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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The march of the micro-influencers: why your friends are promoting toothpaste

When Kim Kardashian promotes a detox tea on social media, you know not to trust that her recommendation is authentic. But what happens when your best mate from primary school starts doing the same?

In the year 2000, Halifax Bank revolutionised advertising. In the place of an actor or a celebrity in its television adverts, it featured Howard Brown – a customer services representative from its Sheldon branch. Who gives you extra? Howard did. So much so that he beat both Britney Spears and Gary Lineker to become the star of the most-talked about advert in 2001. Advertising’s oldest adage, “sex sells”, had changed. Real people do.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this advertising technique has been updated for the digital age. Over the last decade, brands have begun using YouTubers and other social media “influencers” to market their products in a more "authentic" way. Yet when YouTubers become too big to be seen as a teen’s best friend, and the Advertising Standards Agency insists they mark all their adverts with #ad –meaning they lose their authenticity – what should a brand do?

“Personally I think that micro-influencers are appealing to brands because they are often the voice of the public, which is what we are trying to capture in campaigns,” says Melissa Wollard, a commercial manager at Fun Kids Radio, who has four years’ experience in sales.

“Micro-influencers” are ordinary people who are paid by brands to promote their products on social media. An array of websites and apps exist via which anyone can become a micro-influencer – BzzAgentInfluenster, PostForRent, and Buzzoole are just a few. Though the underlying concept is the same with each, some offer money while others offer free products. Some require individuals have thousands of social media followers to sign up, while others require as few as one.

“Celebrities are expensive and with the rise of traditional celebrities on social media, popularity can shift quickly. Having your brand associated with just one big name could be risky,” explains Woollard. Though Fun Kids Radio does not use micro-influencers, Woollard has noticed their rise. “You are spreading the word about your brand through lots of different ‘every day’ people in a seemingly organic way.”

Many posts by micro-influencers do seem incredibly organic, if a little raw. Take, for example, this clip of a man – who has 39 followers – brushing his teeth with Sensodyne toothpaste. “Lol u sound like a commercial promoting the tooth paste,” reads a comment on a similar Instagram post of a woman brushing her teeth.

This raises ethical questions.

“I think it's very important to be clear if you received something for free,” says Chloe Dakin, a 28-year-old primary school teacher who has 543 followers on her Instagram, on which she has promoted products such as face creams and temporary hair dye.

Dakin uses Bzzagent, a service which allows anyone to sign up for free products which they then post about on their social media channels. “You are obliged to post even if you don't like a product, but Bzzagent ask for honest reviews so if you don't like a product then people will write that,” explains Dakin. Though she feels it is “very important” that she is clear when she receives a product for free, she ultimately thinks that this behaviour is more important for celebrities or the “Instagram-famous”.

“They obviously have a lot more followers, and young impressionable people,” she says. It irritates her when celebrities post about diet pills on their Instagram when they clearly have personal trainers. Dakin herself doesn't "really feel like a micro-influencer" and insists "'m not sure how many of my followers would buy products just because I post them". Her friends do not seem perturbed by the move: "The people who generally like my posts still like or comment on these photos just as they would on my other photos.”

 

Detoxing with @fittea  it tastes amazing and the ingredients are all natural  #ad

A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

Dakin acts ethically in revealing she received her products for free, but this is also part of Bzzagent’s rules. Bzzagent influencers must disclose their affiliation with the hashtags “#GotItFree” or “#GotACoupon” and they even force users to undertake “disclosure training” if they fail to use the hashtags on three posts. Yet there are other services which arguably work less ethically – with many not requiring or enforcing the use of disclaimers. A lot of the responsibility thus falls to the micro-influencers themselves, who ultimately choose whether they add disclosures or not, and choose how prominent to make such disclaimers.

Aron Vitos is a 21-year-old student from Budapest who uses PostForRent – a website that connects micro-influencers and advertisers – to promote products on his Instagram. The company is located in Hong Kong but is popular with Hungarian brands (PostForRent did not respond to a request for comment as to why this might be). MKB Bank, for example, is a Hungarian bank that asks micro-influencers to take photos outside of its branches. These are then each captioned with the same words: “Mosolygok, mert jobban kezdődik az évem”, which translates as: “I smile, because my year started off better”. This is followed with the hashtags #mkbbank and #mosoly, which means “#smile”.

 

Mosolygok, mert jobban kezdődik az évem ;) #mkbbank #mosoly http://www.szemelyikolcson.szamoljonvelunk.hu

A post shared by Adam Sipos (@sipinhoo) on

“Up until now I have completed 14 campaigns of all sorts,” says Vitos. He explains his last post was the “most exciting”, as he got the chance to try out an expensive drone and then got paid for his posts. “It was really a unique experience and my favourite campaign so far.”

Vitos has been involved in several campaigns that involved going to a restaurant, getting a free meal, and then posting about it online – sometimes receiving an additional payment after the fact. He says he has worked for Costa, H&M, Forbes, and Vodafone. “The money varies from brand to brand but I get around £15 to £40 per post, which counts as a lot more in Hungary than, for example, in the UK. I couldn't live on it, but it is some extra pocket money that always comes in handy.”

Vitos varies between disclosing and not disclosing whether he was paid for his posts with hashtags such as #ad (advertisement) and #spon (sponsorship). “I think not using [them] creates a more authentic look of the post," he says. "When you have to tag the brand itself and add the hashtags the brand asked you to, people would already know it's an ad. I sometimes do it to clear my conscience but I don't think this has that much weight on the post.”

Ethically speaking, this is up for debate. Though social media users are savvier than ever, there are arguably many people who would not know enough to assume that their friend is being paid by brands. Marketers know that we trust our friends more than cold, clinical salespeople and are using this to their advantage. In a world of micro-influencers, how we can know whether our friend really wants to tell us about her latest liquid lipstick, or has been paid to do so? More to the point: is it even legal?

“If there is payment and control [of the message], any posts the micro-influencer publishes should be ‘obviously identifiable’ as an ad,” explains a spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority, the regulator first responsible for ensuring traditional influencers use “#ad” in their paid-for posts.

 

tavaszi répatorta, a kedvencem (tudom fura vagyok) #legyenhappyday

A post shared by Noemi L. (@nnooemi) on

The spokesperson says the micro-influencing services and the brands that use them should be impressing on their influencers that they need to be upfront and clear with their posts. However, the variation between different services (with some people receiving payment, and others simply free items) means that the ASA would assess any complaints “on a case-by-case basis”.

 

Love Clarispray! It relieves stuffy noses, itchy, watery eyes an tickles in the throat! #clarispray #gotitfree #bzzagent

A post shared by Jennifer Redd Neighbours (@jen_jen_n) on

Products that people are sent in the hopes they review them, for example, do not normally fall under the ASA’s remit, though the spokesperson says the lines “blur” when an individual is sent the item on the proviso they review it. “In that scenario, the lines around payment and control start blurring and we might start taking a view that material falls under our remit,” he says.

 

Sensodyne Deep Clean gentle on my teeth & minty fresh! #gotitfree #sensethefresh #sensodyne #bzzagent

A post shared by Michael Brown (@manchu_813) on

At present, then, micro-influencing is a recent trend that might yet be subject to new rules and guidance. Nonetheless, ethical questions undoubtedly remain. Might people end up feeling duped by their friends? This could be exacerbated by the raw appearance of many micro-influencing posts, which are a far cry from the poised and polished pictures posted by celebrities. A world full of micro-influencers would undoubtedly lead to an erosion of trust between friends, and would leave many questions about our capitalistic society. 

Yet the issue also cannot be overblown. Many micro-influencing services are frankly not very good, with some websites or apps having little in the way of brand deals, or requiring users to take multiple surveys before they are allowed to create a post. Although marketers espouse micro-influencing as the next big thing, currently it seems relatively rare and seems to have little effect on most people's lives and choices. 

For micro-influencers, posting adverts - with the correct disclaimers - seems like a good way to gain money or freebies. For the rest of us, the trend simply means that we have to be a bit more cynical when our best friend recommends a toothpaste.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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