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.
ALEX WILLIAMSON FOR NEW STATESMAN
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From antipasto to zoo, the A to Z of Brexit

We run through the Brexit alphabet.

As for anti-pasto


Is there any greater sign that austerity is not yet over than Boris Johnson getting the maximum value out of each of his jokes? In an interview with the Sun in September 2016, the Foreign Secretary suggested that Britain could control immigration as well as continue to trade freely with the EU in the following terms: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it. We are Pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.” Very droll. Just as droll as the first time he rolled out the gag, in a July 2008 Telegraph column where he defended his decision to go on holiday abroad by noting that Tony Blair once spent a break “in the Tuscan palazzo of Count Girolamo Strozzi where he forged one of New Labour’s few hard-edged ideological positions: he was pro-sciutto and anti-pasto”. Stop it, Boris! This recycling is pasta joke. If you carry on, Liam Fox will want a pizza the action. Or you’ll be moved to the Minestrone of Defence. [Please, please stop – Ed.]

B is for big blue passports


Last year’s vote to leave the EU was a long time coming for the Tory awkward squad. Now that they’ve won, what exactly do they want? Turns out it’s much simpler than trade deals and migration quotas: just give us back our blue passports! As with most of the Brexit debate, it’s a cause that will be lost on most people under 50 – but, for the Sun and nostalgic headbangers such as the backbencher Andrew Rosindell, replacing the burgundy booklets used since 1988 is the only cause in town. “It’s a matter of identity. Having the pink European passports has been a humiliation,” Rosindell, the MP for Romford and a Proper Bloke who’d never otherwise touch anything “pink” unless he could help it, told the Sun in August. Ministers have since pledged to review the post-Brexit passport design – proof, if any more were needed, that this government serves only the whims of our weirdest MPs.


C is for civil servants


Those poor souls in Whitehall must be missing the days when all they had to fear was the press being nasty about how many biscuits they were eating on the taxpayer’s purse. Now it looks like there won’t be any time for biscuit breaks. The former civil service head and kindly veteran mandarin Bob Kerslake warned Theresa May at the end of last year that Whitehall does not have the capacity to deal with Brexit. “It’s not possible to do that at a point when the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the Second World War and continuing to fall,” he said in November. The Prime Minister shrugged off his concerns. Now disillusioned senior civil servants are planning to go the same way as Ivan Rogers, the EU ambassador who resigned in fury in January. Still, the money’s good: the top trade negotiator will earn £160,000 – more than the Prime Minister.

 

D is for David Davis


It’s little surprise that the Brexit Secretary, David Davis – having run for the Conservative Party leadership twice, represented two constituencies, and been politically active since he was a student in the 1970s – approaches politics with maturity and nuance. Nowhere was his great experience displayed with more finesse than when he reportedly swooped in for an unwanted embrace with Diane Abbott in the Commons bar after the shadow home secretary voted through Article 50 (out of loyalty to her party leader and against her conscience). “I am not blind,” he texted a friend, when asked if this was true. He eventually apologised, and went back to antagonising European politicians instead.

 

E is for Eighth, Henry the

 

Brexit wouldn’t mean Brexit without the resurgence of archaic English legislation and an unelected autocrat inflicting havoc on a divided nation. So Theresa May’s attempt to use 500-year-old powers known as “Henry VIII clauses” to convert EU directives into UK law is pretty unsurprising. As the government website explains, these are provisions added to a bill which enable “primary legislation to be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation with or without further parliamentary scrutiny”. The mechanism, established by the testy Tudor in 1539 to make law by proclamation, could help the PM repeal individual bits of EU legislation without full scrutiny by MPs – to parliament’s outrage. But perhaps it’s for the best. Henry VIII was an expert in divorce, after all.

 

F is for FIFTY (50), article


Oh, Article 50. Who thought that such a small clause could cause such a big fuss? It’s the little bit of the Lisbon Treaty no one thought would ever be relevant – the part that tells member states how to leave the European Union. Not to be spoken of without first using the verb “to trigger”, and not to be confused with its hipster younger sibling Article 49 (the part of the treaty which explains how to join, rather than leave, clung on to by wistful Remainers), Article 50 simply lays out how difficult it will be for any member state that uses it, allowing only two years of negotiating time after notification.

In the end, Article 50 was invoked on 29 March by handing over a letter in public to the European Council president, Donald Tusk, despite dire warnings by the Telegraph, which claimed it would be “hand-delivered at [a] secret time and location amid fears of sabotage by Remainers”. So Peter Mandelson forbore to rugby-tackle the British ambassador on his way to submit the letter, and Tusk decided it wouldn’t be funny, after all, to turn off the lights and pretend he was out.

 

G is for Goldman Sachs


Suddenly, progressives are sad to see the notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs taking its custom elsewhere – or some of it, anyway. It has confirmed that “hundreds” of its employees will be moved out of London and it will base its decision on its future dealings with the UK on the nature of the Brexit deal reached.

 

H is for horses


The Commons Northern Ireland select committee is at the sharp end of the complexities of leaving the EU. In February, Michael Lux, the former head of the European Commission’s customs procedures unit, stunned the committee by casually mentioning that with the UK leaving the customs union, a dog or a horse wandering across the land border with Ireland would need a customs form. After gasps from the committee, the independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon replied: “I cannot imagine a form has to be filled out when a dog runs from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. This is just unenforceable.” Let’s hope not.

 

I is for Iraq

 

As promised, Kenneth Clarke was the only Conservative MP to vote against triggering Article 50. He told the Times the atmosphere reminded him of the Iraq War: “That was the last time I stuck my neck out in supporting a really unpopular cause – 70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative Party was in a patriotic fury. Within 12 months, you couldn’t meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.”

 

J is for Juncker

 

“Arch-federalist” is just about as villainous as one can be made to sound in the context of EU bureaucracy, and Jean-Claude Juncker is the man most often described as such by his Eurosceptic enemies. (He also once said that power was erotic, although he now finds it less so: “Why are you in love with a person? The day you know means that you have stopped being in love,” he mused to the FT in March.)

The European Commission president described Brexit as “a failure and a tragedy” and is riling Brexiteers by insisting that the UK settle its bill with Brussels before embarking on trade negotiations. Although the Luxembourger is reassuring Britain that this “isn’t a punishment”, the “very salty” fee could be as high as €60bn. Somebody pass Bill Cash the smelling salts.

 

K is for Keir (Starmer)


Oh, Keir. Things could have been so different. Running for parliament in 2015, the former director of public prosecutions might have hoped for a safe seat and plum job in Ed Miliband’s cabinet. Now, however, he’s one of the few adults left around the shadow cabinet table and an unhappy poster boy for Labour’s hopeless Brexit bind. With all the verve of a man rehearsing his own eulogy, he told the Commons of the Article 50 bill in January: “It is a very difficult bill for the Labour Party.” And so, despite Sir Keir’s lawyerly turns at the despatch box, it was. Although his competent performances and forensic scrutiny have given Labour hope, his stated ambition – for Labour to “speak not for the 52 Per Cent or 48 Per Cent but the 100 Per Cent” – is looking less achievable by the day.

 

L is for lords getting feisty


Perhaps there is something in the idea that Britain has a fundamentally different culture from its European counterparts. It must be the only country where progressive values are most vehemently defended by an unelected chamber, including hereditary chieftains. Yes, those freedom fighters in mink are the only ones to have provided any meaningful opposition to hard Brexit in parliament, sending the Article 50 bill back to the Commons to urge protection of EU migrant rights and a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final deal. They capitulated in the end and the bill passed – but let’s hope they make some more mischief with the Great Repeal Bill.

 

M for “My Maggie”

 

As Britain prepares to sever ties with a trading bloc of 500 million people just 21 miles from its shores, our government understandably needs to look around for new opportunities. And so Theresa May was on a plane to Washington to meet the new US president faster than you could say, “Grab them by the what?” May declined to raise Donald Trump’s history of sexist comments at their meeting, but she did wring a (sort of) guarantee out of him to remain committed to Nato. In any case, she charmed him more than Angela Merkel, who visited in March – not only did Trump not hold the German chancellor’s hand, he even refused to shake it for a photo-op in the Oval Office. To the delight of Tory Brexiteers, May and Trump appeared to get on well, with the president recalling the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Prime Minister May, he is said to have told his aides, is “my Maggie”. (Let’s be honest, she probably doesn’t call him “my Ronnie”.) Trump also returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, an act that brought a couple of right-wing lobby journalists close to shedding tears of patriotic joy.

 

N is for Nazis

 

It wouldn’t be a proper political event without someone making an inappropriate reference to Nazis, and our politicians haven’t disappointed this year. Ever the diplomat, Boris Johnson accused the French president, François Hollande, of wishing to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie”. If he wishes to make comparisons to a propaganda-driven insurgency based on scapegoating minority groups, Johnson needn’t look back so far in the past . . .

 

O is for Osborne


The former chancellor George Osborne is enjoying winding up his old cabinet rival Theresa May from the back benches, warning that Brexit will be a “bitter” divorce and accusing the government of choosing “not to make the economy
the priority”. However, this is just another part-time occupation in an increasingly cluttered CV. George “Six Jobs” Osborne is advising the investment firm BlackRock, fulfilling private speaking engagements, working as a McCain Institute fellow, chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, representing the constituents of Tatton (sometimes), and now the editor of the London Evening Standard.

Good for him! Finally, he is delivering on the promise he made at the Treasury of “full employment”.

 

P is for the press

 

The Brexit-supporting press has responded to recent events with the calmness and classiness for which it is famed. The Sun beamed “Dover and out” on to the White Cliffs to celebrate Article 50 being invoked. The Mail wrote “FREEDOM!” in 9,000-point capital letters on its front page (under a headline about Nicola Sturgeon’s and Theresa May’s “Legs-it”). And the Telegraph celebrated a bonfire of red tape that will lead to Britain getting back the ability to use energy-inefficient light bulbs and slaughter insufficiently endangered newts. Suddenly, all the pain seems worthwhile.

 

Q is for queen


“QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” shouted the front page of the Sun three months before the EU referendum. Inevitably. Buckingham Palace swiftly complained about it to the press watchdog. The Sun stood by its story, which consisted of a source relaying Eurosceptic remarks made by the Queen during a lunch at Windsor Castle in 2011. Nick Clegg, said to have attended this lunch, called the story “nonsense”. But the tabloid – ever tenacious in pursuit of dubious news values – ran a similar front page on the eve of the vote: “What Queen asked dinner guests: GIVE ME THREE GOOD REASONS TO STAY IN EUROPE”. The next day, the country gave her its answer.

 

R is for red, white and blue Brexit

 

Suggesting Brexit is nothing more than government by tea towel, Theresa May sent a shudder through the nation in December by describing her chief goal as a “red, white and blue Brexit”. This was in response to commentators characterising the middle ground between a hard and a soft departure as “grey Brexit”. Presumably, given the racial overtones of some of the Leave campaigning, she didn’t want the idea of a “white Brexit” to gain currency.

 

S is for Scotland

 

“Now is not the time” was Theresa May’s response to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum, in the light of Scotland voting Remain. The Prime Minister believes Scottish voters should have full knowledge of the Brexit deal before going to the polls again. Which is kind of an argument for a second EU referendum on the final terms, but shhhh. During the campaign, top Brexiteers queued up to dismiss the prospect of Scottish independence returning to the table. Nigel Farage called the idea “moonshine”; David Davis said it would happen “under no circumstances”; the Labour Leaver Kate Hoey described it as a “wonderful red herring”; and the failed Tory leadership candidate Michael Gove said there was “no prospect” of it.

 

T is for Singapore model, the


The idea of copying Singapore’s low-tax, low-regulation economic model has long been popular with the kind of Brexiteer who would willingly read Ayn Rand. But has that country provided the blueprint for Brexit Britain? Jeremy Corbyn seems to think so, as he has been trying to get the rest of us to call it “Bargain-Basement Brexit”. And in her Lancaster House speech in January, Theresa May warned the EU27 that the UK would impose “the competitive tax rates and the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors” if they offered the UK a bad deal. Is there a catch? Er, yes: the UK’s corporation tax rate is already low in European terms. And in truth, Singapore’s dirigiste technocratic government would give Douglas Carswell nightmares. Oh, and a quarter of its population are immigrants.

 

U is for Unexpectedly welcome

 

Over the past few months, left-wing Remainers have started to experience an unusual, creeping sensation. Is it . . . are they . . . could it be that they are happy to see Tony Blair? This disconcerting feeling has been helped by the Blessed Toblerone’s decision to give up some of his more whiffy lucrative side hustles (he is also doing up most of his shirt buttons again). In the absence of other strong pro-European voices, Blair has returned to the fray, making the case for liberal internationalism and arguing that the public should have the chance to change its mind on Brexit once it knows the final deal. Stop sounding so reasonable, Tony. It’s unnerving.

 

V is for Verhofstadt


“Get thee behind me, Satan,” was David Davis’s message to Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s gap-toothed chief negotiator, in evidence to the Commons foreign affairs select committee in September. The former Belgian prime minister was all too happy not to oblige – and became a leading player in the pre-divorce phoney war. His contributions to the debate, such as suggesting “associate citizenship” of the EU for disenfranchised Britons post-Brexit, have been catnip for the 48 Per Cent. Equally unhelpful has been his suggestion that an independent Scotland would have no problem retaining EU membership. No wonder Nigel Farage called his appointment a “declaration of war”.

 

W is for WTO terms

 

Hardly anyone knows what it means, but nevertheless “WTO terms” is a magical phrase suddenly being used by everybody on all sides of the Brexit debate to shut opponents up. Basically, if the UK doesn’t strike a trade deal with the EU, then it will trade according to World Trade Organisation rules, which would bring in tariffs or other trade barriers for some of our exports of products and services to EU countries, and vice versa.

 

X is for x-iting the EU


The Department for Exiting the EU, set up by Theresa May after the 23 June referendum, is not Whitehall’s most popular hangout. Civil servants in other departments are frustrated by its existence, as Brexit has repercussions for every policy brief. Some of the ministry’s officials have been characterised as “school bullies”, barging in to take control of everything. Perhaps, like No 10, the Foreign Office and Treasury, it could enhance its reputation with a cat, which could be called DExMew.

 

Y is for yacht

Leavers are ever keen to talk up Britain’s future as a buccaneering trading nation – and some are taking it nauseatingly literally. Up to 100 Conservative MPs are backing a Daily Telegraph campaign to spend £120m on a shiny new replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, decommissioned by Tony Blair in a fit of Europhile pique in 1997. They believe a new yacht – but not, say, a decent trade deal – is the key to the renewed success of Global Britain’s export sector. And as if this weren’t the perfect imperial nostalgia trip, the MPs Gerald Howarth and Jake Berry have suggested slashing the international aid budget to pay for it. The international trade minister Mark Garnier has warned them off that idea but encouraged them to formulate a business plan. “No one is trying to stop you bringing one forward,” he said. Can somebody please try?

 

Z is for Zoos


No, we didn’t just need a Z entry. About 80 per cent of our animal welfare law originates from the EU, which is praised as an animal-friendly area – compared to, say, the US and China, which have far less regulation. On Britain leaving the EU, our legislation on animal welfare will be up in the air. The only certainty will be mandatory pet British bulldogs for every household. What could be more patriotic? 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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