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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Who would oppose Scottish independence in a second referendum campaign?

The case for unionism is there. But after Brexit, who will make it?

Back in September, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mobilised her troops. Standing on the stage at the party's conference, watched by thousands of SNP supporters, she instructed activists to speak to at least five people each month in the run-up to St Andrew’s Day. 

At the time, with opinion polls against independence and the possibility of a soft Brexit still dangling above the Remainer heads, it seemed like a diversion tactic.

But by March, staying in the single market had been ruled out. Support for Scottish independence rose to 50 per cent, according to an Ipsos Mori poll. And Sturgeon has now declared that she wants another vote by 2018. 

Which will leave a lot of Scots asking: “Where’s the unionist campaign?”

***

Now that Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor, has retired from frontline politics, there is little doubt about who the star of Scottish unionism is. Ruth Davidson, the lesbian kickboxer who single-handedly revived the Scottish Conservatives, did so by defining her party as the voice of the union. 

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign, held before the Brexit vote, the Scottish Tory party leader pledged to do “a specific job” – oppose a second indyref.

However, despite Davidson self-described reputation as a “photo tart”, she is unlikely to spearhead a campaign. The Scottish Tories’ official position on a second referendum is denial (to acknowledge it is seen as playing into the SNP’s hands). She is also seen as too divisive for a cross-party campaign. 

“I think Ruth is a very talented politician and a good communicator,” Blair McDougall, who was head strategist on the 2014 cross-party Better Together campaign, tells me. “But she is not a figure everyone would unite around.

“I think she is smart enough to know a Scottish referendum isn’t the next stage in the rehabilitation of the Scottish Conservatives.”

If a second referendum should be called, McDougall expects unionist politicians to accept less prominence than in 2014. 

“You need politicians to do the dog-fighting in the TV studios when there is a particularly hot debate,” he says. “But actually this time it is probably more fruitful to be a campaign that is led by civilians.” 

While many of Better Together's big beasts are savouring retirement, the prospect of a second referendum is already causing some of them to stir.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last-ditch speech in favour of the union has been watched more than half a million times. Since the EU referendum – in which he made an equally impassioned, but less successful pro-union intervention – Brown has been lobbying for a federalist solution to the UK’s constitutional woes.

McDougall describes Brown as “indefatigable”, but expects him to focus his attentions on the “Labour side of things”. 

This touches on another change from 2014. Labour entered the Scottish referendum as a party defeated in Westminster, but still holding 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Today, only one Labour MP, Ian Murray, remains. Since the referendum, activists have fought and lost two elections and an EU referendum. They are exhausted and demoralised.

***

Then there are the issues. In 2014, the Better Together campaign’s message of cold, hard economic facts worked. Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK. 

McDougall believes economic realism is still the best strategy, if focused on an argument about protecting the NHS, and other public services put at risk by an economic crisis.

Scots on both sides of the 2014 debate have remarked to me that, as the Brexit negotiations sour, voters may think twice about quitting another economic union. 

Others are less convinced. The veteran campaigner I speak to compares the Better Together campaign to the later Remain campaign, which backfired after being parodied as “Project Fear”.

He says of the 2014 message: “It got us to the finishing line, but it didn’t make people feel particularly good.”

Some of the unionists I speak to believe a second pro-union campaign would be more targeted, with different messages for “left behinds” who voted to leave the UK, but approve of Brexit, compared to the pro-Remain pro-EU crowd in leafy Edinburgh neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, unionists fear the SNP may summon an emotional nationalism powerful enough to eclipse spreadsheet slogans – and that Westminster may inadvertently help if MPs try to block a second poll. 

“Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum,” the unionist campaigner tells me. “The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”

***

For now, the Holyrood and Westminster gossip is focused purely on whether there is going to be another referendum, and if so, when. But to me, the lack of an organised union movement betrays a deeper challenge for the UK constitution.

In 2014, Brown declared that Scottish achievements happen “not in spite of the union but because of the union – and none of us is any less a Scot as a result of it”. 

It was still possible, at that time, to imagine a Lib-Lab coalition taking power in Westminster the following year. The UK’s membership of the EU was intact. The economy was improving. 

Since then, Scottish Tories aside, the unionists have lost representation in Westminster, lost membership of the EU, and spend their energy fighting cuts and debating the impact of Brexit on the economy. 

Even if a second referendum is never called, progressive unionists have been left homeless by the UK’s mainstream parties. The Tories ask them to defend the UK's single market while turning their back on the EU’s. Labour, from opposition, is asking the same. Neither party is making the case for a soft Brexit, let alone a coherent argument for the ideal of unionism. If it dies in Scotland, perhaps not in 2017, but in 2020, or 2025, they will only have themselves to blame. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.