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.
All Photos: The Perth Mermaids
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Meet the mermaids trying to defend the coral reefs from climate change

Speaking up for the ocean is taking professional mermaids to the heart of Australia's fiercest political debate.

The tale of a woman who swaps her voice for legs might not always appear empowering. But the legacy of Disney’s Ariel has a new twist. Around the world young people are speaking up for the ocean by diving into it – as mermaids.

Recreational mermaiding has found its feet in recent years. Mass-produced tails are increasingly affordable, the dolphin kick is a great work-out, and MerCons (Mermaid Conventions) are on the rise. The appeal of fashion and free-diving are big parts of its attraction – but so is a love of fish, with some professionals putting conservation at the heart of their work.

This is particularly true in Australia, where climate change is decimating underwater life. Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is thought to have died in the last 18 months. “I remember crying at how magical it was and how angry I was at what we were doing to it,” says Jessica Bell from Perth. “I just want to grab our government, shove their heads under there and say ‘Look at what we have, look at how special it is – can you see why we need to protect it at all costs!’"

Jess performs as a mermaid at the Aquarium of Western Australia, together with her friend Amelia Lassetter. The two met studying art at university, where they hand-crafted their first tail. Disney's Little Mermaid film was definitely an inspiration here, yet that is far from their whole story: “Don't get me wrong, we love Disney, but this is about so much more for us,” says Jess, “it is our livelihood. It is connected to our art, fitness and mental health; we connect with people from all over the world; we inspire children; we give the ocean a voice.”

The artists use their mermaid alter-egos to help children celebrate the sea and all things in it. That means wearing 15kg silicone tails that look like Anglefish (and feel like squid to touch). It means biodegradable glitter and learning to swim like a dolphin. But it also means blisters, back strain and chest infections. Holding your breath underwater can be life-threatening without proper instruction, and accidentally swallowing remains of the aquarium’s rotting fish-food is a hazard of the job. 

By far the most challenging part of their work, however, is spreading the word about the problems the oceans face. “Many people don’t know exactly what coral bleaching is, or that coral is a living animal, as opposed to a plant.” says Jess, “Others are unaware of what an important cornerstone of the ocean ecosystem coral reefs are – or simply don’t seem to care.”

In fact, talking about the reef’s destruction is taking the mermaids to the heart of Australia’s most polarised political issue: climate change.

The environmental minister Josh Frydenberg recently described Unesco's decision to leave the reef off its “In Danger” list as a “big win” for the centre-right Australian government. But environmentalists beg to differ, saying the plan downplays Australia's responsibility to cut its own CO2 emissions: “The political response to the enormous damage being done to the coral and the marine life on our Great Barrier Reef has been vastly inadequate and doesn’t reflect the urgent threat a warming planet poses to the ecosystem,” says Geoff Cousins, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Of primary concern are plans to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This scheme will see increased industrial traffic across the nearby reef and unleash decades of pollution. The result is a situation in which climate change has become so highly charged that “some organisations prefer not to talk about it,” says Josh Meadows from Environmental Justice Australia.

Where does this leave professional mermaids? The word mermaid is derived from the “mere” meaning water and “maid” meaning servant, explains Jess. “So we are like the guardian or servants of the ocean. We are literally half fish, half human; a bridge of understanding between land and sea.”

Balancing this impulse with the politics of their employers is not always easy. “There are some aquariums in the world that are extremely commercial and not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever,” says Jess. “Yet there are others that have really great conservation messages, such as the government-run Great Barrier Reef HQ.”

Some aquariums have also focused on cultivating an interest in how the oceans work at a young age – which is where mermaids can play a part. The challenge, Jess explains, is to explain climate change to kids without scaring them, boring them, or leaving them racked with guilt: “Younger children don’t understand climate change, but they do understand animals and plants and can be engaged by them."

This was the case for Amelia, Jess's fellow mermaid. As a child, she used to collect coral off the beach and think it was beautiful. Then one day her mother told her that what she had found was actually the skeleton of coral that used to be alive. "She was shocked," Jess says.

Thankfully their efforts, alongside those of the wider environmental community, are showing signs of success. A recent poll from the Climate Institute revealed that 66 per cent of Australians have a high level of concern about climate change, while the campaign against the Adani mine is fast becoming the environmental issue of the day.

There is of course still much more to be done, with the legal team at Environmental Justice Australia calling on the government to set even stronger goals to cut climate pollution and to stop supporting new mines. Yet however hard it can be, and however “trivial or childish” they may appear to some, the mermaids are resolved to continue their role. “Sometimes we feel helpless," Jess says. "But we always come full circle and are determined to do our part to help." 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.