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.
Colin O'Brien
Show Hide image

London Life: the photographs that capture the changing face of London over seven decades

Over 70 years, Colin O'Brien has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse.

Born in a Victorian tenement in ­Clerkenwell in 1940, when the area was known as “Little Italy” in recognition of the main immigrant community, Colin O’Brien began to take photographs of his family, friends and immediate environment with a box camera at the age of eight. Displaying extraordinary maturity, some of these pictures are reminiscent of Bert Hardy’s photographs of children playing in the street – except that Colin was one of the kids and he was photographing his peers (above).

Intimate images of his mother in the scullery, his father eating breakfast before going to work at the nearby Mount Pleasant sorting office and a neighbour sharing out the shepherd’s pie among the members of her large family: these are the domestic scenes of Colin’s childhood. Drama erupted into this world in the form of multiple car crashes at the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, which Colin captured from his window in beautiful compositions that prefigure both Weegee and Andy Warhol in proposing traffic accidents as legitimate subjects for photography.

In the 1960s the O’Briens were rehoused in a top-floor flat in Michael Cliffe House, a modernist council block on the eastern fringe of Clerkenwell named after the erstwhile Labour mayor of Finsbury, and the tenement dwellings of Little Italy were demolished. From here, Colin recorded the postwar rebuilding of the City of London and the construction of the Barbican. His longing for dramatic spectacle was satisfied by shots of lighting over St Paul’s Cathedral, which he took down to Fleet Street for publication in the Evening Standard the next day.

As Colin’s experience of London expanded he recorded the transition from the years of austerity to those of plenty. At first, he took affectionate pictures of his mother trying on hats she couldn’t afford in Oxford Street; later he captured enthusiastic customers at the Woolworths pic’n’mix counter in Exmouth Market at the end of sweet rationing. A chance encounter with the playwright Bill Naughton led him to take the photograph for the dust jacket of Alfie, and Naughton subsidised Colin to set up his first photography studio. By now, Colin was recording new waves of immigration, taking glamorous street portraits of black girls posing for his lens and, in later years, Asian children enacting a Nativity procession in Brick Lane. Through redevelopment in the 1980s, the flash of the 1990s and the increasing dominance of corporate culture in the 21st century, Colin kept snapping.

Over seven decades, he has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse. In 2014 he photographed Jasmine Stone, one of the single mothers in New­ham, east London, evicted from a homeless hostel and denied social housing. She occupied an empty council house in protest against the sale of local authority housing to property developers. The picture of Jasmine and her daughter Safia (facing page) is a poignant coda to an unparalleled body of photography, distinguished equally by its aesthetic flair and its human sympathy.

The Gentle Author blogs about London at: spitalfieldslife.com

“London Life” by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life (£25)

 

Battersea, 1974

“I came across these children from the prefabs playing on an industrial site and they posed for me in front of the junkyard gates,” the photographer writes.

Corner of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, 11 June 1962

“I read later that a child died in this accident,” O’Brien writes. “There was a rumour the traffic lights all turned green at once.”

Gerrard Street, Soho, 1987

When O’Brien exhibited the picture, the man in it recognised himself and said that the child was his niece Christine. “Next day, she came along and I took her photograph again, standing next to the earlier shot. By then she was a student, training to be a dentist.”

Battersea Park, 1975

Three generations of the same family sit down for lunch at a café.

Oxford Street, early 1960s

 

O’Brien’s mother and Auntie Beattie try on hats while he takes their picture with his prized Leica – which his parents bought for a “nominal sum” off a chauffeur who claimed he’d found it in the back of his employer’s car. “These sort of deals with expensive merchandise being sold ‘off the back of a lorry’ were not uncommon,” he says.

 

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double