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.
Photo: Lizzie Porter
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“They are trying to silence us”: the long fight to identify Bosnia's war dead

More than 30,000 people were missing at the end of the Bosnian conflict in 1995. Scientists are making a last-ditch attempt to identify and bury the 8,000 for whom the search continues.

D Sarzinski does not have a normal job. That becomes obvious in a warehouse smelling of dirt and dust, next to a cement factory on the outskirts of Sanski Most, a small town in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Inside, lying on collapsible tables – the sort you might find at a village cake sale – are the bones of people killed in the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict. Arranged on metal shelves around the walls, body bags are filled with thousands more teeth, skulls and human bones.

This is the Krajina Identification Project (KIP) facility, one of the centres where Sarzinski works as a forensic anthropologist for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Since 1996, the organisation has assisted state authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with excavation and identification of war victims’ bodies.

Some of them were found in the mud and slush of mass graves. Other bodies were buried in forests or gardens. In the 1992-1995 conflict, in which the death toll reached 100,000, people died everywhere.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

By pushing for legislation to seek out and recognise the dead, the ICMP has helped to identify some 23,000 of the 30,000-plus people who went missing during the war. Most of them – some 15,000 individuals – have been identified using DNA matches with surviving relatives.  

But for the past four years, Sarzinski and her colleagues have been painstakingly going through more than 3,000 sets of remains – piles of bones, skulls, teeth, clothes and other belongings – from graves which were exhumed years ago, but that somehow slipped through the system. The skeletons in Sanski Most are among these remains. In ten mortuaries around the country, Sarzinski’s team has found 101 new people.

“I am very proud of that number”, says Sarzinski. “That is 101 people who would otherwise not have been identified.”

It is not her job to pinpoint the cause of death – that is up to pathologists. Rather, she and her team develop profiles of who these piles of bones once were.

“You have these families who insist on coming [here] and seeing the remains,” she says. “You cannot prevent them from doing so because it’s their legal right. For some of them, it’s their closure.”

Once identified, victims are given dignified burials in proper graves, the latest of which happened on July 20, in the northern town of Prijedor.

Mirsad Duratović, president of the Prijedor '92 association of detainees, has his own experience of burying missing relatives, after a decades-long search. He lost 47 family members before being taken to the Serb-run Omarska concentration camp, where 700 Bosnian Muslims were killed over three months in summer 1992.

“There were periods where they gave us no food or water for two days”, he told the New Statesman.

Through DNA matching, Duratović later found the bodies of three uncles who had been killed at Omarska in mass graves.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

“The search for them lasted 21 years”, he says. “I felt that finding them was more painful then losing them. Don’t get me wrong – losing your family hurts a lot – but trying to find them, just to know where they are, and not succeeding, hurts even more.”

Ethnic and nationalistic tensions have stood in the way of identifying the Bosnian conflict’s dead and missing. It took three years for the ICMP to obtain permission to operate in the Republika Srpska entity, a Serb-dominated region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Authorities in the area claimed they already had mechanisms for identifying the missing, and did not need the help of a state-level institution.

“The argument was that the facilities are a very nice condition – which is completely true,” explains Nihad Branković, ICMP’s Western Balkans program officer, in an interview in his Sarajevo office. “But once we opened the body bags, then the main problem [of unidentified cases] is there.”

Critics have accused the ICMP of bias. According to Branković, death tolls are used as political tools to try to prove various actors’ roles in the Balkans conflict, which was characterised by sectarian and nationalistic divisions.

But the organisation takes what staff call an “ethnicity-blind” approach.

“The process of exhumation, the DNA- led identification are done under barcode, so in the lab we do not know at all [the victim’s ethnicity]”, says Branković. “Once we do have a match, once we do have a name, our forms do not indicate ethnicity because we don’t care and we don’t know. Names in Bosnian are fluid things, so someone with a Bosniak [Muslim] name could easily be another ethnicity.”

For the 8,000 people who remain missing, the future is uncertain.

Some are undoubtedly still under the earth, perhaps buried unfound in the folds of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s beautiful mountains. In June the ICMP launched an online application to tackle the lack of quality information on remaining clandestine or mass graves. Members of the public can submit information on possible locations anonymously, in the hope that it will lead to the identification of more missing persons.

There are also cases of mistaken identity. Before the introduction of DNA testing in 2001, thousands of people were identified visually: families would be invited to confirm a dead relative by way of clothes, features, size, and so on.

But the approach proved unreliable. In the moments before their deaths, people exchanged clothes and even ID cards. Families buried the remains of people they falsely believed to be their relatives.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

A blood collection drive will begin this September, in the hope of identifying mistaken burials through DNA matching. But it will have to be approached with the utmost delicacy.

“It’s an extremely difficult issue for the families who have thought that they’ve closed that chapter of their lives 20 years ago”, says Branković. “If you think that you’ve buried him or her and you think that you've found some sort of closure, and then someone knocks at your door and asks you for a blood sample. You say ‘Why? I’ve identified and buried my relative, why are you doing this?’ So we are afraid of this retraumatisation of the families once again.”

The other issue is physically tracking families down. Many Bosnians fled abroad during the war – according to the Bosnian Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the diaspora consists of 2 million people.

Funds are a perennial issue, although Branković insists that on an annual budget of around $4m, the ICMP can afford to finish projects underway.

Still, they are stretched: work at the Krajina Identification Project (KIP) facility in Sanski Most is on hold while Sarzinski’s team works in a mortuary elsewhere. The building is gathering dust and dirt, as the bones of the missing who lie here age.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

In Prijedor, Duratović says the local Serb-led authorities stifle efforts to support war survivors and families of the missing.

“They cut off our financing from the town budget in 2012,” he says. “We are being ignored. They are trying to silence us.”

There is also a question mark over what will happen to the rest of the missing when ICMP staff leave Bosnia-Herzegovina – a timeframe itself dependent on future donations. So far, 80 percent of the organisation’s funding comes from the EU, with Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland other major contributors.

Training in the fields of forensic anthropology, pathology and DNA testing is almost non-existent in Bosnia-Herzegovina – a bitter irony in a country that needs it so badly. Sarzinski herself went abroad for her higher education, gaining a BA from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and an MSc in Forensic Anthropology from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

If Bosnia-Herzegovina is to ascend to the EU, authorities will have to support home-grown efforts to uncover the missing war dead. As Branković puts it: “The EU does not want to have Balkan states joining which still literally have skeletons in the closet.”

Yet issues slowing down the identification of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s missing remain immensely complex.

“While I was looking for my family every new piece of information gave me hope”, says Duratović, the Omarska concentration camp survivor. “For some, the search is still going.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.