Almost every day, I see false or misleading headlines on my Yahoo search page. Last year the Earth was the hottest it has ever been. Ever? Really? I am attaching a screenshot of a recent climate-related headline that demonstrates I do not exaggerate. Clearly, the intent is to persuade me that the Earth is warming (I am persuaded without the hyperbole) and convey a sense of political urgency (agreeing something must be done is not an agreement on what should be done). The problem is that committing fraud to create a sense of urgency undermines the credibility of the entire movement. Allow me to demonstrate the misleading nature of ‘hottest year ever on Earth’ through reversal.
What was the coldest year ever?
Instead of worrying about the hottest year, what if I said the coldest year ever on Earth was 1976? Coldest? Ever? That recently? Really? A reasonable person would scoff – and should scoff. After all, primates have wandered the Earth during several glacial maximums with mile thick ice sheets flowing as far south as New York. Although 1976 may have seemed like a cold year for those of us living in the northeast, it was nothing compared to living next to a mile thick ice sheet. Then again, I don’t know of any daily temperature readings from 25,000 BCE.
What would your reaction be to the following approach to fact checking? Under a headline claiming that 1976 was the coldest year ever, the article contains a lower paragraph explaining that 1976 was the coldest year “…since NOAA began keeping records?” Although there were precursor agencies, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was formally created in 1970. A claim that 1976 was the coldest year “…since NOAA has been keeping records” is really a claim that 1976 was the coldest year since 1970. That may well be true; but does it support a claim that 1976 was the coldest year… …ever?
Maybe it is just a matter of tweaking the ‘records’ statement. What would your reaction be to the following fact checking? Under a headline that 1976 was the coldest year EVER, the article had a lower paragraph that said 1976 was the coldest year “…on record.” Although NOAA has an entire section explaining why it uses many different measures of Earth’s temperature in various data records, the article has chosen a data series beginning in 1970. Further research reveals that NOAA maintains other data which include many years with colder records than 1976, and some of these extend significantly back further than 1970. Some data series go back to the early 19th century include many years colder than 1976. But the article states that it uses the record series that only goes back to 1970. Would you consider the statement “coldest year on record” factual if they exclude other data series that go further back?
The basic problem with ‘ever’ is fundamental. If the intent of the authors is to lead the readers to believe that the Earth will be a temperature for which there is no record of life, then the statement is fraud. NOAA scientists have estimated paleo-climate data going back hundreds of millions of years. The terminology of these estimates includes “records.” Even if a publication relies on one particular data series to say that 1976 was the coldest year “…on record,” it doesn’t support the claim that 1976 was the coldest year… …ever. In the paleo-climate data are periods during which almost the entire Earth was frozen, so-called ‘snowball Earth.’ It would be scientifically invalid and a violation of journalistic ethics to rely on one post-1970 NOAA data series to report that 1976 was the coldest year on Earth, ever – even if NOAA put it on its webpage.
What was the hottest year… …ever?
OK, was 2020 the hottest year on Earth… …ever? Yahoo News put a Business Insider article in my feed saying that 2020 was the hottest year on Earth ever. I attach a screenshot. NOAA seems to agree on its webpage. NOAA seems like an authoritative source so should Yahoo News and Business Insider pass a fact check? No.
Saying 2020 was the hottest year on Earth ever is based on the same misleading methodology as saying 1976 was the coldest year ever. It relies on cherry picking what counts as a record and failing to disclose to the reader scientific observations that run counter to the claim. At least NOAA contains on its site the counter-evidence for those who look deeper. But Yahoo News and Business Insider failing to provide such context is a violation of journalistic ethics, in addition to being scientifically invalid. It relies on the same bias that would claim LeBron James and Magic Johnson’s triple doubles were unprecedented just because the year that Oscar Robertson AVERAGED a triple double was before the league kept official records labeled ‘triple double.’ No, 2020 was not the hottest year ever on Earth.
Fossil records, sediment records, and similar data estimate hundreds of millions of years hotter than 2020 inhabited by complex life. Furthermore, we are primates. According to the journal Nature, primates appear in the fossil record at least as far back as 55 million years ago. Relative to most of the period during which Earth has supported primates, 2020 was relatively cold, not hot. Earth temperatures have varied widely during those 55 million years, including much hotter and much colder than current Earth temperatures – and we are descended from some primates who adapted.
Furthermore, the change is not always slow. Primates similar to us have had to adapt to rapid global climate change in relatively recent geologic time. Fossils of hominids using tools in Tanzinia date back two million years. The supervolcano Yellowstone has had 3 mega-eruptions during that time, and there are more than a dozen other supervolcanoes, some of which are not dormant. The Earth has been hit by multiple large objects, such as recorded in Greenland near the Younger Dryas boundary. Patterns of rainfall and desertification have transformed huge swaths of continents, such as the greening of the Sahara and the jungle-ization of Brazil, multiple times – and we are descended from some primates who adapted.
Humans can live in a variety of conditions. The fossil record and the associated climate estimates are clear that primates aided by little more than fire, stone tools, and a sharp stick adapted to global climates much cooler and much hotter than the current Earth – and global temperature swings were at times rapid.
Earth is Warming According to Best Evidence
None of the above is a denial of climate change. Our atmospheric measurements and estimates show a trend of increasing temperatures. Modern estimates of the rise in ocean levels are confirmed by centuries of tide gauge readings (see link to NYC readings, for example).
Changing global temperatures and sea levels should be expected. NOAA points out that within a few generations the temperature of Earth will be significantly different from the temperature it was when humans first known complex architecture.
What NOAA characterizes as complex civilization is very recent. Complex human tool usage, sophisticated rock paintings, and consistent artistic forms go back 40 thousand years or more.
The current climate is nothing like the climate when humans learned to make clothes, communicate through symbols, use fire to transform materials, create boats, and live in villages. With such crude instruments, humans adapted to tropical jungle conditions, hot desert conditions, cold desert conditions, mountain conditions, arctic seaside conditions, and grassland steppe. There is no single global temperature or single bio-system niche which limits primates like us.
The Earth is Not Stable
Change is the only constant. Recall the advance and retreat of ice sheets. Almost all plant and animal species in the northern Eurasia and North America are invasive species. The same is true elsewhere. At the furthest back reaches of hominids, the Mediterranean Sea has completely dried up creating a superheated low altitude desert. During the much more recent limited time of Homo Sapiens, the Sahara Desert has been a grassland. Asia and North America have been connected, and Australia and Asia have been connected. If all humans died tomorrow, the Earth would continue to change, sometimes rapidly.
Earth’s bio-systems attempt to adapt, with plant and animal species competing aggressively for niches. The range of plant species expand and contract with changing temperatures and rainfall. Herbivore and carnivore species change their habitats or migratory patterns. Certain species, like beavers and humans, attempt to transform their landscapes – creating and eliminating niches for other species.
But change could reach a biological tipping point, or not. The pace of warming could exceed known rates of species migration, as estimated from the climate, fossil records, and current observations. On the other hand, those paleo-records do not include humans aiding species migration – or hindering it.
Adapt or Die
There is agreement that the Earth is not stable and change is sometimes rapid. There is agreement that the current observed trend is warming. There is agreement that if this trend continues, the seas will rise and growing seasons will change in location and duration. What is to be done?
Should the emphasis be on stopping climate change? After thousands of years of a warming Earth and rising seas, the global temperature stabilized about 8,000 years ago. Should policy be directed at keeping the Earth within a few degrees of its temperature since about 6,000 BCE?
Should the emphasis be on adapting to climate change? Other than the most recent 8,000 years, the global climate has alternated between warm and cold periods – sometimes rapidly. Should policy be directed at facilitating the migration of species as global temperatures change – or at least not obstructing species adaptation?
Adapting species includes humans. Even if the net effect of a warmer Earth is longer growing seasons, a net increase in pollen, and a net increase in plants (see NASA estimates since 2000), regional effects are likely to be catastrophic. Hundreds of millions of people live in areas likely to be inundated by the sea. What would the process of migration to a newly green Greenland look like?
Don’t Forget the Counter-Warning
The climate record also contains a counter warning. The Earth is subject to rapid changes in direction of heating and cooling. Super-volcanoes erupt. Objects hit the Earth. Sub-ocean rifts release gases. Species, like humans, transform ecosystems and release new gases. The possibility of technology that can withdraw greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is no longer unthinkable. If people could invest on targeting Earth’s temperature and sea level, what temperature and sea level would they pick? Don’t be too sure that everyone would want the temperature and sea levels that generally prevailed from 6,000 BCE to the present.
No, the year 2020 was not the hottest year on Earth ever. My statement is not a denial of any climate research. My statement is a simple citation to paleo-climate records relied on by scientists to evaluate climate change, and during which primates walked the Earth.
For example, see Pagani et. al (2014) “Carbonate isotope records, distribution of vegetation, and reptile fossils, as well as recent TEX86 values indicate a very warm early Eocene (55–48 Ma), particularly at high latitudes, although probably cooler than the extraordinary warmth of the middle Cretaceous.”
M Pagani, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA, M Huber, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA, B Sageman, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA, 6.13 Greenhouse Climates
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved, https://people.earth.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Pagani/2014%20Pagani_TOG.pdf