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Fake news tries to blame human-caused global warming on El Niño

Posted on 5 December 2016 by dana1981

Human carbon pollution is heating the Earth incredibly fast. On top of that long-term human-caused global warming trend, there are fluctuations caused by various natural factors. One of these is the El Niño/La Niña cycle. The combination of human-caused warming and a strong El Niño event are on the verge of causing an unprecedented three consecutive record-breaking hot years

Simply put, without global warming we would not be seeing record-breaking heat year after year. In fact, 2014 broke the temperature record without an El Niño assist, and then El Niño helped push 2015 over 2014, and 2016 over 2015.

Sadly, we live in a post-truth world dominated by fake news in which people increasingly seek information that confirms their ideological beliefs, rather than information that’s factually accurate from reliable sources. Because people have become incredibly polarized on the subject of climate change, those with a conservative worldview who prefer maintaining the status quo to the steps we need to take to prevent a climate catastrophe often seek out climate science-denying stories.

Into that environment step conservative columnists David Rose at the Mail on Sunday, parroted by Ross Clark in The Spectator and James Delingpole for Breitbart, all trying to blame the current record-shattering hot global temperatures entirely on El Niño. Perhaps saddest of all, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee tweeted the Breitbart piece, to which Senator Bernie Sanders appropriately responded:

An über cherry-picked argument

The conservative columnists made their case by claiming that, with the recent strong El Niño event ending, temperatures are “plummeting,” thus blaming the record heat on El Niño. There are several fatal flaws in their case.

First, the “plummet” they cite is not in global temperatures on the surface where we live, and where temperatures are easiest to measure accurately, but rather in satellite estimates of the temperature of the lower atmosphere above the portions of Earth’s surface covered by land masses. Second, although the satellite data extend as far back as 1979, and the global surface temperature data to 1880, they cherry pick the data by only showing the portion since 1997. Third, the argument is based entirely upon one relatively cool month (October 2016) that was only cool in that particularly cherry-picked data set.

The argument is easily debunked. While there was a strong El Niño event in 2015–2016, there was an equally strong event in 1997–1998. The two events had very similar short-term warming influences on global surface temperatures, but according to Nasa, 2016 will be about 0.35°C hotter than 1998. That difference is due to the long-term, human-caused global warming trend. In fact, according to Nasa, even October 2016 was hotter than every month on record prior to 1998. These “plummeting” post-El Niño temperatures are still as hot as the hottest month at the peak of the 1998 El Niño.

monthly temps

In fact, just three days after the conservative columnists’ pieces came out, the November 2016 satellite data was published. It turned out to be the hottest November in the entire record. Oops.

Pushback from climate scientists and real science journalists

Climate scientists have strongly pushed back against this misinformation. Climate scientist Adam Sobel told the Guardian, “they’re not serious articles” and “grossly misinterpret” the data. For Climate Feedback, seven scientists graded David Rose’s piece, and gave it a “very low” credibility score of -1.9 (the lowest possible score is -2.0). The scientists described Rose’s article as “incredibly misleading,” “flawed to perfection,” and “completely bogus.”

Real science journalists have also taken the biased conservative pieces to task (I define real science journalists as those whose primary goal is to accurately inform readers about science, as opposed to fake science journalists whose primary goal is to distort science in order to advance an agenda). For example, see the Guardian, New York TimesWashington PostSlateCarbon Brief, and climate science bloggers.

Science, facts, and truth aren’t changed by ideology or opinion

People that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts … Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s Tweets amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.

On issues of belief, like politics, it’s true that differing opinions are roughly equally valid. While policy questions can be supported by evidence and data, ultimately they often come down to subjective individual preferences and opinions. In science, that’s not true. A scientific theory or argument is either supported by evidence and data, or it’s not. Opinions are not equally valid. We all live on the same planet, in the same universe, governed by the same laws of physics. Whether we lean toward liberal or conservative ideology, those physical laws don’t change.

Unfortunately, conservatives are increasingly likely to deny this reality. As Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus told Fox News:

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. Here in America, a man shot up a DC pizzeria.  A fake news article said Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, John Podesta, were running a child sex ring in the back.  Gullible people were broadcasting this and death threats were being issued to the restaurants owners and workers.  Ordinarily, this could be identified as a new National Security Threat, worthy of direct action by the incoming National Security Advisor, John Flynn.  The only problem is: Flynn was one of those people rebroadcasting this fake news segment.  So, this is the context for this latest, wildly fact-free cherry pick by the climate disinformation artists, who know their audience doesn't read, or even want to see, the 'fine print'.

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  2. For more details about the story ubrew addressed in his comment, see:

    Son of Trump security adviser spread baseless 'pizza gate' conspiracy by Tai Kopan, CNN, Dec 5, 2016

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  3. I can see an increasing temperature trend in the graph above, and individual peaks from el nino. In fact squinting my eyes down it appears the el nino peaks are getting larger with time, with the 2015 peak being very high. This suggests the warming atmosphere may be altering el nino itself. I would be interested if there is evidence of that.

    I read the shooting incident just an hour ago. This shows the real danger of the world view of the alternative right in America. The internet is providing an easy platorm for fake news that is enabling naturally paranoid people to join up. Its almost like society in America is developing a case of mass schizophrenia, in the same way you sometimes get outbursts of group hysteria.

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  4. There has always been a lot of fake news and propaganda. Most of it is easily discernible as a category all of its own, featuring Hillary Clinton's new pregnancy or extra-terrestial influences, or the enemy engaging in perversions and eating babies, etc. It only becomes a problem when the genres start to run. Well do I remember my children of 4-5 being confused by a televized royal wedding, confused by the fact that it was like a fairy tale but presented as news. With a little good will people quickly learn to distinguish — it's mainly the good will that is the problem.

    On the bright side, Delingpole seems to embrace the fruits of climate science research, throwing around 'El Nina' and the 'decadal oscillation' as if they have become as familiar as the words we use for kitchen utensils.

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  5. JW Rebel @4, yes some news stories or other internet claims are pretty obviously fake, but during the election reputable looking organisations were saying Hilary Clinton had been arrested by the feds over the email issue. This has a little more credibility, and other fake news accusations were made about her financial situation that were subtle and sophisticated, and plausible sounding, and many people would get sucked in.

    The internet has lifted it all to a completely new level as numerous organisations exist a mouse click away that have plausible sounding, pleasant names that hide hidden agendas. Or they sound like traditional news media but arent really, and just re-hash information. It is much harder for ordinary people to sort fact from fiction, and this is leading to some people saying truth is whatever you want it to be.

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  6. I have a theory that natural evolution has stopped for mankind. Natural evolution makes sure that only the strongest and smartest individuals of a species survive, creating stronger and smarter offspring. Our civilization however makes it possible for everyone to survive, no matter how stupid they are. Take a primitive society. Any farmer who doesn’t observe the weather and the time of year will sow at the wrong moment and his crops will fail. Any hunter-gatherer who eats the wrong - poisonous - plants will die. Facts are rock-solid for such people. It is ironic that it is our scientifically advanced, highly technological society that allows people to blindly deny basic facts without being “punished” for it by nature.

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  7. The problem of repeated lies gaining credibility in the political discussion has been with us for a long time.  North Vietnam's attack on US Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin was a lie that resulted in an escalation of the war (Johnson).  Nixon has a secret plan to end the war.  Sandinista Nicaraugua has communist expansionist goals (Reagon).  These are only a few examples of lies that had political weight.  Suddahm Hussein had weapons of mass distruction and was involved with 911 attacks (GW Bush).  In the US, we are threatened, not by terrorist, but by our polorization and our retreat to communities that support our biases.  The internet has exasperated that trend.  Of course, I have learned a lot that I believe is objective such as on this web site.  If the human tendency is to avoid objective truths and their implications, then we will appropriately pass so the the world (never really threatened) can reevolve without us.  Our only hope with respect to climate change is for the culture at large to recognize that we must limit our emissions to what can be sequestered to avoid adding to the carbon concentration in the atmosphere.  This includes the recognition that that is the source of global warming.  With that recognition, we can build an economy that understands that limit.  We know every year exactly how much over net zero emissions we contribute to co2 buildup by comparing air samples, commonly measure in part per million.  I want people to think of this as a debt.  When we achieve net zero carbon emissions, we will no longer be adding to the debt.  However, the carbon already emitted will continue to cause global warming (reduced ice reflection, increased dark blue ocean heat absorption, melting tundra adding methane GHG, et).  To pay down the debt, we must emit less than can be sequestered by natural or other means.  To pay back this carbon in atmosphere debt, we need to imagine an economy the is net sequestration of carbon (humans emit less than can be sequestered).  Achieving the recognition that carbon buildup in the atmosphere is the source of the problem is a huge cultural we are looking for.  For those that do recognize this, we need to measure our carbon emissions to see how we need to change.  I used figures from IPCC 07 report, posted on this website to determine net sequestration by nature and divided by world population.  To share this fairly, I divided this net sequestration by nature by the world's population to come up with 2.57 tons/person/year to achieve net zero co2 emissions. With this understanding, we have a chance to structure support localling and globally to achieve this standard. Keeping it vauge works for the interest of procrastination and denial.  

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  8. I apologize.  This is a political comment and probably ad hominem but certainly not off topic.  But then, the whole problem with not mitigating our carbon output is political. Any year 12 science student could lay out what we need to do.  The politicians simply won't do it because they are in the pocket of vested fossil fuel interests. 

    Complaining about false news is all the flavor of the week but it is hardly surprising.  The neigh sayers (mis-spelling intended) have had an example from the best.  Would, for instance,  anyone except a dyed-in-the-wool bible belt thumper consider O'Riley of Fox news a journalist.  The America media has provided a constant diet of false news for decades.

    We, the rational few, can but try our best but  In the end it is economics that will carry the day.  When, for instance, a truly affordable electric car is produced and the public realizes that they can drive about 6 times as far on a dollar's worth of electricity than on a dollar's worth of petrol, the speed of the shift will rival the shift from horses to cars.  One hopes the economic factors will be in time to save us from ourselves.

    If this year is a harbinger of things to come, we don't have all that much time.

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  9. ELIofVA @7, I think you are totally correct about Vietnam, The Sandinistas, and Iraqs so called weapons of mass destruction. However this was all politicians not getting things right or not being honest, or just indulging in a twisted ideology. The media can only report what they say.

    Fake news is different as it means the news itself becomes infiltrated with basic factual errors about routine news stories, and these are hard to spot. Its insidious and by the time its corrected nobody notices, and the fake news has spread like a virus and becomes accepted wisdom.

    It also becomes hard to know what are genuine news organisations with some sort of regulatory standards over them , and what are pretend organisations that are unaccountable. The internet means anyone can call themselves a news organisation, but they may be operating from a country that has no control over them or regulatory requirements, yet the organisation effectively has global reach. Of course people should check the credentials of the website they are looking at, but many people dont.

    Plus you get people like O'reiley on Fox news. Of course he isn't presenting the news as such, its his opinions and general commentary, so a different issue, however much of what he says seems totally unsupportable to me and very misleading. However this is the price we pay for free speech, so its a sort of paradox.

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  10. ELIofVA @7,

    I divided this net sequestration by nature by the world's population to come up with 2.57 tons/person/year to achieve net zero co2 emissions.

    You're rincorrect here. Nature (mainly oceans and biosphere) is currently sequestering human C from the atmosphere at the reate of about half of human's emission rate. If we lower the emmision by half, then the sequestration by nature will also adjust accordingly and will become about a half of new emission rate (1.3 tons/person/year accodring to your calculation): the situation we had ~40years ago. For the sequestering forces of nature to come "in ballance" with emitive forces og humans, thett human emissions must drop well below the current rate, below 5%, the lower the better. That's why scientists who know those number emphacise a complete (or at least ner complete) decarbonising of global economy is a must do to stabilise Earth's energy balance and climate.

    The above is what we know for sure. On top of that are positive feedback that we know have  happened in the past but we don't know enough to quantifi them, like e.g. warming ocean becoming carbon source in the long term. We know such feedback happened in glacial cyccle timeframe (ca 10ky) but we don't know why. In case of AGW timeframe presently, we just ignore the warming ocean CO2 feedback and hope that it does not happen in time the action be taken to bring emission rates to zero.

    Very few (if any) negative feedbacks are known that would allow a "breathing space" i.e. increased carbon budget for humans to burn without climatice consequences. Your back-envelope calculation allowance certainly cannot be sustained (if the goal is Earth climate stabilisation), although in short term is better than doing nothing and burning as much coal as possible, as current president-elect wants to do.

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  11. Weather Channel Torpedoes Neo Nazi Breitbart’s Climate Lies

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