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A Blizzard of Bamboozlement

Noel Sheppard and the boys at NewsBusters seize on back-to-back snowstorms in Washington to push their discredited claim that there's no such thing as global warming.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/17/2010

The recent back-to-back snowstorms have been a boon to the global warming deniers at NewsBusters. Not only have they used it to advance the idea that it somehow disproves global warming, they've been making related claims that are misleading or just plain wrong.

The teller of the biggest whopper, surprisingly, has not been Noel Sheppard, who has been NewsBusters' chief global warming bamboozler. It was Mark Finkelstein (another longtime factually challenged NewsBuster), who in a Feb. 12 post demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the principle of warmer air containing more moisture, lashing out at a scientist who claimed that more extreme weather was a consequence of global warming:

So more snow fell from Philly to DC because the temperatures were warmer than normal during the blizzards? That got me wondering: just what were the temperatures in DC on the snow days, and how do they compare to the norm? And guess what?


Bottom line: the temperature was colder than average on every one of the snow days. On average the snow days were about eight degrees colder than normal.

To spin these facts as proof that the blizzards are evidence of global warming because "warm air holds more moisture" is bunk.

Media Matters demolished Finkelstein's claim, taking great pains to explain that the scientist he was attacking did not say that more snow fell "because the temperatures were warmer than normal during the blizzards"; he said that the warmer air that condensed to form the precipitation contained more moisture than normal -- hence, more snow.

Sadly, No! was somewhat less kind: "I guess Finkelstein, when getting his PhD in climatology, skipped the lecture where they explained that snowstorms occur when moisture-laden atmosphere from warmer areas come into contact with colder air in another area."

Needless to say, Sheppard endorsed Finkelstein's flawed analysis, going to to expound on "one of the lies concerning this issue: if global warming is increasing moisture in the atmosphere AND temperatures, parts of the globe that RARELY see snow shouldn't suddenly be seeing more than they ever have."

But that's wrong too. Researchers have never claimed that global warming means there will never be local variations in weather. As NPR points out, weather is prone to local conditions, while climate is the long-term trend of atmospheric conditions across large regions, even the whole planet, where changes in climate are slow and measured in decades, not weeks. Thus, a snowstorm or two in one area is statistically insignificant, especially when, at the same time as those storm hit, Vancouver was unseasonably warm, to the point where snow had to be brought in via helicopter to make sure there was enough for the Olympics. On the other side of the world, there was a killer heat wave in Brazil.

But Sheppard wasn't done misleading about global warming. A Feb. 13 post highlighted an interview given by Phil Jones, head of Climatic Research Unit at Britain's East Anglia University, best known these days for having emails stolen from it that deniers like Sheppard have misinterpreted to portray scientists as deliberating manipulating evidence to promote the idea of global warming. Sheppard asserted that Jones said "there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995," but Sheppard failed to excerpt the full statement by Jones on the subject, in which he said there was an increase in temperatures after 1995, "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."

Sheppard also asserts that Jones said "the recent warming trend that began in 1975 is not at all different than two other planetary warming phases since 1850." But Sheppard again selectively quotes Jones, omitting his statement later in the interview that his evidence that the current warming trend is anthropogenic (man-caused) and, thus, not like the previous warming phases, is because "we can't explain the warming from the 1950s by solar and volcanic forcing."

Sheppard also misportrays Jones' answer regarding the "hide the decline" statement that appeared in the stolen CRU emails, which refers to the unreliability of data gathered from tree rings past around 1960, so instrument-gathered data is inserted into the results. It is not a secret -- indeed, this point was explained when the CRU emails were first made public, and others cite discussion of the issue as early as 1995 -- but Sheppard treats it as one:

This should raise eyebrows for a number of reasons. First, Jones and Company gave no notification to folks receiving this data -- including the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change -- that Briffa's numbers included instrumental data.

But more importantly, as the tree-ring numbers deviated so demonstrably from the observed temperature data between 1960 and 1999, why should anyone believe they're accurate for any periods in the past that can't be confirmed with instrumentation?

The entire global warming myth depends on tree-ring data that was grossly errant for forty years in the last century. This makes the decline ClimateGate scientists were trying to hide FAR MORE serious than most people believe.

Sheppard offered no evidence that the IPCC did not know about the combining of instrument data with tree ring data; it's more likely that IPCC officials were already aware of the tree-ring issue. Plus, in promoting this little conspiracy, Sheppard shows no understanding of how climate science works. As blogger James Hrynyshyn points out:

[T]emperatures inferred from tree-ring records since about 1850 (the "proxies") are a pretty good match for actual temperature records derived from thermometers right up until the 1980s. After that, the tree-ring data begin to show lower temperatures than were actually recorded.

Just why tree rings no longer provide useful proxy data for temperatures is not known. There are several theories, many of which suggest that climate change itself is the problem. Trees no longer grow as they once did before the climate started changing so rapidly. But the point is, there is no question that tree-ring growth rates of the past -- before we had thermometers -- can serve as useful proxies for historical temperature data. They are much less useful now, but that doesn't matter so much because we have actual temperature records. All of this was sorted out back in 1998. It's not new, nor even particularly interesting, to anyone familiar with the science.

This is why those working with tree-ring data want to "hide" the decline in recent decades; they know the data aren't useful.

Sheppard couldn't stop with the misleading, though. He decided to peddle a little revisionist history in a Feb. 13 post:

In the end, no one is claiming that one or two snowstorms disprove the theory of global warming. Instead, when folks that don't believe Gore's nonsense cite isolated weather events, it's to mock him and his sycophant followers who tie seemingly every heatwave, hurricane, drought, wildfire, tornado, and even SNOWSTORMS to climate change.

But if Sheppard and his NewsBusters buddies can only mock the claim, it means they can't assail the scientific evidence behind it. So they reliably insist that every cold-weather event disproves global warming:

  • On Dec. 9, Sheppard complained that "Al Gore warned CNN viewers Wednesday about imminent planetary doom at the hands of his favorite bogeyman global warming just seconds before Kiran Chetry reported the 'monster storm paralyzing travel in more than a dozen states' with 'winter still two weeks away.'"
  • On Dec. 13, P.J. Gladnick highlighted snow in Australia, adding: "Perhaps the IPCC delegates in Copenhagen need to switch gears and work on global cooling."
  • On Dec. 21, he dismissed those who claim that global warming will result in more extreme weather as "the Bernie Madoffs of climatology and meteorology."
  • On Jan. 29, Jack Coleman, while admitting that he's "not a climate scientist," sneered at the idea that warming could have produced snow in Dubai: 'As a lifelong resident of the weather wonderland known as New England, I'm inclined to view snow as evidence of something other than warming temperatures -- namely, freezing cold."

Which, of course, is exactly the problem -- Sheppard and Co. aren't climate scientists, nor have they demonstrated any particular expertise on the subject other than to criticize what they don't understand.

Keep that in mind the next time Sheppard or one of his fellow NewsBusters pontificates on how there is no such thing as global warming. They have no idea what they're talking about.

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