On 24 October 2017, Breitbart.com's James Delingpole published a story appearing to report that hundreds of scientific papers published in 2017 "prove" that global warming is a myth. This post followed Delingpole's June 2017 clickbait success falsely alleging that 58 published papers proved the same thing.
Both stories primarily consisted of regurgitated material from a blog called the “No Tricks Zone” (NTZ), which highlights out-of-context sentences from (in most cases) legitimate scientific studies that the author of the blog incorrectly thinks dispute the tenets of anthropogenic global warming. The 400 studies in this latest piece cover topics wholly irrelevant to the question of anthropogenic global warming, including, for example, a study on the effect of wind turbines upon the viability of migratory bat populations.
The first time that Breitbart ran a NTZ based-story, numerous scientists listed in the report pointed out their their graphs had been digitally altered by NTZ to omit data, and that NTZ had either misinterpreted their papers or read them so superficially that the author of the post did not realize he was sometimes quoting from general background material and not the actual findings of the papers themselves.
Despite these deficiencies, a 23 October 2017 NTZ post upped the alleged tally of climate change-disproving papers from 58 to 400 (which, to be clear, still includes those previous misrepresented studies).
We emailed Delingpole to ask how long it took him to research his piece, given that less than 24 hours elapsed between the original NTZ post and his Breitbart piece. Rather than write back, Delingpole published our query on Breitbart, along with the following response (which read in part):
As little time as I possibly could.
Speaking of his unyielding faith in Kenneth Richard, the author of the New Tricks Zone post, Delingpole said:
Obviously, if it turns out that Kenneth Richard has misrepresented these papers, then yes, I can be criticized for having lazily helped promulgate a lie.
Richard misrepresents and misinterprets these papers in many instances. For example, NTZ misrepresented a graph from a 2017 paper that intentionally removed the long term global warming trend so researchers could investigate other trends in the record — a fact that went unmentioned in his post. NTZ reported on the graph (below) as if it were evidence that global temperatures were flat, despite the fact that the post had intentionally and explicitly removed that signal:
Without the removal of the longer term warming trend, that above figure would have looked like this, as presented by the study’s author in a figure plotted for Climate Feedback:
NTZ employs three main strategies: straw man arguments that falsely change the evidence for global warming into something that is easier to refute; the inclusion of papers wholly irrelevant to the reality of anthropogenic climate change; and the inclusion of papers (or conference abstracts) that almost certainly underwent little or no peer review process.
Straw Man Arguments
A majority of the papers that allegedly prove that "global warming is a myth" rest primarily on false representations of what climatologists actually expect to see in the climate system. NTZ is peddling three main false representations:
Straw Man One: The concept of anthropogenic global warming requires there be no other drivers of climate whatsoever.
The categories that fall under this classic straw man argument are the studies highlighting the role of the sun in the climate system ("It’s the sun stupid"), studies that demonstrate natural oscillations in the climate system ("Climate influenced by natural oscillation"), and studies that show that volcanoes or tectonics have in some way affected the climate in the past ("Volcano/Tectonic Influence on Climate").
To be clear, climate science has never required there to be no influence on the climate from the sun, from volcanoes, or from short term oscillations such as El Niño; in fact, much of climatology involves teasing apart these relationships. However, most of the studies NTZ highlights attempt to use such investigations as evidence that anthropogenic climate change is a myth. Zeke Hausfather, a research scientist at the independent Berkeley Earth research group, which was initially (but is no longer) skeptical of global warming, and was originally funded by the Koch brothers, told us:
Climate scientists study things like volcanoes, changes in solar output, changes in the Earth's orbit, multidecadal natural variability in the Atlantic and Pacific, and other factors that impact climate change. They find that natural factors alone would have resulted in a modest cooling over the past 50 years or so, compared to the dramatic warming that we've experienced.
Ernesto Tejedor Vargas, whose study “Temperature Variability in the Iberian Range Since 1602 Inferred from Tree-ring Records” was featured in both the June Breitbart article and in the current iteration, told Climate Feedback in June that he "would like the author of the No Tricks Zone post to remove my name from the blog since it is not reflecting our research conclusion". His request went unheeded, and his work reappears in Breitbart's October post:
The article [...] is not a climate-change-denying paper. It is a paleoclimate paper showing, first, a new maximum temperature reconstruction for the last 400 years (including the current warming) and second, a new standardization method in dendrochronology to remove the non-climatic trend. The image in the post does not by any means reflect the message of the paper.
Does the existence of anthropogenic global warming require the pre-industrialized Iberian Peninsula to be unresponsive to volcanic and solar influences? Only if you are aggressively uninterested in trying to understand the science.
Straw Man Two: The concept of anthropogenic global warming requires every location on earth to respond to climatic variables in the same way.
A number of studies cited by both Breitbart and NTZ use records from a specific, narrow geographic location to suggest that the world as a whole is not warming. No reasonable climate scientist, however, would argue that this is the case, as Hausfather told us:
In fact, we expect different parts of the world to warm at different rates (e.g. land warming faster than oceans), and things like precipitation changes have distinct regional patterns. Similarly, not every year will be warmer than the last. Short-term variability driven by El Nino and La Nina cycles can have a big impact on individual year's temperatures, though it averages out over longer time periods.
Jessica Conroy, whose paper investigating fluctuations in Monsoon precipitation on the Southern Tibetan Plateau was presented by Breitbart, also told us:
I do not agree with Breitbart’s assessment of my work. My paper does not discuss 20th century anthropogenic warming trends, but decadal to centennial variability in the monsoon precipitation of the southern Tibetan Plateau.
Such variability has the ability to amplify or attenuate anthropogenic trends in precipitation, and leads to greater uncertainty in projections of future precipitation change. It is certainly not evidence to use to claim that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are not changing the climate
The study of past and present regional short term climatic variability is an active field within climatology. The finding that precipitation fluctuates in complicated and not fully understood ways that are both independent of, and related to, global warming is by no means proof that the world is not warming due to increased greenhouse emissions.
Straw Man Three: The evidence for anthropogenic global warming is entirely model-based
Many of the studies included in the NTZ suite of papers include critiques of or refinements to climate models. These studies generally highlight the fact that disagreements and flaws exist in the computer programs used to model an entire heterogeneous global system. NTZ and Breitbart present these studies in a way meant to imply that the reality of global warming is dependent on those models, which is wholly false, as Hausfather said:
Our understanding of the reality of global warming really doesn't depend on climate models. Basic physics going back to the mid-1800s tells us that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will warm the Earth. While modern science has added lots of nuance like carbon cycle feedbacks, ice sheet dynamics, and other complexities of the Earth's climate, the basics are pretty much unchanged.
A great example of this tactic uses a paper by Erica Rosenblum and Ian Eisenman that investigates problems computer models have in accurately predicting Arctic and Antarctic sea ice cover. While the paper may be an indictment of a particular aspect of a particular model, it is in no way an indictment of the reality of global warming.
Rosenblum told us that the sentences excerpted by Delingpole and NTZ actually came from basic introductory material that "our field already agreed on before we published this paper":
Our paper certainly does not say that "global warming is a myth". It does not say that "'global warming' — as in the big scare story that the planet is heating up at a catastrophic unprecedented rate because of man-made CO2 emissions — is bunk; or that the methods being used to combat the problem are bunk."
Our main results showed that the models appear to be too conservative and simulate Arctic sea ice that is not sensitive enough to changes in global temperatures.
Refinements to climate models are not evidence of controversy among those who study climate science; instead, they are the heart of how these models are improved over time.
Papers Irrelevant to the Claim of Global Warming Being a ‘Myth’
These studies, as Delingpole's prose suggests, may make "greenies'" heads "explode like watermelons struck by hollow-point bullets", but they critique solutions to global warming and are not concerned with the factual existence of a changing climate in any way. This grouping includes a paper that attempts to calculate the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the use and production of electric cars in China:
In this study, the life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of vehicle production are compared between battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles in China’s context. The results reveal that [...] greenhouse gas emissions of a battery electric vehicle production [...] are about 50% higher than those of an internal combustion engine vehicle [...]
This substantial change can be mainly attributed to the production of traction batteries, the essential components for battery electric vehicles. Moreover, the larger weight and different weight distribution of materials used in battery electric vehicles also contribute to the larger environmental impact. This situation can be improved through the development of new traction battery production techniques, vehicle recycling and a low-carbon energy structure.
Whether or not you agree with these researchers' assessment of the environmental impact of traction batteries, it has no bearing on the broader and completely separate issue of whether anthropogenic CO2 affects the global climate system.
Papers That Went Through Little or No Peer Review
Despite being billed as "scientific studies", many of the "papers" presented by NTZ and Breitbart are either unpublished, not peer-reviewed, or published in predatory journals that likely experienced no review whatsoever. This includes the most inflammatory papers mentioned, which attempt to discard established principles such as CO2's importance as a greenhouse gas or make absurd claims like linking 100 percent of climate change to tectonic activity.
One such paper ("The Correlation of Seismic Activity and Recent Global Warming: 2016 Update") was authored by a Heritage Foundation researcher and "skeptic" in the journal Environment Pollution and Climate Change, which is owned by a company that the Federal Trade Commission is currently suing for deceptive practices related to their claims of peer review. This paper, which was submitted three days before it was accepted, was almost certainly not thoroughly peer-reviewed.
Another odd inclusion for both Breitbart and NTZ is a commentary article ("Environmental Reporting in a Post Truth World") published in an obscure media journal, Asia Pacific Media Educator. It is not a scientific study and it cites (among other things) a Daily Mail tabloid story that alleged that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association manipulated data, and that was deemed so inaccurate by a press watchdog group that the Daily Mail was forced to publish a lengthy retraction.
Responding to our questions about his paper’s inclusion in the story in an expansive e-mail touching on a diverse range of topics (including Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and the mainstream media), the author of the piece conceded:
My article is commentary, not a scientific study, it does not merit being counted [in the NTZ list of studies].
One paper whose neutrality and "published" status can easily and legitimately be called into question is a paper published by European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), an organization whose stated purpose is to reject what they call "climate policy."
That paper, which was published on EIKE's website (and nowhere else), claims that "our results clearly demonstrate CO2 is a very weak green house gas and cannot be brought into connection with the anthropogenic climate change" — challenging more than a hundred years of established science. Breitbart’s reasoning for blindly regurgitating this shoddy research without any due diligence or pretext of editorial restraint was that "life is too short," and that the boring task of actually reading the scientific papers had already been done for Delingpole by the NTZ blog:
Richard [author of the NTZ post] — bless his cotton socks — had taken upon himself the achingly tedious task of wading through these 400 science papers, assessing their skeptical position on "climate change", and then highlighting the key passages that supported his argument.
Because almost none of the papers cited actually support the argument that global warming is a myth, we rank Delingpole’s loosely researched claim that 400 papers published in 2017 prove such to be false.