Has global warming really stopped?

Mark Lynas responds to a controversial article on newstatesman.com which argued global warming has s

On 19 December the New Statesman website published an article which, judging by the 633 comments (and counting) received so far, must go down in history as possibly the most controversial ever. Not surprising really – it covered one of the most talked-about issues of our time: climate change. Penned by science writer David Whitehouse, it was guaranteed to get a big response: the article claimed that global warming has ‘stopped’.

As the New Statesman’s environmental correspondent, I have since been deluged with queries asking if this represents a change of heart by the magazine, which has to date published many editorials steadfastly supporting urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. Why bother doing that if global warming has ‘stopped’, and therefore might have little or nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions, which are clearly rising?

I’ll deal with this editorial question later. First let’s ask whether Whitehouse is wholly or partially correct in his analysis. To quote:

"The fact is that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 as well as every year since 2001. Global warming has, temporarily or permanently, ceased. Temperatures across the world are not increasing as they should according to the fundamental theory behind global warming – the greenhouse effect. Something else is happening and it is vital that we find out what or else we may spend hundreds of billions of pounds needlessly."

I’ll be blunt. Whitehouse got it wrong – completely wrong. The article is based on a very elementary error: a confusion between year-on-year variability and the long-term average. Although CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing each year, no-one ever argued that temperatures would do likewise. Why? Because the planet’s atmosphere is a chaotic system, which expresses a great deal of interannual variability due to the interplay of many complex and interconnected variables. Some years are warmer and cooler than others. 1998, for example, was a very warm year because an El Nino event in the Pacific released a lot of heat from the ocean. 2001, by contrast, was somewhat cooler, though still a long way above the long-term average. 1992 was particularly cool, because of the eruption of a large volcano in the Philippines called Mount Pinatubo.

‘Climate’ is defined by averaging out all this variability over a longer term period. So you won’t, by definition, see climate change from one year to the next - or even necessarily from one decade to the next. But look at the change in the average over the long term, and the trend is undeniable: the planet is getting hotter.

Look at the graph below, showing global temperatures over the last 25 years. These are NASA figures, using a global-mean temperature dataset known as GISSTEMP. (Other datasets are available, for example from the UK Met Office. These fluctuate slightly due to varying assumptions and methodology, but show nearly identical trends.) Now imagine you were setting out to write Whitehouse’s article at some point in the past. You could plausibly have written that global warming had ‘stopped’ between 1983 and 1985, between 1990 and 1995, and, if you take the anomalously warm 1998 as the base year, between 1998 and 2004. Note, however, the general direction of the red line over this quarter-century period. Average it out and the trend is clear: up.

Note also the blue lines, scattered like matchsticks across the graph. These, helpfully added by the scientists at RealClimate.org (from where this graph is copied), partly in response to the Whitehouse article, show 8-year trend lines – what the temperature trend is for every 8-year period covered in the graph.

You’ll notice that some of the lines, particularly in the earlier part of the period, point downwards. These are the periods when global warming ‘stopped’ for a whole 8 years (on average), in the flawed Whitehouse definition – although, as astute readers will have quickly spotted, the crucial thing is what year you start with. Start with a relatively warm year, and the average of the succeeding eight might trend downwards. In scientific parlance, this is called ‘cherry picking’, and explains how Whitehouse can assert that "since [1998] the global temperature has been flat" – although he is even wrong on this point of fact, because as the graph above shows, 2005 was warmer.

Note also how none of the 8-year trend lines point downwards in the last decade or so. This illustrates clearly how, far from having ‘stopped’, global warming has actually accelerated in more recent times. Hence the announcement by the World Meteorological Organisation on 13 December, as the Bali climate change meeting was underway, that the decade of 1998-2007 was the “warmest on record”. Whitehouse, and his fellow contrarians, are going to have to do a lot better than this if they want to disprove (or even dispute) the accepted theory of greenhouse warming.

The New Statesman’s position on climate change

Every qualified scientific body in the world, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Royal Society, agrees unequivocally that global warming is both a reality, and caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But this doesn’t make them right, of course. Science, in the best Popperian definition, is only tentatively correct, until someone comes along who can disprove the prevailing theory. This leads to a frequent source of confusion, one which is repeated in the Whitehouse article – that because we don’t know everything, therefore we know nothing, and therefore we should do nothing. Using that logic we would close down every hospital in the land. Yes, every scientific fact is falsifiable – but that doesn’t make it wrong. On the contrary, the fact that it can be challenged (and hasn’t been successfully) is what makes it right.

Bearing all this in mind, what should a magazine like the New Statesman do in its coverage of the climate change issue? Newspapers and magazines have a difficult job of trying, often with limited time and information, to sort out truth from fiction on a daily basis, and communicating this to the public – quite an awesome responsibility when you think about it. Sometimes even a viewpoint which is highly likely to be wrong gets published anyway, because it sparks a lively debate and is therefore interesting. A publication that kept to a monotonous party line on all of the day’s most controversial issues would be very boring indeed.

However, readers of my column will know that I give contrarians, or sceptics, or deniers (call them what you will) short shrift, and as a close follower of the scientific debate on this subject I can state without doubt that there is no dispute whatsoever within the expert community as to the reality or causes of manmade global warming. But even then, just because all the experts agree doesn’t make them right – it just makes them extremely unlikely to be wrong. That in turn means that if someone begs to disagree, they need to have some very strong grounds for doing so – not misreading a basic graph or advancing silly conspiracy theories about IPCC scientists receiving paycheques from the New World Order, as some of Whitehouse’s respondents do.

So, a mistaken article reached a flawed conclusion. Intentionally or not, readers were misled, and the good name of the New Statesman has been used all over the internet by climate contrarians seeking to support their entrenched positions. This is regrettable. Good journalism should never exclude legitimate voices from a debate of public interest, but it also needs to distinguish between carefully-checked fact and distorted misrepresentations in complex and divisive areas like this. The magazine’s editorial policy is unchanged: we want to see aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions, and support global calls for planetary temperatures to be stabilised at under two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Yes, scientific uncertainties remain in every area of the debate. But consider how high the stakes are here. If the 99% of experts who support the mainstream position are right, then we have to take urgent action to reduce emissions or face some pretty catastrophic consequences. If the 99% are wrong, and the 1% right, we will be making some unnecessary efforts to shift away from fossil fuels, which in any case have lots of other drawbacks and will soon run out. I’d hate to offend anyone here, but that’s what I’d call a no-brainer.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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Extreme Scottish nationalists: hunting lapdogs and traitors

The Scottish government has pledged to keep the next referendum debate "informed" - but not all independence supporters agree. 

This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish unionists, click here.

In 2014, David was fresh out of university and in his first job. A Labour MP, Jim Murphy, had decided to tour Scotland, with the plan of holding 100 public meetings in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. David, a Better Together campaigner, was part of his team.

Initially, the meetings were rowdy, but civil. But that began to change, as the same group of Yes supporters turned up in high street after high street. 

Then one day, David found himself in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town north of Edinburgh once known for its linoleum factories. The Yes supporters were waiting.

“It was genuinely terrifying,” David remembers. “The Nats had formed a tortoise formation the way Romans do with shields, but with Yes placards. They were just advancing towards us.

“You just think ‘this is mental’”.

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

That day in Kirkcaldy would ultimately lead Murphy to suspend his tour, after an onlooker pelted him with eggs. But for David and the other campaign workers, this wasn’t the worst of it. 

Yes supporters would frequently abuse them as “traitors”, “quislings”, and tell them to “go back to England” (the campaigners I interviewed were both Scottish). They filmed them at meetings, and began to identify David in particular as “Murphy’s lapdog”. He received a death threat, and the police advised him to step down from the frontline campaign. 

“The worst thing that happened  was when I had one day off in the campaign,” says David. “I was walking down Sauchiehall Street [one of the main shopping streets in Glasgow] with my mum.

“I had my No badge on, and as I passed a Yes stall this man pointed at me and went “there goes Murphy’s lapdog’.” 

“They crowded around me. One asked my mum: ‘Are you proud of your son? A traitor to your country?’”

Ultimately, the “traitors” were in the majority. Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK, and David found a new job. But with a second Scottish referendum looming, he worries this behaviour will return. 

But where does this aggression come from? Unlike the traditional left and right, the independence movement does not have an obvious extremist reference point. Were the Yes centurions in Kirkcaldy merely caught up in the heat of the moment, or representative of something else? 

Settlers and swords

Screenshot from the Siol Nan Gaidheal website

The Scottish National Party likes to present itself as the moderate, liberal face of civic nationalism. But in the early 1980s, when it was a protest party, the modernisers rubbed shoulders with ethno-nationalists like the Siol Nan Gaidheal.

Gordon Wilson, the SNP leader at the time, called them “proto-fascists” and kicked them out of the party.

“People throw plenty of abuse about the SNP’s nationalism,” Wilson says when I call him. “But it has never countenanced any solution except the democratic route.

“When people come along with objectional views on that or ethno-nationalism they get hammered.”

But the SNP and the independence movement are not one and the same. Siol Nan Gaidheal survived its expulsion, and still exists today in a rejigged guise. Its latest incarnation, according to its website, seeks "to liberate the Scottish people from the worst excesses of English/British Cultural Imperialism" but will "leave party political action to the Scottish National Party". However, during the Scottish referendum, The Telegraph reported that Siol Nan Gaidheal activists were deliberately disrupting Jim Murphy's tour. 

SNP modernisers have also tried to play down the jingoistic elements of Scottish nationalism. “The one thing you always have to keep an eye open for is militarism,” says Wilson. “Thankfully the Siol Nan Gaidheal were only equipped with swords and dirks.”

Violent Scottish nationalists may have had more in common with a historical re-enactment society than the IRA, but they could still be intimidating to their targets.

Recently, the Daily Record reported on Sonja Cameron, who was a member of the group Settler Watch in the early 1990s (“white settlers” is a slur for English-born Scots; Cameron herself was originally German). The group daubed the homes of English families with graffiti. 

Cameron’s onetime friend, Andrew McIntosh, took more drastic measures. Dubbed “the tartan terrorist”, he was jailed for 12 months in 1993 after carrying out a letter-bomb and bomb hoax campaign. 

"Go back to England"

As Wilson is keen to stress, these cases occurred in the 1990s (although embarrassingly for the SNP, Cameron’s story recently came to light after she passed the party’s vetting process for council candidates). 

Most of the post-2014 independence movement subscribes to a blend of Scottish patriotism, mixed with anti-austerity and anti-Westminster rhetoric. 

Its leaders have tried to distance themselves from anti-English sentiment ("English people for Scottish independence" is a popular Facebook group). Nevertheless, on the ground, the feeling persists. Another Better Together campaigner I spoke to told me about an incident on Murphy's tour: “This English photographer was just taking pictures, he didn’t express a point of view, and these men shoved him and shouted ‘You go back to England’."

A second strand of extremism overlaps with sectarianism. The links between Scottish independence and Catholicism are not exclusive – Murphy, the beleaguered Better Together campaigner, is a practising Roman Catholic – but have been talked up by some political tribes. The press officer for Scottish bishops, Peter Kearney, also appeared to handle press enquiries for SNP top dog Jim Sillars during the referendum campaign. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-union campaign here).

David Scott, of the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, says some independence campaigners used “dog whistle” language to appeal to a sectarian base. He points to former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that Catholics voted Yes, and the links drawn by grassroots groups between Scottish independence and the Irish republican movement. 

This kind of language is likely to increase if the polls are tight, Scott says: “Particularly as you get closer to elections, in my experience, politicians will tell you anything to vote. A nudge and a wink saying ‘I’m one of you’.”

In fact, it seems after the referendum, this kind of rhetoric has not gone away. In March, Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and director of Celtic, accused independence campaigners of a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics”. 

A new religion

Setting out her demand for a second independence referendum in early March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged that any vote would be about “informed choice”.  She has previously condemned abuse by independence supporters as “wrong”. 

According to Scott, Sturgeon “doesn’t do faith” in the way her predecessor did, which may leave the twigs of sectarianism unkindled for now. The discipline the SNP leadership wields over the party is legendary. 

The Better Together campaigners I spoke to, however, are not optimistic about the quality of a second debate. 

David, the campaigner who received death threats, believes the independence movement itself has become “the closest thing to a religion”. 

He says the atmosphere of the Scottish referendum is incomparable to the EU referendum, divisive as it was: “In the depth of feeling and level this went to, it was a world apart from the EU referendum.”

As for his colleague, a veteran Labour campaigner who had “never experienced that sort of hatred” before, she has only one thing to say about a second referendum: “I think it will be worse.”

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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