Sorting out the truth in politics  

Barry Smitherman sees the planet as not warming.

Smitherman, a candidate for Texas attorney general, responded to Republican activist Donna Garner in a Nov. 17 email: "Donna, I have been battling this global warming hoax for 6 years now. The Earth is not warming." A day later, Garner included his comment in an email blast to recipients including reporters.

That claim by Smitherman, who chairs the Texas Railroad Commission, contradicts the latest word from the international body that regularly sifts scientific findings related to climate. An October 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report intended for policymakers states: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased."

We were curious how Smitherman reached his conclusion. His campaign consultant, Allen Blakemore, emailed us links to about a dozen articles essentially saying that the planet has not been warming as fast as predicted of late or is, in fact, cooling.

Among them was a Jan. 27, 2012, Wall Street Journal opinion piece, signed by 16 scientists, saying that there was no need for countries to take drastic steps against greenhouse gases. A secondary theme was that planetary warming had been smaller than predicted for more than a decade.

Similarly, a Sept. 8 news story in the Telegraph, a British newspaper, said: "Despite the original forecasts, major climate research centres now accept that there has been a ‘pause’ in global warming since 1997." The story quoted two U.S. professors, Judith Curry of Georgia Tech and Anastasios Tsonis of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as saying the planet appears headed into a cooling period.

We contacted Curry by email. She didn’t directly answer whether the globe is warming, saying, "There has been no statistically significant increase in global average surface temperatures for the past 17 years."

Per Curry’s point, Michael Tobis, an Austin software engineer whose blog, Planet 3.0, often brushes climate topics, told us: “There are strong indications that the deep ocean is heating more than anticipated, which would account for some missing warming at the surface. … But it’s crucial to understand this — the world has not wandered so far from what we expected as to require a deep reconsideration of the consensus" that global warming persists.

Separately, the Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, pointed out a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration chart indicating a steady rise in ocean heat content, meaning temperatures averaged through the depth of the ocean, since the late 1960s.

Like Tobis, though, Nielsen-Gammon said temperatures near the ocean surface have risen more slowly in the past 15 years or so "than they had during the previous 35, and it is possible to find time intervals (such as the past five years) in which all weather station and satellite-based global temperature compilations show a declining trend."

The Texas climatologists we reached said Smitherman got it wrong

"The Earth is warming," Nielsen-Gammon said.

Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, called Smitherman"s claim incorrect, adding, "First, climate is defined as the average over 20-30 years or more precisely because atmospheric scientists know that short-term natural cycles in the rates at which heat is exchanged between the ocean and atmosphere can lead to variations in global air temperature over shorter time scales."

Hayhoe and Tobis each cautioned that cherry-picking start and stop years can lead to factually skewed conclusions about temperature trends. "If you cherry-pick short periods of time, you can end up with nearly any result you want," Hayhoe said. "Only by looking at the entire data set can you see what the truth is."

Richard Somerville, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, told us that Smitherman"s claim was "nonsense."

Our ruling:

Smitherman said the Earth is not warming.

To the contrary, national, international and Texas climate authorities concur that the planet is warming. They also warn against cherry-picking individual climatic indicators or time frames to conclude otherwise. That makes sense to us. In the end, this claim strikes us as both unfounded and ridiculous.

Pants on Fire!


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