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 age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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