models" the equivalent of experimental data?

The actual data indicates that the lowly CO2 molecule, a mere 0.04% of the total atmosphere, is NOT the "thermostat" it is claimed to be.

And the idea that this mysterious heat somehow differentiates between air, sea and land on a variable basis (one year more heat goes to the sea, the next year more to land, etc.) is beyond ridiculous. You honestly expect me to believe that during the ten years of the 1990s the heat stayed in the atmosphere and avoided the oceans, but for some inexplicable reason suddenly dove 700 meters into the deep ocean and abandoned the air?

How gullible do you think we are?

Granted many people were scammed by the claims of those who crowned themselves "experts" but one can only scam the public for so long. People remember the cries of doom and destruction pronounced during the past twenty-odd years and looking around, see none of what they were assured would come to pass were they to refuse to follow the good doctors' prescribed treatment.

In other words, the jig is up.

I hope the real scientists return to the public discussion of serious topics soon. We need them.

By Casey Anderson (not verified) on 21 Jun 2013 #permalink

Klem: Thats' because I delete most (but not all) comments by science denialists. Like you.

(Sorry the rest of you can't read Klem's comment because I deleted it.)

This: "And the idea that this mysterious heat somehow differentiates between air, sea and land on a variable basis (one year more heat goes to the sea, the next year more to land, etc.) is beyond ridiculous." is a good example of someone requiring the Earth's climate system to be as simple as the plot of this book:

As I said in the post.

Thank you for demonstrating, Casey Anderson, one of the most important things that is wrong with this world. Perhaps you should just step aside and let the big boys and girls do the work.

Casey Anderson: "People remember the cries of doom and destruction pronounced during the past twenty-odd years and looking around, see none of what they were assured would come to pass were they to refuse to follow the good doctors’ prescribed treatment."

That's because the cries of imminent doom and destruction were and are coming from people who claim climate change is nothing to be concerned about, when they refer to any and all measures proposed to deal with it. The phrase "destroy the economy" may ring a bell. Similar claims have been made about every environmental-protection measure.

But you get one thing right: "one can only scam the public for so long." I see the Denialist scams running out of steam — or, considering their odoriferous nature, perhaps methane or hydrogen sulfide would be a better metaphor.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 30 Jun 2013 #permalink

I'm from Whybother CT. Here, we continually ask ourselves "Why bother" with anyone who has taken AGW as a religion. A graph from 1880? Are you kidding me?
Let's see what the REAL scientists have to say:

By Ecgberht Johannsen (not verified) on 04 Jul 2013 #permalink

Why don't you debate me instead of just deleting comments and blocking my posts?

By Ecgberht Stephenson (not verified) on 07 Jul 2013 #permalink

Because you've ever only posted one comment, I did not moderate it, and it was kinda strange and creepy?

Where is the analysis archived that documents how the uncertainty in the "global mean temperature" was determined to be +/- 0.1C back in 1890 ?

Or in 2010 for that matter.

Those error bars strike me as, shall one say, optimistic so I'm curious at to how they were arrived at.

Typhoon, here's the data:

Here's a discussion of the analysis:


More info on the analysis here: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/

I also suggest you look at the BEST study:

I recommend two things: 1) Don't argue from incredulity to meet your own expectations (your comment suggests you are doing that) and 2) don't cherry pick, or if you do, don't do it here! Thanks.

Greg- can you provide links that will show co2 levels over geologic times and explain how the temperatures then correlated with the co2 levels at that time?

By Kick Stand (not verified) on 11 Aug 2013 #permalink

120 years of data compared to the thousands of years of earths existence is to small a sample to come up with any accurate prediction. And me personal opinion is that Global Warming proponents are arrogant if they believe that we can change the environment so quickly.

Rob - If you don't think we can change the environment quickly, I suggest you go into a small room (say, a bathroom), close the door, place duct tape over every possible opening, including the drains, have a seat, and begin reading a good book. Before long, you will notice the environment changing.

Granted, "the" environment is a bit larger than your bathroom, but then, there are a few more people on the planet, too, and we have the "benefit" of modern technology to help us.

I'm from Whybother CT...

I thought the state had changed the name to "Heads up their asses."

It seems odd that some complain that historical data isn't used or discussed, but when it is it is derided as being immaterial and useless. Perhaps you, dubious, and casey, should write up and post your own research, with data and analyses, showing how the whole thing is a hoax. You'd be famous and rich.

What, not only don't you have any, you don't know any climate science, physics, or statistics?

That explains the stupidity in your comments.

When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a way you are able to remove me from that service? Many thanks!

I was pretty pleased to discover this website. I wanted to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely loved every part of it and I have you saved to fav to look at new stuff on your site.

By Lashawnda Rotanelli (not verified) on 22 Sep 2013 #permalink

I have to take issue with your description of the mechanism by which CO2 acts. It doesn't change the amount of sunlight converted to heat. What it does is trap heat energy, infrared radiation, within the atmosphere preventing it from re-radiating to space. This happens because the dimensions of the CO2 molecule are perfect for absorbing infrared radiation. This is the same mechanism that makes our microwave ovens work... Water molecules are the perfect dimension to absorb microwave wavelength radiation and oscillate with it, creating heat (that heats or cooks food) through the molecular friction of the water molecules rubbing against each other and their neighboring molecules.
Sunlight strikes the earth in the full spectrum that makes it through the atmosphere to the surface. The surface absorbs varying amounts of this electromagnetic radiation energy, which increases molecular vibration. The amount absorbed varies by the color (albedo effect) and material. White Arctic ice reflects more radiation back into space than dark ocean. The full electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight not filtered by the atmosphere is absorbed or reflected (not just infrared).
"Heat" is a measure of molecular vibrational energy. As the surface absorbs the full-spectrum sunlight (i.e. energy), increased surface temperature results. Entropy to equilibrium is the next significant process at play. The absorbed energy is converted to heat through more molecular vibration, which then radiates outward from the surface in all directions. CO2 molecules in the atmosphere absorb infrared radiation, increasing their molecular vibration, re-radiating infrared energy in all directions, including back toward the earth's surface. You then have a kind of a self-feeding cycle, although it's nowhere near absolute, since a lot of IR energy does make it back to space. More CO2, more molecules to for the surface-radiated IR to bump into and be absorbed for re-radiation. The overall impact is a slowed surface cooling cycle.
Yes, water vapor absorbs IR more fully. However, water vapor is short-lived in the atmosphere, returning to the surface as rain. CO2 lingers for years until used by forests and plant life... which is on a rapid decline as a percentage of our surface. Our post-industrial revolution per capita generation of CO2 as a result of burning fossil fuels to heat homes, transport ourselves all over and generate electricity and make stuff that requires heat is crazy.
There will always be fluctuations in measured and averaged global temps. Volcano ash prevents sunlight from reaching the surface, for example. But our insatiable appetite for hydrocarbons guarantees that when "normal" conditions are restored, there will be even more CO2 in the atmosphere to absorb the solar energy, slowing the process, resulting in slowly climbing global average temps.


The sentence you refer to was clumsily written. It said, essentially, that "the amount of sunlight that gets converted to heat radiating back into space is increased by CO2" but what it should have said is ""the amount of sunlight (that gets converted to heat) radiating back into space is increased by CO2" which is still clumsy but correct.

I've changed it somewhat but your explanation is here so people can also read that.

I've equated, in earlier writing on this, a greenhouse gas to a bunch of random-acting mail sorters. The mail is the IR going back into space, but it has to be sorted first by a number of drunk postal workers, who tend to put the mail in random bins. Most encounters with molecules in the air involve simply being passed on (towards space) but some of the molecules/postal workers pass the "mail" (IR radiation) on in a random direction. The more drunk postal workers/molecules (such as CO2) the more time the IR spends being passed around in random directions instead of in the direction it is supposed to go. It does not take that many drunk postal workers to result in a certain amount of mail taking weeks instead of days to get delivered. If instead of mail it is heat, that means that there will be more heat in the atmosphere than there would be without the greenhouse gases.

I like the drunk postal worker analogy! I'm an EE so it's all radiation to me. To me, the black body radiation measurement that proved less energy is being re-radiated into space than is incident upon the surface is the clincher. It came out a few years ago and was halted when the satellite constellation measuring it was defunded (I believe).
I'm not so sure your clarification is correct from an EM radiation perspective. Sunlight is absorbed by the surface. More sunlight is absorbed by darker materials. The absorption of EM radiation increases molecular vibration which is heat. Atmospheric CO2 wouldn't have much of a bearing on the amount of sunlight converted to heat. It will trap it as it is radiated from the surface, though. The entire visible spectrum plus higher and lower frequencies strike the surface constantly. Only a small portion of the
EM spectrum would be Infrared and directly heat atmospheric CO2 en route to the surface. The larger amount of sunlight converted to heat is determined by the albedo of the surface material. If you google "albedo" there are a few good references at the top of the results. Funny thing to cite: Mythbusters had done a piece on the Hollywood myth of the dust storm created by cars driving in circles being able to obscure a hostage transfer between cars. They did it with only visual confirmation from a helicopter, and then they used night-vision goggles. When they tested methods to obscure people to night vision goggles (infrared-sensing) they discharged CO2 fire extinguishers above the actors between the cars. No heat signature of any of the people out of the cars could be detected by the goggle-wearers with the CO2 cloud overhead. I know the denialist crowd wouldn't believe their own eyes or would consider it a conspiracy, but that is a great (expensive to reproduce) CO2 science experiment caught on video.

Love your work Bob - also an EE so I so get the it's all radiation to me.

I've tried to get deniers to acknowledge the operation of a CO2 meter. On the very rare occasion it works.

I've had no luck in getting a denier volunteer to stand in front of a CO2 laser. It would be an amazing experiment - would IR/CO2 deniers burn?

By Dave McRae (not verified) on 30 Sep 2013 #permalink

Thanks Dave! Now I have to think about a CO2 laser... Does a CO2 laser emit only IR? Isn't a laser more about having a chamber being integral numbers of wavelengths of your desired output frequency? And if you're shooting Infrared, then I'd ask the french fries under the IR lamp at the food service line if they believe in Climate Change... maybe the ones that don't won't burn your mouth!
We have to practice save science, you know... You know someone would volunteer to stand in front of that IR laser!
It's all fun and games until you burn a hole through someone!
Ok, I just thought of this... my friend owns a laser cutting shop. They have a 19 or 20KVA laser that cuts up to 1/4" steel plate. I believe it is a CO2 laser...

That's "safe science" we have to practice..

"When the World is in peril and the people on it in jeopardy, engaging in or taking part of a program of disinformation about climate change should be punishable by fines and incarceration."

And people still say that warmology has nothing to with fascism.


By corrector (not verified) on 08 Jun 2014 #permalink

As an attempt to explain away "the pause" this piece is worthless. You deviate from the standard, agreed upon measurement, surface temperature, for another, ocean heat content.

Switching from one to the other is dishonest for several reasons and anyone who handles critical data can tell you that you need data integrity. While surface temps do not tell us all we would like, we all understand how to compare one recording to any other and surface data is what we live with and what most paleoclimatic reconstructions are based upon.

In summary, cherry picking data points is bad enough but intermixing and cherry picking data TYPES is beyond the pale.

By Fred Voetsch (not verified) on 22 Sep 2014 #permalink

Fred, the "agreed upon measurement" is the measurement for a specific set of earth system features: Air temperatures just above the surface and sea surface temperatures. Looking at the part of the earth system that involves over 97% of the added heat is not deviating. It is including something very very important.

It is true that the traditional "surface" (as just defined) is the better data set in terms of its density and verifiability. But that does not make 97% of the system go away.

Your comment is invalid.

29 & 30:

On e-mail notifications of replies--

Typically, in the (body of ) the e-mail, usually at the end, a link is included with the instructions: "If you wish to discontine notifications of replies, click on the link"---

So, read your (current, past or next) mail notice carefully and look for that option, and, if you find it, click on it to indicate that you wish to discontinue the notices. I think this should do the trick.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 23 Sep 2014 #permalink