A Crisis of Faith in Crisis Politics

Two Popes, two statements, two apparent U-turns:

1. The Vatican declares that evolution by natural selection is not incompatible with its teachings and that Intelligent Design is a ‘cultural phenomenon’ rather than a scientific or theological one.

2. Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre warns against climate catastrophism and appeals to scientists to rein in misleading climate change claims:

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.

One, however, is more of a U-turn than the other. The Vatican’s statement is not news. It has been making similar statements for the past decade or more. Likewise, Dr Pope is not the first influential climate scientist to criticise climate porn. For example, Professor Mike Hulme has been saying similar things for a couple of years now. What makes Dr Pope’s statement newsworthy, however, is that it represents a U-turn not only for Dr Pope, but for the MET office itself.

Much of Pope’s article is rather sensible. For example:

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years.

It’s certainly encouraging to see a MET office spokesperson debunking talk of tipping points regarding summer Arctic ice melt. She’s talking about James Hansen, but we highlighted that same problem back in September, in response to comments from NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze.

He said:

We could very well be in that quick slide downwards in terms of passing a tipping point

We said:

Serreze neither explains what this tipping point might be, nor why his NSIDC data suggests we might be passing it. In this sense, ‘tipping point’ is used simply as a sciencey-sounding synonym for ’something terrible might happen’. And reporters don’t even think to ask him what on Earth he is talking about.

More sense from Pope:

Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.

Although she spoils it rather with her next sentence:

Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.

No. She would be equally (un)justified if she said that both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are up for debate. Of course, it is true that climate change poses problems that must be confronted. Just as it is true that our understanding of the effects of climate change is rudimentary. It is not the case that overplaying and underplaying natural variations in weather both undermine one of those more than the other. Both do, however, undermine the ability of society to make plans informed by the best available evidence.

Anyway, others have noted how Pope’s comments sit uncomfortably with her own statements in the recent past about the effects of climate change, and we have ourselves flagged up the MET’s over-interpretation of data for dramatic effect.

The most amusing reaction comes from climate guru Joseph Romm, who goes a long way to doing our job for us. Referring to an article written by Pope in December for the Times, he writes:

Pope herself is the principal source of the major recent apocalyptic prediction made by climate scientists — ironically in a December article in the Guardian [sic], “Met Office warn of ‘catastrophic’ rise in temperature”

Well, quite. Romm falls out with Pope because, in his world, the apocalyptic claims she refers to are not actually apocalyptic, but statements of fact.

If Pope wants to criticise climate catastrophism, that’s just fine with us. We hope, however, that she appreciates the enormity of the job she has taken on. It’s all too easy to cherry pick a handful of silly statements made by a few over-enthusiastic scientists and desperate reporters. But the fact is that such language is at the very core of environmental politics. So, by way of assisting her in her project, here’s a few bigger fish for Pope to get her teeth into…

Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister:

We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.

Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous”. “This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime,” he said. Investment now will pay us back many times in the future, not just environmentally but economically as well.”

We are headed toward catastrophic tipping points in our climate unless we act

Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister:

So the new settlement also requires another great and historic endeavour to end the dictatorship of oil and to avert catastrophic climate change

David Cameron – Leader of the Conservative Opposition:

the threat of imminent, irreversible, and catastrophic change to the climate of our planet should prompt us to challenge any perceived consensus on green growth

If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern:

The possibility of avoiding a global catastrophe is “already almost out of reach”, Sir Nicholas Stern’s long-awaited report on climate change will warn today.

President Barack Obama:

Today we’re seeing that climate change is about more than a few unseasonably mild winters or hot summers. It’s about the chain of natural catastrophes and devastating weather patterns that global warming is beginning to set off around the world.. the frequency and intensity of which are breaking records thousands of years old.

John Gloster, Met Office Research Scientist:

The arrival of Bluetongue disease in the UK in recent years is evidence that changing climate is already impacting animal health. The Met Office, working with other interested parties, is taking the lead in providing the advice and solutions government, veterinary experts and farmers will need to mitigate against the effects of climate change on animal and plant health in the future.

The Completely Cuckoo Climate Change Cyberspace Conspiracy Conspiracy

How long has it been since we last mentioned George Monbiot? The truth is that we simply got bored of his predictable column in the Guardian. Furthermore, we aren’t convinced that anyone actually takes him at all seriously, apart from the people who book him for media appearances. After all, his earnestness excites the vapid newswaves with the prospect of the end of the world. And there’s nothing more exciting than the end of the world, especially when the rest of the news is so mundane. But this week, George has surprised us.

Speaking for himself, as ever, George attempts to convince us that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’ and begins his argument by telling us that,

We all create our own reality…

Hmm. Not a good start. At this point, it’s hard to tell if George is giving us some kind of excuse for losing a grip on the objective world… a kind of my-truth-is-as-valid-as-your-truth caveat to everything he’s about to say, so that when challenged, he can smugly refer you to this relativistic axiom. Or is it just an apology for being a nutcase?

George certainly does create his own reality. It’s one in which his failure to make his reality yours is explained as the malign influence of other people, paid for by dark forces, distorting your reality. The bastards! This is a good definition of denial: what George can’t reflect on is the idea that his failure is the consequence of the shallowness of his own argument – you must be deluded. George continues,

…and shut out the voices we do not want to hear.

Of course. We’re the mad ones, George. Keep shutting out those, erm, voices.

Only the Plane Stupid protesters who occupied part of Stansted airport yesterday appear to have understood the scale and speed of this crisis. In cyberspace, by contrast, the response spreading fastest and furthest is flat-out denial.

That’s right, the self-indulgent teenage eco-toffs at Stansted know more about ‘The Realty’ than us hoi-polloi. But what is the substance of this reality?

The most popular article on the Guardian’s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the LaNiña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy.

George is constructing his own reality again here, and rewriting history. At the beginning of the year, the Met Office ‘predicted’ world-record higher temperatures for 2007, with an error margin of just 0.06C. At the time of the ‘prediction’, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation was positive, having been climbing from negative over the course of the preceding year, and seemed to be continuing on its trajectory (indicating that an El Nino event was underway, and getting stronger). But by August 2007, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation had changed direction, and gone negative again, and global temperatures had diminished. The Met Office issued a new ‘prediction’, temperatures wouldn’t rise. Except that it’s not a prediction: it was already happening, and it is known that a consequence of La Nina is cooler global temperatures. Anyone who knows this could have made the same ‘prediction’, and it says absolutely nothing about the Met Office’s ability to make statements about climate change which are consistent with reality.

We wrote recently about the Guardian article Monbiot refers to, and the problems with it. Here.

George forgets the Met Office’s wrong prediction, to focus on the other, non prediction, which is equivalent to backing every horse in a race to sell yourself as a master tipster by telling people how often and how much you’ve won without revealing your losses.

George uses his fraudulent claim to have ‘facts’ on his side to make statements about the quality of comments to Guardian articles on the newspaper’sCommentisfree pages. Monbiot sees this as ‘a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy’. But judging the human world on the basis of comments to blogs makes about as much sense as judging the physical world on the bogus (yes, bogus) predictions made by the Met Office.

The new figures have prompted similar observations all over the web. Until now, the “sceptics” have assured us that you can’t believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn’t mean anything. Now the temperature record – though only for 2008 – can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.

King George lectures us on madness? He ought to know, after all. He’s taken one of two, contradicting predictions to make it appear that he is armed with the facts, against an enemy whose position he has constructed from comments on the Guardian’s site, that in fact bear no resemblance to the arguments you will find here, for example, or (and we apologise for presuming to lump ourselves in with the them) William M Briggs’s excellent blog, or Steve McIntyre’s, or Anthony Watts’. Monbiot constructs a fictitious argument against which he battles. What a brave hero. But Saint George has not yet slayed the dragon in his fantasy.

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that thehockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.

Memes, for readers who are not acquainted with the, erm, meme, were conceived of by Richard Dawkins. His theory, outlined as an afterthought in The Selfish Gene, was that ideas, or ‘units of cultural information’ are transmitted from host to host in a process that is analogous to genetics. An imperfect copying mechanism means that memes are subject to ‘transcription errors’ and so mutate, which according to this theory, might account for the creation of new ideas, or memes.

But the theory has an unavoidable and terrible consequence. If it is correct, it means that you – the thinking subject – are neither thinking, nor a subject. You are an unthinking object, merely responding to the memes that you are exposed to, like balls on a pool table. You might think that you’re thinking for yourself, but it’s just a clever illusion, perpetrated by complex systems of memes -memeplexes – for their own advantage in their competition to propagate themselves. 

This theory – abandonded by many of its original proponents – has persisted in certain ‘rationalist’ circles (in spite of it being a wholly unfalsifiable theory that has made no progress in the 32 years since it was proffered), particularly amongst angry atheists and biologicaldeterminists who struggle to understand why their scientism hasn’t been absorbed into the political mainstream. Like Dawkins . It allows them to explain their own failure to create convincing arguments in pathological terms. Let us not mince our words about this theory, using it to explain anything about the social world is sheer pseudoscience. Ironically, it has greatest currency in the strange world of Internet conspiracy theorists, who are convinced that ‘the truth is out there’, but that ‘They’ don’t want you to know about it.

Monbiot is highly selective about what obstacles in his battle for the truth are ‘memes’. After all if the idea that ‘the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked’ is a ‘meme’, why isn’t the idea that it hasn’t been debunked a ‘meme’? The problem with memes is that you can never arrive at the truth, because you’ve undermined the very notion of ‘truth’ – it’s just a meme – andrelativised it into meaninglessness. Any application of ‘logic’ – which must be a meme – to the ‘facts’ – which must also be memes – simply reduces to a competition between memes for the resources in your head.

And what about the environmental ‘memes’ that we know to be false, or wildly exaggerated – for example the lie continually propagated by Monbiot that he’s absorbed from Greenpeace’s exxonsecrets.org website?

After consistent campaigning by Greenpeace through ExxonSecrets,  ExxonMobil was forced, in 2006, to drop funding to some of its key allies in the campaign to deny climate science and delay policy action The Competitive Enterprise Institute was the key group dropped – it had received $2.2 million fromExxonMobil since 1998, more than any other thinktank.  But the relationship continues as CEI’s climate operatives continue to work closely with the other think tanks funded by Exxon.

As we pointed out last year, if the biggest recipients of ‘fuel lobby’ funding was the CEI, which received just $2.2 million dollars over the course of 8 years ($275,000 a year – hardly big money), in return for generating ‘memes’, then it needs to be seen in the context of the environmental movement’s budget formemetic engineering. As we revealed, Greenpeace, the engineers of the exxonsecrets.org memes, had at their disposal over $2 billion over the same time frame. Conservation NGO, the WWF between 2003-7 recorded income of $2.5 billion. If cash buys you memes, then why are the poorly-funded sceptics so much better at creating them?

The idea that Exxon have ‘bought’ the debate does not stand up to scrutiny. Yet the lie persists. That’s not because it’s a successful ‘meme’, but because it’s a convenient way of moralising the debate, and robbing it of any nuance. Lying is the only way people likeMonbiot can clothe themselves in moral fibre.

Monbiot then explores a new idea about why his message hasn’t gone mainstream.

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix.

Yeah? Where did you hear that, Georges?

According to this logic, then, it can be no accident that Marshall and Monbiot, and for that matter Mark Lynas and Oliver tickell all think alike, because they all lived very near to each other in Oxford – where Caroline Lucas, Green MEP rose to prominence. Their views must have homogenised as they smugly quaffed organic wine at eco-parties, and rubbed minds as they rubbed shoulders. Monbiot continues the nauseating double entendre of memetic procreation:

Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

But again, this concept of our being the mindless vessels of ideas reduces our subjectivity, and leaves the Oxonian circle-penetrators with no greater claim to objectivity than the rest of us. Even if we seek ideas that yield a ‘reward’, it’s not hard to see what rewards have been sought byMonbiot and his circle, all of whom have elevated themselves into the limelight on the back of their ethical claims. They’ve sold many books. They are on TV. They have risen to positions of influence over the British establishment. They make money from the ‘ethical’ businesses they are involved in. And so on.

Monbiot seems to be making a claim that our weak wills leave us vulnerable to convenient conspiracy theories. And yet what argument has he been trying to sustain? Ah, yes, the idea that ‘planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’.Monbiot’s theory is that there has been a conspiracy to create a conspiracy theory.

Marshall is right: we have to change the way we talk about this issue. You don’t believe me? Then just read the gibberish that follows when this article is published online.

Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club. Second, it is transparent to most people thatMonbiot is mischaracterising the arguments of the people he sets himself up in opposition to – he doesn’t answer objections, and he makes straw men out of the flame-war battlefield that is the comments section oncommentisfree instead of picking up on the arguments that are actually being made. Third, he clearly overstates the relationship between these messages and a conspiracy of vested interests. Fourth, he diminishes the moral character of anyone who takes a different perspective to him. Fifth, he diminishes the intelligence of anyone who sees things differently to him. But the biggest problem for Monbiot is that the second, third, fourth and fifth are, he seems to believe, logical and necessary consequences of the first. He seems to think that, because the Met Office ‘predicted’ the 2008 temperature record (and they didn’t), then he is right to characterise his opponents as he pleases, he is right to think that silly comments on blogs represent the influence of an oil-industry conspiracy, and so on.

And we can see why Monbiot fails to reflect on his own argument. Because if he could, he would realise what an embarrassing lunatic he has turned himself into.

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 climateprediction.net 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.

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.