• 11.14.11

The Logic Of Climate Skepticism

As another major climate denier sees the light, you now have more information at your disposal to draw your own conclusions about climate change and differences in weather patterns. It’s all in the data.

University of California physicist and climate skeptic Richard Muller has been getting a lot of press recently for confirming that the planet is indeed warming. His rigorous study is of such wide interest not so much for its content as for the fact that it was largely funded by the Koch Foundation, which commonly supports climate denial activities. Although some of my fellow researchers are tempted to roll their eyes and say, “well, it’s about time,” I think that Muller’s larger contribution here is in showing that many skeptics who resist mainstream opinions are sincere enough to change their minds when the data are convincing enough. 
His situation reminds me of my own climate change conversion experience about a decade ago, when serious flaws were uncovered in widely used American weather databases due to incomplete, inconsistent, or otherwise inaccurate station records–a problem that had also been pointed out by so-called “fringe” scientists who questioned the reality of global warming. As I and many of my colleagues subsequently found, accounting for such flaws in our analyses led to significant changes in outcomes. 
Newly vetted data from the United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) have proven to be much more reliable than the raw records because they use well-reasoned protocols for estimating missing values on days when no weather measurements were made, making adjustments due to the heating effects of urban sprawl in certain locations, and so on. In my case, the new data showed that my home region of upstate New York is not holding steady or cooling slightly as my earlier research had suggested, but is in fact heating up along with most of the rest of the planet. My latest work with USHCN data has also shown that the adjacent Champlain Valley is warming faster than the Northeast as a whole.  
The resulting “No it isn’t. Oh yes it is” pattern in my publications has gotten me evenly toasted over the years by various environmentalists and climate deniers who have objected to one or the other of those findings–an experience that I suspect Muller is also going through now. Nonetheless, healthy skepticism and a willingness to follow the best available data as they arise are the hallmarks of good science.


Thanks to the overwhelming weight of such evidence, the case for global warming really is firmly settled now, even without Muller’s latest contribution. But why take it on faith? You too can dig into some of that evidence for yourself using the high-quality records from hundreds of American weather stations that are posted and regularly updated on the USHCN website. To see what’s been happening in any given corner of the country, scroll down the list of states, choose the icon for the nearest weather station, and select either monthly or daily data. From there you can view graphs of local temperature and precipitation covering the last century. 
Temperatures have been changing at different rates in different regions since the 1970s, when human impacts on temperature most clearly began to outpace other factors, but more likely than not you’ll find that your favorite area of the United States really has been getting hotter in recent decades. Perhaps the USHCN data will help you to confirm for yourself that climate change is both real and relevant on the local scale, as I did earlier and as Richard Muller now has. 

About the author

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University (1985).