A Hiatus on “Hiatus”

How global warming cranks influence legitimate science.

california drought.
A security guard walks the perimeter of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014, in San Jose.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Thursday a new study led by the director of the leading U.S. climate data center was the latest to show evidence that global warming is—shocker—continuing. My Slate colleague Phil Plait has more, but the main point is: Talk of a “hiatus” in climate change has gotten blown way out of proportion.

From the study:

The central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a “slowdown” in the increase of global surface temperature.

The study appeared in Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals, and was accompanied by a press conference from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—both rare for what was essentially a routine update in a widely used global temperature data set.

A survey of climate scientists unaffiliated with the latest paper suggested that its findings probably aren’t as big of a deal as the paper makes them seem, and furthermore, it probably wasn’t a smart idea to focus on such a relatively short timespan in the first place. Writing on the climate science blog RealClimate, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (who oversees one of the other primary global temperature data sets), said: “Part of the problem here is simply semantic.”

The fact that we’re even talking about this new study is a sign of the influence of global warming contrarians, according to a separate piece of recent research. That study proposes a psychological phenomenon the authors call “seepage”: Manufactured doubt, funded largely by the fossil fuel industry, has unwittingly entered the minds of well-meaning climate scientists, who then unintentionally reinforce a misleading message. In short, all this talk about a hiatus emboldens the hiatus mongers.

That’s helped “The Pause” or “The Hiatus” become arguably the most successful climate denial meme. It’s been so successful that it even made it into the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the gold standard for climate science.

Before this week’s paper was released, I spoke with a few leading climate scientists (who’ve all authored papers on “The Pause”) for their perspective on whether or not they felt their work was influenced, even unknowingly, by “seepage.”

In general they agreed that there’s been a feedback loop between scientists’ honest investigation of this phenomenon over the past several years and the media’s willingness to indulge in the drama of whether or not a slowdown in warming was occurring.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, acknowledges that his research has been shaped by the debate over the pause, and has specifically tried to counter false claims by climate deniers made in the media.

Yes, I have certainly been influenced by deniers and their commentary, and I have written several articles rebutting flawed articles. … It is indeed very annoying when the media pick up on one denier point that has no basis and gives it great attention.  So I have no doubt that “seepage” occurs.

Max Boykoff, a professor at the University of Colorado who focuses on climate policy, says this exact scenario is part of the reason that false claims about climate change get more attention than they deserve:

The amplification of discussions of a “pause” can also be seen in a more nefarious light, where the inordinate attention devoted to it—particularly through mainstream press accounts—then serves to distract from more productive discussions of diagnoses and action on climate change.

Michael Mann, professor of meteorology at Penn State, agrees:

The whole concept of a “pause” or “hiatus” arose because of a concerted framing effort by climate change deniers and contrarians, and many in the climate research community fell victim to that framing all too predictably.

Looking at the last year or so of temperature data, all this talk of a pause may quickly be history.