If we assume global warming is a hoax, what should we expect to see?

Thermometer on a hot day

[Credit: Shutterstock/boscorelli]

I will ask you to indulge me for a moment in a thought experiment. It’s not hard, and it leads to a startlingly simple yet powerful conclusion, one I think you may find both important and terribly useful.

Still, it starts with a big ask, so forgive me. And that is: Let’s make an assumption, one you’ve heard many times before. Let’s say that global warming is a hoax.

I know, I know. But go with this, here. So, yes, let’s say that climate change deniers —people like House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith, Senator James Inhofe, and even Donald Trump himself— are right. Whatever the reasons (Chinese hoax, climatologist cabal clamoring colossal cash, carbon dioxide isn’t a powerful greenhouse gas, or just a liberal conspiracy), let’s say that the Earth is not warming up.

In that case, the temperatures we see today on average should be much like the ones we saw, say, 20 years ago. Or 50. Sure, you’d see fluctuations. In a given spot on a given day the temperature in 1968 might have been a degree warmer than it was in 1974, or three degrees cooler than in 2010. But what you’d expect is that over time, a graph showing the temperature would be pretty much flat, with lots of short-term spikes up and down.

Now, statistically speaking, you expect some records to be broken every now and again. Over time, every few years for a given day you’d get a record high, and every few years a record low. The details will change from place to place and time to time, but again, if the average temperature trend is flat, unchanging, then you would expect to see just as many record cold days as record warm days. There might be small deviations, like, say, a handful of more cool than warm days, but the difference would be very small depending on how many days you look at.

It’s like flipping a coin. On average, you should get a 50/50 split between heads and tails. But if you flip it 10 times, say, you wouldn’t be shocked to see seven heads and three tails. But if you flip it a thousand times, you’d really expect to see a very even split. Seeing 700 heads and 300 tails would be truly extraordinary.

So, if we remind ourselves of our basic assumption —global warming isn’t real— then we expect there to be as many record high days as there are record lows. Simple statistics.

So, what do we see?

Guy Walton, a meteorologist in Georgia, took a look at the data from the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Whenever a weather station in the US breaks a record, high or low, it’s catalogued (Walton has more info on this at the link above). He found something astonishing: For February 2017, the number of record highs across the US recorded was 6,201.

The number of record lows? 128.

That’s a ratio of over 48:1. In just one month.

Again, if temperatures were flat over time, and record highs and lows were random fluctuations, you’d expect a ratio much closer to 1:1. In other words, out of 6329 records set in total, you’d expect there to be about 3165 record highs, and 3165 record lows.

For fans of statistics, with a total of 6329 records broken, one standard deviation is the square root of that, or about 80. So, sure, something like 3265 highs and 3064 lows wouldn’t be too unusual. If you start to see more of an imbalance than that, it would be weird.

Seeing 6201 record highs to 128 lows is very, very, very weird. Like, zero chance of that happening by accident.

Now, Phil, I can hear you thinking, that’s just for the US (2% of the planet) over one month. And you’ve told us before that weather isn’t climate; weather is what you expect now, climate is what you expect over long periods of time. So, maybe this is a fluke?

Walton notes that, if you look at records in the US going back to the 1920s, the six highest ratios of record highs to lows all occur since the 1990s. Huh.

And making this more global, a pair of Australian scientists looked at their country’s data, and found that their ratios were about even...until the 1960s. After that, highs always outnumber lows. From 2000-2014, record highs outnumbered lows there by 12:1.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research collated data from 1800 stations across the US and binned the data by decade — by decade, which is a huge sample; any deviation from a 1:1 ratio would be extraordinary over that timescale.

They found this:

Record high temperatures outnumber lows by a large margin

We are seeing far more record high temperatures than record lows in the US... and in other countries, too. Credit: UCAR

Huh. Not only are there more record highs than lows, the ratio between the two is getting higher with time.

So, looking back at our initial assumption — the Earth isn’t warming, and temperatures are flat— there’s a conclusion these data are screaming at us: That assumption is completely and utterly wrong.

And of course, all the evidence backs this up. All of it. Earth’s temperature is increasing. That’s because of the 40 billion tons of extra carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere every year (the amount we will see this year, expected to top 410 parts per million, has never been seen before in history as long as humans have walked the Earth). This CO2 allows sunlight to warm the Earth, but prevents all of it from escaping so that a little bit of extra heat remains behind, and that’s warming our planet.

Over time, we’re getting hotter. 2014 was a record hot year, beaten by 2015, itself beaten by 2016. In fact, 15 of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have been from 2001 – 2016. That’s exactly what you’d expect if we were getting warmer, and that means our initial assumption of hoaxery was dead wrong.

The science on this is so basic, the evidence of this so overwhelming, that “not a single national science academy disputes or denies the scientific consensus around human-caused climate change”, and also the overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate do, too.

Maybe you should listen to them, and not politicians who seem ideologically opposed to the science.

Or, you could flip a coin. But if it comes up science dozens of times more often than anti-science, well —and forgive me if I sound like a broken record— the conclusion is obvious.

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