George Will’s Interpretation of Global Temperature Trends Is Flawed

“Within the lifetimes of most Americans now living, today’s media-manufactured alarm about man-made global warming might be an embarrassing memory. The nation will then be better off because Bush—during whose administration the embarrassing planet warmed not at all—refused to be stampeded toward costly “solutions” to a supposed crisis that might be chimerical, and that, if real, could be adapted for considerably less cost than will be sunk in efforts at prevention.” George Will,  Newsweek,  1/17/09

George Will’s  claim about recent global temperature trends is similar to others: 

  1. There Is a problem with global warming… it stopped in 1998 Bob Carter in Telegraph, 4/16/06
  2. Has global warming stopped?  by David Whitehouse in New Statesman, 12/19/07.

What’s the situation? Have  George Will, Bob Carter and David Whitehouse interpreted the temperature trends correctly? This post looks at the long term global land and sea temperature anomaly trends to evaluate the accuracy of  Mr. Will’s statement.  

Global Land and Sea Temperature Trends  

I’ve used NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies‘s (GISS) global land and sea temperature anomaly data series to evaluate his claim, available at this link.    Figure 1 shows my long term global land and sea temperature trend chart,  showing  monthly and annual anomalies, long term trend (lowess fit [(f = 0.15]) as well as the 2001-2008 trend. I prepared this chart using R. 

GISS Temperature Anomaly Trend (Baseline 1951-1980)

Figure 1: GISS Temperature Anomaly Trend (Baseline 1951-1980)

The blue line shows the long term trends.   There has been a substantial rise in global temperature since 1880.  The temperature anomalies have significantly increased since 1880 with cyclical peaks and valleys and pause periods. Mr. Will didn’t mention that.

The red line shows the recent (2001-2008 ) period stressed by George Will. He focused on the past 8 – 10 years and ignored the fact that there have been comparable 8 – 10 years periods in the fluctuating upward trend in the 128 year GISS temperature data record.  Mr Will made a shortsighted interpretation of a long term trend. 

Impact of Volcanoes and El Nino – La Nina Events on Global Temperatures  

What causes the up and down cycles in the global temperature record? Volcanoes and El Nino – La Nina events are two of the climate factors that contribute to the fluctuations in temperature trends. Let’s look at how they affect global temperature trend fluctuations.

I have previously posted on the El Nino – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in this post.  El Nino conditions tend to raise temperatures while La Nina conditions tend to lower global temperatures.

Major volcanic eruptions  affect global temperatures because they release large quantities of particulate material which circulate around the globe for several years, reducing the amount of solar radiation that reaches the earth (NASA discussion page). The Stratospheric Aerosol Optical  (SATO)  Index can be used to measure the optical effects of volcanic eruptions.

Figure 2 shows the  GISS temperature anomalies,  the NINO34 and  SATO indexes so that we can see how global temperature trends are affected by ENSO and volcanic events.  


Figure 2  helps to explain the cyclical variations in the GISS temperatures. If we look closely, we see that periods of positive NINO34 Index (red fill areas) correspond to periods of rising GISS temperatures while periods of negative NINO34 Index correspond to decreasing GISS temperatures.  This NINO34 – GISS anomaly relationship is altered in periods when the SATO index is elevated from volcanic events.

Look at the 1983-84 period. While  NINO34 Index was positive the  SATO Index was elevated from the El Chichon eruption, resulting in a decrease in global temperature. A similar situation occurred in 1992-93 when the NINO34 Index was positive and the SATO Index was elevated from the Pinatubo – Hudson eruptions, resulting in a decrease in global temperatures.

The 1998 positive NINO34 Index, followed by the 1999-2002 negative NINO34 Index resulted in increased temperatures in 1998 followed by decreased temperatures in 1999-2000. The 2001-2008 time frame had several negative NINO34 months, reducing the GISS temperature anomalies.

While the GISS temperature anomalies have gone through peaks and valleys, the long term trend is clear, rising , rising , rising. Mr. Will misses that because he selected a very short time frame, one of the pause periods in the long term trend.

What Do Others Say? 

The UK’s Met Office is an excellent source of climate change information.  They have concluded that “temperatures are continuing  to rise.

Here are links to several climate blog  posts that discuss global temperature trends. 

Real Climate

Open Mind 


What do you Think?

10 responses to “George Will’s Interpretation of Global Temperature Trends Is Flawed

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  4. I do have a couple of worrying questions about the AGW theories. Firstly: In the warming cooling cycle, based on historic records from last million years, exactly where are we? Are we in a warming phase, which we are amplifying? Or are we in a cooling phase, which we are interrupting by GW? Although I have read a lot on this topic, I still don’t have an answer on this question of where we are in the halocene period. According to one graph I have seen, the temperature peaked 8,000 years ago and we have been cooling ever since. A recent warming trend, has brought us back to about .5 degrees below the 8,000 high. So the second question goes like this. What if we are in a cooling phase and we remove AGW, would we not accelerate into rapid cooling as has happened before? Ok so there is a third question – Do I therefore buy real estate in NY or Miami?

  5. As a simple observation, it’s incorrect to say that temperatures are continuing to rise when there’s been no rise for the past 10 years. Certainly, the medium term trend (50 years) is upwards, but to say that it’s continuing to rise is a lie. This is not a linear relationship, and what happened in the past doesn’t necessarily predict the future trend.

    History shows that temperature is cyclic. How much longer must temperature drop before they at least admit that it’s not rising?

    • RJames

      I’m a data guy, so I present the data and my analysis as I find it.

      I suggest you check my later post which shows the decadal trend rates. The temperature trend rates per decade speak for themselves, so I don’t understand your “lie” comment.

      Your point about “How much longer must temperature drop before..” is confusing to me. I don’t see any indication of “dropping” in the GISS data. While I see cyclical variation in the anomaly, the recent anomalies are clearly higher than they were in the 1990s.

      In my El Nino regression post I looked at the relationship between El Nino – La Nina and volcanoes and GISS temperature anomaly.

      Since this is a data analysis oriented site, I encourage you to contribute any data analysis charts & graphs you have done on this topic.

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  7. Two comments:

    First regarding Mr. Will’s meaning: it appears to my reading that he is talking about policy whether or not the crisis is “real” (his term). Oh, I suspect he thinks it isn’t, but he qualifies himself. Thus, I think the criticism has to be of his policy statement, which with the exception of Nicholas Stern et al, appears to be not that far from the academic, environmental economics profession standard, a mix of least cost adaption and abatement through a gradually escalating effluent tax.

    Second, I do not understand the necessity of the NINO34 and Sato indices. For a 1970-2008 (or 2000 for that matter) ARMA model (AR1, AR12, MA1, MA24), the addition of the indices barely improves the fit (R-squared) or information (Schwarz or Akaike) criterion. The trend is a tad above 1.5 C per century with the addition of the indices slightly lower that. Further, CO2, which is what the policy is about, reduces the information and would be considered insignificant in a trend model.

    Anyway, I understanding the point about the trend for any post 1970 20-30 year period, but I just don’t see what the indices do. The simple first order autoregressive and and moving average terms better fit the pattern of the temperature anomaly data than the indicies though the indices are significant.

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