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.
Images Wikimedia Commons/Imgur, collage by New Statesman
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The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does

Over the years, hundreds of people online have shared memories of a cheesy Nineties movie called “Shazaam”. There is no evidence that such a film was ever made. What does this tell us about the quirks of collective memory?

In the early Nineties, roughly around 1994, a now 52-year-old man named Don ordered two copies of a brand new video for the rental store his uncle owned and he helped to run.

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years,” says Don (who wishes to give his first name only). “And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental.”

In these ways, the film Don is speaking of is exactly like the hundreds of others in his uncle’s shop. In one crucial way, however, it is not. The movie that Don is referring to doesn’t actually exist.

*

“It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?”

This isn’t Don speaking, but another man – who he has never met – named Carl*. Carl, whose name has been changed because he wishes to remain anonymous, recalls watching a movie called Shazaam with his sister in the early Nineties, and has fond memories of discussing it with her over the last 20 years. In their recollections, the movie starred the American stand-up comedian Sinbad – real name David Adkins – as an incompetent genie who granted wishes to two young children.



Wikimedia Commons

“I’ve taken to Craigslist and have posted a bounty of $1,000 for anyone that can turn up a copy of this movie, whether it was ‘accidentally’ kept from Blockbuster or if someone made their own bootleg VHS copy. I want to be able to make it known that the movie is indeed real,” says Carl.

Meredith Upton, a 25-year-old videographer from Nashville, Tennessee, also remembers the same film. “Whenever I would see Sinbad anywhere in the media I would recall him playing a genie,” she says. “I remember the name of the film as Shazaam. I remember two children accidentally summoning a genie… and they try and wish for their dad to fall in love again after their mother’s passing, and Sinbad can’t [grant the wish].”

Don goes even further. Although he is not certain that the movie was called Shazaam, he has detailed scene-by-scene recollections of the film, which include the children wishing for a new wife for their father, the little girl wishing for her broken doll to be fixed, and the movie finale taking place at a pool party. Don says he remembers the film so vividly because customers would bring the video back to his rental store claiming it didn’t work, and he watched it multiple times to try and find the “problem with the tape”.

Meredith, Don, and Carl are three of hundreds of Redditors who have used the popular social news site to discuss their memories of Shazaam. Together they have scoured the internet to find evidence that the movie existed but each has repeatedly come up empty-handed. Sinbad himself has even taken to Twitter to deny that he ever played such a role.

*

How did this Reddit community grow? It all began in 2009. An anonymous individual took to the question-and-answer website Yahoo! Answers to pose its users a simple question. “Do you remember that sinbad movie?” they wrote. “Wasnt there a movie in the early 90s where sinbad the entertainer / comedian played a genie? … help its driving me nuts!”

At the time, nobody remembered the film, and it took another two years for somebody else to ask about it again online. Reddit user MJGSimple wrote on the site: “It’s a conspiracy! I swear this movie exists, anyone have a copy or know where I can find proof!” Replies to the post were sceptical, claiming MJGSimple simply had a false memory.

It wasn’t until last year that things took a dramatic turn.

On 11 August 2015, the popular gonzo news site VICE published a story about a conspiracy theory surrounding the children’s storybook characters the Berenstain Bears. The theory went like this: many people remember that the bears’ name was spelt “Berenstein” – with an “e” – but pictures and old copies proved it was always spelt with an “a”. The fact that so many people had the same false memory was seen as concrete proof of the supernatural.

“Berenstein” truthers believe in something called the “Mandela Effect”: a theory that a large group of people with the same false memory used to live in a parallel universe (the name comes from those who fervently believe that Nelson Mandela died while in prison). VICE’s article about the theory was shared widely, leading thousands of people to r/MandelaEffect, a subreddit for those with false memories to share their experiences.

It was there, just a few hours after the article was posted, that discussions of Shazaam – or the “Sinbad Genie movie” – took off.

“I was dumbfounded to see that there was no evidence of the movie ever being made,” says Carl. “I quickly searched the internet, scouring every way I know how to search, crafting Boolean strings into Google, doing insite: searches, and nothing. Not a damn thing.”

On the subreddit, discussions about the film went into great detail. Unlike other false memories on r/MandelaEffect, the issue wasn’t a simple misspelling or logo-change, but an entire film's disappearance. Many Redditors revealed they had distinct memories of the cover art of the movie. “It said ‘Sinbad’ in big letters that dwarfed the other print,” says Don, who goes by EpicJourneyMan on Reddit, and also remembers how Sinbad posed on the cover – facing left, with his arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Jessica*, a 27-year-old office worker from Canada, also remembers the cover. “[It had] a purple background, featuring Sinbad dressed as a genie, back to back with a boy who looks about 11 or 12 years old. Sinbad has an annoyed expression on his face,” she says.

At this point I should mention something I have neglected to mention so far. In 1996, the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal played a genie who helped a young boy find his estranged father in a commercially unsuccessful film. The cover art of the film features Shaq with his arms folded, laughing, in front of a purple background. His name, “Shaq”, dominates the top half of the cover. The movie’s name is Kazaam.


*

Imagine if you woke up this morning and Disney’s 1998 animation A Bug’s Life did not exist. After endlessly scouring the internet, you’d come up with nothing, despite your own distinct memories of a bunch of ants going on wild hijinks through the undergrowth. You’d turn to your best friend, your brother, your mum, and say, “Hey, remember A Bug’s Life? It was about ants”, and your friend/brother/mum would turn to you and says: “No, darling. You’re thinking about Antz.”

This is how those who believe in the “Sinbad genie movie” feel when people say they are simply getting confused about Shaq’s Kazaam. Twin films – remarkably similar movies that are released at the same time – are relatively common, and include Turner & Hooch and K-9 in 1989, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood in 1991, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line in 1998, and Finding Nemo and Shark Tale in 2003-4.


“I remember thinking Shaq’s Kazaam was a rip-off or a revamp of a failed first run, like how the 1991 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer bombed but the late Nineties TV reboot was a sensation,” says Meredith, who is one of many who claim to remember both Shazaam and Kazaam. Don remembers ordering two copies of the former and only one of the latter for the store, while Carl says: “I am one of several people who specifically never saw Kazaam because it looked ridiculous to rip off Shazaam just a few years after it had been released.” When Carl first realised there was no evidence of the Sinbad movie existing, he texted his sister to ask if she remembered the film.

“Her response [was] ‘Of course.’ I told her, ‘Try and look it up, it doesn’t exist’. She tried and texted back with only: ‘What was it called?’ – there was never a question of if it existed, only not remembering the title.”

*

I remember, as a child, that every time my mother bought me a fresh pair of Clarks shoes for the new school year, the shop would offer me a free gift to go with them. It was the late Nineties or early Noughties, and I distinctly remember receiving a lilac pencil case to accompany my new leather numbers. It had different compartments for pencils, rubbers, and sharpeners, and I spent the last week of the holidays drawing a comic book with it by my side on our caravan kitchen table.

There is no evidence that such a promotional offer ever existed. When I ask around, no one remembers it, but when I also ask about another memory I have – of Marks & Spencers’ chicken nuggets shaped like Bugs Bunny – no one remembers those either, despite the fact a Guardian article proves they were real.

I can’t find evidence of the Clarks offer on the internet, though my sister remembers it and a poll that I conducted online shows that at least 500 other people do, too. Does this mean my memory is real? We have become very used to the idea that you can find anything on the internet, yet what do we accept as “proof”? Do we need pictures, videos, and articles, or is the fact that hundreds of others share our memory enough?

Dr Henry Roediger, a professor at the Washington University Memory Lab, doesn’t think so. “Lots of people remember detailed, but utterly false, memories. In fact, we all have them,” he says. “I have published on what we named ‘the social contagion of memory’ and what others call ‘memory conformity’ – that may be at work here.” Roediger explains that frequently one person’s report of a memory influences another’s, and that false memories can spread in this way. “One person’s memory infects another,” he says.

It is clear that this contagion would only be exacerbated online, where an individual can be influenced by multiple people from all around the world in an instant. The existence of the Shazaam Reddit community, therefore, arguably helps a false memory to spread. 

“We often forget whether we actually saw something or whether someone told us about a detail later and we filled in our memories,” he goes on. “People infer events and then remember the inferences as if they actually happened. If someone hears ‘The karate champion hit the cinder block’ they will often later remember that he ‘broke the cinder block.’ But maybe not: maybe he broke his hand. So the inference is remembered as ‘the way it happened.’”

Like accusations that they are misremembering Kazaam however, Shazaam truthers balk at the idea they simply have false memories that have been influenced by one another.

“I try not to read other’s full descriptions of the film because I don’t want to subconsciously influence my own recollection,” says Meredith, while Jessica says that before she started reading about the film she jotted down her own memories, to avoid being influenced by others’. “After doing so, I read what other people remembered about the poster and a few people remembered the exact same poster that I did.”

It is also worth noting that many people seemingly remember the movie independently of the subreddit – with someone different tweeting about it nearly every single day.

So what do these Redditors think has actually happened?

Some truly believe in the Mandela Effect, that there has been some glitch in the world, there are parallel universes, or a timeline has been altered and as such little things have got lost. Some are very active in the r/MandelaEffect community, and have many other false memories, suggesting an element of bandwagon-hopping or a penchant for conspiracy theories.

Others, however, have less fantastical theories. Meredith leans towards the explanation being “some previously undocumented psychological phenomenon”, while Don believes the movie was intentionally “disappeared” because it embarrassed Sinbad and Phil Hartman, who he believes was a writer and producer on the film. Jessica also thinks the film was recalled and destroyed.

Carl’s explanation, however, is the most detailed. Although he considers the movie may have been recalled if DC Comics sued the film’s production company (because of their similarly-named TV show Shazam!), he believes more in either a timeline shift or a computer simulation.

“University of Oxford’s philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors,” he says, also arguing that quantum computers are now able to run such simulations. “In a day where we can now run these simulations, is this a far-fetched theory?” he argues, noting that the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson put the odds we are living in a computer simulation at 50-50 earlier this year.

“Does it make more sense to argue with the scientific minds of our time exposed to the greatest understanding of the capabilities of modern technology, or to argue with the masses of people who simply write off these effects we are noticing as faulty memories?” Carl asks.

*

As of today, there is no concrete evidence that Shazaam ever existed. A few months ago, Redditors thought they had a breakthrough when they discovered an image of Sinbad in a genie costume on eBay. Sinbad himself, however, tweeted to say that he was dressed that way because he was hosting a Sinbad the Sailor movie marathon.

Some said the image demonstrated where the false memory had originated, others continue to hunt for evidence of a movie they are certain exists.

*Names have been changed.

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