“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record,” President Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union speech. Obama cited the separate findings of two federal agencies, NASA and NOAA, which announced Jan. 16 that, “The Year 2014 ranks as the warmest since 1880.” To Obama, the record-breaking year is evidence Congress and the American people should rally round EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations.
When will the spinning end?
As is well-known, surface station records have many gaps (both spatial and temporal) and many quality-control issues. Moreover, they do not measure temperature in the troposphere — a more reliable indicator of atmospheric heat content and the greenhouse effect.
According to NOAA, the 2014 temperature in the troposphere was the third highest in the 1979-2014 record, as analyzed by the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH) satellite program, and the sixth highest on record, as analyzed by the Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) satellite program.
So why don’t the agencies’ press releases proclaim 2014 the third or sixth warmest year? Or just say that it was one of the warmest in the instrumental record? Perhaps because “warmest on record” feeds the sense of crisis, which helps feed agency budgets. Notice the self-promotional aspect of NASA’s press release: “The observed long-term warming trend and the ranking of 2014 as the warmest year on record reinforces the importance for NASA to study Earth as a complete system, and particularly to understand the role and impacts of human activity.”
Even based on surface station records alone, 2014 may not be a record breaker. James Hansen of Columbia University and colleagues who analyzed the data estimate that 2014 is only 0.02ºC warmer than 2010 and 0.03ºC warmer than 2005, making all three years a “statistical tie.”
According to the Climatic Research Unit of the UK Met Office, the margin of error in estimating global surface temperature is 0.1ºC. That is five times larger than the increment by which 2014 supposedly surpassed 2010.
So how certain are NOAA and NASA that 2014 was in fact the warmest year? NOAA assigns a probability of 48%; NASA, a probability of 38%.
Whatever the actual ranking may be, “warmest year” blather distracts the public from the big picture, which has at least four components.
First, despite any small warming increment that may have occurred in 2014, climate model predictions increasingly overshoot observations.
Second, the 0.8°C warming since 1880 is moderate, non-alarming, and coincides with dramatic improvements in life expectancy, health, and per capita income, and dramatic reductions in mortality related to extreme weather.
Third, EPA’s Clean Power Plan, although potentially costing hundreds of billions of dollars, is unlikely to have any discernible impact on global temperatures, sea-level rise, agricultural output, weather patterns, polar bear populations, or any other climatic variable people care about.
Fourth, in a world where billions of people still live in energy poverty, inter-governmental ‘cooperation’ (collusion) to rig markets against affordable, plentiful, reliable, scalable carbon fuels is unlikely to be sustainable and potentially a humanitarian disaster.
For additional commentary, see Patrick Michaels and Chip Knappenberger’s “You Ought to Have a Look: Record Global Temperatures” and Judith Curry’s “Spinning the warmest year” and “‘Warmest year,’ ‘pause, and all that.”