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.
Show Hide image

The A-Z of the political year

2016 was a wild political year. Thank goodness it’s over.

A is for abortive Tory leader race


In the days after the EU referendum – while the mutinous Labour Party still had its nose buried in its impenetrable rulebook – the Conservatives chose a new leader and prime minister within what seemed like hours. After a fortnight of unedifying machinations, in which the “kamikaze candidate”, Michael Gove, destroyed both his own and Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions (see Y), the competition came down to Theresa May v Andrea Leadsom. Before there could be a final vote, however, Leadsom gave an unflattering interview in the Times in which she said that “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country”. It felt like a dig at May, who does not have children. May graciously accepted her apology, and the keys to No 10.

 

B is for breaking point


Sore about his exclusion from the official Leave campaign, Nigel Farage (see I) spent the referendum in his usual relentless quest for the oxygen of publicity [Surely “selflessly championing the working man”? – Ed]. The low point came when he unveiled a poster showing a snaking queue of migrants with the legend “BREAKING POINT”. Asked by Robert Peston of ITV if he was stirring up hatred, he replied: “I think I have been a politician who has been a victim of it, to be honest with you. When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you, they call you all sorts of things.” What things, sadly, he failed to specify. Perhaps “Pound-shop Enoch Powell” fits the bill?

 

 

C is for chicken coup


In the early hours of Sunday 26 June, the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was sacked for saying he had no confidence in the Labour leader. Throughout the morning, a drip-drip-drip of resignations followed. Of the Big Beasts, only Corbyn’s allies Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham stayed put (the latter with one eye on Manchester’s mayoral primary). The deputy leader, Tom Watson – no stranger to coups – was suspected to be pulling the strings, but was nowhere to be found, having posted a Snapchat photo from a silent disco in Glastonbury just hours earlier. Unfortunately for the rebels, Corbyn refused to resign and it became clear they could not make him do so, which led loyalist bloggers to nickname this a “chicken coup”.

 

 

D is for the Donald


There was a time when Donald Trump’s campaign for president seemed like a joke – the Huffington Post website even announced that it would cover the bid in its “Entertainment” section. But as it turned out, The Donald was deadly serious, and he saw off a slew of rivals to claim the GOP nomination.

His campaign was racist and misogynistic, pledging to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Despite trailing consistently in polling and forecasting models, he won the presidency on 9 November. He secured 306 votes in the US electoral college, helped by support among white, working-class voters in the Midwest, even though Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by more than two million.

 

E is for Ed Balls


Depending on your point of view, the former shadow chancellor’s stint on Strictly Come Dancing was either the best or the worst thing to happen this year.

Let’s not be under any illusions: Ed Balls is no Fred Astaire. During the American Smooth he heaved his partner Katya Jones around like a sack of flour, nearly dropping her. The sultriness of his tango was marred by a tendency to mouth the steps during the routine.

It was the high-tempo dances, though, where Balls came alive. A minute in to his rendition of “Gangnam Style”, he leapt through the air and landed with Katya between his legs, kicking like a horse. “I nearly passed out,” said the Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli. “It’s the best worst dance I’ve seen.” Sadly, on 27 November, “Glitter Balls” was kicked out of the competition.

F is for f***ing expensive food


It’s been a bad year for the back of kitchen cupboards across the nation. Marmite and Toblerone – big brands no one would miss if they’d never existed – became the first symbols of how Brexit will increase living costs. What next, Brain’s faggots?

 

G is for gobstopper


Owen Smith, the MP who challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, had a formidable record – of uttering gaffes. He once tweeted a picture of gobstoppers, calling them “the perfect present” for Nicola Sturgeon – to shut her up. He wanted to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, he said; he told Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood that she was on Question Time only because of her gender, and he has described the Lib Dems in coalition as domestic abuse victims. He also compared himself to a “Duracell bunny” when asked about Viagra (he has never needed it, apparently), and joked about the size of his penis. Perhaps it’s Smith himself who could have used the gobstopper.

 

H is for hostile (core group)


In March, the Times obtained a list of Labour MPs ranked by loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. There were just 19 trusties in the “Core Group” on whom Corbyn could rely, plus another 56 in “Core Group Plus” and 71 in “neutral but not hostile”. The remainder, deemed “negative” or “hostile”, included the shadow chief whip Rosie Winterton (since replaced by Nick Brown) and Sadiq Khan, now Mayor of London. David Cameron seized on the list at PMQs, saying his name could be added to the supportive group. “I thought I had problems,” he added.

 

I for Is that Farage again?

Rarely has a man so selflessly heeded the call to public service as Nigel Farage. Whenever, wherever – if there was a TV studio lying empty, he was ready to fill it. And if there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was the hated political establishment. He couldn’t stand them when wondering whether to run for parliament for the eighth time. He couldn’t stand them when celebrating his 17th year as an MEP. He couldn’t stand them when receiving an award from a political magazine for his career in politics in a room full of politicians and journalists. He couldn’t stand them when he reluctantly stepped in as Ukip acting leader (his third crack at the job). God, what it must have cost this humble servant of the people to accede to having a party thrown for him at the Ritz on 23 November, where he mingled with the hotel’s owners, the twins who own the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps most movingly, Farage demonstrated his hatred of foreigners meddling in domestic politics by campaigning for Donald Trump and nobly offering to be the UK’s ambassador to America. Let’s hope that in 2017 this humble radical can have some peace and quiet at last.

J is for Jo Cox

On 16 June – the same day as Nigel Farage unveiled his “Breaking Point” poster (see B), the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency. Her killer, Thomas Mair, was a white supremacist and terrorist who kept a Nazi eagle in his home, above a bookshelf filled with books about the Second World War. During his first appearance in court, he gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain”. On 23 November Mair was given a whole-life tariff, meaning he will never be released.

 

K is for Ken Clarke


Ken Clarke had a surprisingly enjoyable year, considering he lost the political battle of his four decades as king of the Europhiles. Comfortable on his “wild elder statesman” stage, he is preparing to be “the only member of the Conservative Party” to vote against Article 50 in parliament. During the Tory leadership race he was recorded off-air calling Theresa May a “bloody difficult woman”. His response to the leaking of the video? That it was an “extremely funny video clip” and three-quarters of colleagues “agreed with every word”. When May entered No 10, Clarke told the New Statesman she didn’t have the “first idea” about Brexit, and called her regime “a government with no policies”.

 

L is for Lords, lots of them


“Will no one rid me of these turbulent lords?” David Cameron might have cried as the upper house insisted on admitting more child refugees (after kiboshing planned tax-credit cuts). At the start of the year, Cameron was talking about cutting back the power of the Lords – after all, as most of the hereditary peers have been removed, the Conservatives are no longer guaranteed a majority there. He left power before accomplishing this, but there is one obvious legacy of the Cameron era – the bloated size of the Lords. The former PM nominated more than 250 people to the chamber, including 13 in his resignation honours. These last included five Downing Street aides – Gabrielle Bertin, Camilla Cavendish, Ed Llewellyn, Liz Sugg and Laura Wyld – as well as Shami Chakrabarti, who had recently completed an “independent” report into anti-Semitism within Labour.

 

M is for Mike Hookem


You know a party is in a bad way when its biggest driving force is nominative determinism. And so it proved in the case of Mike Hookem, the Ukip MEP accused of delivering the punch that changed politics, in an “altercation” with his fellow MEP Steven Woolfe (then the party’s leadership front-runner) in Strasbourg. Woolfe was hospitalised; Hookem denies hitting him. The front-page pictures of Woolfe spreadeagled on the floor provided an accurate metaphor for the state of Ukip by the end of the year: Woolfe is now an independent MEP, as is Diane James, who was Ukip leader for a grand total of 18 days.

 

N is for Nissan

 

Like many other operators in the UK car industry, Nissan Europe has had a tough year. It even threatened to sue Vote Leave for using its logo in its pro-Brexit literature. So it must have been a very persuasive conversation with Business Secretary Greg Clark that led to it keeping its Sunderland plant open. After “support and assurances” from the UK government, the Japanese company will manufacture the new Qashqai and X-Trail 4x4s in the north-eastern constituency whose Brexit vote was an early referendum-night indicator of the final result. Other industries are now hankering after similar red-carpet treatment from the government.

 

O is for Obama


On a visit to London in April, the outgoing US president urged Britons to vote to stay in the EU, in order to avoid going to “the back of the queue” to strike a trade deal with the US in the event of Brexit. His intervention was welcomed by the Remain campaign, but deplored as “elite interference” by many on the Leave side.

 

P is for Panama Papers


It took a year for journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries to analyse the Panama Papers: 11.5 million documents leaked by an anonymous whistleblower, which exposed how companies and individuals used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to shield their assets from scrutiny (and, often, taxation in their home country). The repercussions were felt around Europe: Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after it emerged that he had held a stake in one of the country’s bankrupt banks; the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko were named in the papers; and David Cameron faced questions over a trust inherited from his father. Sergei Roldugin, a cellist who is godfather to Vladimir Putin’s elder daughter, was shown to have assets of at least $100m.

 

Q is for quitting


“BRITS DON’T QUIT”, Winston Churchill proclaimed from pro-EU campaign posters plastered around London. These were signed: “Sir Winston Churchill, Founder of the European Union”. As if that wasn’t enough of a stretch, David Cameron condemned Brexiteers as quitters in his infamous pre-referendum speech from a lectern outside No 10 – a move that is now seen as a sign of the Remain campaign’s desperation.

 

R is for reserved seats

 

Of all the political scandals, “Traingate” might be the least glamorous yet. On 16 August, a video showed Jeremy Corbyn sitting in a vestibule on a Virgin train as he outlined the problems with rail privatisation that had led to him not being able to find a seat on the “ram-packed” journey. A week later, Virgin released CCTV footage showing him walking past empty, unreserved seats.

His spokesman said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Corbyn had wanted two seats together, but this line was slightly undermined when the Labour leader told a press conference the next day: “Yes, I did walk through the train. Yes, I did look for two empty seats together, so I could sit down with my wife to talk to her.”

Still, Team Corbyn looked on the bright side: his campaign director, Sam Tarry, said the incident had drawn attention to their stance on privatisation.

 

S is for shortest leadership bid

 

The post of Ukip leader increasingly resembled the role of the Have I Got News for You host, with Nigel Farage’s vacant chair filled variously by Diane James, Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage, though not in that order. Various bids rose and fell, but none ebbed and flowed as fast as that of Farage’s wingman, Chief Lad of the Banter Squadron Raheem Kassam, who threw his hat in the ring with a promise to “make Ukip great again”. Breitbart UK, which employs Kassam, turned cheerleader for his campaign, celebrating every move that he made. “Leftists triggered over Raheem Kassam leadership bid”, roared one headline. “Raheem Kassam first ‘energised’ candidate since Nigel Farage”, said another. Then there was “Kassam in the Times: I could thrash May, Corbyn, and Sturgeon in head to head debates”. Outside the world of Breitbart headlines, however, he failed to win over Ukip members, and brought his campaign to a close just 26 days after launching it, saying that his path to victory was “too narrow”. Oh, Raheem, we hardly wanted to know ye.

 

T is for three hundred and fifty million

During the EU referendum campaign, Iain Duncan Smith was photographed standing next to the Vote Leave battle bus. “We send the EU £350m a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”, the slogan on it read. Mere weeks later, after the Brexiteers had triumphed, the former work and pensions secretary went on the BBC to claim that the figure was just “an extrapolation”, rather than a firm promise. There was another problem: the figure wasn’t correct. Even without taking into account things such as the UK’s EU budget rebate and the Brussels policies from which we benefit, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK has never sent the EU £350m a week.

 

U is for UB40


It was the most surreal political endorsement since Dappy from N-Dubz backed Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrat leadership: the pseudo-reggae band UB40 backed Jeremy Corbyn in the second Labour contest. Yes, the 1980s singers wanted Her Majesty’s Opposition to be as red, red as their wine. Still – unlike poor Ant and Dec, whose picture elicited no flicker of recognition from the Labour leader when waved before him – at least Corbyn knew who they were.

 

V is for vandalism


In the weeks following the chicken coup (see C) and before the glorious, gaffe-strewn emergence of Owen Smith (see G), Angela Eagle briefly ran for the Labour leadership. There were two main setbacks: first, her launch was ruined when the big beasts of the lobby ran out halfway through to cover Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Tory race. Second, she faced loud personal abuse, both on social media and in the form of a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office. Worse, internet conspiracy theorists decided that she must be making up the latter, leading to the emergence of this year’s strangest internet nutters, the “Angela Eagle Window Truthers”.

 

W is for Witney

 

In normal times, you would expect a by-election in the former prime minister’s old seat to be a routine affair, particularly with the new PM enjoying a thumping poll lead and at the height of her honeymoon. So no one expected any excitement from the by-election in David Cameron’s seat of Witney, left vacant after he stepped down to spend more time giving highly paid speeches and nursing his resentment. Instead, what happened was a remarkable surge for the Liberal Democrats from fourth place to second, showing that, after the EU referendum, a new battle line – Remain or Leave – is developing, particularly in cities and the affluent south.

 

X is for xenophobia


In July, the month after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Home Office statistics showed that the number of hate crimes reported to police had increased by 41 per cent compared with the same period in 2015. The sharp increase – which wasn’t reflected in other kinds of crime – declined in August, but the level remained much higher than before the referendum. Some 79 per cent of incidents were recorded as being motivated by racial hatred. The anti-immigration rhetoric of the pro-Brexit campaign has been cited as one cause.

The most high-profile attack occurred in Harlow, Essex on 27 August, when Arkadiusz Jówik, a 40-year-old Polish man who worked in a sausage factory, was punched in the head on the street. He died of his injuries two days later. The tragedy prompted Polish politicians to travel to the UK to seek assurances that their compatriots can still live in safety here.

 

Y is for “your stubborn best”

On 29 June, rumours were swirling around which Tories would run for the leadership. A “BoGo” ticket had long been touted, but Michael Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, was unsure whether Boris Johnson could be trusted. So she emailed her husband before a critical meeting, and told him to emphasise his support from “[Paul] Dacre/[Rupert] Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket”. She signed off: “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best. GOOD LUCK.” There was just one problem: she sent the email to a member of the public, who promptly leaked it to Sky News.

As a wry George Osborne later reflected, “. . . with a single email of only a few sentences, Sarah succeeded in switching the support of the Daily Mail, losing the support of Rupert Murdoch, destroying the leadership campaign of Boris Johnson, preparing the way for Theresa May to become the Prime Minister, beginning the leadership campaign of Michael Gove and ending the leadership campaign of Michael Gove.”

 

Z is for Zac Goldsmith


A busy year for the eco-millionaire, who lost the London mayoral election after a dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan and then resigned his Commons seat in protest over the government’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow. But the contest quickly became about Brexit, and the Lib Dems repeated their surge in Witney (see W) to take the seat. Ukip and the Greens did not stand, and the Labour candidate lost his deposit. Though it’s hard to extrapolate very much from the by-election in Richmond – which voted heavily to stay in the EU, while its MP was a Brexiteer – the result cheered Tim Farron’s party. The loss of another blue seat further eroded Theresa May’s slim majority, making 2017 a challenge for her. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016