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.
ANDRÉ CARRILHO FOR NEW STATESMAN
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A progressive's guide to Theresa May

The new Prime Minister has rebranded herself as a champion of social justice and equal rights. Should we believe her?

Over the past two weeks, a strange phenomenon began to afflict Labour MPs, left-wing think tankers and progressives of all sorts. They started to wish fervently that Theresa May would triumph in the Tory leadership election. Yes, the woman who sent vans around north London ordering immigrants who had overstayed their visas to “go home”; she who has long been the darling of the Daily Mail, which praised her lukewarm speech in favour of staying in the EU in terms it normally reserves for actresses who have lost their baby weight freakishly fast; the woman who (erroneously) claimed in 2011 that human rights laws had allowed an asylum-seeker to avoid deportation because he owned a cat.

May’s rivals for the Conservative leadership included the blustering Boris Johnson, the neocon Michael Gove (“I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once,” as Ken Clarke put it), the disgraced Liam Fox, the largely untested Stephen Crabb and, finally, Andrea Leadsom, the brittle Brexiteer who crumbled under scrutiny. May turned out to be the only serious candidate.

When the contest came down to the final two, she continued to pursue a quiet, calm strategy. On the night it was revealed that Andrea Leadsom had suggested that being a mother gave her the edge over May, who does not have children, her rival was on the front page of the Telegraph talking about her “positive vision” for the country and profferring a “clean campaign” pledge.

Then, at lunchtime on 11 July, Leadsom pulled out, saying a nine-week campaign would be “undesirable” and that she could not hope to govern when only 25 per cent of Tory MPs supported her. (This had the happy side effect for Conservatives of delivering a swipe at Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys the confidence of only 20 per cent of Labour MPs.) Immediately, May rushed back to Westminster from Birmingham, where she had given the first speech of her campaign, to be acclaimed as the new party leader and thus our new prime minister.

With that coronation, the yardstick against which May must be judged has changed. No longer is she merely preferable to the British Tea Party stylings of Leadsom; she must be judged on her own record and professed opinions. As we outline below, these are mixed. Nonetheless, it appears that May intends from the start to differentiate herself from David Cameron and George Osborne’s brand of corporate, chummy, laissez-faire Toryism. In background and temperament, she is already offering something new.

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The daughter of a vicar, Theresa May attended a grammar school before studying geography at Oxford University (rather than PPE or classics, the usual favourites of aspiring Conservative politicians). She worked at the Bank of England and then, after being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997, she was the first of that year’s intake to reach the shadow cabinet, as shadow education and employment secretary. In July 2002, she became the first female chairman of the Conservative Party and at conference that year made her famous “nasty party” speech. A succession of shadow cabinet roles followed, at Transport; Culture, Media and Sport; and Work and Pensions. When Cameron formed a coalition government in 2010, she became home secretary historically a poisoned chalice – and she was the longest-serving holder of that post since Rab Butler in 1962.

The first inklings that May was seriously considering running for the Tory leadership came in 2013, the year after George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget, in which he slashed the 50p income-tax rate and paid for it by raising taxes on grannies and pasties. Addressing the grass-roots organisation ConservativeHome, May delivered a speech that strayed widely from the Home Office brief. It also ranged freely across the political spectrum, borrowing as much from Ed Miliband as it did from David Cameron. She outlined “the three pillars of Conservatism”: freedom, security and opportunity.

When backing May’s candidacy, the right-wing papers inevitably compared her with Britain’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But a better choice would be Angela Merkel, a purposefully dull technocratic workaholic who has spent 11 years as chancellor of Germany.

May seems to be offering the same pragmatic spirit, which may come as a relief after the ideological fervour of the EU referendum campaign, with its grandiose promises and divisive debates. Had she spent the summer running against Leadsom, she might have had to tack right, stressing her anti-immigration credentials. As it is, given her rival’s early departure, the only substantial statement of her political mission is her launch speech in Birmingham.

This was an astonishing statement for a Conservative to give though perhaps not as unexpected as her speech to the Police Federation in 2014, in which she excoriated a roomful of (mostly male) officers over the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and sexist language used about women who reported domestic violence. “If anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality,” she said.

The surprise in Birmingham this week was that she talked about Britain’s problems in a way that was reminiscent of Milibandism. Energy bills were too high (an echo of the former Labour leader’s most popular policy, to freeze bills). Bankers’ bonuses had swollen, while real wages had stagnated. Monetary policy since the economic crisis, which has relied on low interest rates and quantitative easing, helped those who own their homes, at the expense of renters.

“There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation,” she added. “And there is a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country.” There was even a passage that would not have seemed out of place in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn:

“Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

Are these just warm words a social and fiscal conservative appropriating the language of social justice and equal rights? Behind the scenes, May has been a quiet champion of women in the party, co-founding the mentoring group Women2Win in 2005. Her “nasty party” speech of 2002 was a rebuke to an activist base that was socially conservative to the point of indulging racism and homophobia. Sam Gyimah, one of the party’s most prominent black and minority ethnic MPs, supported May’s candidacy because of that. “The reason the Conservative Party now has roughly a third of women MPs and a record number of BME MPs is because front-line politicians like Theresa set the party on that course,” Gyimah says. 

“I backed Theresa because her politics chime with my politics – that delivering on the economy is not enough if it doesn’t work for everyone. But also her track record of standing up for real injustices even where there isn’t an electoral dividend to be had, like on modern slavery and stop-and-search and her determination to confront issues head-on, which she did with our own party when she was party chairman.”

That said, her willingness to criticise her own side should not blind us to the many ways in which Theresa May is a conventional Conservative. Much of her success recalls Bill Clinton’s despairing phone call to Tony Blair about George W Bush, then a candidate for the presidency: “One reason Bush is doing so well is because he criticised one thing on the right. He is making people think he is saving them from the right.” 

"But," Clinton concluded, "It's a fraud because he actually is for them on everything else. I have to find a way to expose the fraud."  He never did. The opposition will hope for better against May. 

Now read the full policy audit on Theresa May

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM