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Things In Motion Sooner Catch the Eye Than What Not Stirs

by Ben Strauss

Magicians divert us with wands and puffs of smoke. Bullfighters fool steers with flashes of cape at just the right moment. Even Shakespeare understood: “Things in motion sooner catch the eye than what not stirs.”

The human brain likes movement, and that makes it poorly equipped to think about climate change. Scientists warn that, on our current course, the planet could warm as much as 10°F this century—with catastrophic consequences. But since the temperature fluctuates more than 10 degrees every day in most places, it’s easy to see why many people might not be worried.

Critics have recently proclaimed we are in a period of global cooling, because most years since 1998 have not rivaled its record heat. But that’s like saying summer is not coming because of some cool days in May. The claim of recent global cooling has no statistical basis, and distracts us from seeing an almost century-long warming trend.

The current controversy over email stolen from climate scientists looks like another trick of distraction, with a well-timed release just a few weeks before an international climate summit in Copenhagen, but at least a month after the email appears to have been originally hacked.

Certain uncovered notes definitely catch the eye. Passages show contempt for climate change critics, plans to exclude contrarian research from a major international report, and ideas for cosmetic treatment of data displays. While some authors seem to have felt frustrated and persecuted by the political atmosphere, this cannot excuse any inappropriate actions any might have taken—an open question currently without definitive answer (an investigation is underway).

But does this affair call the foundations of climate science into doubt? Not at all.

Our understanding of climate change is like a great ocean liner steaming forward, and these emails are but a wisp of smoke from the pipe. The greatest expression of that understanding, to date, is the three-volume Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2007. Almost one thousand scientists from over one hundred countries wrote the report, drawing upon many thousands of research papers (including the ones the email correspondents did not like—in the same chapter that they coordinated), and tens of thousands of data series, redundantly confirming the same trends again and again and again.

That is what gives scientists the most confidence: when numerous and independent lines of research reach the same conclusions. Even Roger A. Pielke Sr., a frequent critic of mainstream climate science, has written that it would be irrelevant if the email correspondents did fudge their temperature data improperly—a case far from settled. Why? Other groups using other methods found the same warming trends.  And if you don’t trust thermometers at all, it’s hard to argue with melting ice masses and rising seas around the world.

In short: do not be conned by the flash and speed of an email scandal. The real action is with the glaciers.


Like Ice Melting in a Glass An interactive analogy showing just how fast Arctic sea ice has been thinning

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