The “World Climate Widget” from Tony Watts’ blog is probably the most popular deceptive image among climate “skeptics”. We’ll take it under the microscope and show what it would look like when done properly.
So called “climate skeptics” deploy an arsenal of misleading graphics, with which the human influence on the climate can be down played (here are two other examples deconstructed at Realclimate). The image below is especially widespread. It is displayed on many “climate skeptic” websites and is regularly updated.
The “World Climate Widget” of US “climate skeptic” Anthony Watts with our explanations added. The original can be found on Watts’ blog
What would a more honest display of temperature, CO2 and sunspots look like?
- It is better to plot the surface air temperature. That is what is relevant for us humans: we do not live up in the troposphere, nor do natural ecosystems, nor do we grow our food up there. By the way, the satellite-based tropospheric temperatures shown by Watts show almost the same climatic warming trend as those measured by weather stations near ground level (in both cases 0.16 C per decade over the last 30 years). However, variability in the tropospheric data is considerably larger, especially because of higher sensitivity to El Niño (as happened in 1998) and the solar cycle (we showed that in Foster and Rahmstorf ERL 2011 – when corrected for those factors the surface and troposphere data agree closely). Because of increased noise, the trend is less obvious to the eye, especially if one shows monthly values which adds yet more noise. Let us thus use the GISTEMP global annual temperature record from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science (all surface data sets agree to better than 0.1 °C, see comparison graph).
- One needs to scale the CO2 data correctly for an honest comparison with temperature, so that it can actually be used to evaluate climate scientists’ predictions of the CO2 effect. You can calculate this with a complicated climate model, but one can also use a back-of-envelope estimate. A CO2 increase from 280 to 400 ppm (equivalent to 2 Watts/meter2 radiative forcing) produces about 1 °C of global warming (at the time when 400 ppm is reached – some further warming will follow with delay). Thus, an increase of 100 ppm CO2 on the right hand side of the graph corresponds to a temperature increase of 0.8°C on the left hand side. That matches the IPCC’s estimate of the “transient climate response (TCR)” of ~2°C at the time of CO2 doubling (see Technical Summary of the IPCC WG1 report, p. 84). The TCR is smaller than the equilibrium climate sensitivity (about 3°C for doubled CO2) because it takes time to warm the oceans. The full equilibrium warming is thus only reached after a time delay. We are going to use the annual values from the famous CO2 measurements which began in 1958 on Mauna Loa in Hawaii.
- And last but not least one should show honest sunspot data (annual time series), not just a snapshot of the number of spots on the sun today (which is completely uninformative for climate purposes – it’s apparently been added to the widget simply to insinuate an important role of the sun). Here also there is a question of the proper scaling (which is actually not that important because solar activity is cyclical and shows no significant trend over the period of the graph). We will chose the scaling from the correlation analysis of Lean and Rind (2008) from which one can find a measurable effect on global temperature with an amplitude of 0.05°C.
When done this way the graph looks like this:
One of the readers of our German sister blog KlimaLounge, Bernd Herd, has programmed a widget for this graph so it can be added to any website at a size you like, automatically updated annually.
The trends in the CO2 and temperature anomaly curves agree very well with each other. This is surprising at first because CO2 is of course not the only factor that influences global temperature. There are two reasons for this agreement:
(1) Of the other anthropogenic factors, some have a warming effect (other greenhouse gases such as methane) while others have a cooling effect (air pollution). These roughly balance in global average. The IPCC AR4 report found a radiative forcing of 1.7 W/m2 from the CO2 increase alone, while the total from all anthropogenic factors amounted to 1.6 W/m2.
(2) Natural factors (volcanoes, solar cycle) influencing the trend are very small in comparison to anthropogenic CO2 (as e.g. standard correlation analyses show, see for example Lean and Rind 2008, Foster and Rahmstorf 2011). The IPCC AR5 found their contribution to global temperature change since 1951 to be in the range of −0.1°C to 0.1°C.
It requires quite some skill to produce a misleading graph like Watts’ global climate widget, which hides the actual connections between global temperature, CO2 and the sunspot cycle. Watts’ widget is quite a useful indicator though: whenever you see it on a website, you know they are trying to fool rather than inform you there.
A quick ‘n dirty guide to falsifying AGW
Dot Earth: Warming Trend and Variations on a Greenhouse-Heated Planet
217 Responses to "The most popular deceptive climate graph"
Eric Steig says
I’ve been asked a number of times why I once used the work “disingenuous” when referring to Watts and his apologists. Stefan’s post provides a very good explanation. –eric
Watts’ widget is a chilling reminder of how, havung known Sin at Hiroshima, Science was bound to run into Advertising sooner or later !
...and Then There's Physics says
I think this is similar to the figure that Murry Salby was promoting during his tour of Europe and the UK. Plot CO2 and temperature on the same graph, but choose the axes so that it appears as though temperature is rising much more slowly than we expect.
This was during my early days of climate blogging, and I assumed that it was so obviously wrong, that one would simply need to point this out and anyone with any experience of data analysis (or even basic algebra/mathematics) would accept that the graph was wrong and misleading. Boy, was I wrong. That’s partly why I don’t really mind if I’m called naive, because I almost certainly was (and probably still am). More cynical now than I once was, though.
Bart Verheggen says
An additional ploy seems to be the implicit assumption that temperature only depends on CO2 concentrations, even on annual timescales.
That is obviously wrong; it’s not at all expected that temperature should correlate perfectly well with CO2 on these timescales.
Rather, it is expected that temperature correlates with the net forcing (not just CO2) on multi-decadal timescales, with a suitable time-lag.
This is my attempt at explaining this in a funny/nerdy way:
Kevin McKinnney says
Clearly, Ploy #3 is the really crucial one.
“Disingenuous” is accurate, but a bit on the mild side…
[Response: I could be more blunt, but this is a family newspaper… –eric]
John Russell says
It would be useful if the corrected ‘Real World Climate Widget’ could be produced in a similar eye-catching colour scheme and boldness as Watts’ deceitful ‘WCW’. A link at the bottom to this post (replacing “Click for more information”) would then round off the effect.
No point in letting the ‘fake sceptics’ have the upper hand in terms of communication expertise. It would completely undermine their widget.
Rob Honeycutt says
I would have to say “completely uninformative” pretty much sums up Tony’s widget.
Hank Roberts says
as John Russell has noted:
Ploy #5: “Click for more information”
This graph illustrates correct approach to estimating role of the CO2.
[Response: Uh.. no it doesn’t. I’m not sure what it illustrates, to be blunt. –eric]
Global warming deniers* pull similar dirty tricks with the comparison of global temperature with model projections – for example, by plotting only the tropical mid-troposphere, and by comparing observations with the projections of scenarios which are furthest from reality.
A simple comparison of observations with projections based on real world climate forcings shows a very close match, especially if we take natural unforced variability into account as well (mainly ENSO). It shows that the models are doing a good job of representing the large scale physics, and are useful for making projections.
* As ‘SecularAnimist’ memorably said:
Chip Knappenberger says
Is there something wrong the IPCC AR5 forcing estimates that show that the total forcing to be 2.29W/m2 (compared with CO2 alone of 1.68 W/m2)? Would that influence your “(1)”?
[Response: The problem with those numbers is that those 1.68 is not the forcing due to the observed CO2 increase, which is the number I needed. IPCC has decided this time to present the forcings not by atmospheric increase, but by “emitted compound”. When you look at the forcing graph of the AR5, you will see that several emitted compounds (CO2, methane, CO, NMVOC) have lead to a CO2 rise in the atmosphere – you’d have to add those up to compare with the 2.29. – stefan]
Hi Stefan: Shouldn’t CO2 alone from AR5 be 1.82 (1.63 to 2.01) Wm-2? (see pg. 661). 1.68 is the CO2 increase from CO2 emissions alone: 1.82 would be the forcing from elevated CO2 concentrations, regardless of source. See, e.g., pg 676, section 184.108.40.206, noting that they used Table 3 of Myhre et al. to transform an increase in mixing ratio from 278 to 390.5 into forcing…
Jason Dick says
Honestly, I think the bigger reason why the CO2 and temperature plots align so well is just because they’re both increasing trends that are mostly linear with little curvature. Any pair of increasing trends with little curvature will look like one another when plotted on the right axes.
[Response: You are missing the point that the scaling Stefan used (unlike what Watts uses) is the correct scaling — independent of the similarity of the curves. It’s based on knowledge going back to Svante Arrhenius and Tyndall, well before any of these data existed. –eric]
...and Then There's Physics says
Maybe you can clarify something about your response to #11. I realise that the AR5 radiative forcing graph shows different emitted compounds, but you seem to suggest that these emissions lead to a CO2 rise in the atmosphere. I know that methane converts to CO2, but that isn’t true for all and certainly not for anthropogenic aerosols. Presumably what you mean is that anthropogenic emissions lead to a change in anthropogenic forcing which today, relative to 1750, has a most-likely value of 2.29 W/m^2 with a 95% (I think) range from 1.13 – 3.33 W/m^2.
Chip Knappenberger says
Thanks for pointing out the difference, Stefan. FWIW, I think IPCCAR5 Table 8.2 gives the more appropriate number as 1.82W/m2 for CO2 concentration increases (regardless of source)…still a fair bit below 2.29W/m2.
[Response: I’m not a fan of false precision – since the uncertainty range on this number (as given by IPCC) is 1.13 – 3.33, I see little point in calling it 2.29 with three significant digits. To me it is about 2. My statement above is that these “roughly balance” and that is completely valid – given the uncertainty, 1.8 or 2.3 are not significantly different by any means, but of similar magnitude. It is one qualitative reason why the observed temperature rise roughly matches what you expect from CO2 forcing alone. If you want to do a more precise analysis, fine – you’d need to properly include the uncertainty ranges and you would come to the same conclusion as me – as far as one can tell within uncertainty, the non-CO2 anthropogenic forcings approximately balance.
jacob l says
what about log of co2 “forcing” instead of just co2 ppm?
Alan Millar says
A bit of cherry picked scalings and periods can make most any changes look matched.
Why not, using the same scaling, show the temperature changes from 1910 to 1945 and from 1945 to 1975 against the CO2 and Sun change over those periods and try and explain why that would show next to no relationship on that scaling?
Of course picking a different scaling for the various components you could get a pretty good combined match without a great deal of effort.
Three inputs and three lots of scalings can get you most places. A couple more inputs and scalings and I can get anywhere!
[Response: Exactly my point. That is why it is important to not pick some scaling to show what you’d like to show, but rather determine the scale objectively and transparently as I did here. -Stefan]
This graph illustrates correct approach to estimating role of the CO2. http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/NOAA-GLT-CO2.htm
” [Response: Uh.. no it doesn’t. I’m not sure what it illustrates, to be blunt. –eric] ”
Hi, I didn’t expect that you would agree. It is a bit odd to be so certain that ‘no it is not’ if you are not sure what it illustrates.
It illustrates Global Land Temp reconstructed by arithmetically adding CO2 (scaled to match the NOAA’s GLT data) and data supported event of the most likely ‘natural forcing’ (indirectly related to the solar output). Since the CO2 forcing is logarithmic, it appears that it may be close to the point where it will be overwhelmed by the current intensity of the ‘natural’ forcing ; if so, then anyone could work out implications for future rise in the GLT.
I have to say, I like being able to also see the monthly average data as shown in your previous post, although it is noisy, it is real-world. It clearly shows that both low and high temperatures are increasing over time. Thank you to Kevin Cowtan for the nice interactive temperature plotting and trend calculation tool. I’m glad you linked to it in the previous post. I’m also glad that he included the satellite temperature trends as an option, so we can all look at the comparisons.
With reference to #13 (Jason Dick’s question about scaling), perhaps you could provide a link to show the basis for choosing the scaling you are using. Another point: I thought that for CO2 in the atmosphere, IR absorbance is proportional to log [CO2], not linear.
Andrew Jameton says
This is a little hokey and for teaching purposes in public health, not so much public science: In addition to years along the x access, I note how old my daughter will be in 2050 (70 yo); how old my oldest grandchild will be (45 yo); and a likely great grandchild will be (20 yo), etc. Inspired by Jim Hansen.
Unsettled Scientist says
>, but you seem to suggest that these emissions lead to a CO2 rise in the atmosphere
>When you look at the forcing graph of the AR5, you will see that several emitted compounds (CO2, methane, CO, NMVOC) have lead to a CO2 rise in the atmosphere
He is not saying *all* emitted compounds lead to a rise in CO2, but that several, specifically those listed, do. Just as methane will oxidize to CO2, so too do CO an Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds (NMVOC). These are often called the “forgotten carbon” emissions.
Steve Harris says
If there is strength in the position that CO2 is dangerous, it needs to be publicly debated with those of opposing views. Refusing public debate severely degrades credibility. Credible results need to be openly and honestly debated in the public arena. I watched a John Stossel show where Dr Schmidt outright refused to debate, or even converse with for that matter, Dr Spencer. That is a surefire way to achieve zero credibility with the public, I suggest a change in strategy.
Keith Woollard says
…. and you brought the start date 30 years earlier because …… ?
[Response: You can choose any start date that you want; here’s 1980 for example–eric]
Larry Wirth says
At what altitude above sea level does the troposphere begin? Just trying to improve my poor understanding of the alleged argument.
[Response: The troposphere extends from the surface to between about 8 and 18 km height (depending on latitude). The satellite microwave sounding units (MSU) receive radiation coming from throughout the troposphere. There is different products with different altitude weighting functions (pictured here) – the one most often shown is for the lower troposphere and integrates radiation coming from the lower 10 km, with maximum weighting about 2-3 km above the surface. As Wikipedia rightly explains: “The process of constructing a temperature record from a radiance record is difficult and some of the required corrections are as large as the trend itself.” (They provide the details and sources.) The idea that the MSU record somehow provides more accurate or reliable temperature trends than surface measurements with thermometers, sometimes promoted by “climate skeptics”, is scientifically untenable. -stefan]
Larry Wirth says
Among my few virtues is an almost inexhaustible supply of patience. Not sure what ‘moderation’ means, but for me, it’s bedtime and I’ll return tomorrow morning to find out what the ‘moderators’ have decided. Thanx.
I don’t agree that annual plotting is necessarily preferable. Monthly plots contain important information about system variability, which may improve confidence and acceptance for intelligent lay observers. And monthly plotting certainly does not obscure the trends (which are now bleepingly blindingly obvious); see here and here.
[Response: That is true if you show a sufficiently long stretch of data – then the trend is obvious even above the short-term noise in monthly data. But if you pick a short section of data (from 1998 say – how come this is a far more popular number than 1999?) then the trend of this short period becomes rather small compared to the noise, so it is difficult to see. -stefan]
jacob l says: 8 Dec 2014 at 3:40 PM
what about log of co2 “forcing” instead of just co2 ppm?
According to the formula suggested, at the CO2 concentrations 270 ppm – 400 ppm it makes very little or no difference, or to put it ‘bluntly, I think the formula is wrong.
Adam Gallon says
Lower Tropospheric is as good as any for showing trends, as it removes any UHI effect.
Anyway you try and spin it, there’s been no statistically significant rise in global temps for over 18 years on RSS.
A post by Dr Carl Mears discusses this.
Note his final point.
“I’ll conclude by reiterating that I do not expect that the hiatus and model/observation discrepancies are due to a single cause. It is far more likely that they are caused by a combination of factors. Publications, blog posts and media stories that try to pin all the blame on one factor should be viewed with some level of suspicion, whether they are written by climate scientists, journalists, or climate change denialists”.
So he agrees that models & observations disagree, further up his post, he notes that even with warming additions
“the best-estimate trend value of 0.123 K/decade, it would still be at the extreme low end of the model trends”
I see another alarmist post from The Climate Action Tracker claims that temperatures are going to rise by 3C above pre-industrial levels by 2100AD, a ludicrous claim that requires .35C/decade rate of increase.
Maybe you’d be better off correcting that claim that worrying about a “Widget” as that’s the sort of garbage that has brought climate science & its practitioners into such disrepute.
Ray Ladbury says
Scientific debate is occurring. It takes place at conferences, in the pages of journals and in front of chalkboards in university hallways all over the world. There is no shortage of debate. The objection, rather, is to shoving subtle scientific concepts into a forum that fits between commercial breaks. Such a forum is ideal for strategies like Gish Gallops, obfuscations and downright lies, especially when the anti-science side isn’t interested in the truth but only in scoring political points and prolonging their kleptocracy long enough to join the filthy rich.
Chris Dudley says
“whenever you see it on a website, you know they are trying to fool rather than inform you there”
This would be worth rephrasing to say “whenever you see it on a website (without caveat), you know they are trying to fool rather than inform you there” to avoid the problem of it appearing at this web site.
Chris Dudley says
The debate you are interested in already occurred in the most public manner possible before the Supreme Court. Gavin might educate on this topic, but there is no need to reopen the question. Carbon dioxide is dangerous.
Hank Roberts says
For Steve Harris, who wanted help finding the scientific debate — here is one example of how to start.
You should really talk to your local librarian:
find your local library
about how to find unbiased sources — I’m just some guy on the Internet, and deciding who to trust about things you haven’t studied yourself is always the first problem.
I’d suggest reading; if you want to read the science papers, like this:
(of course, use other search terms, this is just a start)
Note the total number of articles, given at the top of the page.
Note, below each article, those “Cited by” some number of other papers — there’s the debate
(clickable), and here’s how that works:
Science is a blood sport, scientific debate isn’t gentle or friendly when you look closely.
The ones you’re hearing from are the survivors — or those who quit the debate in the science journals.
Remember what the news shows you is the people writing press releases and blogs as well as those doing science. You have to sort out who’s doing the work, and who’s doing the bafflegab.
See also the link for related articles.
Click to view by date or by relevance.
Jim Eager says
For Steve Harris: Attempting to publicly “debate” science with someone who has repeatedly shown themselves willing to distort that science and to even make up their own “facts” is like engaging in a fight with one or even both hands tied behind your back. In that kind of free-wheeling public forum those willing to lie will be able to get their message halfway around the world before the truth even has a chance to get its pants on. Basing one’s opinion of the credibility of a scientific argument on public debate is naive at best and downright dangerous at worst. Look in the scientific literature for the real scientific debate.
Larry Wirth says
So, doesn’t that explanation mean that we do live and grow our food in the troposphere?
The best graphic that I have seen is “The Escalator” and related posts which can be found at http://www.skepticalscience.com/graphics.php?g=47. The expression “any fool should be able to understand this” comes to mind, but I am apparently wrong because a lot of people fail to understand. Sigh.
Thanks for the nice graph on the sun spots. It is nice to see something that varies over time but is really constant.
Peter Andersen says
The World Climate Widget does not show CO2 concentrations before 1959. However, if the CO2 ppm were extended back to say 1905, the graph would show a strong disconnect between the rise of the CO2 concentration and the global temperature between 1905 and 1945. Why not show this in the name of honesty?
Jim Eager says
Larry, perhaps you missed the fact that the troposphere is rather tall and not at all homogenous through the column in terms of density, temperature and moisture content? The part we live and grow our food in is the very bottom of the column, which is why it is surface temperature that we are most concerned with.
Larry Wirth, it’s also true that we live and grow our food in the Milky Way. But the average temperature of the Milky Way is not the right metric. (I mean, I think point (1) is the least convincing of the three, but is it really so hard to understand?)
Steve Fish says
Re- Comment by Larry Wirth — 9 Dec 2014 @ 12:22 PM, ~#32
Your question was answered by the moderators in an inline comment to your first try above.
Hank Roberts says
The original post:
Larry Wirth asked at what altitude above sea level the troposphere starts. The inline response answers — start from ground level, as long as you’re above sea level.
Larry, you missed an important word in the original post: the word “up” — “up in the troposphere” — and you didn’t understand where the bottom of the troposphere is. It’s at ground level (or sea level, if you’re there).
The bottom of the troposphere is where we live. Not up in the troposphere.
E.g., take Denver Colorado — the troposphere starts at a mile above sea level, where the ground ends. People live at the bottom of the troposphere, wherever they are on Earth.
Phil Scadden says
Larry, we live and grow our food at the base of the troposphere, not 2-3 km up. That is why the surface temperature record is so important despite it being a very noisy parameter to use as a climate indicator. Preferring a very imperfect measurement from higher up does not make much sense.
Eli Rabett says
#32, by the same logic we live and grow our food in the Earth’s atmosphere. The first 10 m (well, maybe a couple of hundred if you live in Manhattan) is not where the MSU’s measure.
Hank Roberts says
Philosophy for Laymen (1946), Bertrand Russell
Paragraph breaks added for online readability — hr
Steve Harris says
For those who responded to my question about public debate, I thank you for your answers. I do have a scientific background in electrical engineering, and I have used models extensively throughout my career. I have seen first hand what is possible, and what is not. I have been watching and reading both sides of this debate. Science is all about open public debate on beliefs that are falsifiable. Religion is all about shutting down debate on beliefs that are not falsifiable. It is quite clear which camp you are in. Debating only finer points of doctrine with colleagues who do not question fundamental beliefs is not much of a debate. I believe I speak for a large majority of scientific minds on this planet when I say that this policy of no-debate with “deniers” as you call them is extremely damaging to your credibility. Surely you see this? If you want credibility with the public, the best thing to do is openly, politely, and publicly engage with those who disagree. Respect their views while presenting your own, and let the data stand on it’s own merit. And stop calling them names. If their arguments are truly lies, they will not prevail.
[Response: You are posing a straw man argument. Scientists debate all the time — with each other, and with the public, and yes, with those who some label “deniers”. There is no “policy” of not debating. There is sometimes the choice made not to bother responding to each and every person, and particularly those known (from experience) to have nothing new to say. There simply isn’t time in the day.–eric]
Kevin McKinney says
#36–I assume that the widget starts in ’59 because that is the first complete year of Mauna Loa CO2 data.
I’d only add, ‘in the name of honesty,’ that if everything both true and remotely relevant is said, then speech continues long after listening ceases.
As to the ‘disconnect’, the interested can see it and read about it here:
Thanks for the real world climate widget, and thank you Bernd Herd. Basic uncluttered is fine.
Pete Best says
Re #44 – submit a paper for peer review if you disagree with what is known about the earths climate. Why bring up religion at all in any context about science. What debate so you want exactly and who are you criticising exactly ?
Real climate is a decent enough web site discussing these matters with the public and it has been extremely tolerant and understanding over the years of those who don’t submit papers for peer review but have blogs and web sites that state stuff known to be inaccurate scientifically but they state it all the same
Pete Best says
Re #36 – what is wrong with 1959 exactly – large cooling factors such as massive coal expansion during the 50s and 60s is partly responsible for your so called disconnect before this time. CO2 is a GHG (dwarves others due to the amount we are emitting and hence all the fuss) – fact unfortunately but there are strong cooling factors as well only some of these are not known with the same precision as CO2 is and hence the error bars in the graphs. The world is warming but its not as you say nice and linear year by year but taken on decadal and longer timelines the co2 wins out.
Dan S. says
re:44. Science is debated. Strongly. Via peer review and scientific conferences. As it has always been done via the scientific method for hundreds of years. Global warming research is no exception.
Chris Dudley says
You did not pay attention. The danger of greenhouse gases has been debated thoroughly. The answer has been found. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/endangerment/
Those who wish to debate are not raising debatable issues. They are demonstrating ignorance. Learn the topic first and then you will understand.