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 Brexit cowards: we left Europe, then they left us to it

On 23 June, Britain voted to “take back control”. Now we just need someone to take responsibility.

You break it, you own it. That’s the rule at Pottery Barn, an American high-end furniture chain store that has yet to cross the ­Atlantic. As far as the Brexit brigade is concerned, the idea hasn’t yet made the journey either.

In the fortnight since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the pound has fallen to a record low. The resulting bounce in the FTSE 100, trumpeted by the Leave side, is largely reflective of companies that hold their assets in currencies other than sterling. More worryingly, output in the construction industry fell at the fastest rate since 2009. In private discussions, at both the Treasury and the Bank of England, the question is not if there will be a recession, but how severe it will be when it comes.

So, where are the Brexiteers? There is plenty of smashed crockery on the floor and there will surely be more – yet the main players are edging away from the scene, eyes to the floor, mumbling their way past the cashiers and hoping someone else will pay for it. This “best of luck with it all, chaps” attitude was epitomised by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who tweeted on 25 June: “After campaigning solidly since December, I’m going to take a month off Twitter.” (He has since deleted the tweet, but returned to the social network six days later to suggest that the result was a victory for “the working classes against the smirking classes”.)

In the days since the vote for Brexit, two of the biggest beasts involved in the Leave campaigns, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have also stepped back from front-line politics. They leave behind little clarity on a range of urgent questions, such as the status of EU nationals already living in the UK; the willingness of voters to accept freedom of movement as the price of access to the single market; and exactly when Article 50 will be triggered, if it will be triggered at all. It is unclear even who will conduct trade negotiations on the UK’s behalf, because, in four decades of EU membership, the country has had little need for such bureaucrats and so it has retained few. (We might have to recruit staff from New Zealand.)

Nor have those ultimately responsible for the situation Britain finds itself in – the pro-Remain Tories, led by David Cameron and George Osborne, who agreed to the referendum to appease their own backbenchers – been any keener to own the outcome. Osborne was ridiculed for not emerging to make a speech or statement until Monday, 27 June. It brought to mind his old nickname: the Submarine.

Did it have to be like this? David Cameron hoped to be a second Harold Wilson: win a referendum to keep Britain in the EU and then retire in glory. His would-be successors hope to be another Harold Macmillan. Macmillan took power after Suez, a catastrophe that changed the direction of British foreign policy for a half-century. In the words of his biographer Anthony Sampson, Macmillan set about creating the impression that the crisis “had been a kind of victory, and that nothing much had happened”.

That was Johnson’s aim in his brief tilt at the Tory leadership. In his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column on 27 June, he set out his plan for a post-Brexit deal: Britain should stay in the single market, British workers should enjoy visa-free travel within the EU – but free movement to the UK from the European mainland should be restricted. To return to Pottery Barn for a moment, what Boris Johnson appeared to want was for the smashed bowl to reassemble itself and for him then to take it home for free. One civil servant derided his demands as “science fiction”.

Johnson’s creative writing assignment won him few friends, even within the ranks of those who had voted Leave. It contributed to Michael Gove’s decision to withdraw his support and launch his own campaign for the top job, bringing Johnson’s long-nurtured hopes of reaching Downing Street to an abrupt end. Not that retirement – at least for now – has led to much soul-searching on the part of the former mayor of London. On 4 July the Telegraph published another column by him, along with the front-page headline “Boris demands post-Brexit plan”. The counter-suggestion that Johnson, as Leave’s most popular advocate, was the one who ought to have had a plan, was too gauche for Westminster’s Brexit backers.

Not to be outdone, Farage, the other leading architect of the Leave vote, announced his resignation as leader of the UK Independence Party that same day. “During the referendum campaign I said I wanted my country back,” he declared, “[and] now I want my life back.” (Incidentally, the European Parliament also wants his £83,000-a-year salary – plus lavish expenses – back but he shows no sign of standing down as an MEP.)

The contest to replace Farage has turned into the polar opposite of a beauty contest. Ukip’s main donor, Arron Banks, who once described the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”, has expressed interest in becoming leader. So has Farage’s former aide Raheem Kassam, who edits the London outpost of Breitbart, a right-wing website that makes Fox News seem like a cool blast of sanity.

That’s if Farage does not rise again. He has form as far as temporary resignations go. He stepped down as leader in 2009, only to take the reins again after Ukip’s disappointing showing in the 2010 general election. Five years later, after Ukip racked up four million votes but secured just one seat in parliament, he resigned again, having failed to win Thanet South. That resignation lasted just four days, and he returned to take swift revenge on those of his opponents in Ukip who had foolishly believed it was now safe to speak ill of the (politically) dead.

This time, Farage has assured allies, it’s for real. In part, that is because he has guaranteed that the top job will not go to one of his internal enemies. Carswell, perhaps his most bitter rival, will not stand. And, thanks to the Farageist majority on Ukip’s ruling executive council, Suzanne Evans, Carswell’s preferred candidate, is serving a six-month suspension for “disloyalty”.

But although Farage has resigned as leader of Ukip, he is not quitting politics. Even after Brexit, Britons are cursed never to go more than a full day without hearing from Farage, appealing once more to his natural constituency: television and radio producers with airtime to fill. On 5 July he entered the fray again to condemn Theresa May, the front-runner for the Conservative leadership, for suggesting that the right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK could be up for grabs in negotiations over Britain’s new relationship with the EU.

Farage’s attempt to rebrand himself as a friend of EU nationals  less than a month after posing in front of a poster warning that Britain was at “breaking point”, the words emblazoned over a picture of Syrian refugees queuing to enter Slovenia – made for an unconvincing late-career choice. But he was not the only one. Tory Leavers such as Gove and Andrea Leadsom now seemed shocked to the core that anyone might try to reduce the number of immigrants in Britain.

Once again, an important debate was being subsumed into the internal drama of the Conservative leadership contest. And, of course, if Leadsom, Gove and their boosters in the right-wing press really wanted to guarantee the rights of European nationals – and the rights of British nationals on the European mainland – they had one clear option: to cast a vote for Remain on 23 June. Instead, they want British policymakers to be thrown into a battle to prevent a deep recession and a punitive exit deal that brings about prolonged misery for Britain, with precious little leverage on our part.

Then again, sabotaging the details of Brexit (if it’s to be carried out by anyone other than themselves) would be entirely in keeping with the Eurosceptics’ modus operandi so far. Who can doubt that if Leadsom, or Gove, does not win the Tory leadership contest, the package negotiated by the next prime minister will turn out mysteriously not to be what they wanted at all?

And surely Farage will continue to find a fruitful space to the right of the Conservative Party, criticising all the inevitable compromises of actual, practical politics. The joy of being an insurgent is that you never have to say: “OK, Mr Juncker, I’m willing to meet you halfway.”

It now seems entirely possible that we will never hear a detailed plan for Brexit from the group that did most to make it happen, but merely complaints about how their impossible vision has been betrayed. Already, the word is that factual reporting of the grim state of the financial markets is “talking Britain down”. It is this, the Brexiteers claim, that will induce another recession, not worldwide financial instability, or the reckless torching of the City of London’s chief appeal to investors.

On 23 June, Britain voted to “take back control”. Now we just need someone to take responsibility. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers