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.
The Armenian genocide memorial in Armenia. Photo: Flickr/z@doune
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The Armenian genocide: the journey from victim to survivor

The global activity around the Armenian genocide centenary is unprecedented – reality TV stars, western lawyers, Turkish intellectuals, metalheads and the Pope have all spoken out. But has this brought international recognition any closer?

When I mention that I’m Armenian to new people I meet, I usually receive one of two reactions. One involves Kim Kardashian. The other is a vague awareness of something horrible that happened during the First World War. It’s particularly noticeable this year, as the world (including cousin Kim) has lingered a little longer than usual on the events of the Armenian genocide as it reaches its centenary.

Today is 24 April, a date that has resonated for me ever since I was born. Well, the Armenian pronunciation of it has, anyway (“Uhbril Ksan Chors”). Today marks 100 years since the Ottoman Turks rounded up hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople, and executed them.

This was the first phase of a genocide that lasted throughout the First World War. The ensuing century has perpetuated the pain with silence and denial.

The facts are already out there – pretty much every western journalist or historian who has written about this subject, and many Turkish ones at that, will give you a similar account. During death marches and massacres perpetrated by the Young Turk regime as the bloody conclusion of its “Turkification” programme, 1.5 million Armenians were killed of an estimated population of 2.1 million.

A collapsing empire, war, religious hegemony, and a rumbling resentment towards the flourishing Christian people living in the heart of their empire, led the Ottomans to this final solution to the “Armenian question”.

And every Armenian in the vast diaspora today has been touched by the story. My grandparents on my father’s side were both born in Cilicia – a historic Armenian community to the south of Turkey. Their families both managed first to flee to Iskenderun, which was then part of Syria, when my grandparents were very young. Just before the Second World War, when Iskenderun fell into Turkish hands, they then escaped to Lebanon. My grandparents only met and married years later, in Beirut.

The Turkish government has always denied that its ancestors committed genocide. It maintains there were deaths on both sides (or, what the Independent’s Robert Fisk calls, “the old ‘chaos of war’ nonsense”). This has led to certain countries (like Britain) and leaders (like Barack Obama) being too craven to use the word “genocide”, for fear of angering a strategically useful ally.

Those writing about the genocide will repeat the same telling quotations from history: Winston Churchill calling it “an administrative holocaust” and “a crime planned and executed for political reasons”; Adolf Hitler asking his generals ahead of his invasion of Poland: “Kill without mercy men, women and children… Who, after all, today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”; the lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” using the case of the Armenians to formulate his definition, which was  adopted by the UN in 1948.

All compelling, but it’s time to focus on the present. The global activity around the Armenian genocide centenary is unprecedented. Will it change anything?


Kim Kardashian, the Pope and some metalheads

The coalition of people and institutions urging Turkey's government to move on from denial is now overwhelming. The Pope angered the Turkish regime by using the term genocide to describe the events during a mass two weeks ago. The European Parliament adopted a resolution last week calling on Turkey to recognise the Armenian genocide. Germany is poised to recognise it this week.

And aside from politics, Kim Kardashian caused hysteria on her visit to Armenia as she tweeted and broadcasted to an adoring audience the truth about her family’s past. Simultaneously, the popular Armenian-American metal band System of a Down has been on a world tour raising awareness of the Armenian genocide, playing a special free set in the land of their ancestors for the first time.

Plus countless books and articles have been published by western, Armenian and Turkish scholars alike giving ever more forensic examinations of the crimes against humanity committed 100 years ago. A prominent British example is the QC and judge Geoffrey Robertson, who recently represented Armenia alongside the barrister Amal Alamuddin (now Clooney) at the European Court of Human Rights. He has written a book called An Inconvenient Genocide, which contains reams of evidence.

“The deaths of Armenians were not a ‘tragedy’,” he says at an event to promote his book in London. “They were a crime, a crime against humanity – the class that we now call genocide.”

So an odd army of top British barristers, wildly popular reality TV stars, the Pope and headbanging goths around the world are just a few examples of an eclectic, broad-based side in a debate that is becoming increasingly difficult for the Turkish government to win.

“I think, for the coming years, that the Turkish political elite will be alone in denying the genocide, because the Turkish intellectual elite is moving on,” Vicken Cheterian, the historian and author of Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide, tells me.

“From my research, I’ve been discovering new people – so many Turkish and Kurdish individuals, scholars, writers, historians ­– who are dedicating their professional life, and sometimes more than that, to the study of Armenian history as part of their own history, and this is extremely encouraging.”

Robertson too is optimistic. He tells me: “There’s a terrific amount of literature coming out for the centenary, and I’ve met a lot of the authors. We’re getting over this silly, pointless argument over whether it was or wasn’t genocide, and instead exploring how it can be rectified…

“I think that the signs are good. The lack of response, very little response from Turkey, is significant. They don’t seem to have anything more to say. I sense the truth is now out.”


A rattled response

Turkey’s response has given the Armenian community and its international supporters reasons to be cheerful. The President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s clunky efforts to distract the world from the centenary have been embarrassing. They include rescheduling the date for the Gallipoli commemoration to fall on 24 April, inviting over 100 world leaders to Turkey for the day. The date should be, and always has been, 18 March.

To seal his “PR disaster”, as Simon Heffer describes it, Erdoğan recalled the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican following the Pope’s intervention, threatened to convert the ancient and venerated Orthodox church Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque, and his foreign affairs ministry accused the EU of succumbing to “Armenian propaganda”.

When multitudes of Turkish people mourn the Armenians each year, urge their leaders to accept the truth, and protest that “We are all Armenians” – with the world echoing the sentiment – the Turkish regime looks increasingly neurotic, paranoid, rattled and alone.


Wake up, world

But does the world really echo the sentiment? There are currently more than 20 countries that officially describe the events as genocide. Yet the UK has shied away from doing so, in spite of an unofficial political consensus that it did take place.

This is clear in Robertson’s Freedom of Information request that threw up a memorandum from the Foreign Office: “Turkey is neuralgic on this subject; our position is unethical. But given the importance of strategic, political and commercial relations with Turkey, it would be inconvenient to acknowledge the genocide.”

The US is slightly different. It does recognise the Armenian genocide, in the sense that 43 of its states do, and its House of Representatives has adopted three resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide in 1975, 1984 and 1996.  Obama, in a 2008 campaign speech, used the G-word:

The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, as president I will recognise the Armenian Genocide.

He hasn’t used the word since becoming President, instead referring to the genocide as “Meds Yeghern” (“great catastrophe” in Armenian) – a phrase that merely inspires hollow laughter among Armenians frustrated by our politicians’ semantic dances.


Moving on

As a British-Armenian, I would like to see the UK recognise the Armenian genocide, hear Obama use the word before he stands down as President, and for Turkey finally to come to terms with its history.

Even if you discount the injustice felt by Armenians around the world, the deathly cycle of annihilation should be reason enough to force the world to recognise the genocide. Places like Deir ez-Zor in the Syrian desert, where mass graves of Armenians were found, are the exact same killing fields occupied by Islamic State today.

So not only did the Armenian genocide give Hitler his idea for the Holocaust, but a century of impunity has made the very land where it took place ripe turf for further massacres of civilians.

Yet ultimately Turkey and its fearful Nato allies must call the crime by its name for the sake of Armenian identity. As if the culture hasn’t come under enough strain throughout history, it is weighed down by the burden of constantly being associated with death, sorrow and endless injustice.

The lead singer of System of a Down and modern Armenian hero Serj Tankian is reticent about Armenians being defined by their bloody history:

I think, with justice prevailing, I would like to see the Armenian culture move on from talking about the genocide,” he tells me. “We don't want to be known as the lost orphans of the near east forever. We want to be known for what we are today, and for what we've represented through our history in general.”

I find that encouraging, as someone who has attempted to bring the unique and joyous nature of Armenian culture to the attention of friends and fellow journalists.

Armenia has its own language and alphabet that is part of no other language family. It also boasts a formidable mastery of chess, a curious cultural obsession with pomegranates, numerous madcap proverbs, and lays claim to a delicious smorgasbord of enigmatically-named dishes (“The Priest Who Fainted” is a personal favourite). The country itself is a compelling clash of Soviet brutalism with the pretty symmetrical solemnity of its Orthodox churches. And you should see it take on Eurovision.

Only when denial turns to recognition can the genocide become part of that list, rather than always being the headline. And only when the silence on this issue is drowned out will Armenians be truly able to define themselves as survivors, and no longer victims.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.