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 alien among us: searching for the meaning of David Bowie

A tribute to the man who reinvented pop culture and changed Britain, by John Gray, Olivia Laing, Philip Hoare, Kate Mosse, Paul Du Noyer, Kate Mossman, John Burnside, Will Self and Yo Zushi.

First published in a special issue of the New Statesman on 15 January, 2016, marking the death of David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016).

Philip Hoare: Lighting up a blacked-out Britain

In the hot summer of 1976, in white school shirt, black evening waistcoat and trousers, my hair slicked back and sprayed gold, I took the train to London where Kraftwerk’s crackling nuclear “Radioactivity” and the surreal brutality of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou gave way to the man himself, sunken-cheeked, too thin to be caged by the fluorescent array of strip lights behind him. In the oceanic darkness of the arena, I felt I was utterly alone with him, like everyone else. He was in his new incarnation, as dark as the times: Jean Genet out of Man Ray, burned black and white into our monochrome dreams, singing of “the return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. He arrived at Victoria in a slam-door train and was driven away standing in an open-top car like our great dictator.

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John Gray: The shifting shaman of the modern age

If your aim is to be original, you will most likely end up looking and sounding highly derivative. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece for the ruling clichés. David Bowie did the opposite. Knowing himself to be – as a matter of fact or fate – utterly singular, he chose to become a clairvoyant who served as a channel for the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. A commonplace view has it that Bowie was a chameleon who kept reinventing himself in order to exploit the turns of fashion. But his changes served a deeper end. By becoming Nobody, he became many people and at the same time himself. . .

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Kate Mossman: Reading the runes

A week ago, critics were reviewing his new album, Blackstar, and trying to locate the surprise. It had to lie in the music this time, when last time it was all about the delivery. He’d gone and got himself a jazz band, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, whom he first saw playing the 55 Bar in Manhattan early in 2013 (with a power only Bowie could wield, he sent the sax player out to do some of the promotional interviews for the album). Many of the songs are semi-improvised, with a ponderous, ambulatory structure that adds to a sense of mystery unfolding.

The centrepiece title track is a strange, ten-minute movie-of-the-mind that starts in the unsettling soundworld of eastern deserts and then breaks, unexpectedly, into a light Motown-tinged ballad with a tune that wouldn’t be a million miles from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love”, if you laid one on top of the other. This epic track actually came out last year, along with the album’s two other substantial offerings, “Lazarus” and “Sue”. I wondered if the joke, this time round, was that when you finally got your hands on Bowie’s new album you realised you’d already heard the best stuff for free.

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Yo Zushi: In defence of “bad” Bowie

Tonight remains the Bowie album I return to most often. Its critical panning seems, now that Bowie is gone, an aberration: no album that begins with the seven-minute masterpiece “Loving the Alien” and contains the rocking “Blue Jean” should have received the drubbing it got. The TV-special-style cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is as stirring, in its cold, almost Brechtian way, as Station to Station’s “Wild Is the Wind” (1976) – it’s like watching Elvis in Vegas through a sheet of ice.

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Kate Mosse: King of the outcast girls and boys

Where were you when you heard the news? My ma had always said she could remember precisely what she was doing, how the day felt, when she heard Elvis Presley had died. I’d never understood what she meant, not really, until today. I thought I would never forget the white of the tablecloth at the Santa Catalina Hotel, the swirl of Spanish and German, a little Russian and English being spoken around me. A half-eaten piece of bread and a third cup of coffee, growing cold. A little cheese and an apple cut in four.

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Will Self: A vaudeville star who spun new worlds

Unlike “Sir Mick” and “Sir Elton”, Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he’d done it not once, but twice. The message was clear: he didn’t seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself. Indeed, my only direct connection with him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter’s classic work of literary-critical history Opium and the Romantic Imagination, with “David Bowie” inscribed on the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I’d acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time (mid-1980s) was playing guitar in Bowie’s Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience, I mailed it back to him.

He never thanked me, even though I’d put a return address, but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who’d created not just one world but many, he was resting from his ­labours. I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre but then I don’t need to – his music, in common with that of the Beatles, constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed.

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A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

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Paul Du Noyer: Close encounters with the Bromley boy

Where the former Beatles turned their speech into Scouse-American sing-song and Mick Jagger trademarked a high-camp mockney drawl, Bowie’s pronunciation remained as neatly clipped as a Beckenham privet hedge. He chose his words with studious precision and delivered them with the quiet stoicism of an Ealing Studios RAF pilot. He knew that journalists are easily seduced by famous people who remember their names, and could flatter you with earnest inquiries about life back in England.

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This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie