Has global warming stopped?

'The global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 and every year since"

'The fact is that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 and every year since 2001'. Plus read Mark Lynas's response

Global warming stopped? Surely not. What heresy is this? Haven’t we been told that the science of global warming is settled beyond doubt and that all that’s left to the so-called sceptics is the odd errant glacier that refuses to melt?

Aren’t we told that if we don’t act now rising temperatures will render most of the surface of the Earth uninhabitable within our lifetimes? But as we digest these apocalyptic comments, read the recent IPCC’s Synthesis report that says climate change could become irreversible. Witness the drama at Bali as news emerges that something is not quite right in the global warming camp.

With only few days remaining in 2007, the indications are the global temperature for this year is the same as that for 2006 – there has been no warming over the 12 months.

But is this just a blip in the ever upward trend you may ask? No.

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.

In principle the greenhouse effect is simple. Gases like carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere absorb outgoing infrared radiation from the earth’s surface causing some heat to be retained.

Consequently an increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities such as burning fossil fuels leads to an enhanced greenhouse effect. Thus the world warms, the climate changes and we are in trouble.

The evidence for this hypothesis is the well established physics of the greenhouse effect itself and the correlation of increasing global carbon dioxide concentration with rising global temperature. Carbon dioxide is clearly increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a straight line upward. It is currently about 390 parts per million. Pre-industrial levels were about 285 ppm. Since 1960 when accurate annual measurements became more reliable it has increased steadily from about 315 ppm. If the greenhouse effect is working as we think then the Earth’s temperature will rise as the carbon dioxide levels increase.

But here it starts getting messy and, perhaps, a little inconvenient for some. Looking at the global temperatures as used by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UK’s Met Office and the IPCC (and indeed Al Gore) it’s apparent that there has been a sharp rise since about 1980.

The period 1980-98 was one of rapid warming – a temperature increase of about 0.5 degrees C (CO2 rose from 340ppm to 370ppm). But since then the global temperature has been flat (whilst the CO2 has relentlessly risen from 370ppm to 380ppm). This means that the global temperature today is about 0.3 deg less than it would have been had the rapid increase continued.

For the past decade the world has not warmed. Global warming has stopped. It’s not a viewpoint or a sceptic’s inaccuracy. It’s an observational fact. Clearly the world of the past 30 years is warmer than the previous decades and there is abundant evidence (in the northern hemisphere at least) that the world is responding to those elevated temperatures. But the evidence shows that global warming as such has ceased.

The explanation for the standstill has been attributed to aerosols in the atmosphere produced as a by-product of greenhouse gas emission and volcanic activity. They would have the effect of reflecting some of the incidental sunlight into space thereby reducing the greenhouse effect. Such an explanation was proposed to account for the global cooling observed between 1940 and 1978.

But things cannot be that simple. The fact that the global temperature has remained unchanged for a decade requires that the quantity of reflecting aerosols dumped put in our atmosphere must be increasing year on year at precisely the exact rate needed to offset the accumulating carbon dioxide that wants to drive the temperature higher. This precise balance seems highly unlikely. Other explanations have been proposed such as the ocean cooling effect of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation or the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

But they are also difficult to adjust so that they exactly compensate for the increasing upward temperature drag of rising CO2. So we are led to the conclusion that either the hypothesis of carbon dioxide induced global warming holds but its effects are being modified in what seems to be an improbable though not impossible way, or, and this really is heresy according to some, the working hypothesis does not stand the test of data.

It was a pity that the delegates at Bali didn’t discuss this or that the recent IPCC Synthesis report did not look in more detail at this recent warming standstill. Had it not occurred, or if the flatlining of temperature had occurred just five years earlier we would have no talk of global warming and perhaps, as happened in the 1970’s, we would fear a new Ice Age! Scientists and politicians talk of future projected temperature increases. But if the world has stopped warming what use these projections then?

Some media commentators say that the science of global warming is now beyond doubt and those who advocate alternative approaches or indeed modifications to the carbon dioxide greenhouse warming effect had lost the scientific argument. Not so.

Certainly the working hypothesis of CO2 induced global warming is a good one that stands on good physical principles but let us not pretend our understanding extends too far or that the working hypothesis is a sufficient explanation for what is going on.

I have heard it said, by scientists, journalists and politicians, that the time for argument is over and that further scientific debate only causes delay in action. But the wish to know exactly what is going on is independent of politics and scientists must never bend their desire for knowledge to any political cause, however noble.

The science is fascinating, the ramifications profound, but we are fools if we think we have a sufficient understanding of such a complicated system as the Earth’s atmosphere’s interaction with sunlight to decide. We know far less than many think we do or would like you to think we do. We must explain why global warming has stopped.

David Whitehosue was BBC Science Correspondent 1988–1998, Science Editor BBC News Online 1998–2006 and the 2004 European Internet Journalist of the Year. He has a doctorate in astrophysics and is the author of The Sun: A Biography (John Wiley, 2005).] His website is www.davidwhitehouse.com

MUCHTAR ZAKARIA/AP PHOTO
Show Hide image

Breaking the consensus

Even IMF researchers are calling time on free market dogma and the neoliberal orthodoxies of the past 30 years.

What has come over the International Monetary Fund? Not content with playing the good cop to Europe’s bad in the ongoing Greek crisis – in which it has been arguing for debt relief and less austerity – the fund has just published an article in its in-house magazine by three of its leading researchers entitled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”. Their answer is “yes”.

The article takes aim at two of the most important aspects of the neoliberal economic agenda that has been so influential since the early 1980s. The first is the removal of restrictions on the movement of capital across international borders – so-called capital account liberalisation. Readers of a certain age will recall that 40 years ago there were strict limits on the amount of foreign currency one could buy before going abroad on holiday and companies had to show evidence of the need to import supplies to gain access to the foreign exchange market. Such restrictions were even harsher for international investment – making it almost impossible for institutions in one country to invest in the equity and bond markets of another.

Neoliberal theorists decried this situation as absurd. Rich countries have abundant capital, so the rate of return on it is relatively low, they argued. Poor ones are capital-scarce, so the returns on investment are high. Erecting artificial barriers preventing capital from flowing from rich countries to poor ones was therefore like stopping water from flowing downhill: an unhelpful intervention in the natural order of things, with detrimental consequences for all. During the 1980s and 1990s, international capital controls were thus dismantled worldwide – and often as a precondition for IMF assistance. The scale of private cross-border capital flows rocketed and soon eclipsed those of public-sector lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF itself. 

But while these private capital flows were large, it quickly became obvious that they could also be extremely erratic. Throughout the 1990s, a succession of big developing countries enjoyed huge inflows of money  to be used for financing government spending and infrastructure development. But in each case, the new sources of funding turned out to be fickle, as private investors proved far less tolerant of heterodox economic policy than official funders had been. The result was a succession of crises – in Mexico in 1994, in east Asia in 1997, in Russia in 1998, in Argentina in 2001 – as the newly discovered rivers of capital suddenly began flowing the other way.

The IMF became well known at the time for insisting that these occasional stunning crashes should not derail liberalisation: they were just the price of reforms not fully complete. The new IMF article, in the June edition of Finance & Development magazine, disagrees. After nearly 30 years, it argues, the growing pains have not stopped. Open capital accounts have indeed increased developing countries’ access to capital for development but, strikingly, there is little evidence that this has raised growth rates. And there is no question that it has exaggerated the boom-bust business cycle, increased inequality and raised the odds of periodic financial crises.

Couched as it is in the equivocal language of cost-benefit analysis, this change of tune might sound inconsequential. It is not. Twenty years ago, Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was branded an international pariah for reimposing capital controls to insulate his country from the east Asian financial crisis. The new IMF article concludes that such measures are “a viable, and sometimes the only, option”.

The second plank of the neoliberal agenda at which the IMF article takes aim will be even more familiar to UK readers: curbing the size of the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the main emphasis on this front was on privatisation. As that agenda began to run its course, emphasis shifted to methods of constraining governments’ abilities to run excessive deficits of spending over revenues – and rules to avoid the accumulation of too much public debt. The Maastricht rules introduced by the eurozone countries in 1993, which mandated annual deficits of no more than 3 per cent of GDP and public debt of no more than 60 per cent, were perhaps the most prominent example.

For most of the 2000s, such self-denying ordinances seemed to be costless virtues.  Then, in 2007, the global economic crisis hit. After a brief flirtation with increased state spending when confronted with the steep recessions of 2008-09, the governments of the eurozone and the UK were converted again to the crucial importance of shrinking public debt and cutting spending. The notion that cutting spending can (or even is necessary to) boost growth – of “expansionary fiscal contraction” – came roaring back into fashion.

***

The IMF broached its dissent early in the post-crisis period, with its economists expressing scepticism over the pace and timing of austerity in Europe. Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, and Olivier Blanchard, its chief economist, argued for relaxing spending constraints and turning a blind eye to debt burdens until depressed economies were solidly recovering. 

Gossip-mongers at the World Economic Forum in Davos put it down to the fact that they are both French and therefore constitutional backsliders on matters of fiscal prudence; and policymakers preferred to pick up on pseudo-scientific economic sound bites such as the idea of a public debt tipping-point at 90 per cent of GDP. In reality, however, the IMF was merely stating the clear conclusions of conventional economic models – models that the vast difference since 2009 in the recovery of the US, which did not opt for austerity, and Europe, which did, appears to have proved largely correct.

The new IMF article drives home the point. The “short-run costs of lower output and welfare and higher unemployment”, it concludes, “have been underplayed, and the desirability . . . of simply living with high debt and allowing debt ratios to decline organically through growth is underappreciated”. Austerity is often self-defeating and debt limits by themselves are meaningless.

Is this two-part mea culpa on both capital flows and the size of the state a major landmark in the evolution of the IMF’s thinking – and could this be important in practice, given the intellectual heft that the Washington institutions bring to the international policy debate? It is, and it could.

Will it rehabilitate the IMF as an institution among the populations of the countries it is meant to serve? Here I am more sceptical. There is no question that there was disagreement on policy in east Asia in 1997, for example. But the real problem with the IMF’s intervention had to do not with the correctness of its prescriptions but their legitimacy. The single most enduring image of that painful period was the photo of the then managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, arms folded and frowning like a schoolmaster giving detention, watching over President Suharto of Indonesia as, humiliatingly, Suharto bowed to the inevitable and signed up to the fund’s financing plan.

In many developing countries, memories of unjust colonial domination are raw and if the IMF is to help resolve the growing dissatisfaction of populations with policymaking elites, it will need to do more than just make improvements to its advice – no matter how sincere and welcome such improvements may be. The reality that, in effect, power over its assistance belongs exclusively to a handful of rich economies will have to change. Reforming its governance to give developing countries more control is the place to start.

In the UK, meanwhile, we can have no such complaints. We have no one to blame for taking neoliberalism’s crazier ideas too seriously but ourselves.

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind