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Global temp chart

Has the Earth’s temperature really been flat since 1998?

When it comes to climate change, one of the most frequent observations you will hear is that the Earth’s temperatures have not risen since 1998.

Just this month, July 5, the Journal Star published an opinion by Charles Krauthammer making this claim. At first glance, global surface air temperatures do appear to be flat, starting in 1998.

This sounds too good to be true. Are all of those dire predictions of global warming wrong? Has the Earth really managed to find some miraculous fix to an otherwise inexorable climb? Does this mean climate change no longer is happening? What do climate scientists say?

There are three important points to note about this observation:

  • 15 years is not long enough. Climate change is talking about changes in temperature over many decades, not just a few years. Temperature records have lots of variation (called noise). Saying that the Earth stopped warming because of 15 years is like saying that it’s always hotter than 85 degrees in Lincoln because it has been hotter than 85 degrees for the past 15 days. The decade from 2000 to 2010 was the hottest decade on record by a large margin. The top 13 hottest years on record all have occurred since 1998.
  • Surface air temperatures are not the only indicator of climate change. There are numerous indicators showing that climate change is continuing uninterrupted. Surface air temperatures are just one of them. Others include ocean surface temperatures, stratospheric temperatures, total glacial melt and arctic sea ice extent. Most of the heat the Earth absorbs goes into the oceans, not the atmosphere, and in the past 15 years, the oceans have gotten warmer and warmer.
  • Incorporating other influences shows even surface air temperatures aren’t flat. Scientists know there are many factors that influence global temperatures. Three of the biggest factors are volcanic activity, changes in the sun’s output and large weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña (the El Niño-Southern Oscillation). The year 1998 just happens to have had one of the strongest El Niño effects on record and so was particularly hot. Since 2008, we have had only one El Niño year. That makes the past six years look artificially cool.

Climate scientists would be the first to welcome being shown that climate change has stalled. Scientists, after all, are not infallible, and following the scientific method means considering every possibility. But unfortunately, the evidence simply does not show any miracles occurring.

Instead, we have to address climate change ourselves. That means quickly transitioning our economy to renewable sources of energy in a way that doesn’t bankrupt our great nation. There are many ways of doing so, but one of the best is simple: Put a price on carbon. Return the proceeds to the American public. Protect our industry from foreign competition with border tariffs. Make the price of fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society, and the free market will do what it does best.

Dr. Lucas Sabalka is an applied mathematician at a technology company in Lincoln and is a speaker for the Climate Reality Project, which advocates for action on climate change.


Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.