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 SNP is sweeping Scotland. Is Westminster prepared for what will happen next?

On 7 May, the SNP will have the opportunity to inflict lasting damage on Scottish Labour.

Nicola Sturgeon by Ralph Steadman

Activists rush in and out of Natalie McGarry’s campaign office on Westmuir Street in Parkhead, a short walk from the towering grey-and-green stadium of Celtic Football Club. The Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow East, an energetic 33-year-old policy officer who rose to prominence during last year’s independence referendum, is preparing her team for the first of its twice-daily canvassing sessions. “OK, let’s go,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” If on 7 May the Nationalists can win here, where the sitting Labour MP, Margaret Curran, has a majority of almost 12,000, they will sweep the country, defeating Labour in its west coast and central belt heartlands.

In Glasgow East, as in Scotland at large, ideology, identity and class have merged to shape a new political landscape. Left-leaning voters, voters who consider themselves strongly Scottish and voters from low-income or working-class backgrounds account for a large section of the SNP’s expanding post-referendum base. According to a recent survey by YouGov, 40 per cent of Scots who backed Labour at the 2010 general election now support the SNP. A similar proportion of Labour supporters voted Yes on 18 September.

“People think Labour has taken them for granted,” McGarry tells me as she traverses the doorsteps of Easterhouse, a dilapidated estate on the outskirts of the constituency. “The amount of inequality in this area is frankly disgusting, yet Labour has stacked people’s votes for generations.” McGarry is accompanied by a group of six canvassers, including three who joined the SNP as a result of the referendum, defecting from Labour and the Scottish Socialist Party. The other three are SNP veterans. No one in the group is surprised that McGarry is the favourite to win the seat. They believe Labour’s decline is long overdue. “Our canvassing returns are really encouraging,” McGarry says. “But we’re taking nothing for granted.”


As the SNP quietly readies itself for victory, the mood among Scottish Labour supporters is grim. When Jim Murphy was elected party leader in December, he made an audacious attempt to claw back “Glasgow Man”, the archetypal Labour-to-SNP switch voter, by reinventing himself from a Blairite unionist to a home-rule social democrat. But in recent weeks, as the SNP’s poll lead has solidified, Murphy has abandoned this strategy and appealed instead to the anti-nationalist core vote. During the Scottish TV debates in early April, Murphy attacked the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for full fiscal autonomy and criticised her refusal to rule out a second referendum on independence.

Some Scottish Labour insiders fear that Murphy’s decision to court No voters with a volley of tribal broadsides against the SNP will harden referendum loyalties, pushing “Glasgow Man” further into the arms of the Nationalists. “Instead of encouraging voters to move on from the referendum, Murphy seems intent on refighting it with the same tactics as before,” a senior Scottish Labour activist tells me. “But this time around, 45 per cent of the vote will deliver the SNP almost every Labour seat in Scotland.” At this late stage in the campaign, however, Murphy’s options are limited. In the seven months since Scotland voted on independence, rejecting it by a margin of more than 10 points, nothing else has worked to halt, or even slow, the SNP’s ascendancy.

 

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Alex Salmond stands in the middle of the Balmacassie Industrial Estate in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, surrounded by employees of the BrewDog headquarters and distillery. After a fire alarm sounded and workers gathered in the car park, the former SNP leader seized the chance to stage an impromptu photo opportunity. Although dressed casually in tartan golf slacks and a blue polo shirt, Salmond is in full campaign mode. Next week he will find out if his ­attempt to replace the outgoing Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon, Malcolm Bruce, has been a success.

The battle for Gordon highlights an ­under-reported element of the SNP surge: the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. Support for Nick Clegg’s party may have rallied a little in England but it ­remains terminally low north of the border. Polls suggest that the Lib Dems could lose ten of their 11 Scottish seats, including Gordon, to the SNP, with just Orkney and Shetland, a traditional Liberal stronghold, left standing.

Following a tour of the plant – Salmond wanted to meet here because he views BrewDog, a producer of high-quality craft beer, as a great Scottish success story – I sit down with the ex-first minister. He is in bullish form. “I’m very confident,” he says of his prospects in Gordon. “I’ve never lost a parliamentary contest. And the reason I’ve never lost is because I take absolutely nothing for granted. I work like fury.”

Salmond is unconcerned by reports that tactical voting by supporters of the Union could upset his return to the Commons. “Tactical voting is the philosophy of ­despair,” he says. “‘Don’t vote for me because you like me, vote against somebody else because you don’t like them.’ It’s pathetic. People vote for things, in the main. Politics is about a positive vision.”

Throughout his second stint in charge of the SNP, between 2004 and 2014, Salmond instilled a sense of confidence in the party that has helped steady it during moments of crisis. In retrospect, his decision, announced on 19 September, the day after the independence referendum, to resign and carry the responsibility for defeat with him, was a smart tactical move. His departure allowed his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, to concentrate on the forthcoming election.

Alex Salmond by Ralph Steadman

But now Salmond has to carve out a new role for himself in the party. Assuming he wins in Gordon, where does he fit into the SNP set-up at Westminster?

“I’m sure I’ll have a part to play in the ­parliamentary group and I’m perfectly content with that. But this is Nicola’s campaign,” he says. “She’s the leader. You can’t have two campaigns and you can’t have two leaders.”

Salmond praises the performance of Sturgeon, whom he claims has taken the SNP to new heights of popularity in England as well as in Scotland. “I think the real people of England, the plain people of England, the ones who have not spoken yet, seem to be taking to Nicola with tremendous enthusiasm. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all these people writing to us asking, ‘Why can’t we vote for the SNP in Slough?’”

Yet on the question of a second independence referendum, Salmond’s position differs from that of Sturgeon. While the First Minister argues that a British exit from the European Union could trigger another poll in Scotland, Salmond cites the failure of the UK parties to grant Scotland home rule as a potential catalyst. “We want the implementation of the Vow,” he says, referring to the promise of additional powers unionist leaders made on the eve of the referendum. “Not the watered-down, anaemic, diluted version of [the cross-party Smith Commission report] but ‘devo-to-the-max’, to quote the Daily Record; ‘as near to federalism [as it is possible to get within the UK]’, to quote Gordon Brown – or home rule, to quote everybody.”

Independence remains the SNP’s lodestar and motivating principle, but some Nationalists think that the party isn’t pursuing it rigorously enough. During her speech at the launch of the SNP manifesto on 20 April in Ratho, a small town just outside Edinburgh, Sturgeon received huge applause for reiterating her commitment to Scottish self-determination. “The SNP will always support independence,” she said, then added: “. . . but this election is not about independence. It’s about making Scotland stronger.”

 

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As far back as January, the SNP leadership decided to base its election campaign around three core themes: more autonomy for the Scottish Parliament, an end to austerity and opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. The goal was to outflank Labour on the left and consolidate SNP support among Labour voters who had switched ­after the referendum.

The strategy is working but the SNP could still find itself marginalised at Westminster after 7 May. Having categorically ruled out a deal with David Cameron and the Conservative Party, the Nationalists will have little leverage over a minority Labour government. Indeed, on the issue of Trident, SNP strategists privately concede that their negotiating position is weak. With Tory support, a minority Labour administration will comfortably win any vote on renewal.

Nonetheless, the SNP seems determined to prevent the Tories from forming another government. “There are parliamentary procedures that can be used to secure a non-Tory majority and we are prepared to use them,” says Angus Robertson, the SNP’s general election campaign director and leader in Westminster. “It will depend on the arithmetic in the Commons and whether Labour is prepared to join with the SNP to keep the Tories out.”

What if the Tories emerge from the election with a ten- or 20-seat advantage over Labour? “The UK is not a presidential democracy,” Robertson says. “Governments need to have majority support in the ­Commons. If the electorate decides there should be an anti-Tory majority at Westminster, politicians should act on that.”

Some commentators accuse the SNP of trying to manufacture a crisis of legitimacy at Westminster, or of plotting to stoke anti-Scottish resentment among English voters, to advance its goal of independence. “[Sturgeon’s] plan is as simple as it is deadly,” Matthew Parris wrote in the Times on 18 April. “Run a minority Labour government ragged, kick it around, wreck its authority – but refuse to let it die.”

This view is shared by Gordon Brown, who, during a rare campaign appearance in Fife on 23 April, described the prospect of a Labour administration held aloft by SNP votes as “a match made in hell”.

However, in all probability, the SNP is playing a more subtle, and less Anglocentric, game. Nicola Sturgeon can make life difficult for Labour in Scotland by working with Ed Miliband to implement progressive reform across the UK. By supporting left-wing Labour policies such as a mansion tax and a bank levy (both of which feature prominently in the SNP manifesto), she can occupy the social-democratic centre ground of Scottish politics as the 2016 devolved elections approach. Moreover, like Salmond, Sturgeon comes from the gradualist wing of her party. She views competent government as crucial to building Scottish self-confidence and, ultimately, to achieving independence.

On this point, Sturgeon is emphatic. “I firmly believe that success begets success,” she told me in a brief email exchange from the campaign trail. “People used to say the SNP [wanted to wreck] a devolved parliament. But our record, both in opposition and in government, shows we have done everything we can to make Holyrood a success. This was part of the process of increasing support for independence to 45 per cent from around 30 per cent.

“Similarly, helping to deliver progressive policies at Westminster would enhance the party’s credibility still further, and stand us in extremely good stead for the opportunities ahead.”

Since she became leader in November, Sturgeon has given the SNP a more coherent left-of-centre profile. In recent months, she has abandoned Salmond’s flagship pledge to cut the Scottish rate of corporation tax, committed to reintro­ducing the 50p top rate of income tax and rolled out an ambitious programme of land reform. Under her direction, the SNP is becoming Scotland’s natural party of social democracy.

The effect on Scottish Labour, already weakened by defeat at successive Holyrood elections in 2007 and 2011, has been ruinous. The party’s credibility in once rock-solid constituencies such as Glasgow East is evaporating. After the referendum, Jim Murphy tried to strengthen Scottish Labour’s patriotic and working-class credentials. In January, he announced plans to use the revenue generated by Miliband’s proposed mansion tax, the bulk of which would come from properties in London and the south-east of England, to hire 1,000 more Scottish nurses. He has also sought to remind voters that the SNP is, and has been for the past eight years, a party of government, not an anti-establishment insurgency. But little seems to stick.

On 7 May, the SNP will have an opportunity to inflict lasting damage on Scottish Labour, the linchpin of unionism in Scotland. If it succeeds, Ed Miliband may still end up as prime minister – but of a badly fractured United Kingdom. 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!