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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What will happen to women’s rights now that Donald Trump is President?

Donald Trump has surrounded himself with men who are anti-abortion and promised to defund Planned Parenthood. The global gag rule is just the beginning.

On the website of Planned Parenthood, the American organisation which is the world’s biggest provider of reproductive healthcare services, there is a page of women’s stories. Shawanna, now a mother of one and healthcare worker, had an abortion aged 17. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer, and she was raising her little sister when she found out she was pregnant. “It was a difficult decision,” Shawanna says. “But I already was a parent to my sister, and I couldn’t financially or emotionally provide for another child. I also wanted to finish high school.”

Another woman, Rebekah, was working two jobs in community college and unable to afford health insurance when she saw a flyer for Planned Parenthood: “Because I was able to get preventative care, including birth control, I was able to fulfil my life goals: to graduate college and become a mother.”

Now activists are worried that services like those offered by Planned Parenthood – which, aside from contraception and abortion, also provides things like cervical smear tests and STD screening – are at risk.

One of Donald Trump’s first acts on becoming president was to reinstate the “global gag rule”: a law that defunds non-government organisations if they so much as mention abortion as an option to pregnant women. This rule, formally called the Mexico City Policy, is something of a political football: it was revoked when Bill Clinton came into office, enforced under George Bush and revoked by Barack Obama before being signed again by Trump.

So why are activists so worried? Firstly, because Trump has decided on a stronger iteration of the global gag rule that not only demands NGOs disclaim their involvement with any abortion services if they want to receive funding for reproductive health, as it did previously, but requires them to do so to receive health funding at all. Suzanne Ehlers, who runs the reproductive health organisation PAI, calls this the gag rule “on steroids".

Under Trump, the rule will impact an estimated $9.5bn in foreign aid funding, as opposed to $600m, and will mean organisations “working on AIDS, malaria, or maternal and child health will have to make sure that none of their programs involves so much as an abortion referral”. (Unsafe abortions, incidentally, are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide, with the World Health Organisation estimating that a woman dies of an unsafe abortion every eight seconds.)

If the president is willing to defund AIDS outreach services on the basis that the NGOs who administer them might mention abortion, activists reason, it seems unlikely that Trump will soften his campaign-trail rhetoric in relation to women’s reproductive health. And that rhetoric is scary: at one point, the president insisted he would seek punishment for women who access abortion illegally, akin to the current legal situation on the island of Ireland – though he later rowed back on this comment, saying that the doctor would be prosecuted instead as the “woman is a victim in this case”.

Trump has also said that he will defund Planned Parenthood, even though he acknowledges that only a small proportion of their services relate to abortion. To quote the president himself:

I'm totally against abortion, having to do with Planned Parenthood. But millions and millions of women  cervical cancer, breast cancer  are helped by Planned Parenthood. So you can say whatever you want, but they have millions of women going through Planned Parenthood that are helped greatly. And I wouldn't fund it. I would defund it because of the abortion factor, which they say is 3 per cent. I don't know what percentage it is. They say it's 3 per cent. But I would defund it, because I'm pro-life. But millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.

Will he go through with it? One thing we know for sure is that he has already surrounded himself with men who are hardline on both abortion and contraception access. Mike Pence, the vice-president, signed legislation as governor of Indiana which would have banned abortion even in cases of “genetic abnormality” and held doctors “legally liable if they had knowingly performed such procedures”. (The law, which also required that fetal tissue from terminations be buried or cremated, was blocked by a Supreme Court judge before it came into effect.)

His cuts to Planned Parenthood in Indiana led to the closure of an HIV clinic, which was followed by an HIV outbreak. During the presidential campaign, he vowed to consign Roe v Wade (the ruling that allows American women to have abortions“to the ash heap of history where it belongs”. It was also during Pence’s term as governor that Indiana resident Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “feticide” after allegedly terminating her own pregnancy, a conviction overturned after she had served 18 months. Tom Price, who Trump has chosen to lead the Department of Health, supports a nationwide ban on abortion after 20 weeks (most states currently opt for a 24-26 week limit; the limit in Britain is 24 weeks in most circumstances).

Appointments still to come could prove even more dangerous for women’s rights. As Rebecca Traister points out in New York Magazine, Trump has promised to nominate “pro-life justices” to the Supreme Court. “With one Supreme Court seat maddeningly open and three sitting justices over the age of 78,” Traister writes, “this . . . promise could have a long-lasting impact: It would take only two appointments to get to a Court that would likely overturn Roe v Wade.”

It is not clear whether these men believe women are so simple that they’ll simply stop seeking abortions if they’re not easy to get, or whether they believe that making abortions difficult, costly and potentially unsafe is an apt punishment for women who have sex for any purpose other than procreation.

It is not unreasonable to suspect the latter. We know, after all, what brings down the abortion rate – sex education and easy access to contraception, particularly long-term options such as IUDs. In areas where Planned Parenthood clinics have been shut down, the rate of STDs and unplanned pregnancies has risen. But give these people an inch, and they’ll take away your birth control: the American Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare” (now also in the Trump-Pence crosshairs), currently provides roughly $1.4bn of mandatory contraceptive funding to American women each year.

We know, too, that making abortions illegal does not stop women seeking abortions, but leads only to more women dying as a result of them – and that women who are already mothers have more abortions than any other group, often citing the wellbeing of existing children as a motivation. Presented with this fact, the rhetoric from the American right concerning the sanctity of motherhood quickly reveals itself to be empty: grounded in a loathing of, not reverence for, women. The crisis in women’s health that activists can already see on the horizon is as intentional as it is dangerous.

Women, however, are not taking the president’s anti-choice sentiments lying down. The Centre for Reproductive Rights, which describes itself as a non-profit legal advocacy organisation that defends the reproductive rights of women worldwide, has already filed lawsuits challenging restrictions in Alaska, Missouri and North Carolina, with more challenges – based on a recent Supreme Court decision regarding abortion access in Texas, Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedtlikely during the president’s term.

Following the Women’s March on DC, further actions are also scheduled explicitly in support of Planned Parenthood, and local fundraisers have been organised across the country. One Chicago brewer even released a special beer, called Trumpty Dumpty, to raise funds.

Reading the testimonies on the Planned Parenthood website, one thing comes up again and again: action. From Shireen, who became a peer sex educator at school, to Carly, who organised an abortion speak-out at her college, each woman has something to say about helping other women – whether it be distributing condoms or becoming a healthcare provider themselves.

Add to that the estimated three times as many people that crowd scientists believe turned out for the Women’s March as compared to Trump’s inauguration – nobody tell Sean Spicer – and one begins to suspect that the resistance to the new president’s draconian reproductive policies will be, as he might put it, “yuge”. It’s time to worry. But it’s not yet time to give up hope.

You can donate to Planned Parenthood here.

Women in Northern Ireland can be punished for accessing an illegal abortion – just as Trump originally proposed. Donate to the Abortion Support Network, which helps women from the island of Ireland access safe abortions, here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland