Attention scientists and journalists: I want my word back. You don’t get to use it anymore, unless you want to admit that you are in the business of deceiving people. That word? “Ever.”
I know I’m in for it when I hear this word at home. “You don’t ever…” and “You never” and “You always” – these are statements that I’ve gotten my beloved wife to see seldom accompany truth-telling. What they do accompany is strong feeling.
And you’d need strong feelings to use the word “ever” to describe 150 years in Earth’s history: “Warmest ever,” “third warmest ever,” “hottest ever,” “fifth hottest ever,” “second warmest ever.” Taken as a whole, statements like these, which are found in articles purporting to inform the public, become incantatory, and indeed echo literal hymns sung in literal churches, worldwide: “Forever and ever and ever …. Hallelujah, hallelujah,” and so forth, as set forth in Handel’s Messiah. People have said that global warming is its own religion, and it turns out they may be right.
What do the climax of the Messiah and climate science have to do with each other, if anything? At least a few things, it turns out. The Messiah was written to create a sense of the infinite, of permanence, of completeness, of at-one-ness with God. The narrative of the recent modern warming that began in the mid-19th century has been crafted in such a way as to create the exact opposite sense: of the finite, of the impermanence of the biosphere, of incompleteness, and of separation from Nature, God, and Spirit. I talk a lot more about this narrative in my book.
You could simply say that the narrative of global warming was constructed to induce a state of despair.
You could also say that the narrative has been exceedingly successful in that regard. What sane person, for instance, could hear “warmest ever,” “hottest ever,” dozens and dozens of times, from the twin pulpits of science and journalism, and not conclude that one’s own time on Earth was particularly unfortunate, grim, doomed?
What about this word “ever,” though? Is it a good word to use to describe the last few decades in Earth’s climate history? Well, if you like crazy, it’s a great word! Originally, climate science articles in newspapers and magazines were careful to state that the “third warmest year” was merely the third warmest in the modern record. And some articles do still draw that distinction. What seems to have led to widespread use of the word “ever,” though, was tired, drama-seeking headline writers (I’ve been there), putting the newspaper or magazine together late at night and needing to convey a lot of information in a small number of words. “2010 hottest ever during one climate agency’s century-and-a-half-long instrumental record” doesn’t make a top-shelf headline, not at all. “2010 ranked hottest year ever,” now you’re cooking with gas! That’s a headline. And headlines sell newspapers; they make people feel engaged.
The shortness of the record is an important point, though, because the planet’s climatological past extends back a little bit farther than that! Said past is only knowable by indirect means, by proxy – often through the use of tree rings, ice cores, and lake sediment samples, that sort of thing. But when NASA, and then The New York Times, says that 2010 was the warmest year in the instrumental record, they are ignoring the important proxy record showing temperatures during the ice age that began three million years ago (not long at all, that) to have routinely exceeded the values streaming across television screens, Times Square tickers, and newspaper front pages.
One of the most widely quoted of all climate scientists is Penn State’s Michael Mann. In one interview with NPR, Dr. Mann addressed what climatologists know as the “modern warming,” and the likelihood that it could be part of a natural cycle. It wasn’t very likely at all, said Dr. Mann: “There’s no way to explain the changes we’ve seen in terms of any of these natural factors…. So in that context, when we talk about recent climate change, we are talking about humans.”
But how can Dr. Mann know this? He is alluding to the idea that the recent temperatures are the “warmest ever,” but temperatures today are cooler than 7,000 years ago, during the Holocene Climactic Optimum; cooler than 115,000 years ago during the Eemian interglacial; cooler than during the three interglacials before that. (Interglacials are interruptions in the widespread glaciation that has characterized the current, three-million-year-old Ice Age.) No self-respecting climatologist, including Dr. Mann, disputes this. The Vostok ice-core record showing our current temperature to be considerably lower than these recent periods during Earth’s history is not in dispute.
When, during the Eemian interglacial that extended from 130,000 years ago and ended about 115,000 years ago, temperatures were one to two degrees Celsius warmer than today, sea level reflected the warm conditions and the glacial melt they generated. It was 15 feet higher than today. Meanwhile, climatologists have convinced the public that current sea level should be considered “normal,” or, even more absurd, “permanent.” Sea level has never been stable, and cannot be stable.
Once you know that that modern temperature is well within the bounds of normal variability for Earth’s climate system, use of the word “ever,” whether by a beleaguered headline-writer or science writer, is revealed to be a piece of anti-science, an assault on reason.
Today is not the hottest, or warmest, or worst time to be alive, on this wonderful planet. It is arguably the best! The Vostok ice core shows our own interglacial, the Holocene, to be the most temperate, the most stable – like a comfy climactic nest, in fact.
Forgive the headline writers and “science” writers, if you desire. I do. They’re human, and crazy comes with being human – sometimes. But listen with special attention to the scientists who have taken up this word “ever” themselves. Being human as well they quickly noted the power that the word “ever” carries with the public, and started to echo the very science articles that once carefully set out their own complete analysis, imperfect as it was. When a climate scientist uses the word “ever,” and they do so routinely and increasingly, understand that this has to do with aesthetics, at a minimum, like those governing Handel’s awesome Messiah, and, potentially, with something less forgivable: a purposeful desire to mislead.
So, journalists, scientists: Why not just give the rest of the world our word back. We know how to use it, which is in domestic disputes where one partner badly needs a snack, a nap, or both.
Harold Ambler is the owner of talkingabouttheweather.com and the author of Don’t Sell Your Coat.