Britain's cold snap does not prove climate science wrong

Climate sceptics are failing to understand the most basic meteorology - that weather is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends

Bury, Greater Manchester: Sheep in heavy snow on Holcombe Hill

Snow in Bury, Greater Manchester. Why is there a national outpouring of idiocy every time some snow falls? Photograph: Christopher Thomond

It's as predictable a feature of the British winter as log fires and roasting chestnuts: a national outpouring of idiocy every time some snow falls.

Here's what Martyn Brown says in today's Express:

As one of the worst winters in 100 years grips the country, climate experts are still trying to claim the world is growing warmer.

There's a clue as to where he might have gone wrong in that sentence: "country" has a slightly different meaning to "world". Buried at the bottom of the same article is the admission that " ... other areas including Alaska, Canada and the Mediterranean were warmer than usual." But that didn't stop Brown from using the occasion to note that "critics of the global warming lobby said the public were no longer prepared to be conned into believing that man-made emissions were adding to the problem."

The ability to distinguish trends from complex random events is one of the traits that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is also the basis of all science; detecting patterns, distinguishing between signal and noise, and the means by which the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are determined. Now we are being asked to commit ourselves to the wilful stupidity of extrapolating a long-term trend from a single event.

The Express would have us return to the days in which the future course of human affairs could be predicted by solar eclipses and the appearance of comets. It has clearly made a calculated decision in recent months that climate scepticism plays to its readership - and therefore shifts papers - just as the daily drip-feed of conspiracy theories about Princess Diana and Madeleine McCann has done in the past.

Brown is by no means alone in his idiocy. On Sunday, the Telegraph and the Mail published almost identical articles; one by Christopher Booker, the other by his long-term collaborator, Richard North. Both claimed that the Met Office had predicted a mild winter, and that it had made this prediction because it has been "hijacked" by a group of fanatics - led first by its former chief executive Sir John Houghton, now by the current boss Robert Napier - who stand accused of seeking to to corrupt forecasts to make them conform to their theories on climate change.

If this story were true, it would be huge: the UK's official weather forecasting service is deliberately changing its forecasts to make them fit a political agenda. It would also be fantastically stupid, as forecasts can always be checked against delivery. Booker and North offer no evidence to support this humongous conspiracy theory, just a load of unrelated facts cobbled together in the usual fashion.

Even their premise – that the Met Office "confidently predicted a warmer than average winter for Britain" - is wrong. Here's what it actually said:

Early indications are that it's looking like temperatures will be near or above average. But there's still a one in seven chance of a cold winter – with temperatures below average.

No confidence there, no certainty, and no single prediction. But Booker and North use the presumed contrast between the forecast (which was, of course, for the whole winter) and the current event to imply not only that climate change is a giant conspiracy coordinated by the Met Office, but that long-term temperatures are not rising. North suggests that the regional cold snap derails the global temperature prediction for the whole of 2010.

Echoing each other's fantasies, extracting sweeping conclusions from single events, these two are like the Old Man and Ross in Macbeth.

John Redwood, the Tory MP for Wokingham, was at it in the Commons yesterday, too, when putting a question to Ed Miliband, after the secretary of state for climate change and energy had made a statement about the Copenhagen climate change conference.

Redwood: Why are we in the northern hemisphere having such a very cold winter this year? Which climate model predicted that?

Miliband: I can hardly believe that question, Mr Deputy Speaker. The weather fluctuates, as anyone knows, and the notion that a cold spell in Britain disproves the science of climate change is something that I believe not even the Right Hon. Gentleman believes.

Redwood was evidently not happy with the "weather fluctuates" response and returned to the issue this morning on his blog:

I was expecting some answer that told me you can have severe winters within a pattern of global warming, with reference to some climate change model analysis which allowed for adverse variations within the assumed pattern of warming. How wrong I was. Instead Mr M threw his toys out of the pram, declined to offer a civil answer to a civil question, and told me the science of global warming was settled! Some other MP from a sedentary position offered the profound advice that I needed to understand climate was different from weather.

It's a pity really that he didn't listen to the profoundly obvious advice being offered by the MP in the sedentary position, but that would have undermined his climate scepticism that oh-so-conveniently chimes with his free-market, anti-EU, rightwing views. But isn't that the story with so much of the climate scepticism on offer these days? It seems to be far less about genuine scientific scepticism and more about confirmation bias of a politicised world view.

One wonders, too, how Australia's legion of climate sceptics are currently spinning today's news from the country's Bureau of Meteorology which states that the past 10 years were officially the hottest decade since records began.

Yes, it is colder than usual in some parts of the northern hemisphere, and warmer than usual in others. Alaska and northern Canada are 5-10C warmer than the average for this time of year, so are North Africa and the Mediterranean. The cold and the warmth could be related: the contrasting temperatures appear to be connected to blocks of high pressure preventing air flow between the land and the sea.

This is called weather, and, believe it or not, it is not always predictable and it changes quite often. It is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends. Is this really so hard to understand?


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Britain's cold snap does not prove climate science wrong | Leo Hickman and George Monbiot

This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 13.44 GMT on Wednesday 6 January 2010. It was last modified at 12.08 GMT on Thursday 7 January 2010.

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  • jhudsy jhudsy

    6 Jan 2010, 2:00PM

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  • Tasslehoff Tasslehoff

    6 Jan 2010, 2:03PM

    This is called weather, and, believe it or not, it is not always predictable and it changes quite often. It is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends. Is this really so hard to understand?

    They know all about 'trends' when it comes to explaining how 2009 looks like being one of the top 3 warmest years on record though.

  • austint austint

    6 Jan 2010, 2:07PM

    This is called weather, and, believe it or not, it is not always predictable and it changes quite often. It is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends. Is this really so hard to understand?

    I'm afraid it might well be. God, this is depressing.

  • PottyProf PottyProf

    6 Jan 2010, 2:09PM

    You cann't deny the deniers their moment of fun.

    You'll have plenty of opportunities to get your own back, when they are proven wrong.

    Meanwhile, better to keep quiet and ignore them as the serious observers do rather sniping at them and polarising this debacle further.

  • Kerrygold Kerrygold

    6 Jan 2010, 2:16PM

    I think the fact that this phrase "the deniers" is used says it all, as it usually means Holocaust denier. Isn't there a Godwin's Law that says that once the Nazis and the Holocaust are invoked then whoever does so has lost the argument?

  • GoJayP GoJayP

    6 Jan 2010, 2:17PM

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  • davefb davefb

    6 Jan 2010, 2:21PM

    Did these people (redwood / martyn brown) just have very poor educations ? Perhaps they should have gone to a comprehensive school , I did , I recall O level geography , it was all explained in there.
    'warmer wet air, meeting cold air means more snow' .
    you'll get more wet air if the world in general is getting warmer. so it's hardly out of pattern at all.. though again, one winter isn't a trend and we have had worse.

  • Rufus16 Rufus16

    6 Jan 2010, 2:26PM

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  • Monbiot Monbiot

    6 Jan 2010, 2:28PM

    Contributor Contributor

    PottyProf:

    Meanwhile, better to keep quiet and ignore them as the serious observers do rather sniping at them and polarising this debacle further.

    I disagree. I think they have constantly to be challenged and confronted. When people fail to challenge misinformation, however preposterous it may seem, it spreads with tremendous speed. This is what John Kerry found with the Swiftboat smear: his failure to confront it was a serious tactical mistake. Obama's team learnt from this and debunked the nonsense that was flung at him. You might believe that these people will go away if we ignore them. Experience suggests otherwise.

  • llohan llohan

    6 Jan 2010, 2:30PM

    Yes George, but you have been guilty of exactly the same thing - I remember an article of yours (I think last winter or the winter before) in which you referred to the fact that you were planting spring plants early as evidence of global warming (just before some extremely cold and blizzardy conditions if I remember rightly) - how did those plants get on by the way?

  • llohan llohan

    6 Jan 2010, 2:32PM

    Rufus 16 - well, if that happens people like George won't be able to issue his 'we're doomed. we're doomed' and utterly pessimistic opinion pieces anymore and might even be out of work...and who could possibly want that?

  • gmchambers gmchambers

    6 Jan 2010, 2:33PM

    On Sunday Guardian Environment carried an article telling us that Climate Change is bringing freezing weather to Peru, now Monbiot and Hickman tell us that Climate Change isn't bringing freezing weather to Britain. So which is it ?

  • Smogbound Smogbound

    6 Jan 2010, 2:34PM

    Its not surprising that climate change deniers dislike being linked in any way with holocaust deniers. But the increasingly likely result of delays in efforts to combat climate change will be the deaths of hundreds of millions of people: an ecological holocaust. So I don't see any reason to worry about the sensitivities of such people. They will be called a lot worse in the years to come.

  • Beseeingyou Beseeingyou

    6 Jan 2010, 2:35PM

    Truth be told, the vast majority of people are not in a position to know if the world is warming or cooling. The only fact that exists, is that in the last 100 years, the earth has warmed by about 1 deg C. Everything else in conjecture.

    George Monbiot, I believe you are an honest and reasonable bloke. But unfortunately, there are now far too many politians and interest groups who have jumped on the "Climate Change" bandwagon for their own purposes. Climate Change is the new religion and it will be used to manipulate the masses for the benifit of the elite.

  • Monbiot Monbiot

    6 Jan 2010, 2:39PM

    Contributor Contributor

    llohan:

    Yes George, but you have been guilty of exactly the same thing - I remember an article of yours (I think last winter or the winter before) in which you referred to the fact that you were planting spring plants early as evidence of global warming

    Wrong. I used it as an example of the kind of weather we would have much more of due to a long-term shift in climate trends. I did not use it as evidence that global warming was taking place, but as an instance of what we could expect. You can understand the difference, can't you?

    http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2005/02/15/mocking-our-dreams/

    And by the way, the plants did fine. I got the best crop ever that year (though the basil and coriander bought it - that was a bit ambitious, I grant you.)

  • pahaleeese pahaleeese

    6 Jan 2010, 2:39PM

    I greatly admire Mr Monbiot's courage, lowering his jewels so squarely on the chopping block of this whole affair. Time will vindicate or emasculate him but I suspect history will be not judge him kindly in either event.

  • Will83 Will83

    6 Jan 2010, 2:42PM

    It is a tragedy that climate science has become so entrenched in political rather than scientific debate. 'Believers', 'skeptics' and 'deniers' alike scream and shout their views and insult one another but never listen to each other or actually make any progress in the debate

    It has become a system of winning tiny petty battles of rhetoric whilst we all ignore the real issue and continue to forge our destructive consumerist paths.

  • Tagei Tagei

    6 Jan 2010, 2:43PM

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  • JonReades JonReades

    6 Jan 2010, 2:44PM

    I love how people think that complex adaptive systems follow linear paths from A to B.

    So 'global warming' doesn't mean that the world gradually warms up like your home does when you up the thermostat. Global-scale systems have both positive and negative feedback mechanisms that maintain a fine balance over the *long* term: a warming in one area might produce a cooling somewhere else, increasing rainfall, etc., etc. but the *overall* system is stable.

    To my understanding, what you would typically expect when complex systems change are increasingly violent events (i.e. outliers such as 1 in 10,000 year floods occurring every 1 in 20 years -- statistically possible, but increasingly improbable) as the system's feedback mechanisms begin to fail, followed by a sudden and (for us) catastrophic shift to a new equilibrium position.

    There won't be time to say "Ooooh, better turn down the thermometer then" for climate change.

  • paulwmk paulwmk

    6 Jan 2010, 2:45PM

    Well said George!

    I think some people fail to realise there's a whole world out there. Anyone would think the entire globe has been gripped by a new ice age with all the nonsense being spouted.

  • LordXenu LordXenu

    6 Jan 2010, 2:46PM

    Er no, it usually means someone who denies something.

    Only if you believe the facist socialists in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary, making crazy claims about the meanings of various words to justify their funding streams.

    It's amazing how many people are taken in by these charlatans, it's basically a religion.

  • LordXenu LordXenu

    6 Jan 2010, 2:48PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • bebiking bebiking

    6 Jan 2010, 2:49PM

    Yes, let's speak trends:

    - air temperatures above 1500 meters measured by balloons, has shown very littly increase since the early 1990s, when the sun's magnetic activity stopped increasing, apart from a 1998 peak (el niño)

    - ocean water temperatures down to 52 meters even show a cooling since 1990 (idem)

    - global surface temperatures look like this:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Satellite_Temperatures.png

    So what's going on?

    Answer: we don't know for sure.
    Does it matter?
    Not really. We should decrease our Co² emmissions asap for a number of reasons. One of them being the possible effect on global warming.

  • rideearthtom rideearthtom

    6 Jan 2010, 2:49PM

    Here in Yerevan, Armenia, it was +18C last week. Same time two years ago? -27C.

    Go and stand in front of a nice big globe, spin it round to the UK, and stare at the tiny little island you live on whilst repeating the following mantra:

    'British weather is not the same as the global climate. British weather is not the same as the global climate. British weather is not the same as the global climate."

    Make it loud enough that any nearby Express readers can hear you.

  • magtys magtys

    6 Jan 2010, 2:49PM

    Extreme events are a symptom of climate change (not proof against it) as more energy goes into the system. It may be a "La Nina" year - a cool ocean current - again made more intense by climate change.

    The problem with the arguments made by skeptics are that they (the skeptics)have recently taken up this issue for various reasons and have not studied the subject from a scientific perspective for over 20 years as scientific organisations such as the IPCC have.

  • manzikert manzikert

    6 Jan 2010, 2:50PM

    Kerrygold:
    Holocaust and climate changes deniers use identical tactics. They find small inconsistencies in the evidence of their opponents to argue it completely invalidates their position; they have a selective and opportunistic approach to scientific data and facts, seizing on evidence - no matter how insignificant - that supports their arguments, but systematically ignoring mountains of other evidence that doesn't; they fabricate or manipulate evidence and then accuse their opponents of doing the same. They accuse opponents of being part of a conspiracy with a hidden agenda that wants to silence all opposition. They portray themselves as the Davids of 'truth' against the against the Goliaths of lies etc....

  • LordXenu LordXenu

    6 Jan 2010, 2:51PM

    It may be a "La Nina" year

    We're in an El Nino right now. Do you know something I don't?

    Speaking of which, if anyone knows where to get the british annual temp records, I'd be much obliged.

  • Nemesis2020 Nemesis2020

    6 Jan 2010, 2:52PM

    This is all beginning to sound a bit like a story from Genesis, isn't it: "And the Deniers Denied the Obvious TRUTH, and the CLIMATE DEMONS scorched the EARTH WITH THE unbearable HEAT OF ONE MILLION COKE CANS". Chill out guys, can I be AGNOSTIC about climate change please, is that one allowed, or do I have either to be a DENIER or a BELIEVER and in both cases horribly DOGMATIC?

  • rajpe rajpe

    6 Jan 2010, 2:52PM

    Oh. I get it now.

    Climate is NOT the same as weather when it is cold.

    Climate IS the same as weather when it is hot.

    Thanks for explalining it so clearly that even I can understand.

  • 5ynic 5ynic

    6 Jan 2010, 2:53PM

    Monbiot [below the line]

    You might believe that these people will go away if we ignore them. Experience suggests otherwise.

    Spot on. The truth does not triumph by itself - if it did, Kepler and Galileo would have been vindicated in their lifetimes.
    When vested interests keep shrilly repeating the same oft-debunked nonsense, the key is to keep repeating the facts, keep repeating the logic, and stay engaged in open and honest debate.
    Too many people (on both sides, I freely admit) cling to a preconceived position and don't really debate at all. I can't respect that approach - after all, most people on both sides are honestly convinced they are right (tho each side accuses the other of being led by people who secretly know they're lying).
    I'm quite sure AGW is happening, and fast - but I'm open to evidence that might persuade me otherwise, and I'm keen to persuade doubters of my position, rather than write them off asif they are followers of an errant cult (tho they may be doomed to roast for an eternity for their sins ;) ).

  • GerryP GerryP

    6 Jan 2010, 2:53PM

    &llohan
    Rufus 16 - well, if that happens people like George won't be able to issue his 'we're doomed. we're doomed' and utterly pessimistic opinion pieces anymore and might even be out of work...and who could possibly want that?

    You may not have noticed but George Monbiot is a journalist, allbeit with better scientific credentials than many of the 'scientists' who support your arguments. To his credit he has actually taken a stance on an important subject and is prepared to argue the issues in detail.

    Instead of knocking him why not do some real research into the subject of global warming for yourself. But to do that you will have to come to it with an open mind. Start by investigating where the funds come from to support the various organisations that put the negative arguments. The oil-company sponsored PR industry has a lot to answer for.

    Then research the scientific credentials of the individuals who have counter-arguments. In particular since they are clearly going against the scientific mainstream identify those individuals who have published papers in reputable peer-reviewed journals to support their arguments.

    If you really want to do your research look in detail at the UEA emails, the PR spin on them claims they prove that the scientist concerned were dishonest. Having read them I cannot find one shred of evidence to support that argument.

    This is a really important issue and if you are going to knock journalists who honestly take a stand you really do need to form your views based upon facts.

  • JonReades JonReades

    6 Jan 2010, 2:55PM

    Since Rufus16 and Tagel apparently have difficulty with statistics let's cover this off again: even if the next two weeks have average temperatures of -40C (presumably the coldest ever recorded in Britain) then it is still *entirely* possible for the past *year* to have had above-average temperatures. Right? You understand that a short, sharp drop in temperature has less impact on the yearly average than a long, shallow rise?

    Got that? So now let's look at the last 100 years. Or the last 1,000 years as best we can reconstruct them. Within that data sample we can have entire decades that are above or below average, even *very* above or below average, but with enough data points then we can still use regression to figure out the *trend*. And the trend, my dears is that things are going to get hotter. And when that happens see my previous post on complex adaptive systems.

  • buono buono

    6 Jan 2010, 2:55PM

    George, if you were faced with absolute, unequivocal evidence that global warming is a myth, what would you do for a living?

    Would you agree that you are dependent on global warming as an income stream?

    Because I would absolutely say that you are. You simply cannot afford to be wrong and so attack those who disagree with your point of view.

  • bebiking bebiking

    6 Jan 2010, 2:57PM

    5ynic: the critics of kepler and galileo were right, the idea that the sun stood in the centre was crazy, in these days, for a number of reasons

    back in the 1860's, Lord Kelvin proved scientifically that the earth was probably only 98 million years old, this falsified Darwin's theory of evolution

    Darwin himself was a sceptic. He didn't believe Lord Kelvin.
    He was right.

  • millsjwr millsjwr

    6 Jan 2010, 3:00PM

    Climate and weather are different.

    One cold winter - in some parts of the planet- means nothing.

    It is quite possible that the sun entering a more quiescent phase could lead to a decade of cooling. Fewer sunspots = weaker solar magnetic field. Solar magnetic field acts a sa shield against cosmic rays. So more cosmic rays get through. There is therefore more ionisation in the upper atmosphere. More ionisation = more condensation nucleii = more high level cloud = more reflection of solar insolation = cooling.

    If this happens it will not negate AGW.

    But it will fuel the deniers.

    If we do nothing as a result of a short period of stable or falling temperature there will be very rapid rise when sunspot activity returns to its long term average.

  • Monbiot Monbiot

    6 Jan 2010, 3:01PM

    Contributor Contributor

    Lord Xenu:

    Best post so far!:

    Er no, it usually means someone who denies something.

    Only if you believe the facist socialists in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary, making crazy claims about the meanings of various words to justify their funding streams.

    It's amazing how many people are taken in by these charlatans, it's basically a religion.

  • PottyProf PottyProf

    6 Jan 2010, 3:04PM

    Climate sceptics are failing to understand the most basic meteorology - that weather is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends

    No they're not. They're just having their bit of fun,

    as the Cabinet Secretary observes:-

    Miliband: ...................the notion that a cold spell in Britain disproves the science of climate change is something that I believe not even the Right Hon. Gentleman believes.

    but they know there are some who just cann't help themselves from rising to it.

  • Monbiot Monbiot

    6 Jan 2010, 3:09PM

    Contributor Contributor

    buono:

    George, if you were faced with absolute, unequivocal evidence that global warming is a myth, what would you do for a living?

    Would you agree that you are dependent on global warming as an income stream?

    Because I would absolutely say that you are. You simply cannot afford to be wrong and so attack those who disagree with your point of view.

    I write about lots of subjects: you can see the list here. Of my seven books, only one is about climate change. I would like nothing better than to stop writing about it, in fact I wish the issue would just go away, not least because having to deal every day with people like you is doing my head in.

    But let me turn the question round. What would it take to persuade you that manmade global warming is taking place? What proportion of the world's climate scientists would have to agree that it was happening before you accepted the science? 90%? 95%? Or is your rejection of it the equivalent of a religious belief, which cannot be shaken by any level of evidence?

  • elsanasser elsanasser

    6 Jan 2010, 3:10PM

    Were it not for the fact that every time there is a hot summer or a mild winter there is a flurry of activity to claim that it demonstrates that the world is getting warmer I would have some sympathy with you.

    Perhaps since you say country doesn't mean world you would let us know what the margin of error is the calculations of mean temperature that you have for the world.

  • buono buono

    6 Jan 2010, 3:11PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • MangoJuice MangoJuice

    6 Jan 2010, 3:14PM

    Climate change is the new religion. All you heathens who do not believe in it and do not worship at the alter of the doom-sayers will have your comeuppence when the apocalypse arrives. You'd better mend your ways forthwith, give up some carbon points for lent and say a thousand hail-windfarms as penance.

    Look, I'm a fairly rational person and agree that the globe is warming at a rate not seen in human history. I also agree that the polluting effect of the industrialised nations is the majority cause. Furthermore, I think that it is grossly negligent and criminal not to harness all the free energy the sun, the wind and sea provide. But the way some people go on about it is so annoying that I sometimes feel like going out and burning a mountain of coal just to see their reaction.

    It is time you face facts and realise that no matter how loud and often you shout it is not going to make much of a difference. Look at the debacle of Copenhagen. Face it: global carbon emissions are going to rise and there is naff all you can do about it. The tipping point is almost upon us if not already here. Cutting emissions is not going to happen so forget about it and start looking at counteracting it. That is your best bet now. How can we efficiently get the green house gases out of the atmosphere and stored safely?

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