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.
Leila Molana-Allen
Show Hide image

Why Britain and the US are helping Lebanon fight a secret front against Islamic State

The Lebanese Army has ousted 600 Isil militants from the border with Syria, but the assault was only possible with multi-million dollar UK and US military aid. 

On a craggy hilltop near Lebanon’s border with Syria, a Lebanese soldier is describing the British countryside.

“I went to Wales and the north of England for training in 2013,” he says. “There were sheep and cows and green fields.”

Knowing it is a sensitive topic, he is loath to expand. Instead, he extols the quality of the Lebanese Army food for troops deployed in this barren landscape. “We have meat, bread, vegetables, everything. We don’t know how long we will be up here. But we are good, and look at me – I’m fit.”

In late August, the Lebanese Army (LAF) began the "Dawn of the Outskirts" operation to oust 600 Isil militants from 120 sq km of mountainous territory in Ras Baalbeck on Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria. Troops made signficant progress against the terror group, which had occupied the land since 2014. Less than 10 days later, Lebanon’s President announced the job done.

Embedded with Lebanese army troops, journalists were permitted entry to land retaken just days previously from IS militants.

Convoys of desert buggies, Humvees and pick-up trucks kicked up swirls of dust alongside burnt-out vehicles, which soldiers said had belonged to IS militants.

Troop morale appeared high as we passed groups lounging around their armed personnel carriers, flicking V for victory signs and posing in their battle vests.

“We hope they [IS] try to attack again so we can show them what we have got," a senior ranking officer boasted.

The battle on this little-known front against IS – which is losing territory across Iraq and Syria – was mounted with multi-million dollar military aid packages from Britain and the USA.

An army source in Beirut told the New Statesman before the assault began that 90 per cent of the weapons in use were supplied by the USA, and UK-provided skills and equipment were essential.

Like most things in Lebanon, though, that is not something everyone agrees on.

***

The UK generally plays down its military involvement in the Mediterranean country, while the US is much more public. Earlier this month, it published a long list of weapons it had supplied to the Lebanese Army in the past year alone, including 50 automatic grenade launchers, 4,000 M4 rifles, and over half a million rounds of ammunition. Total spending in the past decade tops more than a billion US dollars.

As well as ousting IS, the operation saw the north-east  area come under Lebanese state control for the first time. Up until now, it has been an unmarked border zone.

Training on UK soil, such as that described by the Lebanese soldier, has not been confirmed by British authorities. But substantial military aid from Britain is intended to keep Lebanon’s borders secure. The UK has been delivering a “train and equip” programme for Land Border Regiments, who oversee the north-eastern area.  By April 2017, the Government had delivered 320 Land Rovers, 3300 sets of body armour, a secure radio communication network, 30 border watchtowers and over 20 Forward Operating Bases along the border, spending £61.5m.

Heavy weaponry supplied by the American government. Credit: Leila Molana-Allen

All this has worked relatively well in creating a proper army out of what was once an ineffective and unorganised non-institution.

Lebanese soldiers are, naturally, defensive, when faced with the idea that they wouldn’t be able to cope without UK and US backing. Still, one soldier, who like nearly all troops deployed for the anti-IS offensive asked to remain anonymous, admitted things would be much tougher without it: “The help from the UK and US supports us. We would survive without it, but it would be harder and there would be many more dead and injured.”

***

Britain and the USA do not simply dole out military aid to Lebanon because they feel like it. It is a key way in which western governments hope to shape alliances in the Middle East. The idea in western policy is that a strong Lebanese Army will serve several purposes.

“The US and UK calculate that reinforcing the Lebanese state and its security apparatus will help Lebanon meet the successive challenges of Sunni Jihadi groups threatening to overrun the region,” says Middle East analyst Tobias Schneider.

The second idea is that a strong army  – one of the few institutions that has cross-sectarian support in Lebanon – will lessen the influence and power of Hezbollah. The Lebanese political party’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the UK and the US governments. That would contain Iran’s influence in Lebanon – Hezbollah is a proxy of the Islamic Republic – and reduce the likelihood of a new war with Israel.

But there is a problem in the west’s calculation that a strong army equals a weak Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah today being a pillar of Shia politics in the country, there won't ever be sufficient political consensus in Lebanon for the army to directly challenge or confront the ‘Party of God,’” continues Schneider, referring to Hezbollah by its name in English.

Hezbollah has wide-ranging support and political alliances in Lebanon, stretching beyond its Shi’ite core to other sects. Lebanese convention dictates that the President must be Christian. The incumbent, Michel Aoun, is in power with Hezbollah support. Strengthening the Army will not eliminate the wide-held belief that the militia has a legitimate role as an anti-Israel force. 

A staunch ally of the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah has played down the importance of foreign aid to the Lebanese Army.

Instead, in a speech this week in Baalbeck, a Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah greeted an ecstatic crowd with the idea that defeating IS meant successfully foiling a US-Israeli plot. 

“The US-Israeli plot in the region failed and the US-Israeli dreams that were put on ISIL and other terrorist groups fell”, Nasrallah told an audience of tens of thousands of people, who included girls screaming like fans at a One Direction concert. He spoke via video link, blaming security fears for his longstanding absence from public appearances.

Enraptured crowds listen to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Baalbeck. Credit Lizzie Porter.

Hezbollah draws supporters into the belief that “the resistance” – Hezbollah fighters – and an alliance with the Syrian Army are behind the Lebanese Army’s success, not the US or UK aid. On the same day that the latter launched the Dawn of the Outskirts operation, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army began an assault on IS fighters from the Syrian side. A week later, both parties announced ceasefires almost simultaneously.  

That belief goes right down to the Lebanese person in the street, at least in some parts of the country. Outside the Baalbeck rally, 18-year-old Abbas carried an impossibly large yellow and green Hezbollah flag, and told the New Statesman, “The army needs the resistance and the resistance needs the army – they have a shared role”.

Hezbollah is proud of boasting its good relationships with both the Lebanese and Syrian armies.

That puts the Lebanese Army on rather a sticky wicket. They have been at pains to deny any such cosy relationship with Hezbollah, mindful of the threat that proof of co-ordination with a proscribed group would pose to its US-supplied dollars.

“In the current political climate, Congressional hawks could easily try and leverage collusion with the Iranian proxy militia and designated terror organisation into a full assistance stop,” says Schneider.

It has happened before: in 2010, the USA cut $100 million in aid after an incident on the Lebanon-Israel border. 

During the Ras Baalbeck embed, Lebanese Army General Fady Daoud welcomed journalists into the operations room for the anti-IS operation. A journalist from Al Manar, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese news outlet, asked what he knew about “resistance” positions across the border in Syria. Daoud, suddenly looking slightly flustered, gestured wildly at the scale model of Lebanon’s border territory in front of him. He insisted his forces were only dealing with land up to the border, and he had no information about positions in Syria.

***

The UK’s military aid programme for Lebanon is set to continue until at least 2019, by which time it will have trained some 11,000 troops. The embassy in Beirut declined a a request for an interview, but said in a statement that the UK is a “proud supporter” of the Lebanese Armed Forces. “We welcome the news that the LAF have been able to clear Daesh from Lebanese territory.” 

But the USA, after making such enormous investments over the past decade, plans to cut its military spending on Lebanon next year. The Trump administration appears to want to abandon the long-held counter-Hezbollah strategy of strengthening the army, and tackle the group with sanctions instead. The former hasn’t worked because of Hezbollah’s entrenched support bases in Lebanon. The latter also risks isolating Lebanon and creating economic instability in a country where the government already fails to provide basic commodities such as electricity and water.

Nasrallah also has a point: while the Lebanese Army led the anti-IS offensive and denied co-operation with Hezbollah, it was a Party of God deal that eventually caused the Sunni militants to flee Lebanese soil. In exchange for information on the whereabouts of nine kidnapped Lebanese soldiers (found dead), IS was allowed safe passage from Lebanon to Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. That caused another ruckus, leaving Iraq wondering why Hezbollah was striking a deal to place more IS fighters on its border.

In Baalbeck, the USA is not part of Lebanon’s stability – at least rhetorically. To a crowd repeating after him, Nasrallah hammers home Hezbollah’s ‘golden equation”: that Lebanon is safeguarded by a trilogy of “the army, the people, the resistance [Hezbollah].” There is no explanation that the “army” part of the equation would struggle without the USA. But it would struggle without Hezbollah too. 

Lizzie Porter was reporting from the outskirts of Ras Baalbeck, north-east Lebanon.

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.