Sunday Telegraph column full of unchecked errors on US winter temperatures

‘The Sunday Telegraph’ provided yet another example on 21 January of how climate change deniers exploit weak editorial standards and mislead newspaper readers.

Two weeks previously, on 7 January, the newspaper published an error-filled column by Christopher Booker which claimed that a recent bout of cold winter weather in the eastern United States cannot be connected to global warming.

Mr Booker, who has a long track record of getting his facts wrong about climate change, made a number of erroneous assertions, including that the recent weather “is the latest in a succession of recent cold winters in North America”.

In meteorology, the boreal winter (i.e. in the northern hemisphere) lasts three months, from December until February. The latest figures from the National Climatic Data Center at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that seven of the 10 past winters for the contiguous United States (i.e. not including Alaska and Hawaii) had a mean temperature that was above average, including the warmest winter on record in 2015-16. The five coldest winters on record were in 1978-79, 1935-36, 1898-99, 1909-10 and 1904-05.

Mr Booker wrote that 2008 was “hailed as ‘the winter from hell’” and 2014 was “the year of the ‘polar vortex’”. In fact 2007-08 and 2013-14 were only the 68th and 33rd coldest winters, respectively, since records began in 1901.

The data from Canadian Government’s Environment Department show a similar picture. Nine of the past 10 winters have been warmer than average. The coldest winters were in 1971-72, 1949-50, 1956-57, 1964-65 and 1948-49.

While these winters obviously had periods of cold weather, Mr Booker apparently did not realise that these were not indicators of winter overall, or of trends in winter weather. The 10 warmest winters on record for the contiguous United States have all occurred since 1990, and the five warmest Canadian winters since records began in 1948 have all been since 2006.

Not content with misleading his readers about trends in seasonal temperatures, Mr Booker also celebrated the likelihood that Americans consumed more electricity generated from fossil fuels to cope with the cold weather. He stated, bizarrely, that diesel is “the most heavily CO2 emitting fuel of them all”. This claim was also wrong, with information on the website of the United States Energy Information Administration clearly indicating that coal emits much more carbon dioxide than diesel per unit of electricity generated.

Aside from these errors, Mr Booker’s central argument, that the cold weather could not possibly be linked to global warming, was also flawed. There are a growing number of scientific studies that have concluded that the high rates of warming in the Arctic are causing the jet stream to become more variable in strength and location, leading to an increase in outbreaks of polar weather in mid-latitudes, particularly in Europe and Asia. Some studies have suggested that the same mechanism may also be affecting winter weather in North America.

It is not yet absolutely clear to what extent global warming my be responsible for an increased incidence of bouts of cold winter weather in parts of the United States. But there is no justification to rule out any link, as Mr Booker tried to, simply because there has been cold winter weather previously in history. And it is still true that the United States is warming, like the rest of the world, due to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It is also clear, as it has been for some time, that Mr Booker’s regular rants about climate change are not subjected to any fact-checks before publication. So to help the newspaper’s readers, I wrote a letter to ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, which was published on 14 January.

What was Mr Booker’s reaction? It appears that he was so upset that he devoted much of this week’s column to disputing my letter, calling me a “well-known propagandist for global warming”, presumably because I used climate data to debunk his bogus assertions.

As usual when confronted with evidence that the facts do not match his narrative, Mr Booker reached for a favourite excuse of climate change deniers: scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the truth. He suggested that “NOAA’s figures have lately been significantly ‘adjusted’, to suggest that several famously severe recent winters, such as those in 2008 and 2014, were not unusually cold by the standards of the 20th century”.

Mr Booker offered no evidence to support his conspiracy yarn, but instead admitted that his source was a blog by Paul Homewood, a retired accountant who has no professional qualifications or training in meteorology or climate. Although Mr Homewood also promotes the idea of a NOAA conspiracy, his blog provides absolutely no evidence to substantiate his baseless accusation.

The truth is that Mr Booker’s wild claim of a conspiracy among scientists is nothing more than fake news, and a rather feeble attempt to cover up his ignorance of weather and climate. He apparently does not understand that a few cold days in some parts of the United States is not automatically an indicator of the overall national trend.

Take, for example, the winter of 2013-14. NOAA noted that seven states experienced winters that were among their 10 coldest, while none had a record cold winter, and several western states had warmer than average winters. In winter 2007-08, a few western states experienced a below average temperatures, but many eastern states were warmer than average.

Mr Booker is forever getting his facts wrong and never admits his mistakes, so his refusal to acknowledge his latest gargantuan gaffe is perhaps unsurprising. What is more mystifying is that the editor of ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, Allister Heath, is still willing to subject his readers on regular basis to such fake news about climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Grantham Research Institute.