A Strangely Unhelpful Interview, Deniable Denial and the Daily Express

I passed a news-stand this afternoon and couldn’t help noticing that today’s front-page lead in the Express is The Great Climate Change Retreat. Yes indeed:

“There has been no global warming for 15 years, a key scientist admitted yesterday in a major U-turn.”

They went on:

“Professor Phil Jones, who is at the centre of the ‘Climategate’ affair, conceded that there has been no ‘statistically significant’ rise in temperatures since 1995.”

which, of course, is not quite the same as “no global warming”.

The Express then went on to tell us how it’s all explained by the urban heat island effect, as I mentioned earlier. Breaking news: more on the urban heat island FUD has just appeared on the Guardian’s site.

The report in the Express makes absolutely no sense when you read, as I suggest you do, what Phil Jones actually said to the BBC:

“Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming[?]

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.”

which, of course, is not quite the same as “no ‘statistically significant’ rise in temperatures”.

Jones’ noted that the “positive trend is quite close to the [95%] significance level”, so I guess that means there’s a 90% probability that we’ve had a warming trend since 1995 rather than random fluctuations. 90% is “very likely” in IPCC-speak. As in it’s “very likely” that global warming is caused by human activity. Not really a very helpful question from the BBC. I mean, they could have asked “How likely is it that…” which would not have drawn the sort of answer justifying a front-page lead in the Express.

The story in the Telegraph [which had vanished or been significantly changed by 17th Feb – see later post] focuses on Professor Jones’ disorganised data, but ends with the comments:

“In an interview for the BBC’s website, Professor Jones also conceded that global temperatures may have been higher during the medieval warm period [MWP] than they are now – suggesting that climate change may not be caused by human activity.

He admitted that there has been no ‘statistically significant’ global warming since 1995, but said this was a blip in a general trend of rising temperatures.”

That’s all right then.

Actually it’s not.

The last sentence implies temperatures haven’t been rising since 1995, which, as we just saw, is not the case.

And the comment about the MWP is downright misleading. What Jones actually said was:

“There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?

There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia. For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere [SH]. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today (based on an equivalent coverage over the NH and SH) then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.

We know from the instrumental temperature record that the two hemispheres do not always follow one another. We cannot, therefore, make the assumption that temperatures in the global average will be similar to those in the northern hemisphere.”

In other words, he didn’t really say anything! This is a case of stupid question, stupid answer. All that’s being asked is if x had happened before would x happening again be unprecedented? Of course not, since all we are really discussing is what the word “unprecedented” means: “without precedent” or “hasn’t happened before”.

The BBC seems to think an interviewer’s job is to ask trappy questions, and the one about the MWP is just crass. It’s no surprise Jones’ answers have been picked up by the sceptic-inclined press. All in all a shocking public disservice from the Beeb.

The Times also has a piece today, on the reopening of the urban heat island “debate” rather than Jones’ interview, but I include it in this little round-up because it’s a classic of its kind. Titled “World may not be warming, say scientists“, the first 80% or so is devoted to the denialist campaign about the validity of the temperature data record. Only at the end does it give a couple of quotes to mainstream scientists. Deniable denial perhaps.

It seems to me that maybe the Telegraph and the Times are slightly uncomfortable coming out as sceptics, but are happy to let the denialists buddy-breathe their oxygen of publicity.

All this hot air surfaced before Copenhagen and is carrying on while the US, internally, and the world try to rescue something from the fiasco. But why is the UK press taking the lead in pushing sceptic FUD?

I just wonder if it’s got something to do with the forthcoming General Election. Cameron can’t be seen to deny the science, but I bet scepticism has grass-roots appeal on the right. Painting the whole thing as a dodgy dossier to raise fuel-prices and taxes might well suit the Tories. Who cares about the polar bear as long as we get our man into Downing Street, eh!

NOTE (18/2/10): This post seems to have “crossed” with Realclimate’s discussion of the same topic, but as covered by the Mail in an article titled Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995 (dated, or at least last updated, Sun 14th Feb, 5:12pm). I wonder how much of this media storm was accidental and how much choreographed? The timing (breaking on a Sunday), proliferation and similarity of the articles suggests a sophisticated media “PR” operation. Or did everyone else simply follow one paper? – the Telegraph appears to have got in first.