Skip to content

David Whitehouse: Overheated Media Reporting

Dr David Whitehouse

You can tell it’s climate conference season because that’s the time when – with 16% of the global temperature data for 2014 still missing – the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UK Met Office have a guess at (and a press release about) what the global annual temperature at the end of the year will be. It’s more of a political exercise than a scientific one, and a process not devoid of spin.

This year the premature headlines are unequivocal. 2014 is set to be the warmest year ever. This is what the World Meteorological Organisation says;

WMO’s provisional statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2014 indicated that the global average air temperature over land and sea surface for January to October was about 0.57° Centigrade (1.03 Fahrenheit) above the average of 14.00°C (57.2 °F) for the 1961-1990 reference period, and 0.09°C (0.16 °F) above the average for the past ten years (2004-2013).

If November and December maintain the same tendency, then 2014 will likely be the hottest on record, ahead of 2010, 2005 and 1998. This confirms the underlying long-term warming trend. It is important to note that differences in the rankings of the warmest years are a matter of only a few hundredths of a degree, and that different data sets show slightly different rankings.

But what a difference 0.01° Centigrade makes! Especially since the temperature dataset the WMO is using is a hybrid one, combining datasets from the UK Met Office, the University of East Anglia, the US NOAA, NASA and the NCDC and subjecting them to a “reanalysis.” Merging such data is tricky and great caution should be exercised, especially when the result of the process is that 2014 (so far) is only 0.01 ° Centigrade warmer than the previous warmest year 2010.

But even if 2014 will remain 0.01 ° Centigrade warmer than 2010, and possibly 0.02 ° Centigrade warmer than 2005, to WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud, it is proof that the global temperature is rising.

However, what exactly is the nature of this proof when the three warmest years on record, 2005, 2010 and (possibly) 2014 show an increase of only 0.02 ° Centigrade in 9 years? Jarraud produces the old chestnut; “The provisional information for 2014 means that fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” he said. “There is no standstill in global warming,” he adds.

Jarraud’s “evidence” is of course nothing of the sort as a simple look at the errors of temperature measurement and the ranking of the fifteen years show without doubt the reality of the post-1997 standstill.

0.01 +/- 0.1 

Nowhere in the WMO press release is there any mention of the errors of global surface temperature measurement. The error is +/- 0.1 ° Centigrade. So 2014 (so far) is 0.01 +/- 0.1 ° Centigrade warmer than 2010. Basing conclusions on such a measurement is ludicrous.

The UK Met Office also issued their forecast for 2014. They say that the global mean temperature for January to October based on the HadCRUT4 dataset (compiled by the Met Office and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit) is 0.57 °C (+/- 0.1) above the long-term (1961-1990) average. They says it’s consistent with the statement from the World Meteorological Organisation.

“With two months of data still to add, the full-year figure could change but presently 2014 is just ahead of the current record of 0.56 ° Centigrade set in 2010 in the global series which dates back to 1850. The final value for this year will be very close to the central estimate of 0.57 ° Centigrade from the Met Office global temperature forecast for 2014, which was issued late last year.”

The end of the Met Office’s press release adopts a more reasoned tone. Colin Morice, a climate monitoring scientist at the Met Office, said:

“Record or near-record years are interesting, but the ranking of individual years should be treated with some caution because the uncertainties in the data are larger than the differences between the top ranked years. We can say this year will add to the set of near-record temperatures we have seen over the last decade.”

Which actually means that the global surface temperature standstill continues. Had such comments been placed at the start of the UK Met Office’s press release a different message would have been received by all who read it.

No Big Jumps

There was not a lot of analysis of the story in the media with most reports mixing up the press releases from the WMO and the Met Office and at best skirting around the large errors or ignoring them altogether.

The BBC’s Science Editor’s report was rather confused and lacked any real analysis. It did say, “the provisional record for 2014 is only slightly higher than for the previous record year of 2010 – one-hundredth of a degree – which was 0.56C above the long-term average.”

The report went on to say:

“However climate scientists point out that all but one of the warmest 15 years have come in this century…This suggests that although there have been no big jumps in temperature in the past 16 years, the period as a whole is proving to be exceptionally warm.”

No big jumps! A more accurate way to say it would have been: ‘No statistically significant change’.

The BBC report also fell into the very old “1998” trap by considering temperature changes since the strong El Nino of that year. This has, so many times, been pointed out as the wrong way to look at the so-called “pause.” They were not the only ones to do this. The Environment and Climate “Intelligence” Unit did the same adding some poor use of statistics to compound the matter.

If the pause dare not speak its name on the BBC it also remains silent in the Independent which carried the headline

No standstill in global warming: 2014 will be world’s hottest year ever.

The proof for this, yes you guessed it.

“The provisional information for 2014 means that 14 out of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st Century. There is no standstill in global warming,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO.

The Independent also gets the datasets used by the WMO wrong and also makes no mention of errors, though it does repeat the Met Office’ caution statement at the end.

The Telegraph is also confused and makes no mention of errors.

The Guardian said that the Met Office dismissed outright the notion posed by some ‘climate deniers’ of a pause in the warming trend. That might be a surprise to the many Met Office scientists who have written about the so-called “pause” in global surface temperature.

The Met Office deserves some acknowledgement for their prediction that the 2014 surface global temperature anomaly would be 0.57 ° – although it must be pointed out that they also predicted 2013 would be 0.57° Centigrade, which it wasn’t.

The fact is that if 2014 does become a record, it will be by an insignificant increase and it won’t be a record in all the global temperature databases. Satellite data, arguably a much better data set than the surface temperature measurements, show 2014 to be far from record-setting.

The really big story is that the post-1997 ‘pause’ in global surface temperatures continues undiminished when 2014 data is included.