Has global warming really stopped?

Mark Lynas responds to a controversial article on 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 (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 cellist of Auschwitz

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was sent to the death camp as a child. Music saved her.

In the grainy black-and-white photograph the girl poses with her cello, gazing down towards the bow. It was 1938 in Berlin, shortly before Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, the
first Nazi pogrom that led to the incarceration of Jews. Anita had grown up in a house in Breslau, which was then in the east of Germany, that was filled with music. Lying in bed, she would listen as her mother, Edith, started her violin routine with the opening octaves of a Beethoven concerto. Her father, Alfons, loved to sing. Her two elder sisters played the piano and the violin. She, too, started learning to play an instrument “very young”, as she recalled recently when we met at the JW3 Jewish community centre in London.

“I remember that my mother had such a small cello that she could hold it under her chin,” said Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who is now 90.

The Laskers’ quiet life soured after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In the street, children spat at Anita or called her a “dirty Jew”. Schools were segregated. The anti-Semitism became so pervasive that it was no longer possible to find a music teacher brave enough to take on a Jewish pupil.

Anita’s parents sent her alone to Berlin, a bigger city that offered more anonymity, and where they had found a tutor to help her master the cello – a skill that later saved her life. At that point her father, who had fought in the trenches for Germany in the First World War, winning an Iron Cross, believed that the Nazis “could not be so stupid” as to intensify their persecution of the Jews. Indeed, Anita began to enjoy her time in Berlin (“I was quite a good practiser but I preferred walking around the stores!”), but her stay was cut short when stormtroopers and civilians smashed thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues on Kristallnacht. “From that day on, you knew there was no hope,” Anita said.

Her eldest sister, Marianne, emigrated to the UK shortly before war broke out, but despite their parents’ frantic efforts the rest of the family could not get out. The oppression mounted. In 1941, Anita’s high school was closed and she and her sister Renate were ordered to work in a paper factory, placing labels on toilet rolls. (In a letter to Marianne at the time, Anita wrote: “I have attained a dexterity at doing this which I’ll probably never be able to reach on the cello.”) Then, in April the following year, her parents received a deportation order and were given 24 hours to report to a transport point. They were taken to a village called Izbica in Poland, where Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.

Though Anita and Renate were not on the deportation list they were being closely watched. At the paper factory, they had been forging leave passes for French prisoners of war and civilians who were forced to work in Germany. Realising that the Gestapo were on to them, the girls created their own travel documents and tried to board a train bound for Paris, but they were arrested at Breslau station. Anita was prepared: in her stocking was a tiny bottle of cyanide. She and Renate each swallowed half. Instead of bitter almonds, however, they tasted icing sugar. Anita’s friend who had given her the poison, had later secretly changed the contents, not wanting her to die.

Convicted of forgery, aiding the enemy and attempted escape, the sisters were sent to separate prisons. Then in December 1943 Anita was told she was being moved to Auschwitz. She was aware what that meant. “You knew about the gas chambers in Auschwitz long before one was in Auschwitz,” Anita told me.


When the packed cattle trucks arrived at Auschwitz an SS committee was usually on hand to select people to be gassed immediately. Anita’s group, though, was relatively small and consisted solely of Karteihäftlingen, “prisoners with a file”, which is to say those who had been convicted of a crime. This meant they could not be killed straight away, in case they had a summons to reappear in court.

“There was this division between the law – the old-fashioned law – and the Nazis, where the law suddenly did not apply any more,” Anita said. “I had ended up there as a criminal rather than as a Jew, and it was much better to be a criminal.”

She was made to undress, and had her head shaved and her left arm tattooed with the number 69388. Unprompted – she still does not know why she said it – Anita mentioned to the prisoner who was processing her that she played the cello. As she recalled in her 1996 memoir, Inherit the Truth, the woman grabbed her and said: “That is fantastic . . . You will be saved.”

Like some of the other concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz had an official men’s orchestra. The SS commander of the women’s camp, Maria Mandl, a brutal woman known as the Beast, loved classical music (Puccini in particular) and ordered that a female orchestra should be set up, too. The orchestra leader when Anita arrived was the renowned violinist Alma Rosé, an Austrian Jew and niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé asked Anita to try out; her audition piece was Schubert’s “Marche Militaire”. The “band”, as Anita called it, had violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes and accordions, but no bass instrument, so a cellist was highly valued, and especially a good one. “There were only about five people in that orchestra who could play their instruments properly,” Anita told me.

She was assigned to the music barracks with the rest of the orchestra. During the day they would practise intensively under Rosé’s strict instruction, playing German hits, arias from operas and other classical pieces. “We never went out to arbeit [work] because we were too busy trying to learn.”

Though there seemed no hope of getting out alive – the smoking chimneys were daily reminders of the Final Solution – Anita knew she was fortunate compared to many other prisoners. Being “the cellist”, she had not completely lost her identity and her talent was worth something to camp officials. After she was reunited with Renate, who arrived at Auschwitz from prison in Jauer, Anita gathered the courage to ask Mandl if her sister could work as a messenger. With this job, Renate, who was in a terrible physical state, received slightly better rations and housing. The cello had prolonged Anita’s life, and now it saved her sister’s, too.

The band’s main role was to play marching music at one of the camp gates in the mornings and evenings as thousands of men and women were led to and from the nearby factories and fields. Forced to keep in rhythm, the slave labourers were easier to control. “The Germans like to keep things neat and tidy,” Anita said.

Many of the prisoners hated the music. In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi described the marching tunes as “infernal”. Anita said she understood the sentiment, and that the orchestra’s second function – the Sunday concerts – may have been even more offensive. (But she did add that some survivors said: “For ten seconds, we could dream ourselves out of our situation.”)

“People have asked me: ‘How could you play music in the camp?’ It wasn’t the situation that you come there and have a choice: you come there expecting to go in the gas chamber. Instead of that, somebody puts a cello in your hand. Well, you are unlikely to say, ‘No, I’m only playing at Carnegie Hall . . .’ You just sat there, you played, and you hoped you were alive the next day.”

The musicians had a third, unofficial function: playing for individual SS officers who, having spent the day deciding who should live or die, would enter the barracks and demand a solo performance. Among these was Josef Mengele, “the Angel of Death”, who performed lethal experiments on human subjects and specialised in identical twins. One of his favourite pieces was “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), a hauntingly beautiful piece from Schumann’s suite Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). “Mengele comes in [and says to me], ‘I want to hear the Träumerei,’” Anita said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I didn’t even look at the guy; I thought, ‘I’ll play it as fast as is acceptable.’ It wasn’t un­usual that they wanted to hear something. Germans are very musical people.”

In October 1944 the female musicians were told to line up, Jews on one side and Aryans on the other. Anita was sure they were going to be gassed. Instead, with the Russians advancing, they were being moved to Bergen-Belsen. As she wrote in her book, in Auschwitz, people were murdered: in Belsen they simply perished. When Belsen was liberated by British troops on 15 April 1945, most of the 60,000 prisoners, in­cluding Anita and Renate, were half starved or seriously ill. As many as 13,000 corpses lay unburied.

Anita testified against the SS commanders at the Belsen Trial in Lüneburg in September 1945. In March 1946, she was finally given permission to resettle in Britain, where she later co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra. Today, she lives in London but no longer plays. Instead, she gives talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, to help ensure that the lessons of history are not forgotten.

This month she visited Breslau, now known as Wroclaw and part of Poland, where she addressed a few dozen children aged 17 or 18. “I can’t expect young people nowadays to be terribly interested in someone’s horror story – how many horror stories are there in the world all the time?” she said. “I asked them, ‘Why are you interested in this?’ You know, this is miles away from them. They said, ‘Well, we just are: we want to know what went on.’”

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will discuss her life and experiences as a musician during the Holocaust at JW3, London NW3, on Tuesday 3 November (7.30pm). Details:

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?