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 inside story of Labour Leave: the left-wing Eurosceptics who toppled a Tory prime minister

For years, they were ideological misfits. Then the left-wing Leavers found themselves speaking to crowds of thousands.

On 20 June 2016, three days before the EU referendum vote, Brendan Chilton entered the Sage Theatre in Gateshead. It was a tricky time. Four days earlier, the Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox had been murdered in her constituency by a white supremacist. Some had blamed the Leave campaign for the charged atmosphere in which such sentiments could flourish. The organisation Chilton helped run, Labour Leave, suspended campaigning as soon as it heard, and had only just started again.

In the theatre, every seat was full. The cross-party series of rallies featured Brexiteers like Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, and the Conservative David Davis. But it was to Chilton – as well as the Labour MP Kate Hoey, and the Labour donor John Mills – that the assembled Brexiteers turned. 

“They all said this is a Labour audience,” Chilton remembers. “You lot have got to do it.”

The night would stick in his mind for months to come. “We’d done thousands of miles up and down the country, and it was the culmination of it all,” he says. “To be in a Labour audience, in a Labour city, and to see Labour people – with Labour Leave banners and posters in the audience – and [know] they wanted out.”

Mills and Chilton set up Labour Leave as an independent entity in the run-up to the EU referendum. Within two months, they had 140,000 supporters and raised nearly half a million pounds. On 23 June 2016, 37 per cent of Labour voters disregarded their party's support for the EU and voted Leave.

In the next few weeks, as Britain’s political establishment was thrown into chaos, cameras surrounded first Nigel Farage and later the new Prime Minister, the Brexit convert Theresa May. Meanwhile, Labour MPs tried to oust their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on the grounds that his lacklustre campaigning had let down Remain.

It was quickly forgotten that the Leave campaign had successfully harnessed left-wing Euroscepticism. But over the past year, Labour Leave has added another 100,000 supporters to its fold. Many of them are torn between voting for the party they perceive to be strongest on Brexit, and the one that represents their left-wing values.

This is the story of Labour Leave, a campaign that came from nowhere to help bring a prime minister crashing down.

Profiles based on interviews with supporters of the Labour Leave Facebook page

Labour Leave set up camp in two offices – one on Millbank, by the Thames, a short walk from parliament, and the other in Mills’s basement study at his house in Camden, north London. When I meet Mills and Chilton there, in spring 2017, the study is clean and quiet, with cream curtains and a wall of books on white shelves. But a year earlier, it was crowded with boxes and leaflets and the sound of ringing phones.

Mills and Chilton would be joined by a small band of Labour MPs. As well as Hoey, the main speakers were Kelvin Hopkins and Graham Stringer. A former MP, Nigel Griffiths, headed up the operation in Scotland. In early 2016, a freelance journalist, Oliver Huitson, took over the social media campaign.

“Because we were a small band of people there was a good camaraderie throughout it all,” says Chilton. “The regular disasters and cock-ups, it was great fun.” At one point, the team distributed 750,000 leaflets with Chilton’s personal phone number on them by mistake. “They called,” he remembers.

From the London HQ, the group sent its main speakers to rallies across the country, and marked their whereabouts on a map on the wall. At least one person was out, every night of the week. One night, the office was empty.

“It was rather like one of those nights you read about in the history books,” Chilton says. “Bomber Command looked and every plane was up and there was nothing left. We really were in huge demand.”

John Mills (left) and Brendan Chilton (right), Labour Leave campaigners. Image: Getty

Between September 2015 and January 2016, when Labour Leave was still part of the official campaign, it sent speakers to 148 meetings around the country. “It was ridiculous,” he reflects. “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.”

Eurosceptics in Labour had long been relegated to the margins. But as Mills began campaigning, he realised they were tapping in to a new political energy. At one meeting of accountants in the commuter town of Reading, just outside the Remain stronghold of London, he found 70 per cent backed Leave. When he visited coastal and northern towns, the proportion grew.

Thousands turned up to pro-Brexit meetings. “It was a tragedy, really,” he says. “You would see these ex-Labour voters in the audience.”

When the speakers arrived at the debates, they were often confronted by fellow Labour members who backed Remain. At one meeting in Greenwich, London, the Labour Leave speaker was almost ejected from the platform.

Brexiteers from Ukip and the Conservatives, on the other hand, welcomed them. Chilton and Hoey were invited to speak at the first cross-party rally, in the Northamptonshire town of Kettering. As they sat on the train, nervousness kicked in.

“This is it,” Chilton said to Hoey. “We’re going to meet the Kippers and the Tories and everyone else. What the bloody hell are we doing?”

Chilton, to his surprise, found he liked Farage, David Davis and other right-wing Brexiteers. “They were perfectly nice, charming, lovely people,” he says. “The horns on their heads were not real.”

Labour Leave had a policy of not sharing platforms with racists, and on Facebook Huitson deliberately avoided focusing on immigration. But Farage also infamously stood in front of a poster depicting a long line of refugees with the headline “Breaking Point”.

Mills insists that the number of bigots he came across was “very low”. He cites a Lord Ashcroft poll which found that while half of Leave voters cared most about sovereignty, immigration was the biggest issue for just a third.

“I’d say 90 per cent of the stuff that came out of Nigel Farage’s mouth and David Davis’s mouth could have come out of Tony Benn’s mouth,” says Chilton. Those left-wing Leave voters who brought up immigration tended to be worried about wage growth, or pressure on public services.

I put it to them that leaving the EU is unlikely to solve either of these problems, in the way that, say, another minimum wage hike or an end to austerity would.

“In terms of austerity, the key thing was that people had suffered the cuts to health and all the rest of it over a long period of time, and so there was a kind of ‘what have we got to lose?’ mentality,” Chilton says. He recalls “a feeling of hopelessness” after even the biggest rallies.

“The Remain side, one of their fundamental mistakes was to say how wonderful everything was if we stay in and how awful it would be if we leave,” he says. “People didn’t feel everything was wonderful at the moment, they felt it was pretty awful, actually.”

Chilton argues that Labour Leave was “a thin red line” keeping Eurosceptics in the party. “If you didn’t have Labour people on those cross-party platforms, after the referendum those voters were going to go one place,” he says. “And it wasn’t the Labour Party.”

Lexit: the Movie opens with footage of left-wing protesters. A Scottish narrator asks: "How should we understand the EU referendum? The natural position of the left, we are told, is Remain. The EU represents all that is good in the world.”

But this, the narrator continues, isn’t true: “Rather than understand the vote as a choice of left v right, it's better understood as a choice of the market v society. And the EU is, without question, the market."

Funded by hundreds of small donors, Labour Leave’s one-hour film featured controversial left-wing commentators such as George Galloway, but also discussed the EU’s treatment of Greece via a Star Wars spoof, Austerity Wars. (To date, the film has been shared nearly 2,000 times on Facebook.)

On the Facebook page, Huitson hammered home the message, with posts about rail nationalisation (EU rules favour competition) and the powerful vested interests funding the Remain campaign.

One story in particular grabbed readers’ attention. On 15 June, Nigel Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats down the Thames, but was intercepted by a pro-Remain boat chartered by the musician Bob Geldof. The stunt descended into a water fight.

The event was covered as a farcical moment in the campaign (soon to be overshadowed by the death of Jo Cox). But Labour Leave Facebook users were furious. “Here was a group of hard-working fishermen who had taken a day off work to protest about their communities, and here was this millionaire,” says Huitson.

On the day of the EU referendum vote, there was a downpour in London – “a sign from the gods”, Chilton would later joke. Still, the latest poll suggested Remain would win.

The official Vote Leave campaign decamped to Manchester to watch the results come in, but Chilton, Mills, Hoey and other members of Labour Leave headed down to join other unofficial campaigners at a party at Millbank. There was a mob of journalists and photographers but they were mostly interested in Farage.

“It was quite funny because we went in and we all sat downstairs and there was this really weird ‘Oh God, it’s over. Now what do we do’,” Chilton remembers. Word spread of a private poll confirming Remain had won. Just before 10pm, Farage gave what appeared to be a concession speech.

It was an hour later, when Newcastle voted Remain by the slimmest of margins, that the Leave campaigners began to sense a surprise was in the air. Half an hour later, at around 11.30pm, the result for Sunderland came in, with 61 per cent voting Leave. Chilton looked at Hoey. She said: “I think we may have done it.”

As the night went on, region after region voted Leave. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the Labour Leave campaigners, long resigned to being misfits in their political party, watched as their efforts brought a government crashing down.

More than one campaigner I spoke to described the moment as “daunting”. Huitson, the social media campaigner, had backed Leave after weighing up the “serious flaws” of the EU project against its good points. As the result became clear, he “felt quite sad”, as if he was experiencing “the end of a long-term relationship”.

Shortly after 8am on 24 June 2016, David Cameron appeared in the early-morning sunshine outside 10 Downing Street with his wife at his side and delivered his resignation speech. It was only a year since he had stormed back into power with a Tory majority.

“To see the prime minister go,” says Chilton, “that made it real.” For all the stacks of leaflets, the nightly motorway slogs, the Facebook posts, and the rallies, Labour Leave campaigners seemed, like everyone else, to have trouble digesting what had just happened. Mills, a businessman by day, had a nine o'clock meeting to attend. 

“The thing is, with Eurosceptics, they’ve not won for forty years,” says Chilton. “And all of a sudden, they won.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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