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February 06, 2017

Good news: Climate Change Page Still on EPA Website

Bad news: It’s still misleading

Last week Reuters ran a story headlined “Trump administration tells EPA to cut climate page from website: sources”. That would be a bad thing. However, at least so far, it hasn’t happened. The climate change page still has a link on the front page of epa.gov and the link is still live. Moreover, noaa.gov, the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, still has a link on its front page saying “2016 marks three consecutive years of record warmth for the globe”.

Good. We really don’t want to suppress information. But I have a complaint: both the NOAA headline and the NASA report pointed to by the EPA site are inaccurate and misleading in the same way as they were under Obama. This isn’t just a quibble; what’s happening climate-wise is important and the government ought to be reporting it accurately. These websites shouldn’t be used for propaganda of any kind.

The inaccuracy is that the difference in measured temperature between 2015 and 2016 was less than the margin of error in the methodology used to derive the number. NOAA says that temperatures in 2016 were .07 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in 2015 (NASA doesn’t give the actual difference in their story). But NASA does say that the likely uncertainty in recent annual data is .09 degrees F. This error margin is actually much less than what is claimed in the United Nations IPCC report – about .36 degrees F. Either way, there is no statistical difference in the average temperature for 2015 and 2016. That means that no scientist should say that one year was hotter than the other. The data is not conclusive.

The UK Meteorological Office – firm believers in anthropogenic climate change – nevertheless manages to be accurate in reporting the data; their headline is “2016: one of the warmest two years on record”. That is what the data shows. They are clear that the difference is less than one-tenth the margin of error.

Why does it matter if 2016 was the hottest year in the relatively short time we have been collecting such data or only tied for hottest? Well, it obviously mattered enough to whoever wrote the stories for NASA and NOAA to violate the norms for reporting uncertain data. It matters because we know we’re in a warming trend since the last ice age AND we know we’re adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere AND we need to make important, expensive decisions based on how much of warming is attributed to those gasses and how much is a long term trend we may not be able to influence.

According to a Wall Street Journal column by Holman Jenkins, leaving the uncertainty interval out of climate press releases started in the second year of the Obama administration. The Trump administration can improve public knowledge of scientific information by making sure it is reported accurately and completely on government websites. Press which is, rightfully, obsessing about government telling the truth should make sure its reporters know enough to ask the right questions when they get a “scientific” press release from a government agency. The Trump administration isn’t the first to have an agenda to support and it won’t be the last.

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