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 Brexit plague

Theresa May is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady that has already destroyed David Cameron and destabilised Britain.

Theresa May thought she had a shrewd plan for how to make Brexit work – first of all, for her. Having said almost nothing during the toxic 2016 EU referendum campaign (much to David Cameron’s dismay), she was well positioned – only superficially, it turned out – to benefit from the political devastation that followed. With Remain defeated and Leave destroying itself, May’s combination of saying nothing while projecting steely competence was artfully presented as just what the country needed.

No more pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, no running commentary, no flashy headline grabbing. That May didn’t chase headlines became the new headline. It was a seductive narrative, given the shouty unpleasantness that had come before. The Prime Minister’s moral authority became subtly bound up with avoiding saying too much: a void had entered a vacuum and it was being presented as a virtue. “He posits a principle,” as Nietzsche quipped, “where he lacks a capacity.”

But the Brexit strategy that won May power during the post-referendum carnage – there’s been an earthquake: everyone lie down very still under a table – turned out to be inadequate as a plan for contesting a general election. The longer the campaign dragged on, the clearer the contours of the gaps and inadequacies became. Conservative MPs, most of whom are Remainers, were asking the country to vote in a parliamentary majority in order to smooth the path of a hard Brexit. Over the course of the campaign, voters sniffed expediency and called it out.

The convenient narrative now in vogue – that the election was scuppered by May’s advisers – is a displacement activity. In fact, May’s advisers had initially done almost too good a job at turning her deficiencies into virtues. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t make enough of May; they had made too much. The shortfall between myth and reality added to the look of a politician who had been rumbled. During the election campaign, an uncomfortable alternative crystallised: the absence of style does not guarantee the presence of substance.

It is hard to imagine a swifter or more complete collapse in political standing. The wild swings in May’s reputation, however, offer a kind of mitigation. She must take responsibility for the campaign, but not for the national mood, especially how it has been coarsened and confused by Brexit. Just as May didn’t deserve her stellar ­pre-election personal polling, she doesn’t deserve the opposite arrangement now.

Is Britain becoming increasingly ungov­ernable? Some argue that the electorate has internally contradictory desires: first it votes for Brexit, then it votes to deprive the government of a majority as it tries to effect Brexit. A rival theory holds that the country has been let down by poor political leadership. But the two explanations, apparently opposed, in fact interact in a compound ­effect: erratic leadership unsettles the judgement of those being led.

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A friend of mine mischievously likened this to a familiar rural scene: “Anyone who has observed a large flock of sheep being marshalled by a young or incompetent sheepdog will have noticed how, with each badly executed move by the sheepdog, the flock becomes ever more frightened and rebellious.”

Confusion also manifests itself as a thirst for someone to blame, and it has briefly settled on May. She is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady: the Brexit plague.

Given that many of us are getting used to being wrong so much of the time – I anticipated a Remain win and then a May majority – I was pleased to chance upon an old column I wrote for this magazine, the central argument of which I’d almost forgotten: “The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days . . . Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic . . .

“To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by ­Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches”?

I wrote those lines in July 2016, when Theresa May had been Prime Minister for one week. It was one thing, I argued, to win referendum support for Brexit as a story about what Britain should or could become (or what it once was). But any politician ­trying to make Brexit a political reality would be left “floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate”.

During this year’s general election, however, I failed to follow my own logic. If I had done so, I would have seen that May would find it much harder than everyone predicted to win an election while keeping the Brexit Question under control. She tried not talking about Brexit, and that sounded disingenuous. Then she tried talking about Brexit, but there wasn’t much appetite for listening.

May’s Brexit strategy and the rest of her electoral pitch were in contradiction. On the one hand, there were the reassurances to the Brexit constituency: May the steely deliverer of promises, the “bloody difficult” woman of her word, with an unflinching desire to follow things through. Brexit means Brexit; sighs of relief all round.

Then there was the usual play to the bottom line: the Tories are the only people you can trust with the economy. In other circumstances, even a relatively flat and uninspiring Tory leader who promised “strong and stable” leadership amid economic uncertainty – a firm hand on the tiller and all that – would surely have defeated the Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott axis comfortably.

But these are not normal circumstances, because the economic uncertainty is bound up with a choice and a policy: namely Brexit. So May, in effect, was promising to provide strength and stability in order to deliver certain uncertainty. She made a big play of being just the person who could calmly and unshakeably steer the ship inexorably towards what will surely be a huge storm.

You can be totally confident it’s going to happen, that thing which inspires little confidence, but you can’t trust Labour with the numbers: this was the Tory party’s idea of a trump card. The second part is definitely true, but it loses its lustre after the Brexit bit.

Here there were similarities with the 2016 US presidential election (albeit a different result). Donald Trump was gifted the ­perfect opponent. He is a vulgar fraud who is professionally dodgy, yet his easy defence was: “But what about the Clintons?” For the establishment also had reputational problems, only with the added burden of lacking both the entertainment factor and an outsider narrative. The ideal candidate to beat Trump would have been self-evidently principled, which has never been a strong suit for the Clintons.

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The Tories, with their strong and stable pursuit of a hard Brexit, were tainted by subliminal economic uncertainty. And Corbyn’s Labour, vide Diane Abbott at the calculator, was also inevitably tainted by economic uncertainty. Labour, however, could sugar the pill with a lot more free stuff. The lesson here is not, as some Conservatives have argued following Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Theresa May’s debacle, that it is no longer possible to win as a stability candidate. But it is true that a stability candidate cannot easily succeed if he or she shares a sufficiently similar weak spot with a more novel and superficially intriguing electoral outsider.

It turned out that Labour had chosen a strangely effective moment to take refuge in frivolous dissent. In these serious times, unseriousness proved a harbour for them. Though it sounds absurd, it is possible that a more credible opposition would have done worse at the polls because the Tory scare story would have felt more plausible. Labour has another advantage: even though the party played its part with its feeble referendum campaign, the electorate doesn’t blame Labour for the Brexit-induced political crisis. Nor should it.

Given that backdrop, my conjecture is that for all the flaws of May’s campaign – the defensive catenaccio, the bleak tone, the lack of wit and charm – the election could never have been properly about the Prime Minister. Ironically, by trying to turn the election into a vote of confidence in her competence, May in fact made it less likely that she would become the personification of Brexit.

Instead, she will now probably end up as a bit-part player in a much bigger story: the tale of Britain’s increasingly ham-fisted attempt to leave the EU on tolerable terms. For a quiet Remainer whose catchphrase became “Brexit means Brexit”, that is an appropriate decline in influence.

When the election was called, initially it seemed like another pragmatic masterstroke; the Tory party, which understands power better than any other party in the world, was doing what it does best: reorganising itself to benefit from the new political reality. Yet there was a different kind of shy Tory during this election: not the shy Tory who doesn’t want to own up to Toryism, but the shy Tory who sought a modest win. Many Conservative supporters I know wanted May to win the election but not too handsomely. They feared a landslide would lead to a resurgent Europhobic Tory right. Far from the original spin that the election was needed to create a bulwark against the hard Brexiteers, Tory-Remain voters feared the opposite. And when lots of your own potential supporters don’t want a big win, you scarcely win at all.

It is often said that early elections backfire because the electorate resents the disruption. In this instance, that resentment was especially deep among Tory-leaning Remainers.

There is always a deeper rhythm and May is not entirely responsible for the beating drum. It is not quite true that, in her words to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, she “got us into this mess”.

The Brexiteers, most of them Conservatives, created the mess. Their relentless obsession with Europe pressed David Cameron into holding a referendum. Strands of the Leave campaign pandered to mob elements that they then couldn’t appease. Then came the Brexiteers’ inability to settle on a realistic candidate after the referendum, leaving a Remainer to do their bidding.

My first instinct after the referendum was that the process of Brexit had to be fronted by a Brexiteer. It was their show: over to them. When that person became Andrea Leadsom, I recoiled and changed my mind. Now I think I was right first time. Brexit must anoint one of its own. I’m also beginning to suspect that the electorate’s desire to see the right people blamed for Brexit will prove stronger than the desire to actually brexit. The superficial logic said: Corbyn can’t be PM, so call an election. A quite different disquiet was revealed: who is to blame for this annoying chaos?

That is an augury for the immediate future of British politics – blame. When a new economic reality bites, there will be a lot of Brexit anger to be redirected. In the process, the old political parties and alignments will be pushed to breaking point.

Perhaps the pull of political justice will demand that the cracks, when they come, ought to be in the appropriate places. That craving for justice may trump the need for competence. If Brexit does turn into a disaster movie, who would be a suitable protagonist? It is hard to escape the logic that the most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument.

When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain.

Step forward, Boris Johnson: your country needs you. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.