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We're Stuck With the Global Warming "Hiatus" Myth for Years to Come

When it’s cold outside, people are less likely to think of climate change as a problem. Conservatives love to take advantage of this. It’s why Senator James Inhofe pokes fun at Al Gore when it’s snowing out and why, these days, all the climate deniers keep saying that the planet stopped warming 17 years ago.

Scientists take a different view. Looking at a decade or two is cherry-picking the data, they say, because surface temperatures are still hotter than ever. Each decade has been warmer than the one before it, with 13 of the 14 warmest years in recorded history happening in the twenty-first century. And while surface temperatures haven't gotten much warmer, the oceans have. Increasingly, scientists have looked at the ocean's role in absorbing the excess heat—and now an additional study suggests how that process works. 

The study, which appeared Friday in the journal Science, comes from Xianyao Chen of the Ocean University of China and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington. They document the ways that ocean currents in the Atlantic Ocean have accelerated, driving trapped heat deep into the water and out of the atmosphere. (Previous research focused on heating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans for the extra heat intake.) The oceans won’t siphon off heat forever, the researchers warn. They expect it's plausable that the “hiatus” in warming surface temperatures will last another decade, after which atmospheric temperatures are likely to rise quickly again. “When the internal variability that is responsible for the current hiatus switches sign, as it inevitably will, another episode of accelerated global warming should ensue,” the paper’s authors write.

In an ideal world, the paper would make climate change deniers take notice. In the real world, it will probably embolden them further. And that’s bound to have political consequences.

Today, in polls on public views of global warming, usually around two-thirds of respondents say they believe it’s real and the product of human activity. That’s not bad, but a much smaller portion, 38 percent in a different poll, think climate change will harm them personally. Public opinion is shaped largely by extreme weather events, like hot temperatures. (A 2013 study in the journal Climatic Change found a close correlation between temperature extremes of the last three to twelve months and how people feel about climate change.) Hotter than average temperatures are already the new normal, but deniers are just as certain to hijack selective evidence.

Imagine another decade of the same arguments against climate change. The numbers won't necessarily improve—unless the advocates figure out a way to persuade the public of their views. It’s not an impossible task. As Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, says, people are influenced largely “by what their friends and family members think about climate change, by news media coverage of climate science, (for example, the recent release of the third National Climate Assessment), by their understanding of the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, by statements made by the political leaders they trust, and by their own 'personal experiences' with climate change.”

How do you get the media to talk about these issues more? Historically, media coverage of climate change has followed international and domestic efforts to take action, starting in the mid-1980s by the United National Environmental Program and World Meteorological Organization. More recently, U.S. Sunday shows gave climate change more attention in the first six months of 2014 than the past four years combined, likely in response to President Barack Obama’s climate initiatives. That’s one big reason environmentalists in Washington should keep hammering away at the issue, no matter how difficult progress seems. It forces the media to cover the issue, which in turn gets the nation talking about it.