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Punxsutawney Phil says early spring in 2011! (Source: breakingnewsweek.com)

The annual ritual of publishing global temperature reports has become something akin to climate change’s Super Bowl. Much anticipation. A series of numbers flashed on the scoreboard. Tons of press. Load roars (and choice words for the refs) issuing from the bleachers. And much post-game analysis.

Or perhaps the annual report on the global temperature of the year-just-ended can be compared to/contrasted with the annual February rite of reporting on one of Pennsylvania’s best-known residents, Punxsutawney Phil, whose shadow, or lack thereof, is, legend holds, the harbinger for a late or early spring, respectively.

In reporting on that annual groundhog news peg on their NBC “Today Show,” Matt Lauer sheepishly held up a hand-written sign reading “BULL” as co-anchor Meredith Vieira straightfacedly ripped and read the anointed copy (early spring, by the way).

What remains unclear for the media and their audiences is how to best handle the annual science-media global temperatures to serve the public interest, perhaps an even more important issue than arises in covering Punxsutawney Phil.

Are there better ways to communicate annual global climate data patterns on a regular basis to the public?

This year, of course, provided its share of at least superficial confusion.

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reported that 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record.

Many major outlets — from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, ran with those reports.

But the World Meteorological Organization, combining the NASA and NOAA data with that of the United Kingdom’s Hadley Centre and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, judged 2010 to be in a statistical tie with 2005 and 1998. And other research centers put 2010 in second place.

Differences … but not Statistically Significant

This ostensible “disagreement” in fact is mooted: the statistical differences among the years in question are not statistically significant … and certainly not scientifically important. Seeming somewhat awkward about that situation, NASA posted a press release Jan. 12, “NASA Research Finds 2010 Tied for Warmest Year on Record,” and then the next day issued another release asking whether or not a single year even mattered.

The answer, according to NASA?

“Not all that much, emphasizes James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS),” the statement reads. “In the GISS analysis, for example, 2010 differed from 2005 by less than 0.01 degrees C (0.018 degrees F), a difference so small that the temperatures of these two years are indistinguishable, given the uncertainty of the calculation. Meanwhile, the third warmest year — 2009 — is so close to 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007, with the maximum difference between the years being a mere 0.03 degrees C, that all six years are virtually tied.”

NOAA officials publicly voiced a similar grain-of-salt caution with respect to the annual figures.

As Yale Forum writer and scientist Zeke Hausfather put it recently at this site, “[L]ooking at the trends in temperature, and how recent years compare to long-term changes, can give a much clearer picture of how the global climate is changing.”

Clarifying?  Or Confusing … but Important Nonetheless?

So is this annual rite of global temperature emphasis by scientific organizations — and then their tip-toe away from the emphasis as soon as the media attention comes — creating confusion in the public square? (Another example: If you’re a Guardian reader, you read a January 12 article titled, “Last year was joint warmest on record, say climatologists” ; then eight days later and in the same newspaper, you read another piece with the headline, “Met Office: 2010 was second warmest year on record.”)

Or is it just important nonetheless to have an annual pretext for reminding the public of the looming and long-term warming challenges that the planet faces?

Asked these questions by the Yale Forum, David Easterling, scientific services chief at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, replied in an e-mail:

We (NCDC) have a responsibility to provide an unbiased but detailed report on the climate on various time scales. Part of that is the annual report and how the past year fits into the historical record. Whether 2010 was “tied” or close to the warmest year on record, in my mind, is not that relevant. What’s more relevant is that it was among the warmest, and that all the years of the 2000s have been warm. The bigger issue for the public is that they have very short memories, especially in the U.S., and if these kinds of reports are not provided on a regular basis, anthropogenic climate change would just fade into the background noise. So, yes, they are important on a number of levels.

But if the scientific community feels strongly that the global temperature reports ensure that climate change doesn’t become just so much “background noise,” the journalists who communicate those messages still may take some pause in deciding how best to address the annual ritual.

A ‘Pain’ for Editors … and for the Public

“The annual temperature announcements are a bit of a pain, to be honest,” said one prominent British environmental journalist, who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about his outlet’s internal deliberations. “So this year we had U.K. Met Office telling us it was the second warmest on record, and WMO calling it the warmest. Both were correct. Both also could not distingiush statistically between the top few years — so in a sense there was no record. It’s a mess — very confusing for editors, let alone the public, I think. Yet not to report them is not an option, given the realities of how news does it.”

A certain streamlining of the process for the sake of clarity would be helpful, the British reporter said: “If there is a constructive way through, it would be for the WMO to coordinate with all the other bodies so they all release their conclusions at the same time, with the WMO synthesis taking primacy.”

… and Fodder for Those Wanting to Poke Holes

There is no doubt that the confusions over single years versus long-term trends — and seemingly conflicting reports — can serve as fodder for climate “skeptics” and professional doubters. (See the ClimateDepot.com write-up attacking the 2010 headlines.)

MIT’s Kerry Emanuel

It should be noted too that, though the last decade’s worth of annual data have continued to show an upward trend, not every individual year will support the narrative of a warming world, as impacts of climate change, the experts frequently point out, are nonlinear.

Years 2000, 2004, or 2009, for example, did not produce a “hottest on record” headline. Simply getting the scientific facts on the record — calling it as scientists see it — may carry a kind of professional obligation, some say.

“I guess the question is, who the intended audience is,” Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT, told The Yale Forum. “If it is fellow climate scientists, then I think these reports are very useful, and I would not want to see them discontinued. If it is for the general public, then I would still argue that they should be published, because if they were not, climate scientists would be accused of withholding information. The fact that they are widely misused should be blamed on those that misuse the information, not on those who publish it.”

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...