There may be trouble ahead

It looks like we’ve had the starting pistol for the biannual ritual of the season’s change justifying a spate of articles predicting the next few months’ weather. It’s always fun for us Brits, though not exactly harmless. Misreporting of a Met Office’s 2009 seasonal forecast – as a ‘barbecue summer’ – somehow led to serious suggestion that it should be sold off, despite its record as one of world’s most accurate forecasting bodies.

Now this autumn, the Guardian has pitched in with a story about the early arrival of some Bewick’s swans to the UK. Apparently their early departure from Siberia, tied with a cold forecast for the week ahead, was enough to justify an article predicting a cold winter ahead.

Without wanting to take the article too seriously (it is, after all, only a well-executed piece of PR by the Slimbridge Wetland Centre), the prospect of a cold winter should be a worry for anyone campaigning on climate change. Last year, we saw the collapse of talks in Copenhagen; Climategate; Glaciergate (the stories don’t need to be true to have been reported as damaging climate science) – and the coldest winter in the UK for 31 years. Of these, the weather may well have done the most to influence public concern about climate change.

The evidence for this is circumstantial because no-one asked the right questions, but seems fairly strong. A poll in December ’09, when the stories about UEA emails were at their peak, showed no significant movement in agreement with climate science. Yet, another poll, in January ’10, when the UEA stories had died down, but the cold weather was at its most severe, showed a significant drop in agreement that climate change was a reality (though I think methodological problems with this latter poll seriously weaken it). In the other direction, we’ve also seen that confidence in climate science increases when heatwaves or storms cause major disruption, and the media attribute this weather to climate change.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that I think there hasn’t been any fall in confidence in climate science, or that the fall has been entirely due to the weather. There has been a shift, and it outlasted the cold winter. But there’s pretty good evidence that the weather has played a major part in it.

Why does this matter?  There are, I think, a couple of reasons. Firstly, it takes media attention away from actions tackling climate change, and keeps the debate on whether or not people think climate change is happening. If last winter is anything to go by, some newspapers will use the cold weather as an excuse to run stories questioning climate change. Then, other outlets will use the excuse of those stories to run polls asking whether people ‘believe’ in climate change. And then these and other newspapers and broadcasters will use those polls to run stories about how no-one believes in climate change any more.

Not only is this debate predictable, it’s also not that relevant. ‘Belief’ in climate change is not that strongly related to willingness to take action/see action taken to deal with climate change (as we saw here). Despite what people say in response to questions about whether scientists are right, or whether climate change is scaremongering, the overwhelming majority still want something to happen to stop the planet heating up.

The second problem with the connection of a cold winter and attitudes towards climate change is to do with the pervasive confusion between weather and climate. Articles that use cold weather as ‘evidence’ that climate change isn’t happening both rely on and reinforce this misunderstanding. This is a problem not only in that it encourages people to base their view of climate change on their personal experience and recollection of the weather (which is never going to be reliable), but it also adds apparent credibility to the common denier argument about long-term climate modelling: “you can’t accurately predict the weather in two week’s time, so don’t tell me you can predict it in 50 year’s time”. Of course this is a complete misrepresentation of climate science. But every time climate and weather are conflated, it seems that bit more reasonable.

So, if we’ve got another cold winter coming, that means more trouble for communication of climate change. But the good news is that the response can’t really be any worse than last year. There’s an argument that is still far from being won about the difference between weather and climate. Making the case effectively includes not being tempted to claim that any severe weather we face are proof of climate change. Equally, moving the conversation on to what can be done to tackle climate change keeps the debate on more productive territory – rather than allowing another winter of repetitive stories about ‘belief’ in climate change.

  1. I just wish to point out that the Term “Climate Change” in substitute for “Global Warming” is just as much of a fraud.

    Climate Change means ‘change in the weather’. nothing more.

    Anyone wishing to check in to this further is invited to search for the work of Lord Christopher Monkon of Benchley. His research thoroughly shows the fraud perpetrated by the IPCC.

    It is completely arrogant to think that we stop Climate Change; Humans do not drive global weather patterns.

    As far ecologically sound practices go, I do not have an issue with that. What takes the biscuit is that we tax payers could end up being forced to pay taxes to the an unelected body like the World Bank and IMF to fund the so-called Climate Change Agenda.

    No taxation without REPRESENTATION……

    And Carbon Taxes and Carbon Trading is just a financial scam….search Al Gore Investment company london. and the HighCourt ruling on his film an inconvenient truth.

    • Leo says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Interesting point about the nomenclature “climate change” vs “global warming”. As you suggest, “climate change” is a term that could logically cover a wide range of situations, ranging from, crudely put, global warming to global cooling. In that sense, it is indeed inaccurate to use the terms interchangeably. However, I hope you’ll accept my explanation that in a website about public understanding of the climate, my use of the term “climate change” can be readily understood to refer to the current changes in the climate, which are observed throughout the globe, and which are believed by most climate scientists (though not, I gather, by you) to be caused by human release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

      Whether “climate change” or “global warming” is the better term for this phenomenon is interesting. As I say, “climate change” is less specific, and so may be less objectionable. One could argue that “global warming” isn’t entirely accurate a term, since (as I understand it) not every square inch of the planet will, with a high degree of probability, warm under existing climate models. However, since an increase in the levels of greenhouse gases will cause (and already appear to be causing) a net warming effect averaged across the entire planet, in all I’m comfortable with the accuracy of the term “global warming” (incidentally, I must take issue with your assertion that “climate change means ‘change in the weather’”. As I point out in the very article above, climate is weather over the long term – so climate change must be long-term changes in the weather, as distinct from day-to-day fluctuations).

      On a separate point, I’m intrigued by your comment that “Humans do not drive global weather patterns”. I understand by this you’re saying that human behaviour is not having an impact on the global climate (my apologies if I’m misunderstanding your point). If so, I’d be really interested to have your views on which part of the following rough description of the standard model of current climate change you find inaccurate:

      – In general, the average temperature of the planet remains at equilibrium unless:
      (1) The rate of energy being put into it from the sun changes, or,
      (2) The rate at which it can emit energy changes.

      – The rate at which earth can emit energy if influenced by, among other things, the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (this in the past appears to have been caused by things like continental drift, volcanoes etc). If the gases increase, the planet is less able to emit the energy it received from the sun, back into space.

      – The levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been measured to have increased significantly over the course of this century.

      – The specific isotopes of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere that have increased the most over the course of this century are the same as those being released by human activity.

      – The observed warming effect of the planet in recent times (which appears to have occurred much faster than any previous change in the planet’s climate) matches the prediction of models that anticipated warming caused by an increase in greenhouse gases.

      – These models predict further warming if greenhouse gases increase.

      Please do let me know which part of this you don’t think is backed up by the weight of evidence.

      I’m afraid I don’t know Lord Monkon’s work. Do you have any links to his publications in peer-reviewed journals/doctoral thesis etc so I could check them out?

      And finally, on taxation, and which bodies have the moral authority to impose levies on people around the world… I think you make a very widely-held point! As we’ve seen previously on this site, green taxes are usually not seen very favourably (rather like any new taxes) – and any suggestion that they should be raised by a body that doesn’t have direct electoral accountability to the voter (unlike, say, the UK Parliament, US Senate, or European Parliament), would certainly face some tough challenges.

      All the best,

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