Why climate change is so tricky to cover

ResearchBlogging.orgClimatologists probably need to take a stiff drink before they open the papers (or fire up their web browsers) the morning after their studies appear in print or online. Two if the studies involved say anything interesting about global warming. Today's coverage of a Nature paper that predicts a decade-long, regional cooling trend for Europe and North America is sure to give the authors the jitters.

Noel Keenlyside of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, and his co-authors laced their letter with caveats. They call their attempt to model the effects of meridional overturning circulation "a simple approach" and note that they are working with surface temperatures when what they really need are subsurface records. But most observers seem to think they are at least giving the climate science community lots to think about when they conclude that global average surface temperatures could stop rising until the end of the next decade thanks to natural ocean cycles.

Good science reporters, like the NY Times' Andy Revkin, assembled a story that almost bends over backwards to play down the significance of the study. In other words, he's writing like a scientist. Under the headline "In a New Climate Model, Short-Term Cooling in a Warmer World" Revkin takes his time getting to the juicy/controversial bit:

After decades of research that sought, and found, evidence of a human influence on the earth's climate, climatologists are beginning to shift to a new and similarly daunting enterprise: creating decade-long forecasts for climate, just as meteorologists routinely generate week-long forecasts for weather.

One of the first attempts to look ahead a decade, using computer simulations and measurements of ocean temperatures, predicts a slight cooling of Europe and North America, probably related to shifting currents and patterns in the oceans.

The team that generated the forecast, whose members come from two German ocean and climate research centers, acknowledged that it was a preliminary effort. But in a short paper published in the May 1 issue of the journal Nature, they said their modeling method was able to reasonably replicate climate patterns in those regions in recent decades, providing some confidence in their prediction for the next one.

On the other hand, the Telegraph's science editor,Charles Clover, chooses the sensationalist and misleading headline of "Global warming may 'stop', scientists predict."

Researchers studying long-term changes in sea temperatures said they now expect a "lull" for up to a decade while natural variations in climate cancel out the increases caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The average temperature of the sea around Europe and North America is expected to cool slightly over the decade while the tropical Pacific remains unchanged.

This would mean that the 0.3°C global average temperature rise which has been predicted for the next decade by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may not happen, according to the paper published in the scientific journal Nature.

Reaction from climatologists to the letter in Nature, according to Revkin, represents a "variety of views." Reaction to the coverage is not as complimentary. Real Climate's Gavin Schmidt, says "The NYT story is ok, but the Telegraph is appalling."

"Appalling" might be too strong as word, as Clover does bother to refer to Keenlyside's observations that

"...the results were just the initial findings from a new computer model of how the oceans behave over decades and it would be wholly misleading to infer that global warming, in the sense of the enhanced greenhouse effect from increased carbon emissions, had gone away.

But the headline is what does the damage. And the Telegraph should know better. Global warming is not going to stop. All these particular natural cycles do is redistribute heat, in this case keeping more of it deep underwater instead of moving into the lower atmosphere. The total amount of heat being trapped by carbon in the air continues to rise. (Other natural cycles, like the Milankovitch orbital cycles, do change the total of amount of heat energy, on Earth, but that's not what's being discussed.) This is why writing that global warming will stop is dead wrong.

What the Keenlyside paper does predict is that even after the short-term cooling, warming will only "temporarily offset the projected anthropogenic warming" before it catches up to conventional predictions by the 2020s, and we're right back to where we started.

Even this isn't really earth-shattering. Last year the Hadley Centre, the UK's leading climate change lab, published a paper in Science that predicted a similar but shorter cooling trend that ends in late 2009, after which half of the next 10 years will be warmer than recent records. And James Hansen also predicts a short period of flat temperatures due to natural cycles. None of which changes anything when it comes to the longer term.

[Update: U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe posted a predictably misleading take on the study. And not too surprisingly, his staffer, Marc Morano, chose to go with a piece of the Telegraph's unfortunate headline.]

Keenlyside, N.S., Latif, M., Jungclaus, J., Kornblueh, L., Roeckner, E. (2008). Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector. Nature, 453(7191), 84-88. DOI: 10.1038/nature06921


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At the very least this should silence the denialists who insist that there is a global conspiracy that stifles climate research that does not show ever hotter temperatures. Nah.

It's amazing how many people manage to confuse "Europe and North America" (or even just "North America") with "the globe". Hello? There are five other continents out there, and one heck of a lot of ocean.

You alarmists remind me of some poor WWII Japanese soldier marooned on some island still thinking the war is going on.
Hello! Warming stopped 10 years ago, and NOW is projected to be absent for at least another 10 years. This is all over the media. That's the latest conclusion from a strong German proponent of AGW to boot!

What these Herrs are saying is: Sorry all you aktivists! Der vont be any global varming for another 10 years. So go home now. Vee promise itll be back later! Auf Wiedersehen!.
LOL! When? 10 years? 20 years? 50 years?

No warming for 20 years, it means the whole catastrophic CO2 thoery was just a big pile of doo doo.

I recommend readers here to read Lubos Motl's take on this news. The skeptic blogs are having a field day! James, in a couple of years I'll be sending you a fur coat!

By PGosselin (not verified) on 01 May 2008 #permalink


Are they having a field day because they only read the headlines and then cherry pick whatever data fits their theory while ignoring are contrary data? All denialists do this and that's why it's so easy to be a denialist. Real scientists are always probing gaps in current theories to better understand reality. Real scientists will therefore often generate conclusions that can be easily twisted and misinterpreted by denialists like yourself. Frankly, their is no evidence that warming stopped 10 years ago or won't continue into the future. This recent paper just changes the timing and placement of the warming.

Perhaps if climate denialists did some real research showing why GHGs won't significantly alter the climate we might listen. Unfortunately, the best you can do is twist the results of actual scientists to fit your fantasies.

Lubos Motl? I haven't heard his name in a long time. Did they invent the term "crank" for him?

It is absolutely amazing how quickly the denial machine accepts the outcomes of climate models without any further questions, and how quickly climate scientists that are usually bashed for just doing their quality research suddenly become involuntary poster childs of the denialist crowd - in the very second that a study is published which, carefully read, doesn't give even the slightest reason to doubt even the slightest bit of anthropogenic global warming. Glad I'm not too old yet get surprised from time to time.

Wait, wait - weren't the denialists just telling us that the computer models couldn't be trusted? Why the sudden change of heart?


So let's see. The model used in this study says that natural climate variability is going to counter act manmade GHGs and produce constant or lower temps for the next ten years.

So if natural forces can be held responsible for overwhelming manmade GHG's in the next decade and explain the lack or temp rise over the last decade why can't they be used to explain the slight rise in temps over the last thirty years of the 20th century?

I think our friend Occam is swinging his razor towards the manmade GHG warming hypothesis.

Lance, were you making your comment to demonstrate the truth of the title of the post?


"Tricky" is an apt word for a theory that can't be falsified no matter what data is generated.

The frantic warnings that we are approaching a critical "tipping point" seem a bit histrionic when the temperature is just lazing along for ten years and then is predicted to stay flat or decrease slightly over the next ten years.

It reminds me of the Millerites, an 1800's Christian sect (now the Seventh Day Adventists) that kept predicting the end of the earth and exhorting all people to repent of their sins and join them in preparing for Christ's return. When the first date predicted for His arrival passed without incident they declared this non-event "The Great Disappointment".

This of course didn't stop William Miller from recalculating the expected arival date, several more times.

After these predicted dates kept passing and being re-forecast without the arrival of said savior the Millerites declared that the world was in a "tarrying time" after which the apocalypse would surely arrive.

Hansen's predicted "tipping point" now looks to be a no show. Maybe it will be declared the "Great Disappointment" of the apocalyptic climate change sect. Perhaps "Hansenites" will now declare that the world is in the AGW "tarrying time" before the great climate apocalypse and that we must repent of our carbon sins before the wrath of Gaia is brought down upon us.