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Debunked: A comparison of US temperatures in May 1896 and May 2024 is misleading

One commentator sought to use the figures to play down the effects of climate change.

THE TEMPERATURE IN May this year was about the same as it was in 1896, at least in the United States, but that does not prove that global warming is a hoax, despite what a post on social media platform X says.

The post, which has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, was written by a user called Steve Milloy and posted on June 18.

“128 years of global warming down the drain: May 2024 0.1°F cooler than May 1896 in the US, per NOAA data. Ask a climate hoaxer to ‘splain tha,” the post reads.

But such a comparison between May 1896 and May 2024 is selective: a heatwave caused mass deaths in America in 1896.

What’s more, it only offers a comparison of temperatures during a single month in a single country.

By selecting such limited parameters, it’s easy to make it seem like the Earth is not heating because it ignores comparative temperatures over time in other countries, different months, and different years.

These types of claims are common among deniers man-made climate change and often feature a cold winter’s day or mild summer’s day as evidence that temperatures are not getting more extreme, despite wider trends. 

They often seek to imply that the climate isn’t changing, but rather how we measure it has changed. Often, it is implied, this was intentionally done by scientists who wish to cause panic.

Currently, the world is around 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times and is already experiencing impacts of the climate crisis such as heatwaves, droughts and melting ice sheets.

The scale of recent changes to the climate are “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it is “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

Global surface temperatures are expected to exceed 1.5 and 2 degrees unless “deep reductions” are made to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Steve Milloy is a lawyer and Fox News commentator who is known for being a climate change sceptic and who has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil and cigarette companies.

His post on X has been seen more than 306,800 times, according to statistics on that website, and screenshots of it have been also shared on Facebook, including one by an Irish user that was in turn shared hundreds more times.

However, his comparison of temperatures in May 1896 and May 2024 to claim that global temperatures are not rising is extremely misleading.

The year 1896 was a particularly hot year in the United States, which saw about 1,500 people to die during a heat wave in New York, and that May’s average temperature would not be matched again until 1934.

When the same average May temperature was reached in 2024, however, it was considered unremarkable: May had been hotter in the United States the year before, and May 2018 was the hottest on record.

The dataset cited in the tweet doesn’t show that temperatures have remains steady. It actually shows the opposite: a steady and significant increase of about 0.11 Fahrenheit a decade, or about 0.6 degrees Celsius over a century.

temperature trend Data from NOAA

Climate change has accelerated, and temperatures are estimated to be rising at more than three times that rate now.

Outside the United States, the evidence is starker.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that May 2024 was the warmest in their 175-year global record and almost 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than the 20th century average.

They also noted that the year-to-date global surface temperature for 2024 ranked as the warmest on record, while global ocean temperatures “hit a monthly record high for the 14th consecutive month in May.”

Met Éireann said that 2024 saw the warmest Irish May on record, at 13.08 degrees Celsius, which was 2.53 degrees above the 1961-1990 long term average and only the second time in their 125 years of tracking in which the average temperature exceeded 13 degrees in May; the only other time was in 2008.

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