Wednesday, January 6th 2010, 12:24 PM EST
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
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?
Leo Hickman and George Monbiot Wednesday 6 January 2010 13.44 GMT