Has global warming really stopped?

Mark Lynas responds to a controversial article on 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 (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.
Shadows of giants: the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where Deresiewicz taught for ten years
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Poison Ivy League: The dangers of a world-class education

The American Ivy League universities are accused of churning out automatons, whose principal task is securing a lucrative career. But is Oxbridge just as bad?

Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz
Simon & Schuster, 256pp, £9.99

Every January, an email pings into the in-box of 14,000 clever, high-achieving, hopeful but vulnerable 17-year-olds telling them that their Oxford application has ended in failure. As master of an Oxford college, I have seen both the hurt caused by rejection and the euphoria among the 20 per cent of applicants who are admitted. All of them, successful and unsuccessful, are freighted with A stars. It is a big moment in their lives – too big, because, for all its virtues, and there are many, I often wish Oxbridge counted for less. It is sad if you feel getting in will be the greatest achievement of your life and even sadder if you feel that not getting in is an unmitigated catastrophe. There are many other fine places to study and your life options don’t close at 18.

But if William Deresiewicz’s withering and dyspeptic description of the education provided by elite American universities applied to Oxford, these teenage “winners” should be pitied, not congratulated. He paints a Gothic picture of Harvard, Yale, the rest of the Ivy league, and many other reputable colleges in the US, where horrible academic neglect, rampant materialism and insufferable smugness combine to leave their students in an educational and moral wasteland. Deresiewicz would have us believe that these world-famous universities churn out spiritually impoverished automatons whose principal task is to proceed to remunerative careers that will in turn secure future donations to perpetuate the institutions they have only just about survived.

Deresiewicz is writing as an ex-insider: he was a professor in the English department at Yale for ten years until 2008. That year, he published the essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and became something of a messiah, or at least father confessor, for many who yearn for desirable things in academic life: indeed, in all life. Because Dere­siewicz is not concerned to attack Ivy League education only; rather, he pummels away at contemporary materialism and its myriad spiritual discontents and seeks to provide us, as advertised on the front cover, with “the way to a meaningful life”.

It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious undertaking. There are clarion calls for larger things and smaller things – for a more equal America, for civic engagement, less aggressive middle-class parenting, a more confident belief in the value of the humanities, a greater emphasis on teaching, tougher grading, more intellectual experimentation and risk-taking by students, greater respect for those in low-paid jobs – and much else. It is a passionate and quite often moving plea for the promotion of a more just America, and for reformed elite universities where students will emerge with greater maturity and wider definitions of happiness.

The argument is fuelled by his own story as the son of a pushy, educated, academically successful Jewish immigrant father who yearned for his son to make economically sensible academic choices. Young William fell in line and endured a miserable life as a biology and psychology student, before he finally found graduate school, Jane Austen and intellectual exhilaration. Many who read Excellent Sheep will feel pangs of anxiety and guilt about pressing down too hard on their own offspring in the interests of respectability and safety. But, and it is a big but, Deresiewicz’s fizzing anger far too often gets the better of his arguments and he runs amok. The attacks become crude, and ultimately unconvincing.

He wants us to believe that elite students are crushed and moulded by their parents, teachers or peers (or all of the above) into dull conformists lusting after material success. That sounds woeful. But elsewhere he endorses this rather more subtle view of one of his many correspondents: “Colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.” This hardly seems a disastrous state of affairs. Why, after all, should 22-year-olds be fully intellectually mature? Or have any fixed idea about the rest of their professional life? Some of their doubt arises precisely because they are trying to balance the attractions of a lucrative first job with other possibilities that pay less and might, or might not, offer more. I do not see this as surprising – still less morally bad.

Deresiewicz’s central targets may be the adults who run the top-notch universities but he talks a lot about students and his attitude to his “excellent sheep” is riddled with very broad generalisations, veering from reluctant admiration to hostility. At various points they are “smart and talented”. But they endure toxic levels of fear and emptiness, they don’t have time for relationships, they lack intellectual passion, they have too much of a sense of entitlement and they are timid and bland and lost. They want to do as little as possible (even though on the next page “they work incredibly hard”). Too few of them are sufficiently brilliant and restless – with a suggestion that it was once better. The students, described in sum as “32 flavours of vanilla”, are not so much objects of his sympathy as receptacles for his anxieties about social mobility and class.

Even those who do not rush off to well-paid jobs seem to leave Deresiewicz cold. Several times he attacks Teach for America (the forerunner of our own Teach First scheme) and the motives of those who sign up for it. Teach for America is “a sterling example of service both as résumé building and ruling-class messianism”. This may be true for some who choose TfA, but for others there are different motives of various kinds, many of them far from impure. His distaste about what he sees as the harvesting of credentials transmutes into unreasonable anger and constant suspicion.

Of course there are elements of truth to his descriptions of university life. At Oxford, students have to work hard (certainly harder than my cohort in the mid-1970s) and there is pressure. Not everyone can cope by dosing up on caffeine and sleeping it all off during the holidays. The welfare and counselling systems are busy. A limited number of students, though almost never the most able ones, have too much presumption and assume their talent and good fortune are an expression of superior moral virtue – but it is a small minority. And most students seem capable of creating rather good relationships. When those relationships go wrong they become sad, sometimes very sad. This is because they are human and young, not because they have been annihilated by career and exam anxieties. At the end of their time as Oxford undergraduates, students are asked in anonymous and large surveys whether they would recommend the place to prospective applicants. They answer “yes” – and overwhelmingly so. Maybe this is because Oxford is that much better than Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like. I doubt that the American top dogs are that far behind.

Yet there are differences between the American and British elite institutions and they are important. Deresiewicz, perfectly reasonably, fixes on America, but it is hard to read him, overstatement and all, without reflecting on those differences. Nowhere is this more worthwhile than on the subject of admissions. The Oxbridge undergraduate admissions debate is toxic. (Sadly, very little attention is paid to the graduate side of things.) Big-cheese politicians from all the main parties have attacked the universities, citing a range of familiar complaints – too many students from independent schools, too few from disadvantaged backgrounds, too few black Britons, too few from Wales or the north-east of England – and more.

The debate has often been painfully shorn of nuance, or even accurate facts about the way choices are made; but it is hard not to worry (and many in Oxford do seriously worry) about the nature of the intake, even if the causes lie in a host of factors that have accumulated years before any university application form is even looked at. The ones who are here are far more likely to have had their parents read to them before they entered nursery, been surrounded by books, been taken to museums, gone to good primary schools, lived in relatively prosperous areas, been well housed and nutritiously fed – and much more. I wish the many who did not benefit from all of the above could compete in large numbers on equal educational terms at 17 with the children of the meritocracy; but it is no surprise that this is a tall order. Whoever is to blame, it is certainly not Oxford students, privileged or not.

The teachers here are looking only for the best academic talent, potential, curiosity and capacity – which is not merely about what you happen to know when you are 17. Of course admissions mistakes get made, in all directions, but tutors are trying to make up their minds on academic grounds, not on the basis of extra-curricular glitz. At Yale, it all appears to be more complicated. In one of Deresiewicz’s better phrases, it is a “résumé arms race”. Prospective students need to be “well rounded”, with a host of coruscating achievements in sport, music, drama, team-building and “leadership” – not any of these, but apparently all of these. There are exemptions for some genuine cases of hardship where the superman/woman requirements are relaxed. At Oxford, an applicant from a poor background, or a school with anaemic exam results, is given special consideration throughout the admissions process, but in the final analysis nobody is offered a place unless his or her academic results and potential merit it.

Some might legitimately prefer this aspect of the American approach but there are other, less appealing reasons why some succeed. Deresiewicz cites an applicant categorised as “Lacrosse 3”: third on the coach’s wish list. And there is more than a handful of places for the children of rich donors. Each candidate is dealt with in three or four minutes by the university administration assisted by one academic. In almost all cases (unlike Oxbridge) the applicant is not interviewed. Those who berate Oxbridge, noting the seeming (and often real) greater diversity of American campuses, should reflect on the disfiguring warts of this way of doing business.

And then there is Ivy League teaching. As Deresiewicz would have it, “everything they teach is vocational now, because of the spirit in which they teach it”. There is, he says, almost no contact between tenured academics and students, and too much emphasis is placed on research and publication whether or not the work is any good.

Here he hits a nerve. The best universities in Britain, too, demand published research from their top academic staff. This is desirable, but serious-minded academics can easily find themselves torn between the differing rhythms and demands of teaching and research. Deresiewicz’s pithy summary of this dilemma is characteristically swashbuckling: “Good teaching isn’t simply undervalued; especially at elite universities, it is actively discouraged because it’s seen as raising doubts about your seriousness as a scholar.” Apparently, “religious colleges often do a much better job”. It is hard to know if this is even remotely true and Deresiewicz’s propensity to shout all the time hardly leads one to trust his judgement.

At Oxford, the tutorial system is alive, but under pressure. The vast majority of senior academics are contractually expected to teach undergraduates in very small groups and sometimes singly – and most of them do so willingly. This is not the most economically efficient way of teaching: it is, to use the modern idiom, “resource-heavy”. But when it works it is invaluable, certainly for the students. Many of the academics get something from it, too, but the juggling act required of them is hard and they are not that well rewarded for it.

In his final, political chapter Deresiewicz calls for the destruction of his largest target – the “hereditary meritocracy”. The decline of social mobility in the United States (and the UK) is a rich and important topic, and to that end he is desperate for students to be more actively engaged in American politics. But his own political analysis is feeble. The failed Democratic candidate in the 1988 US presidential election, Michael Dukakis, educated at Swarthmore and Harvard Law School (poor man), is a “high-IQ moron if ever there was one” but Barack Obama is even worse. The president behaves as if he has “no conception of competing values, interests or perspectives, no idea that society is more than just equations”.

Come off it. Governing America is not that simple. Rage and polemic have their uses, but so do rigour and a respect for complexity. Read in that light, Excellent Sheep does not make the grade.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World