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

All Photos: The Perth Mermaids
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Meet the mermaids trying to defend the coral reefs from climate change

Speaking up for the ocean is taking professional mermaids to the heart of Australia's fiercest political debate.

The tale of a woman who swaps her voice for legs might not always appear empowering. But the legacy of Disney’s Ariel has a new twist. Around the world young people are speaking up for the ocean by diving into it – as mermaids.

Recreational mermaiding has found its feet in recent years. Mass-produced tails are increasingly affordable, the dolphin kick is a great work-out, and MerCons (Mermaid Conventions) are on the rise. The appeal of fashion and free-diving are big parts of its attraction – but so is a love of fish, with some professionals putting conservation at the heart of their work.

This is particularly true in Australia, where climate change is decimating underwater life. Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is thought to have died in the last 18 months. “I remember crying at how magical it was and how angry I was at what we were doing to it,” says Jessica Bell from Perth. “I just want to grab our government, shove their heads under there and say ‘Look at what we have, look at how special it is – can you see why we need to protect it at all costs!’"

Jess performs as a mermaid at the Aquarium of Western Australia, together with her friend Amelia Lassetter. The two met studying art at university, where they hand-crafted their first tail. Disney's Little Mermaid film was definitely an inspiration here, yet that is far from their whole story: “Don't get me wrong, we love Disney, but this is about so much more for us,” says Jess, “it is our livelihood. It is connected to our art, fitness and mental health; we connect with people from all over the world; we inspire children; we give the ocean a voice.”

The artists use their mermaid alter-egos to help children celebrate the sea and all things in it. That means wearing 15kg silicone tails that look like Anglefish (and feel like squid to touch). It means biodegradable glitter and learning to swim like a dolphin. But it also means blisters, back strain and chest infections. Holding your breath underwater can be life-threatening without proper instruction, and accidentally swallowing remains of the aquarium’s rotting fish-food is a hazard of the job. 

By far the most challenging part of their work, however, is spreading the word about the problems the oceans face. “Many people don’t know exactly what coral bleaching is, or that coral is a living animal, as opposed to a plant.” says Jess, “Others are unaware of what an important cornerstone of the ocean ecosystem coral reefs are – or simply don’t seem to care.”

In fact, talking about the reef’s destruction is taking the mermaids to the heart of Australia’s most polarised political issue: climate change.

The environmental minister Josh Frydenberg recently described Unesco's decision to leave the reef off its “In Danger” list as a “big win” for the centre-right Australian government. But environmentalists beg to differ, saying the plan downplays Australia's responsibility to cut its own CO2 emissions: “The political response to the enormous damage being done to the coral and the marine life on our Great Barrier Reef has been vastly inadequate and doesn’t reflect the urgent threat a warming planet poses to the ecosystem,” says Geoff Cousins, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Of primary concern are plans to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This scheme will see increased industrial traffic across the nearby reef and unleash decades of pollution. The result is a situation in which climate change has become so highly charged that “some organisations prefer not to talk about it,” says Josh Meadows from Environmental Justice Australia.

Where does this leave professional mermaids? The word mermaid is derived from the “mere” meaning water and “maid” meaning servant, explains Jess. “So we are like the guardian or servants of the ocean. We are literally half fish, half human; a bridge of understanding between land and sea.”

Balancing this impulse with the politics of their employers is not always easy. “There are some aquariums in the world that are extremely commercial and not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever,” says Jess. “Yet there are others that have really great conservation messages, such as the government-run Great Barrier Reef HQ.”

Some aquariums have also focused on cultivating an interest in how the oceans work at a young age – which is where mermaids can play a part. The challenge, Jess explains, is to explain climate change to kids without scaring them, boring them, or leaving them racked with guilt: “Younger children don’t understand climate change, but they do understand animals and plants and can be engaged by them."

This was the case for Amelia, Jess's fellow mermaid. As a child, she used to collect coral off the beach and think it was beautiful. Then one day her mother told her that what she had found was actually the skeleton of coral that used to be alive. "She was shocked," Jess says.

Thankfully their efforts, alongside those of the wider environmental community, are showing signs of success. A recent poll from the Climate Institute revealed that 66 per cent of Australians have a high level of concern about climate change, while the campaign against the Adani mine is fast becoming the environmental issue of the day.

There is of course still much more to be done, with the legal team at Environmental Justice Australia calling on the government to set even stronger goals to cut climate pollution and to stop supporting new mines. Yet however hard it can be, and however “trivial or childish” they may appear to some, the mermaids are resolved to continue their role. “Sometimes we feel helpless," Jess says. "But we always come full circle and are determined to do our part to help." 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.