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.
The Mayor
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Inside the extreme Facebook fandom for old rental VHS tapes

Featuring a £360 Jaws tape, four rooms full of 10,000 videos, and a man known only as “The Mayor”.

On a sunny September day in 2016, Scott Bates stood in a Doncaster parking lot, waiting for a delivery of 1,250 VHS tapes.

“It was £250 including delivery, so I think I got a pretty good deal there,” Bates tells me over the phone. He had ordered the videos from eBay while living at home during his university holidays, but his mother didn’t want them all in the house. Instead, the Bateses rented out a self-storage unit and waited in the parking lot for the 27 boxes of video tapes that were about to arrive in a large van.

“I spent a couple of days sorting through them,” says Bates, who brought 300 of the tapes back to London, where the 20-year-old is a student. In total, his flat is now home to 450 videos.

Bates is one of 1,063 members of “The Video Club. This Facebook group is home to people who buy, sell, and collect old video tapes. More specifically, ex-rental video tapes – VHS that were once homed in video rental shops like Blockbuster or ChoicesUK.

Bates does buy ex-rentals, but his passion is for obscure foreign and independent films, which sometimes didn’t make it into rental stores. We speak for 43 minutes about his love of VHS tapes, and he describes his impressively large collection. Before we hang up, I ask if there’s anything else I should know about the online video tape community.

“Have you been made aware of…” he begins, before pausing slightly. “Have you been told about The Mayor?”

***

The Mayor wears a white plastic mask that covers the entirety of his face.

A grey hoodie obscures the top of the mask, and its strings are pulled tight under his chin. On top of his hood sits a Christmas hat emblazoned with the words “Text Santa” – the name of an ITV charity telethon that has been running since 2011.

“And then I found a stethoscope so I thought I’d put a stethoscope on and all,” The Mayor tells me over the phone. He speaks in a lilting accent, which sounds to me slightly West Country-esque (The Mayor is not willing to disclose his name, age, nor location).

Three rooms in The Mayor’s home are currently covered, floor to ceiling, with ex-rental video tapes. In one room, the only part of the wall not obscured by videos features a glowing yellow and blue electrical sign shaped like a ripped movie ticket. It cost £40 and once sat atop a since-demolished Blockbuster.

“There will be a fourth, well it will be a hallway really, the fourth room,” explains The Mayor, who is currently redecorating his rooms as he moves into his girlfriend’s house. He estimates he has nearly 10,000 ex-rental VHS tapes on which has spent “thousands, absolute thousands” of pounds collecting since 1993.

“I always wanted a video shop but in 1998 DVDs came out and sort of ruined me. I was like: well that’s the end of that dream,” he says. Still, he kept collecting, and is happy with his videos, which are arranged like a shop on shelves from old rental stores. “I hate them,” he says of DVDs, “I call them ‘soulless discs of hate’.”

In the online video collector community, The Mayor is infamous. He runs a YouTube channel (mayorip) with 1,200 subscribers, and his videos range from eccentric to undeniably unnerving. “The Mayor can be quite rude and very bizarre on times at YouTube,” he admits on the phone, going on to describe the channel as a “persona”. He also runs a rival Facebook group to The Video Club, called “The UK’s Best VHS Collectors Group”.

“I've only got 523 [members] in there, I have blocked about 400 people because they just don't do anything in the group,” he says. According to The Mayor, The Video Club Facebook group was an offshoot of his Facebook group. He and one of the administrators of the Facebook group fell out over some tapes, each claiming the other ripped them off.

“Yeah there’s a lot of rivalry,” laughs The Mayor. “There’s a lot that goes on in the VHS community, there’s a bit of tension here and there, sometimes… but it’s all good fun in the end.”

***

On 2 July 2017, an old rental video tape of the movie Jaws sold for £360.00 on the online auction site eBay. The tape is also a “pre-cert” – meaning it was released before the British Board of Film Classification began age-restricting videos in 1984. This video is one of many ex-rentals that an eBay seller known only as “harrymonk-uk” is selling for anywhere between one and four-hundred pounds.

But just what is the appeal of an ex-rental tape?

“I think there is definitely a huge element of nostalgia,” explains Bates, who says renting videos was a huge part of his childhood growing up. One member of the video club tells me he likes old rental videos because trailers play before they begin. For others, ex-rentals (or “big boxes” as they’re colloquially known) are better because they are rarer, have superior artwork, and are higher quality. Rental tapes are often superior because they were designed to be viewed over and over again, whereas normal tapes (or “sell-throughs”) can only be watched a few times before the video quality degrades.

“I think that's the best way, to actually hold the thing and look at the thing and actually own it,” says The Mayor. “I mean who wants a bloody collection of music or videos on their bloody computer? ‘Oh look at my collection of videos!’ ‘Oh great it's on a computer!’ I mean what the hell is that about? I’ve got no idea.”

For Bates, The Mayor, and many others, the internet has allowed them to keep their niche hobby alive. Will Cawkwell is a 31-year-old student from Withernsea who is a member of The Video Club. “It’s a 33 mile round trip to get to Hull and back just to go to the only [charity shop] around that sells tapes,” he says. Many in the community are frustrated by the fact that charity shops now throw away video tapes and refuse to sell them on, deeming them worthless or a fire hazard. 

 

The internet also allows collectors to find and bid on tapes for their collection – although since I joined The Video Club for this story, there has been a fierce debate about whether users should share eBay links with each other. “It drives up the prices insanely and pretty much pisses a lot of people off,” wrote one commenter. Although the group is exceptionally friendly, and its mostly-male membership share plenty of in-jokes, there can be fierce rivalry when it comes to certain tapes. “Congrats to the sad fucker that won that!” reads one comment about an auction.

“Unfortunately from time to time there is the odd bad egg and kook but this is something that happens in any other group out there on any platform,” says Scott Kellaway, the founder of The Video Club and a photographer by trade. “One of The Video Club’s mottos is ‘Be kind, Unwind’ and we try to stick by that. We like every member to feel equal and involved; we do not stand for things like bullying or trolling.”

***

Charlie Glennerster is a 39-year-old from Essex who is an active member of The Video Club. He once made a Christmas tree out of his VHS tapes and he can – or at least, did – throw a video tape backwards so that it lands behind him on a shelf.

“I just love VHS,” says Glennerster – who met his wife on another video tape related Facebook group and wore video-tape-shaped cufflinks at his wedding. “I measured my son against a video the day he came home.”

Glennerster is now a father of three, and has less and less time and money for collecting new videos. The Video Club is therefore invaluable, as it allows him to trade videos and interact socially with other collectors. “I've made a lot of friends through our group, some of which I have met,” he tells me. Last year, he went to a VHS gathering in Scotland where enthusiasts could trade and buy tapes. “After the event we handed out videos to strangers on the streets of Glasgow… Sadly, those tapes were later found in a puddle.”

Glennerster’s passion is at the heart of the video club, and other Facebook groups like it. Yet the VHS favoured by these collectors aren’t the white-edged Walt Disney classics that you may remember fondly from your childhood. Some of the most valuable tapes are “video nasties”, 72 violent videos that were banned in the Eighties for violating the Obscene Publications Act 1959. One, named Love Camp 7, features a sadistic Nazi camp commandant abusing female prisoners. It is rated 3.6 out of Ten stars on IMDb.

Many in the group also collect classic horror films – believing that this genre is naturally best on VHS.

Still, despite the occasionally obscene nature of the tapes, video collecting seems to have many charms. One of Glennerster’s fondest memories is the time he found a dumpster full of old video tapes. “I was walking home from my job at the hospital late one evening and passed a charity shop, outside were 16 boxes of VHS tapes,” he says. “The next day on my lunch hour I went back to the shop and asked if I could look through the tapes, but to my horror the owner said that he had thrown them all in the skip at the back of the shop… after pleading to him he let me go and pick through them.

“So I got inside a dumpster full of videos, like Scrooge McDuck diving into all his gold.

“It was boiling hot and I had limited time so I took the best ones – around 80. It was all I could carry so I staggered the one mile walk back to work.”

***

Facebook groups like The Video Club and The UK’s Best VHS Collectors Group allow a (somewhat intense) fandom to thrive online. Without buy-and-sell websites or social media, video collectors would have been unable to carry on with their hobby, and the VHS format would have truly died.

“The last two years have seen a huge rise in collectors all coming out saying they thought they were the only ones buying tapes,” says Thomas Paul Wilson, a 28-year-old engineer from Nottingham, who is an admin on The Video Club.

“Video collecting pretty much is the internet now to be honest,” agrees Bates. “The charity shops round here just don’t have any at all.

“I am glad that the whole collecting scene has moved online rather than...” Bates tails off before saying the last word. Were it not for the internet, VHS tapes and VHS collectors might have been lost forever.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.