The global warming pause: the dangers of politicising science

A mainstay of environmentalists’ arguments for climate policies is that science can explain the past and present temperature of the planet, and, using computer models, project its likely future temperature. But, since the late 1990s, observations of temperature have deviated from models. The Earth is not as warm as it was expected to be. For many years, this deviation was denied, but it has recently been accepted by mainstream science. This is progress. But it has proven to be inconvenient to the political agendas attached to the climate-change narrative. In response, many theories have been proposed to explain where the ‘missing heat’ may be hiding out.

The most popular of these theories is that, somehow, the heat that should be appearing at the planet’s surface has instead found its way to the deep ocean. But this hypothesis suffers from three main problems. First, there is very little data – the ocean is vast, and unlike the land and sea surface which can be viewed from space, its depths are especially difficult to monitor. Second, the effect, even if it is real, is so small it may not be practicably measurable at all. Third, there is no clearly understood mechanism by which energy may have been transported through the atmosphere and upper layers of the ocean, undetected, to heat the water beneath.

A new hypothesis, however, claims to be able to fill in the missing gaps. According to scientists whose study was published in Nature Climate Change this week, the strength of winds that push colder air towards the equator has increased over the past two decades, forcing more heat into the ocean, and that this can explain why global warming appears to have stopped. Climate models have not taken this effect into account, say the authors; thus, ‘rapid warming is expected to resume once the anomalous wind trends abate’.

This may be so. But it remains a single study, which science has not yet had a chance to scrutinise and test, much less assimilate and understand. Such necessary caution has not troubled environmental correspondents, who have been quick to leap on the study as a decisive development in the climate wars. ‘The findings should provide fresh certainty about the reasons behind the warming hiatus’, said the Guardian: ‘It is likely the current warming slowdown is only a temporary reprieve from brisk increases in global temperatures.’

Such premature speculation reveals that the scientific questions around climate change are driven by political problems, and scientists are complicit in the construction of political narratives. As some sceptics have observed, this new paper’s lead author, Matthew England, accused them of lying about the hiatus as recently as 2012. In the space of less than a year, England changed his mind about the stall in global warming, made it the object of a study, and found a way to explain it. It seems that climate scientists like England lack the cool, rational, and value-free approach necessary to investigate the material world.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

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