Factcheck - Ann Widdecombe on climate in the Daily Express

  • 04 Aug 2011, 16:00
  • Verity Payne

In her Daily Express column, novelist and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe uses current controversy over a US researcher being suspended for scientific misconduct to advocate reducing goverment funding into climate science research.

Ms Widdecombe seems to feel that the suspension of Dr Charles Monnett, which we wrote about here, justifies her sceptical stance on manmade climate change, suggesting:

"That scientists are now being challenged is a sure sign that somebody somewhere knows they may have been getting it wrong."

She then shares her take on climate science, noting:

"The Hadley Centre itself, on whose statistics the claims for global warming are largely based, has shown through those same figures that there has been no change in Earth's temperature for a decade despite record carbon emissions."

This gets a number of points wrong. The Hadley Centre supply just one of five major global temperature records. The other four are collected by NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and by the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

There are also many other temperature records and measurements which are combined into complementary datasets. So information about global temperatures comes from a variety of sources, not 'largely' from the Hadley Centre. But it is a popular climate skeptic talking point to suggest that information about global warming comes largely from the Climatic Research Unit at UEA which is affiliated with the Hadley centre, so perhaps this is why the former MP mentions it. We debunked the argument in more detail here.

As well as this, temperature trends are just one piece of evidence for climate change. The NOAA state of the climate report, published last month, notes that dozens of other observations indicate that climate is changing, including ice loss from glaciers and ice caps, changes in snow cover, decreasing stratospheric temperatures, shrinking Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels and increased ocean heat content. Temperature rise is one important part of a larger web of evidence.

Suggesting that Hadley Centre data shows that the Earth's temperature hasn't changed over the last decade is also incorrect on a number of levels - not least because global temperature have varied over the last decade in response to a number of natural cycles, including the El Niño southern oscillation and the eleven year solar cycle.

But Ms Widdecombe is likely referencing another familiar sceptic claim that 'global warming has stopped in the past decade', an argument which ignores the evidence compiled by NOAA and considers only the Hadley centre's temperature data. It's worth quoting Professor Phil Jones, who works on the data, explaining why this argument is invalid, with the final point about considering temperatures over a longer time period probably the most important:

"The trend over the period 1995-2009 was significant at the 90% level, but wasn't significant at the standard 95% level that people use," Professor Jones told BBC News.

"Basically what's changed is one more year [of data]. That period 1995-2009 was just 15 years - and because of the uncertainty in estimating trends over short periods, an extra year has made that trend significant at the 95% level which is the traditional threshold that statisticians have used for many years.

"It just shows the difficulty of achieving significance with a short time series, and that's why longer series - 20 or 30 years - would be a much better way of estimating trends and getting significance on a consistent basis."

In summary, Ms Widdecombe's views on climate - presented in the Express as comment - are inaccurate and misleading. If the Press Complaints Commission required columnists to stand up the facts in their comment pieces, ( they don't), and if the Express was covered by the PCC, ( it withdrew earlier in the year), this piece would be worthy of a PCC complaint.

Anyway, the article does demonstrate quite neatly why we fund scientists to research these issues, rather than relying exclusively on the efforts of columnists.

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