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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Killer serials: Writers on their favourite box sets

The box set has elevated the television series into a work of art. Stephen King, Roddy Doyle, Rose Tremain, Clive James, Lionel Shriver and more pick their favourites.

Why The Good Wife is the 21st-century equivalent of Charles Dickens

Stephen King on The Good Wife

The most winning aspect of The Good Wife, at least from this viewer’s perspective, is that every episode is crammed with story, side to side and top to bottom. Multiple plot threads stuff each 43-minute outing, often intersecting but rarely snarling up; in a way, it’s like watching rush-hour traffic running at 90 miles an hour with nary a collision. Much of my fascination with the show, I admit, was professional: exactly how are they doing that? Read the full article.

 

Boardwalk Empire is one of our great contemporary works of art

John Gray on Boardwalk Empire

Written by the series creator, Terence Winter, and executive producer Howard Korder, and directed by Tim Van Patten, the show has been widely praised for its powerful picture of life in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era. Played with extraordinary subtlety by Steve Buscemi, the central character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is based on an actual historical figure, Enoch L Johnson, a flamboyant racketeer and ruthless machine politician who dominated the city for nearly thirty years. The interaction of power with crime, exceptionally naked and brutal at the time, is re-created with unblinking realism. In many of the characters the ability to inflict violence and death without emotion is not a personal defect, still less a mark of psychopathy, but merely a means of survival. One of them, a facially disfigured war veteran who kills without compunction, is shown to be capable of deep loyalty and affection. Read the full article.

 

Generation Kill is relentless  but mercifully short

Geoff Dyer on Generation Kill

I have opted here for Generation Kill (2008) because it is less conventional, more daring in conception and execution, than the magnificent Band of Brothers. With minimal explanation, scene-setting or establishing of character, we follow a company of reconnaissance marines spearheading the invasion of Iraq. Flung into a barely comprehensible world and language, we are left to pick up the acronym-intensive argot as best we can.

Our representative in this regard is Evan Wright, the journalist from whose excellent book the series was adapted, with expected skill and remarkable fidelity, by David Simon and Ed Burns. Wright was embedded; the viewers are immersed. After a point we didn’t talk about watching another episode. It was always, “Shall we get back in the Hummer?” Read the full article.

 

In Sarah Lund, the writers behind The Killing created a new modern female

Hanif Kureishi on The Killing

Far from being the uninhibited, free-speaking woman we had imagined at the advent of the new feminism in the mid-1960s, Sarah is overburdened with guilt and worry. She is also a slave to the police system that she serves, lacking knowledge of herself and her position. The pleasures of talk, spontaneity and exchange are not for her. Highly moralistic, aloof and determined to keep the world under control, she will always have too much to do. Her life will not truly begin until she identifies and removes the serial killer. She is someone who has an endless series of “important” tasks to perform before she can enjoy any fulfilment or satisfaction. Read the full article.

 

What makes The Wire so good? I believe every word and gesture

Roddy Doyle on The Wire

I’ve been watching it again and it is wonderful how quickly I’m drawn in, bang up against the characters. The accents have something to do with it. I have to concentrate, lean in to the screen, to catch the words, and I can see just how young those dangerous young men are – kids trying to talk like army veterans. There’s D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr), a drug dealer, looking so arrogant and frightened – and so, so young – boasting about something to his even younger troops, and I realise quite far in that it’s a murder he’s describing: he murdered a woman. That’s one of the outstanding things about The Wire, how meaning catches up as you watch. Read the full article.

 

Orange Is the New Black shows what internet television can do

Bernardine Evaristo on Orange is the New Black

The series is exceptional because – in a world where most television dramas have more male than female characters – it features a predominantly female cast who exist in a micro-universe of woman-centredness. Female power play is amplified, their relationships are intensified and lesbianism is a significant motif (there is plenty of graphic sex). Nor is the cast made up of the usual pretty, skinny sylphs who are allowed to grace our screens. These are normal-looking actors who are fantastically talented and individual. Read the full article.

 

Brideshead Revisited is maddeningly slow – just like real life

Audrey Niffenegger on Brideshead Revisited

Watching it now, at the terrifying age of 53, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly. Brideshead Revisited is intended for persons who have reached a certain age and suddenly thought, “What am I doing here?” The characters experience love, but they also lose love. The slow unfolding of each life – the incremental changes in their relationships to each other and to their God – appears before us perfectly articulated. Seeing Brideshead again, I empathise as the characters make difficult choices and try to understand each other. As the world changes around us, we try to find truth and grace. This is a gorgeous reminder that other people are also searching for goodness, that we are all making mistakes. Read the full article.

 

Between the Lines is my favourite box set – and its beating heart is its characters

Val McDermid on Between the Lines

Because we come to care about the central figures in the drama, success and failure have the power to move us. When betrayal comes – and the final betrayal is a heart-stopper – we feel the pain and outrage. There are moments still when I shout at the screen, indignant and pained.

Every time, I sigh at Clark’s inability to see where his infidelity will dump him. My heart goes out to Harry, struggling to care for his disabled wife in the interstices of a job that is never nine-to-five. I cheer for Mo when she turns up at the police Christmas party with her girlfriend. And I chew my fingers when Deakin corners them with another moral dilemma. Read the full article.

 

Deadwood would not be made today – they wouldn't even look at the script

Kevin Barry on Deadwood

Deadwood is about uncomfortable things: the birth and death of capitalism, the queasy insistences of greed and ambition and the orgiastic sex charge of ultra-violence. Unlike most contemporary film and television productions, it is not afraid of words. There are mad swaths of dialogue, just reams upon reams of the crazy stuff, and it’s almost all wonderful, so funny and tragic, so sad and true. Read the full article.

 

Not seen Breaking Bad? Here's why you should still watch Better Call Saul

Lionel Shriver on Better Call Saul

I am hardly alone in admiring contemporary television, whose steep rise in quality has noticeably reduced the amount I read – about which I can’t even claim to feel remorseful. That’s because – admission against interest – the character development in this era’s most accomplished series often equals or exceeds the psychological subtlety, acuity and complexity that were hitherto the sole province of the novel.

A prequel to Breaking BadBetter Call Saul is plotted on an intentionally smaller scale than its apocalyptic big brother. Still, created by the duo who brought you blue-tinted methamphetamine (Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould), this series about the early career of Walter White’s shyster lawyer also has its gonzo side. Read the full article.

 

Yes, The Affair has a story – but we watched it for the sex

Howard Jacobson on The Affair

Affairs end and there are consequences. Those consequences are indubitably interesting. They are the stories of most novels we read. But, filmically no less than narratively, this affair pushed every question of consequence aside with such singleness of erotic purpose that it was hard, when the wives and husbands inevitably reappeared, along with the in-laws, the children, the lawyers, and all the dross of plot, to find the right kind of attention for them. Read the full article.

 

Why Sophocles would have applauded Bloodline

John Banville on Bloodline

The plot of Bloodline has its instances of extreme violence and its morgues are full of mutilated young women, but the unflinching way in which it portrays the savagery at the heart of family life would have been acknowledged and applauded by Sophocles. The twin glories of the series, however, are the quality of the acting and the range and subtlety of the writing. Very little screen entertainment nowadays is made with an adult audience in mind. Bloodline, almost uniquely, is for grown-ups. Read the full article.

 

Band of Brothers is a wartime epic that touches on eternity

Clive James on Band of Brothers

It has to be Band of Brothers. You know something is on an epic scale when even a small piece of it breathes open space, which is to say that it touches on eternity. The little scene where Malarkey picks up the laundry parcels for the missing men takes me back to a time when the fathers of my generation were risking their lives. But I never had to explain that to my children because the show explained it better than I could. To have seen at least part of a time when popular entertainment has become so substantial is a great privilege, and I bless it without reserve. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start dropping hints about how much I’d like to see Westworld. Read the full article.

 

Why The West Wing is a masterclass for would-be screenwriters

Rose Tremain on The West Wing

What I ask first and foremost of TV drama is that it feel real and lived. Sorkin seems to have a faultless ear for how clever, busy people speak. As often in real life, you sometimes strain to hear what they’re actually saying – especially if you’re a Brit and they’re all talking American – but you also have faith that everything you have missed is likely to be as witty and as truthful as all the wonders you have managed to capture.

The West Wing took the serial format to another level of enjoyment. At a time when US politics seems foolish, graceless and downright mean and when the man preparing to lead the Western world appears to be stuck in reading-primer language (“I. Will. Build. A. Wall.”), I miss it more than ever. Read the full article.

 

In True Detective long-form television drama fully came of age

William Boyd on True Detective

Those eight hours gave everyone the luxurious elbow room they needed: True Detective was the equivalent of four movies bolted together and it held the viewer inexorably. A-list actors, multimillion-dollar production values and cinematic composition made this TV drama better than any movie released in 2014. Perhaps the denouement was a little disappointing after all that excellence but in True Detective long-form television strutted its stuff and fully came of age. Read the full article.

 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016