Cold is the new warm

When is a short term trend not a short term trend? When it’s an upward anomaly.

James Randerson in the Guardian tells us that,

This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.

But just when you thought it was safe to rush out to buy a guilt-free 4×4… <scary music>

The relatively chilly temperatures compared with recent years are not evidence that global warming is slowing however, say climate scientists at the Met Office. “Absolutely not,” said Dr Peter Stott, the manager of understanding and attributing climate change at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. “If we are going to understand climate change we need to look at long-term trends.”

Here’s a curious thing… Whether or not global warming ever existed, if ‘relatively chilly temperatures are not ‘evidence that global warming is slowing’, then what is?

That’s not to say that cooler temperatures ‘prove’ that there’s no global warming, but that cooler temperatures must be evidence that ‘global warming is slowing’. The difference is between ‘evidence’ on the one hand, and ‘proof’ on the other. Evidence can support contradictory hypotheses.

If this was mere journalistic oversight, that’s one thing – even though Randerson, one of the Guardian’s science correspondents, with a PhD in evolutionary genetics, really really ought to know the difference between evidence and proof, and what they stand for. But if the argument belongs to Peter Stott, then it surely raises questions about his partiality. ‘Absolutely not‘? Cooling temperatures absolutely are evidence for the hypothesis that there is no global warming underway, necessarily.

Prof Myles Allen at Oxford University who runs the website, said he feared climate sceptics would overinterpret the figure. “You can bet your life there will be a lot of fuss about what a cold year it is. Actually no, its not been that cold a year, but the human memory is not very long, we are used to warm years,” he said, “Even in the 80s [this year] would have felt like a warm year.”

Allen is right to say that people have short memories, but he is wrong to think that it’s only sceptics who have them, and make a fuss about exceptional years. For example, Anderson continues,

The Met Office predicted at the beginning of the year that 2008 would be cooler than recent years because of a La Niña event – characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is the mirror image of the El Niño climate cycle. The Met Office had forecast an annual global average of 14.37C.

Anderson has a short memory. So does Allen. Scientists at the Met office are so keen to make a big deal out of unexpected temperatures that they ‘overinterpret the figures’ before they have even happened.

At the begining of 2007, a BBC article informed the world that

“The world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007, the UK’s Met Office says.”

Such ‘overinterpretation’…

The global surface temperature is projected to be 0.54C (0.97F) above the long-term average of 14C (57F), beating the current record of 0.52C (0.94F), which was set in 1998.

The annual projection was compiled by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia.

Such ‘a fuss about what a hot year it is’… (even though it hadn’t happened yet).

We have actually run this forecast three times, updating it every month… and it is completely stable.”

But didn’t the Hadley Centre’s own Peter Stott just tell us that we ought to be looking at long-term trends? And yet, a forecast of a short term trend is considered newsworthy. Double standards are rife in climate science activism.

The Hadley Centre has been issuing the annual forecast for the past seven years and says it has just a 0.06C margin of error.

Eight months later, and the Met Office’s confident prediction was shown to be utter bunk.  Temperatures were falling. They revised their predictions, saying that they had created a new, more powerful computer model for predicting the future.

Powerful computer simulations used to create the world’s first global warming forecast suggests temperature rises will stall in the next two years, before rising sharply at the end of the decade.

But as we suggested earlier in the year, the incautious statements issued by Met Office scientists looked less like the work of scientific enquiry, and more like post-hoc speculation about which way the weather would turn.

In January 2007, the Met Office backed the wrong horse – El Niño. When La Niña emerged as the favourite, they changed their bets. This wasn’t sophisticated computer modelling. This was gambling by gamblers posing in lab coats. It was a safe bet that La Niña’s effects would last until 2009.

In order to wrong-foot sceptics, activist climate scientists (for that is what they must be if they are not agnostic about global warming) have had to reinterpret the evidence. Any downward tendency is waved away as short-term ‘natural variation’, caused by La Niña. This creates a casuality for the alarmists – it means that the significance of the record temperature in 1998 is diminished – clearly it was caused by El Niño. But on the other hand, ruling out the ’98 El Niño as ‘natural variation’ allows the claim that temperatures have increased since 1998 to be made.

Such chopping-and-changing appears to be the stock-in-trade of climate scientists and Guardian hacks. But this is because so much political capital is invested in the direction of lines on graphs representing weather statistics. And this is particularly clear in the pages of the Guardian, who have, over the last 12 or so months been especially keen to remind us that cooling trends are ‘not evidence that global warming is slowing’. There’s Randerson’s article, for example. Then there’s an article by Ian Sample, also a science correspondent, who last year reported that

The forecast of a brief slump in global warming has already been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that the world is not heating. Climate scientists say the new high-precision forecast predicts temperatures will stall because of natural climate effects that have seen the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific cool over the past couple of years.

Then, earlier this year, Fred Pearce, environmental writer and author of The Last Generation: How nature will take her revenge for climate change, said

A Germany study published earlier this month predicts the world will cool over the coming decade. British climate modellers at the Met Office don’t go so far. They think nature’s cooling will be more than counterbalanced by the warming effect of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But nobody is sure. In any case, we can expect the deniers to make the most of this opportunity to pour cold water on the whole climate change narrative. No year has yet been hotter than 1998, they will say. True: it was a huge El Niño year. Now we are on the way back down, they will say. Nonsense. The underlying trend remains upwards; and as every decade passes, natural cycles can do less and less to counter the growing human influence on temperature.

As we pointed out about the dramatisation of the movement of Arctic ice extent recently, the progression of curves representing climate statistics are the dynamic driving political discourse. The unfolding, present-tense narrative of lines on charts fuels the commentary about the conflict between the bad-minded ‘deniers’, and the honest scientists, seeking to destroy or save the world respectively.

The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t.

As the comments supplied by scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) about sea ice extent and the Met Office’s scientists careless posturing demonstrate, they are complicit in the politicisation of the climate debate. That is to say they are not impartial. They are not agnostic about climate change. And they are not disinterested observers of nature. Climate science is not a value-free investigation of the material universe.

Climate scientists and science correspondents imbue statistics with undue political significance. Therefore, they have to resort to use combative rhetoric when the trends offer conflicting evidence they cannot yet explain. Rather than contradicting themselves about the significance of short term trends, and moving the goal posts constituting long terms trends, climate scientists ought to be distancing themselves from the political significance of their work. Because to do otherwise is to legitimise the very ‘deniers’ they seek to diminish. If ‘climate science’ is where politics happens, then it is not only reasonable to ask if changes in the direction of change do represent a weakness in the prevailing view, it is essential.

Of course, a trend of 0.14 below average does not represent a static climate, but neither does an anomaly of 0.54C represent the dawn of a new, hostile geological epoch. Fools rush in to make statements about what such small numbers mean about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The Return of the Precautionary Principle

Last Friday, we asked ‘what happened to the precautionary principle‘. Recent arguments dominating the public discussion on climate change seem to have been about the ‘scientific consensus’ achieving certainty, rather than advising caution in the face of doubt. Yet on inspection, this certainty isn’t real. It is the kind of certainty that there is about being uncertain. Like Donald Rumsfeld’s famously ridiculous ‘known unknowns’ – things which you know you don’t know about, and ‘unknown unknowns’ – things you can be certain you don’t know you don’t know about. Uncertainty can be spun into certainty… All it takes to talk bollocks is balls.

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Since that post, we’ve been looking for another good example of the precautionary principle being applied in an argument framed in terms of scientific certainty, like Naomi Oreskes does in her lecture on “the tobacco strategy”. We knew we were onto something when Jeremy Paxman introduced last night’s Newsnight discussion between the former UK Chancellor, Nigel Lawson and former director of the British Antarctic Survey, Chris Rapley, with the words “The danger from climate change is far more serious than previously thought, claims the top specialist at NASA”. In his bringing the precautionary principle to bear on a problem in the absence of evidence even existing, Chris Rapley did not disappoint.

At the beginning of the discussion, Rapley agrees with Lawson that the 21st century shows no warming trend. But this is not significant in the longer, 30-year time frame, he suggests…

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Quite how the last decade’s non-warming is supposed to corroborate climate models, we are not sure, especially since the Hadley Centre have postponed warming until 2010, and told us that the recent cold snap is natural variation caused by La Nina, which logically means that the 97-98 El Nino too must have been ‘natural variation’. In other words, 13 years of either natural variation or no warming are less significant to our understanding of the future climate than the previous 17 years. No cause for not worrying, “doing nothing” is not an option, Rapley reminds us…

[youtube IQIvgmz8vH4]

Catastrophe is just around the corner… Except it isn’t, because, as Lawson rightly points out, it is not obviously true that climate change means disaster. It just means change. Put another way, what Rapley is asking us to consider is not the facts of climate change, but the possibilities that might unfold, if climate change is being caused by humans. Waiting and seeing is not an adequate response, says Rapley, in the face of the possibility of such danger. But, as we have argued before, what determines the vulnerability of humans to climate is not the climate itself – civilisation endures a vast range of conditions – but our ability to organise ourselves against the elements.

The precautionary principle looms large in this argument. And Rapley finishes by again emphasising not what what we do know, but what we don’t.

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Here is the entire video uninterrupted:

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Oh, to be in England…


…now that April’s there.
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!

– Robert Browning

Oh, to be in Heathrow Terminal 5,
Now that snow is there

British Airways has cancelled more than 120 flights after snow added to the list of woes at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. With 12 flights scrapped from the schedule because of ongoing problems with the automated baggage system, another 126 were axed because of the cold weather.

The record-breaking cold weather recently afflicting China, the Middle East, and Europe, amongst others, has led some to ask questions about what’s going on when we were expecting global warming. Luckily, the experts are on hand to make sure that we don’t stop panicking.

Adam Scaife, lead scientist for Modelling Climate Variability at the Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK, said their best estimate for 2008 was about 0.4C above the 1961-1990 average, and higher than this if you compared it with further back in the 20th Century. Mr Scaife told the BBC: “What’s happened now is that La Nina has come along and depressed temperatures slightly but these changes are very small compared to the long-term climate change signal, and in a few years time we are confident that the current record temperature of 1998 will be beaten when the La Nina has ended.”

It’s all “natural variability”, and La Nina, apparently, this cold spell. But hang on a minute… Wasn’t there an El Nino in 1998 – the year that we’re supposed to get back to once La Nina is over?


There was indeed. So why are the low temperatures in 2007/8 attributed to “natural variability”, while the 1998 heatwave – which coincided with one of the most significant El Nino events in history – is attributed to global warming?

Back at the beginning of last year, the BBC reported

The world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007, the UK’s Met Office says.
An extended warming period, resulting from an El Nino weather event in the Pacific Ocean, will probably push up global temperatures, experts forecast. [Jan 4 2007.]

The weather is nearly as variable as those trying to predict it. By August that year, and during one of the wettest UK summers ever, the Hadley Centre had dampened their expectations for the immediate future following the revision of their climate models. As the Guardian reported:

The forecast from researchers at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre in Exeter reveals that natural shifts in climate will cancel out warming produced by greenhouse gas emissions and other human activity until 2009, but from then on, temperatures will rise steadily. Temperatures are set to rise over the 10-year period by 0.3C.

And according to the UK’s Met Office:

Team leader, Dr Doug Smith said: “Occurrences of El Nino, for example, have a significant effect on shorter-term predictions. By including such internal variability, we have shown a substantial improvement in predictions of surface temperature.” Dr Smith continues: “Observed relative cooling in the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific over the last couple of years was correctly predicted by the new system, giving us greater confidence in the model’s performance”.

To re-cap, the new system had, we are told, correctly predicted the last couple of years, but in January 2007, the group were predicting the warmest year on record, and then, following an atrocious “summer”, they have postponed global warming until 2009, set to return in 2010. Here are those events, placed on the NINO graphic…




By August 2007, it was apparent that the El Nino was over, and not as significant as Hadley had predicted it would be in January. It was also apparent that La Nina was well underway, and this would have the consequence of driving down temperatures for 2008. From here, it is likely that temperatures will rise after 2010, and that an El Nino event would follow, driving temperatures up again. Safe to say that the MET is on the money when it predicts an increase in 2010. Possibly. Maybe. either way, we have to wait… and remember… until 2010 to see if the gamble pays off.

All of this is not to knock meteorology or anything. We are well aware that an unseasonal cold snap says little about whether global warming is or isn’t happening, or what we should do about it if it is or isn’t. What is well worth knocking, however, is the message provided by meteorologists. They, like Oreskes et al, are increasingly relying on messages of certainty when it suits them, and doubt, or “natural variability” where they can’t provide answers. But this isn’t meteorology; it’s rumour, folklore – the whittling down of complex dynamic systems to simple rules of thumb. And when it comes to folklore, others do it better than the Met.

Back in the olden days, in the days when they had the sort of “stable” climate we are all now expected to aspire to, long before anyone had thunk up global warming or anything, they used to amuse themselves of an evening by singing about how natural variability is always going to happen whether the models be right or wrong. We like to think this one is probably called Climate is a Complex Non-linear Multifactorial System.

Whether the weather be hot,
or whether the weather be not,
we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!


York University Campus, Spring, 2008.