May Day brought a climate blindside of sorts this year, and it didn’t come in the form of a freak snowstorm in the tropics.

On that day, a peer-reviewed study in the esteemed journal Nature predicted a temporary cooling of global temperatures for the next decade or so.

The alleged cause? Little-understood ocean currents cycling into a cool phase. They were factors, apparently, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had not adequately considered. Might that raise questions about the panel’s predictions of future temperature increases in the coming ten years?

From beleaguered skeptics’ corners of the globe came boisterous I-told-you-so’s. A researcher with the libertarian Cato Institute argued in the Washington Times that global warming science now looked more flawed than pre-Iraq War intelligence. Headlines were lathered up with bravado: “So much for settled science” …

From the bastions of scientific consensus, though, there was befuddlement, and eventually pushback. In fact, almost a duel, as the scientist bloggers literally challenged the Nature article’s authors to a 2500-Euro wager that they were wrong.

Lead author of the provocative cooling study Noel Keenlyside, Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, Kiel, Germany, in a flash reignited a debate that had long ago been labeled “over.” Or had he?

For one thing, the cooling article was limited in focus: the study addressed just the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific currents, and their impact on European and North American temperatures. And it only related to the next decade or so – after that, Keenlyside’s projections swing back in synch roughly with those of IPCC.

Nevertheless, there was that show-stopping phrase just eight sentences into the Nature piece: “Our results suggest that global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade …”

Author Amused At Confusion

In a Yale Forum interview, Keenlyside commented on the media battle over his assertions about lower average global temperatures.

“If you have read the paper, you will know this was not the focus of our study,” he wrote in an email. “Nevertheless, although the media coverage was a little sensational, overall, I feel that the main point – global mean temperature need not increase monotonically in the short term under anthropogenic global warming – was conveyed.”

Note his words: the “focus” of the research and the “main point” of the overall article are not perfectly in line. Keenlyside set out to prove only that the IPCC’s calculations for shorter-term temperatures in some regions of Earth are incomplete. But his critique undercuts IPCC’s model.

The story was ripe for spin and hype from all sides.

Climate change journalist, now activist Bill McKibben.

Longtime climate change journalist and now activist Bill McKibben said in response to e-mail questions that he could only shake his head with “amusement” at the general confusion caused by the “cooling” article.

“We don’t watch climate change over a season, or over a continent; its effects are felt, already, on a global scale, and will be felt on a timescale longer than human history to date,” McKibben told the Yale Forum. “But our media – even our scientific journals – are tuned to shorter frequencies, and hence this static can jam the important message quite easily.”

Keenlyside wrote that he considers the scientific community’s skepticism of his findings “healthy” (read 2500-Euro wager), and he conceded that the cutting-edge modeling he used is still new.

Models Over-Hyped

Without a doubt, part of the challenge for climate change observers involved cutting through the glitzy packaging.

Keenlyside et al’s news release essentially yelled fire in a crowded theater: “Will Global Warming Take a Short Break?” By contrast, the article’s title in wonky Nature was a library whisper: “Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector.”

BBC environment correspondent Richard Black was one of the big mainstream press voices to tackle the “cooling” study’s import. In a Yale Forum e-mail interview, Black said alarm bells immediately went off in his head when he read it.

“The main issue with covering something like the Keenlyside paper is that you may be thinking about the reaction you’re likely to get more than the research itself,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Are you going to get slugged a ‘skeptic’? Or will you find your article be taken and used by skeptical organizations to back their case?”

Black said his online article on May 1, which took pains to put the study into full context, elicited far less of an emotional response from readers than he expected – to his relief.

But climate change skeptics also breathed a sigh of relief … sort of.

Lorrie Goldstein’s May 4 editorial in the Toronto Sun stated flatly: “Prior to this study, anyone impertinent enough to point out, contrary to the Al Gore Nation, there hasn’t been any global warming for a decade was apt to have their head shot off by climate hysterics.”

However, Keenlyside’s study made no such claims about erasing the previous decade’s temperature increases as asserted by IPCC. (Unclear, then, if Goldstein should stop ducking shots?)

In a Yale Forum interview, widely-quoted skeptic Patrick Michaels, a climatologist at Cato, proclaimed by e-mail that the over-hyping of all models is the big problem. “Can Keenlyside be over-hyped? Absolutely,” he said. “Were the IPCC models overhyped? Absolutely.”

Campaign Climate

In the wake of the Keenlyside bombshell, the question remains whether the story – which got spotty coverage, according to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and a Lexis-Nexis/Google News search – will have any lasting impact, particularly in this political moment in the U.S. presidential campaign. Presumed presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama say they stand ready to act on climate change; the new Congress taking office in January 2009 will again take on the issue, most likely with increased prospects for actually passing legislation.

The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin, who covers environmental issues and national politics, told the Yale Forum that she hasn’t “seen the cooling paper get much attention on the campaign trail …. It seems like the climate consensus is fairly settled at this point, though I still get regular e-mails from skeptics when I’m working on global warming stories.”

The Post, like other big outlets such as the major television networks, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, didn’t touch the Keenlyside thesis. Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s take?

“This little report in Nature looks like two things: interesting, and a can of worms,” stated Tracker writer and long-time science journalist Charles Petit in the May 5 blog post. “Maybe the latter shooed most reporters away from it. Maybe they figured one analysis, even if it offers a dramatic scenario of stable temperatures for ten years or so in much of the world, isn’t worth the headaches of explaining the nuances.”

However, The New York Times‘ Andy Revkin, who examined the Keenlyside paper in both print and at his DotEarth blog, wrote that temporary cooling periods may present a robust long-term challenge to advocates who want to address climate change.

“It’s much harder to build a movement around limiting losses for generations unborn than for ourselves,” Revkin blogged on May 1, “but if honesty counts, that may be the only way to make climate action stick.”

He has also acknowledged other recent “cooling” anecdotes, including freak snow in Baghdad and South Africa, Antarctic ice returning – even the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab’s announcement on April 21 that the Pacific Ocean was shifting into a cool phase.

Some observers, though, remain unmoved despite variations in climate – of opinion or science models.

“The only important fact,” McKibben told the Yale Forum, “and the one that has been growing steadily more robust with each passing year, is that the world is warming disastrously.”

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...