Norman Loeb, an atmospheric scientist with NASA, gave a crash course in climate change science for the public at Virginia Air and Space Center on Tuesday. He talked about all the evidence that the planet is warming—like the fact that temperatures right now are the hottest they’ve been since record-keeping began in 1850. He also noted that the rise in surface temperatures has slowed considerably since 2000. This doesn’t contradict the theory of global warming, he explained. Land temperature regularly varies, and much of the warming in the last decade is happening unseen in the ocean.
The same day, the frequently conservative-leaning Washington Times ran a short story on the talk. It said that a prominent NASA scientist had admitted global warming is on “hiatus.” As the writer explained, “The nation’s space agency [has] noticed an inconvenient cooling on the planet lately.”
It was pretty much the opposite of what Loeb was trying to say. But it’s not an isolated incident. Conservatives love to cite the relative stability of global surface temperatures for the last 15 years as proof that climate change is a hoax. And they frequently twist the words of scientists to do it. I read or hear versions of this argument all the time—from outlets like Forbes, National Review, and Fox News. Sometimes the conservatives even talk about “global cooling,” joking that maybe we should be more worried about that, instead. This sort of commentary probably helps explain why still find that just 67 percent of Americans accept that humans cause climate change, even though there is nearly unanimous scientific consensus.
Needless to say, the conservatives have it all wrong. And the science really isn’t that hard to understand.
The key thing to understand is that changes in global temperature don’t occur at a steady pace. It’s why climate scientists don’t only look at a single decade’s worth of temperatures. Loeb explained all of this in his presentation. And the Daily Press, a local paper that actually attended the presentation, relayed the explanation correctly. Temperature change, the newspaper’s account said, looks more like a “stock market graph, with jagged ups and downs built into a long, upward trend.” The long-term trend is clear, despite the hiatuses.
Indeed, scientists expect the rate of warming to slow for extended intervals. That’s because of the internal complexities of the climate system, where factors like solar radiation, volcanoes, El Nino, water vapor, and winds all play a role. Meanwhile, even as temperature on land is zigging and zagging, it has kept rising in the seas. Ninety-three percent of the Earth’s heat is absorbed in the ocean. And there the warming trend has actually accelerated.
Scientists expect to see decades of little temperature rise between decades where there is rapid temperature rise, because of the internal complexities of the climate system, where factors like solar radiation, volcanoes, El Nino, water vapor, and winds all play a role.
This is how scientists talk about climate change, in nuances and observations. It’s those nuances that lose many people when talking about climate change. But if you want a simple takeaway about the long-term trend, science can tell you that, too. Yes, it’s getting hotter. And burning fossil fuels is causing it.
After seeing the story, I got a hold of Loeb on the phone. He was frustrated and disappointed with the way his talk had been portrayed—and upset that his profession hasn’t been able to win over more of the public. “I have a hard time communicating this,” Loeb said, as he took me through his slideshow presentation. “I’m a scientist.”
Rebecca Leber is a staff writer for The New Republic.