Fox News pundit Sean Hannity set the stage for a screaming match on climate change when he invited liberal Bob Beckel of The Five to debate Patrick Moore, a former Greenpeace activist who says there is no proof man is contributing to a warming planet.
Beckel criticized Moore for his work as a spokesman for the nuclear energy industry and for saying carbon emissions go back into trees and food rather than the atmosphere.
"Come on, Patrick. You know better than that," Beckel said during the March 11 edition of Hannity.
But Moore said cries about climate change are actually just about fits of weather.
"Basically, they're just saying weather these days," Moore said. "They're saying the weather is climate change, but that's not true. Weather is just weather, like the cold weather we're getting this year. It has not warmed for the last 17 years. We know that for sure. And that brings into question the whole hypothesis."
PunditFact wanted to know if the Earth has not warmed for the last 17 years, and what it means if anything for the theory of climate change.
We found clues, and seeming contradictions to his claim, in the PolitiFact archive.
Lately it’s been hot a lot
President Barack Obama warned the nation there will be consequences from not doing more to combat climate change in his 2013 State of the Union address, pointing out "the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15."
PolitiFact rated his statement True. (Actually it’s 13 or 14 of the last 15.)
But that doesn’t necessarily rule out Moore’s claim about the earth not getting warmer lately. The statements can co-exist, with some additional context.
Moore’s claim is a popular argument of people who say climate change isn’t real. The problem is it is cherry-picked and leaves out the rest of the story about earth’s dramatic temperature increases over the last century.
NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies tracks global land-ocean temperatures using a temperature index.
(The index shows the temperature anomaly of each year. The temperature anomaly shows how a year's land-ocean temperatures compares with the longterm average. A higher anomaly, such as 0.67 degrees Celsius in 2010, shows how much warmer a year was than the longterm average. A negative anomaly, last seen in 1976, indicates a cooler year than the referenced period.)
As you can see, Earth’s land-ocean temperatures escalated starting in the 1970s, setting off a new era of rising sea levels, increased greenhouse gas emissions and melting sea ice. Temperatures spiked about 17 years ago in 1998, an outlier year that involved a strong El Niño with abnormally warm ocean temperatures.
That’s the basis for Moore’s claim.
There are several problems with his analysis, however.
Data for 2014 isn’t available yet. So really there are only 16 data points (years) between 1998 and 2014. If you include 1997 to the analysis, Moore is clearly wrong.
The years 2005 and 2010 were both warmer than 1998, though only slightly. That also makes Moore’s statement technically inaccurate, though most scientists agree that temperatures have remained relatively flat recently.
Moore cherry-picked a year when temperatures spiked. "What was an extraordinary event in 1998 is now the new normal," said Goddard Institute program analyst Reto Ruedy, program manager at NASA’s Goddard Institute.
Moore would be incorrect if he chose 1999, 1997, 1996 or any year before that.
"If you start with an extremely warm year, the warming trend going forward is going to be mostly flat," said Gordon Hamilton, associate research professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.
"You could easily choose 1999 and 1996 and you would find that there’s an upward trend," said Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "It’s cherry-picking to get the result that he apparently desires."
While Moore used the 17-year-statistic on Hannity to make the argument that climate change isn’t happening, he told us the figure "does not prove much."
Moore said NOAA and NASA recordkeeping only go back 150 years and the planet’s temperature has fluctuated over the course of time. It is cooler now than for "most of life history," he said.
"It is a pause, flat, whatever you want to call it, for 17 years," Moore said.
Hamilton and Ruedy dismissed Moore’s qualms, saying the 150-year record is reliable to determine statistically significant trends. For pre-19th century estimates, scientists use other methods, such as tree rings and ice core bubbles, to detect climate trends, Ruedy said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group operating under the United Nations that reviews climate change research, has concluded the warming of the climate is "unprecedented over decades to millennia."
Moore’s Greenpeace ties
A final note about Moore. In his interview on Hannity and in many other places, Moore has been described as a "founder" of Greenpeace. The organization, however, disputes that.
Greenpeace devotes a webpage to explaining Moore’s lack of credentials, though they agree he was involved in the group’s early days. The group was founded in 1970 as the Don’t Make a Wave Committee with the goal of stopping an American nuclear weapons test on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. Moore, a college student, wrote a letter to the group in 1971 asking to join the crew of activists sailing to protest the nuclear test.
Moore was one of three Greenpeace members on board the Phyllis Cormack, which carried a dozen passengers to Amchitka Island for the protest. Greenpeace says the group’s founders include seven people, but not Moore.
Greenpeace leaders voted Moore out of his positions as director of Greenpeace Canada and one of five directors of Greenpeace International, and Moore left in 1986, said Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz. He served as a consultant and co-chairman of the nuclear industry-funded Clean and Safe Energy Coalition until he retired from it in 2013.
Moore said the whole theory of climate change is called into question because "it has not warmed for the last 17 years."
It’s true that global surface temperatures have remained relatively flat for 17 years, since 1998. However, both 2005 and 2010 were warmer than 1998.
Moore’s statement alone ignores that the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record.
And Moore is cherry-picking a timeframe to support his argument by starting at an extremely warm year. Global surface temperatures have risen, for instance, if you started at 1999, 1996, or any year before that.
Moore’s statement contains an element of truth, but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.