There was a truly awful article in the Telegraph a few days ago called what if man-made climate change is all in the mind. It was written by a novelist called Sean Thomas, so my initial thought was that he was practicing his fiction writing. If so, it was quite good (well, in the sense that it was very obviously fictional).
The article itself was discussing the recent flooding in England and quite heavily quoted Corinne Le Quere, a Director of The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Corinne Le Quere was quoted as saying
“Even though we can’t blame the current weather in the UK on climate change, we expect heavy rains like this to occur as a result of climate change”.
Seems quite sensible to me. The article rather mocked what Corinne Le Quere was saying, with the the basic premise that there is no evidence for increased precipitation and hence maybe
man-made climate change is all in the mind – because, in our instinctive terrors, we always think that something wicked this way comes, especially from the sky: as a punishment from God, for things we have done.
Corinne Le Quere responded with an article of her own in the Telegraph called what if man-made climate change is loading the dice on floods in the UK. The article ends with
If Mr Thomas would like to improve upon his fictional writing, my university, the University of East Anglia, has an esteemed creative writing programme, though he’ll have to do better than this to win a place.
So, maybe, even as a piece of fiction it wasn’t very good.
You can read the articles yourselves to make up your mind about their relative merits, but what I thought I would do here is quickly address the issue of attribution. It seems that we’re confident that we can attribute recent surface warming to human influences. I assume that we can also attribute the rise in ocean heat content, the reduction in Arctic sea ice, and the loss of ice sheet mass in the Antarctic and Greenland to human influences. However, when it comes to extreme weather, it’s much more difficult to determine attribution.
So, what seems quite common is that if anyone attempts to associate an extreme weather event with climate change/global warming someone will pop up and say either “there’s no trend”, or “the trend is not statistically significant”, or “the trend is statistically significant, but we can’t attribute it to human influences”. All of these statements may be true, but they’re often simplistic. Even in the case of the recent flooding, Corinne Le Quere very specifically said that we can’t blame the recent weather on climate change. What she was saying was that science is telling us that climate change will very likely lead to more heavy precipitation in the UK.
So, as I see it, we’re confident that the warming is anthropogenic. We’re confident that sea levels will rise (basic physics). We’re confident that wetter regions will get wetter and that drier regions will get drier (basic physics). We’re, however, uncertain about precisely how some extreme weather events will be influenced by climate change. Also, in most cases we won’t be able to determine attribution for many decades, even if there are some hints today.
It certainly appears that these attempts to argue that we can’t definitely attribute extreme weather events today to man-made climate change are simplistically true and would seem to simply be delay tactics. Surely one reason for doing science is to use our knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology to understand how things may change and to make decisions as to what to do to avoid future problems? Implying that we shouldn’t do anything until we know definitively that there is a genuine problem, seems rather medieval. If this is your thinking, then what’s the point of doing science (as I understand it at least). Just wait until it’s obvious that there’s a problem and then do something about it. I think that’s rather short-sighted, but maybe I’m alone in this.