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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Should Tony Blair be forgiven?

As the long-delayed Chilcot report is published, two writers reassess the legacy of the former Labour prime minister.

Peter Wilby: No, he legitimised Thatcherism

Even Tony Blair’s most steadfast supporters now acknowledge that he was guilty of errors in taking Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, particularly in failing to plan – or perhaps failing to insist that the United States should plan – for the aftermath of a successful invasion. But, they plead, this was a leader who delivered three consecutive election victories for his party, all by substantial margins, and seemed for a time to have turned Labour into Britain’s natural governing party. His governments introduced a national minimum wage, hugely increased spending on health and education, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, brought peace to Northern Ireland, lifted 700,000 children out of poverty, introduced civil partnerships for gay people, more than doubled the overseas
aid budget and put Freedom of Information on the statute book.

Does Blair not, therefore, deserve forgiveness for his mistakes over Iraq, mistakes that derived from a dedication to justice and freedom and an anxiety to take no risks with Britain’s security? Should he not be celebrated for his extraordinary achievements as Labour leader?

My answer is an emphatic “no”. Blair wasted Labour’s best chance in a generation to change the national mood and forge a new consensus. Far from making the 21st century an era of progress, as was supposedly his ambition, he created the conditions for another conservative, even a reactionary, century. He hollowed out the Labour Party, stripping it of purpose and self-belief. Not least through his behaviour after leaving ­office, he also hollowed out British politics, creating distrust and negativity. The political and social climate following the vote for Brexit – Labour facing electoral oblivion, the political stage dominated by shameless populists, racism and xenophobia once more becoming commonplace, the national mood sour and cynical – is his legacy.

That Labour needed to change in order to win office is beyond dispute. The tribal loyalty of working-class voters and the backing of organised labour’s big battalions were no longer enough. Social and economic change had turned the working classes into a minority and undermined the unions’ old power base in manufacturing industry. “Mass politics is becoming middle-class politics,” Blair’s polling guru Philip Gould observed. Labour could always count on the support of what Michael Frayn once called “the Herbivores” among the middle classes: the schoolteachers, university lecturers, artists, musicians, writers, lawyers, librarians, BBC employees and so on. But it now needed the aspirant young residents of Barratt homes, the private-sector middle managers and technicians who read the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, as well as “White Van Man”: the self-employed, self-reliant plumbers, small builders and electricians who were slowly detaching themselves from their working-class origins. These groups’ approach to politics was more instrumental. If they were to vote Labour, they wanted to know what was in it for them.

New Labour’s answer was that it would give them better public services, creating standards of provision and consumer choice comparable to those in the private sector. By some accounting miracle, it would do so without raising income tax and without raising state spending to levels that might frighten the markets. Labour was not just a party for workers organised in big unions, or for those reliant on welfare. It was “on the side” of the upwardly mobile.

This clearly involved a difficult balancing act, though one no more difficult than Labour’s past need to offer socially liberal policies to the Herbivores – for instance, the legalisation of homosexuality, or laws against racial discrimination – without alienating its more traditionalist, working-class supporters. Politics is about reconciling competing interests and winning the “floating voter” without losing your core support.

Here, Blair failed utterly. Indeed, he did not even seem to try. His governments did almost nothing to assist the industrial towns and cities of the north and Midlands that had been devastated under Margaret Thatcher. Rather, Blair made allies among the plutocrats in the City of London.

And so anxious was he to embrace globalisation and attract labour willing to work for “competitive rates” that, when eight east European states joined the EU in 2004, he agreed that their citizens could migrate freely to Britain without the “transitional controls” that were on offer. Ireland and Sweden were the only other EU countries to open their borders in this way. The catastrophic effects on Labour’s electoral prospects among the non-metropolitan working classes are now all too plain.

Instead of trying to achieve Labour ends in new ways, Blair offered a more inclusive Thatcherism. He did not strive to adapt Labour to changing times. Rather, he ruptured it from its past. Much of this was a matter of presentation and rhetoric rather than policy, causing maximum offence to long-standing Labour supporters. The “spin”, so much a feature of the Blair era, was always in a right-wing rather than left-wing direction. For example, the introduction of specialist schools was presented not as a means of strengthening the comprehensive system but as “the end of the bog-standard comprehensive”. Welfare reforms were packaged as “the end of the something-for-nothing days”. Ministers repeatedly promised new laws against crime and terrorism and new drives to lock people up. Projects such as Sure Start, on the other hand, received little fanfare. At times, Blair was frank: if the Labour Party was against him, he must be doing the right thing.

Labour policies on tax and redistribution were to be pursued, if at all, by stealth. In fact, Labour’s record on poverty and inequality under Blair was not at all bad. Just to stop them rising further was an achievement of sorts, given that the effect of globalisation was to increase inequalities – so that in America, hourly wages for the average worker had remained stagnant since the 1970s. But contrast New Labour’s record with that of the 1964-70 Labour government, which brought about a 29 per cent rise in real incomes for the poorest tenth of Britons, or even the much-reviled 1974-79 government, during which income inequality fell to its lowest level in history.

Under Blair, ministers were more or less forbidden to talk about either “inequality” or “redistribution”. The mere mention of either word, the prime minister thought, would send voters hurtling back to the Tories. Yet the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 2000 found that only 5 per cent of voters agreed that the government should “reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits”, while 50 per cent wanted more taxation and more spending. New Labour came to power when the British were disillusioned with the harshness of Thatcherite individualism and, for the first time in half a century, possibly ready for more solidaristic policies.

Data from the BSA surveys showed that between 1986 and 1996 support for redistribution never fell below 43 per cent and was often above 50 per cent. But after reaching its peak just after Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the pro-redistribution proportion began to fall and stayed consistently below 40 per cent after 1997.

In other words, Blair legitimised Thatcherism and inequality. By refusing even to talk about redistribution, he banished the subject to the political fringes. Inequality was no longer contested. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: they were there by God’s design just as they had been in 1848 when Cecil Frances Alexander published her hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Only the discredited and defeated dinosaurs of “Old Labour” were silly enough to think that change was possible. Instead of leading the British into more progressive territory and building support for Labour’s core values, Blair led them in the opposite direction, conniving with rich newspaper owners, notably Rupert Murdoch, to marginalise the left.

The Iraq War was just another example of Blair’s determination to flaunt his defiance of the party. It was all part of showing that New Labour was truly new, of burying for good the perception that Labour was soft on defence just as it was supposedly soft on crime, soft on failing schools and soft on welfare scroungers. Most of his cabinet opposed the war, as did most Labour MPs and most party members. This was not a difficulty for Blair; defying the Labour Party was part of his mission. If it involved an alliance with a US Republican president, so much the better. “Anti-Americanism”, based on scepticism about the US model of capitalism and opposition to America’s bullying of weaker nations, was another Labour tradition to be rejected contemptuously.

It might still be possible to forgive Blair if his conduct after leaving office had not compounded his sins. Not only has he refused to express regret for the Iraq War, he has also persistently advocated more wars and more interventions in the Middle East. Unlike his predecessors among post-Second World War Labour premiers, who generally kept their counsel after they retired, he frequently offers the party advice on where it is going wrong, warning it not to steer even slightly to the left.

Perhaps most unforgivable of all is Blair’s continued intimacy with the rich and powerful. He won office in 1997 partly because he promised to end sleaze and dishonesty in politics. Within six months of being elected, his government exempted Formula 1 motor racing from a ban on tobacco advertising that had been promised in Labour’s manifesto. It later emerged that Bernie ­Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss, had given £1m to the party’s campaign and then visited Downing Street to lobby Blair for the exemption. This was the first in a long line of dubious associations, also featuring the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the billionaire Hinduja brothers. In the year before Blair left office, the police investigated allegations of attempts to award life peerages in return for loans or donations to party funds.

Since Blair left office, his willingness to sell his services to the highest bidder has become almost a national joke. His “consultancies” with financial services companies, his links to Middle Eastern sheikhs and the brutal, authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, the $250,000 fees for speeches in the US, his acquisition of a property portfolio worth, according to one estimate, more than £25m – no previous former Labour PM amassed wealth on such a scale. Protestations that much of the money goes to charity are greeted with scepticism. His role as a peace envoy in the Middle East became another joke. Not only was the mission a total failure, his critics claimed he used it merely to make more business contacts.

Blair’s harsher critics compare him to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister who went into coalition with the Conservatives in 1931 to impose benefit cuts. But MacDonald betrayed a party he had spent most of his life building up; Blair had no Labour roots to betray.

His betrayal was wider and deeper. He misled parliament and the people about the case for the Iraq War. He treated his party’s activists – people who cared enough about democracy to attend meetings and hand out leaflets – with utter disdain. He embraced Murdoch and his senior executives as intimates of the governing party. He used the prestige and contacts acquired through elected office to enrich himself and his family. Blair’s greatest legacy is the cynicism, apathy and distrust, laced with anger, that now characterise the British attitude to politics and politicians. He betrayed our democracy, and that is truly unforgivable. 

Philip Collins: Yes, or Labour will not survive

In 1956 Britain experienced a foreign policy disaster in Suez that seemed to define its post-imperial malaise. Even at the time, Suez was written up as a sign of a nation in visible decline. The Conservative Party’s reputation for stolid competence took a knock and the prime minister, Anthony Eden, resigned in ignominy in 1957. But at the next election, Eden’s replacement, Harold Macmillan, extended the Tories’ overall majority over Labour to more than 100 seats. In the wake of the awful defeat of 1959, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose wrote a text that, sadly, bears rereading today. It was called Must Labour Lose?.

The point is that foreign policy hardly ever affects domestic elections. It matters in its own right – of course it does – but a party that becomes obsessed with a question of foreign policy is likely to part company with the electorate. Those commentators who opposed the Iraq War with great vehemence often forget that the electorate did not share their anger, even if it shared their conclusion. Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a majority of 66 seats in 2005, after the intervention in Iraq. The 2005 election was fought largely on the economy, crime and antisocial behaviour. Iraq barely featured. Yet, for Labour Party members, and especially so after the surge of Jeremy Corbyn supporters since May 2015, foreign policy is a central concern and opposition to Iraq is the irreducible core.

This past week, after an interminable wait, the Chilcot report into the conduct of the war has been published. Whatever it says, Chilcot is bound to be the least persuasive, excessively long book ever written. This is not to cast aspersions on Sir John or to prejudge his verdict. Rather, it is to observe that, even among the small group of citizens who read it, none will change their mind. Opinion is surely settled on the Iraq War. The time has come, though many will not want to hear it, for the Labour Party to learn to forgive Tony Blair.

I say this not for the sake of Tony Blair, who can look after himself. Though it has never been true to say he entertains no doubt, Blair still believes that his central judgement was correct. No, I say this for the sake of Labour, which cannot hope to become a party of government again until it learns to forgive. Or, if forgiveness is asking too much, at least to forget.

In making that request, I am very deliberately saying nothing about the war itself, about its rationale, its conduct or its aftermath. For the record, I was always sceptical that the stated aims of the conflict could ever be fulfilled. I would have been happier if the declared objective had been merely that as a known genocidal killer was vulnerable to an intervention, and because a political coalition to depose him was now possible, it made sense to do it. A war gone wrong based on deposing a tyrant is quite different from a war gone wrong that was linked to the 11 September 2001 attacks and based on finding a cache of weapons.

I also felt at the time, as I feel now, that the prime minister had been cavalier in following the precepts of his own 1999 Chicago speech, in which he made the best case in modern times for intervention in the affairs of another sovereign nation. In what was essentially an updated version of the just war theory of Thomas Aquinas, Blair set out the conditions under which such an intervention can be justified. There is a case that the Iraq War answers to most of the speech, but the third out of the five precepts presented by Blair is more troubling. This is the practical constraint. Is there a reasonable expectation of success? Even if the conflict can be justified for its purpose, can it work? The best critique of neoconservatism was always the claim that it simply wasn’t conservative enough.

I find I am all but alone in this moderate view, not very passionately held. I have no interest in trying to persuade anyone else of it. I do not disparage anyone else’s view. I am well aware, because I have been shouted at so many times in discussing the topic, that people take different views and that they do so with great passion. I do not wish to still such passion in the hope of making people take a different view. Neither do I think that the questions involved are unimportant. Of course they are important. They are a matter of life and death for people who, even when they lived, did so in circumstances far less comfortable than mine.

The best hope for the argument in Labour ranks is not that opponents should persuade advocates, or vice versa. That is impossible. The mature response now would be to talk about something else. The conversation is a circular loop. Even when people profess to be drawing lessons from recent history, the point is usually misleading. In foreign policy you never really step into the same river twice. Iraq was more unlike Libya than it was like Libya, which, in turn, was different again in most material ways from the turmoil in Syria. Each moment demands a specific response rather than a general aversion. The upshot of Iraq is that Britain has stepped away from other conflicts, as if every instance was a reiteration of the first. The vote on air strikes in Syria fell principally because so many MPs did not want another Iraq on their voting record.

This is the context into which Chilcot falls. It will cover much the same ground as the 2004 Butler report and it will be a major exercise in confirmation bias. Snippets of its million words will prove that absolutely everyone was right all along. Tony Blair will be the focus of most of the animus. As W H Auden wrote about Sigmund Freud, “he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion”. The reaction to Blair clouds the Labour Party now. There is no sense at all of admiring his domestic legacy. Today, at a point when border patrols may return to Northern Ireland, nobody from the Labour leadership is out there commending the remarkable work Blair did in Northern Ireland. In Labour circles, “Blairite” is straightforwardly a term of abuse.

It is applied with scattergun recklessness. Anyone who opposes Jeremy Corbyn – even Tom Watson, the man who organised a stupid student-politics coup against Blair – is denounced as a “Blairite” by the online muppets of Momentum politics. Last week the Labour leader lost whatever moral authority in the party he ever commanded. An insipid performance in the EU referendum campaign triggered a move against him by Labour MPs, the shadow cabinet and councillors. Then, just when it could scarcely get any worse, Corbyn chose the launch of a report into anti-Semitism among his supporters to draw a moral equivalence between Israel and “various self-styled Islamic states and organisations”. A Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, left the launch venue in tears.

And so, the last-ditch defenders of Corbyn rushed to their Twitter feeds to denounce this as the work of the Blairites and the mainstream media. As a newspaper columnist who once wrote speeches for Blair, I must say it makes me feel like the Wizard of Oz. And yet this is abject nonsense as political analysis. It describes, instead, a cast of mind, a psychological state of a strong faction in the Labour Party which just cannot throw off the past. The hatred is consuming for those who feel it, and the thing that it is consuming is the Labour Party.

A party of a century’s vintage is on the threshold of collapse. The publication of the Chilcot report will be an occasion to replay the old argument. The only effect now is moral indignation. Being angry lets nobody off the hook. The point has been made and now, surely, it is time to let it lie.

To which I can hear the instant response of the irritable wit: the only person who lied was Tony Blair. Blair can help himself. He has another cause to speak about now: Europe. He should limit his public interventions to speak about how we negotiate our way through the mess into which a generation of ideological Conservative politicians has dropped us. There is 48 per cent of the country keen to hear someone frame those arguments cleverly. Blair always does: but the omertà on Iraq extends to him, too.

It extends to all of us – not, I repeat, because it does not matter, but because we have exhausted what we have to say on Iraq. The argument is self-harming. It is corroding Labour from the inside. Somehow people have to find the courage to quieten their convictions. To forget, if not to forgive, not for Blair’s sake, but for your own sake. The Labour Party has said too much about this topic. A period of silence on its part would now be appreciated. The rest, otherwise, ­really will be silence.

Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for the Times, and a former speechwriter for Tony Blair

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers