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.
photomontage by Dan Murrell
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Greece is just the canary in the mine – there are still crises aplenty to come in global finance

While all eyes are on the eurozone, larger troubles are brewing.

“People only accept change when they are faced with necessity and only recognise necessity when a crisis is upon them,” said Jean Monnet, the French political economist whom many consider to be the founding father of the project of European integration. The decisive No vote against the terms of an international bailout in the Greek referendum has certainly plunged Europe further into crisis – but will it also bring change? And, if it does, what are the implications for Greece, the eurozone and the rest of the world?

At the heart of the Greek crisis are two interconnected questions. Both have become especially urgent in the case of Greece but the same issues are hotly contested throughout the world’s advanced economies. The first is how to deal with public debt when it becomes too high. The second is what the proper role of a country’s central bank is – and who should decide that.

The problem of public debt is the better known of the two. Greece’s public debt is very large, at about 180 per cent of its gross domestic product. Private investors will not lend to the country as a result: Greece has “lost market access”, as the jargon goes.

The rest of the 19-member eurozone maintains that a combination of fiscal belt-tightening and liberalisation can pull Greece back into a virtuous circle of growth, shrinking debt and falling interest rates. The country’s governing Syriza party argues that the past five years have shown this to be wrong: it says that only an upfront write-off of a significant part of Greece’s public debt will work. Who is right? The referendum on 5 July provided a partial answer by indicating that the debt has reached the limit of political sustainability. But technical arguments, too, are needed to sway Greece’s creditors. The critical intervention on that front came a few days earlier.

On the evening of 2 July, the International Monetary Fund – one-third of the so-called Troika that bailed out Greece in 2010 and 2012 – shocked all sides by publishing its latest analysis of the country’s predicament. It concludes that Syriza’s position is, in essence, correct: it is implausible that the public debt can be put on a sustainable footing without substantial debt forgiveness.

The importance of this announcement lies less in the verdict – it had long been whispered that the IMF had lost faith in the creditors’ plan – than in how it has been put in the public domain. Now that the IMF has backed a write-off, the strategy of “extend and pretend” is no longer credible. Why would private investors step back in if the official arbiter of global finance has publicly decreed that Greece’s debt is unsustainable?

The fundamental issue at hand is of a relevance far beyond Greece. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the developed world has opted to sweat off excessive public debt over time, rather than confront it by negotiating a one-off relief. The result has been sloth-like economic growth and a chronic dent in confidence over the future. Whether preserving the sanctity of contract law or promoting economic dynamism is the better way to ensure that creditors ultimately get a better deal is the question of the age.

Following the IMF’s volte-face, could the alternative path finally be tested in Greece? Breaking the spell of constructive ambiguity could simply force Greece’s creditors to disown the debt problem as insoluble. Yet it might just provide a face-saving way out: a justification to grant debt relief that will pass muster with national electorates, in Greece and perhaps even beyond.

 

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So much for the debt question. The other conundrum at the heart of the Greek crisis – concerning the proper role and governance of the central bank – is even more urgent. For weeks, there has been a slow-motion run on Greece’s banks. Depositors uncertain of how the debt problem will be resolved (and fearful that the only way out is an exit from the euro) have been withdrawing cash or transferring money abroad. As is normal in such a situation, Greece’s banks have had to borrow from their central bank to fund these withdrawals. Until recently, that central bank – the European Central Bank (ECB), the second member of the Troika – was happy to comply.

On 28 June, however, that changed. Greece’s banks were told they would have to manage on their own. But no bank can hope to meet withdrawals during a bank run from its own reserves. So the banks were forced to close and capital controls were introduced. Cash withdrawals are restricted to €60 per day and there are strict limits on the transfer of funds abroad. The resulting economic disruption and social distress risk ­overtaking any negotiations on the debt problem.

The ECB’s decision is unprecedented in the annals of banking. The raison d’être of a central bank is to preserve the stability of the banking system – to act as the lender of last resort, should there be a run on a commercial bank. Yet the ECB has decided to do the opposite: to exacerbate a bank run in Greece by abrogating that cardinal role.

Why did it do it? The ECB cites an unavoidable conflict of interests peculiar to running a currency union. It claims that its mandate is to operate in the interests of the citizens of all the eurozone member states, and that has required it, in exceptional circumstances, to act against the interests of one of them. In a narrow and lawyerly sense, this defence is valid. Politically, it is toxic. A country’s unelected central bankers seem to be dictating the fate of its elected government – and of its citizens’ deposits.

Because all modern banking systems depend on trust, this political flaw carries risks of practical disaster. The euro will not survive long if suspicions of the ECB’s political motives spread beyond Greece. Who in Portugal, Spain or Italy will trust that their savings will not be locked up, too, if they have the temerity to elect the wrong leaders?

The role of the ECB is unique – because it is the single monetary authority for a collection of separate states. The question of whom a central bank should answer to, however, is universal. The absurdity of the current situation in Greece shows that if a central bank is to underpin a modern financial system, it must be accountable to the people that the system serves, rather than to anyone else – or, even worse, to no one.

Yet are these questions of Greece’s debt and its banks so important, after all? The immediate reaction in the financial markets has been muted. The euro has not collapsed and there has been no panic selling of shares. However, even if Greece’s banks reopen and its debt is resolved, there is another respect in which the long-term impact of the Greek crisis on the international financial system threatens to be profound. This is that it has accelerated, probably beyond the point of no return, the decline of the system of global economic governance that lasted from the end of the Second World War to the mid-2000s.

At its centre is the IMF – a global finance equivalent of the UN Security Council – an institution with a reputation for inflexibility but one that in reality underwent three significant transformations in the 1990s and 2000s on the back of three existential crises. The first came out of the east Asian crisis of 1997-98, when the IMF learned that imposing conditionality on crisis-hit countries was neither practically effective nor politically wise. As a result, it rewrote the design rules for international bailouts; henceforth, conditions should be limited to a small number of high-level monetary and fiscal targets and the detailed policies required to hit them should be left to the discretion of the domestic political authorities.

The second big reform came out of the Argentinian crisis of 2001-2002. There, the IMF made the error of succumbing to private creditors’ pleas to increase lending months before Argentina’s default. Afterwards, the rules were once again revised. There would be no more lending to overindebted countries without imposing substantial debt write-offs on existing creditors first.

During this period, the IMF was confronting a constitutional problem: the disproportionate voting power of the United States, Japan and its European members and the convention of giving Europeans the top job. By the late 2000s, with the emerging markets contributing a substantial portion of the world’s GDP, such a situation was increasingly untenable. Here, too, things were on the brink of changing – but then, in 2010, the Greek crisis struck.

Everything went into reverse. Governance reforms were shelved. The Europeans needed control, and that required having no change on votes and first one former French finance minister (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) and then another (Christine Lagarde) in charge. Meanwhile, a bailout was hatched with no time for the lessons of the 1990s. Witness the latest negotiations, bogged down by recriminations over the minutiae of VAT and pension reforms; and the belated admission that Greece’s debt is unsustainable without significant debt relief.

The IMF’s stark regression has not been lost on the emerging markets, which have responded by moving away from the existing international architecture. Many countries have accumulated substantial foreign exchange reserves to insure themselves against crisis, rather than risk having to resort to the IMF. The Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have gone further still, establishing a mini-IMF for themselves, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement. China has set up its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The message in each case is the same. Since the old global system has failed to change, the new powers will make one of their own.

 

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All eyes are now on the eurozone but larger troubles are brewing elsewhere. The Chinese economy is slowing, more quickly than anyone expected. Japan is going for broke, printing money with deliberate abandon. Meanwhile, the most powerful central bank in the world, the US Federal Reserve, has begun to reel back in what once seemed like a limitless supply of dollars that has underwritten global finance for the past seven years.

Cracks are beginning to appear – strange portents in the economic heavens. The Japanese yen has lost a third of its value over the past two and a half years. The Swiss franc gained the same amount in a single day in January. The latest shock comes from China, where on 12 June the Shanghai index commenced a crash that has so far wiped off almost a third of its value. That is more than €1.5trn destroyed: as if Greece’s debt had been written off five times over.

So there are crises aplenty to come for the international economy – and change, as Monnet argued, there will undoubtedly be. But for the first time in 70 years, we will confront it with an international system that has been severely weakened – not least by the debacle in Greece.

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage, £9.99)

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war