Skip to content

Matt Ridley: Weird Weather? That’s The Pub Bore Forecast

Matt Ridley, The Times

Forget the anecdotes and face the facts: weather always fluctuates. Arctic springs and angry summers are not oddities.

The east wind could cut tungsten, the daffodils are weeks behind and the first chiffchaffs are late. It’s a cold spring and the two things everybody seems to agree upon are that there’s something weird about the weather and it’s our fault. Both are almost certainly wrong.

On weird weather it is true that the contrast with last year’s warm March is striking, as is the difference between the incessant rain of the past 12 months and the long drought that preceded it in most of England. In the past year America has had a heatwave, a superstorm and now a bitterly cold spring. Australia has just had an “angry summer”. And so on.

Sir John Beddington, the Government’s retiring chief scientist, claimed this week that we are seeing more variability. Is he right? On the whole, no. Forget the anecdotes and examine the data.

Start with America. Professor Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado has documented that floods, hurricanes, tornados and East Coast winter storms have shown no increase since the 1950s, while droughts have shown a slight decrease. The only thing that has changed is the financial damage done by storms, but as he drily remarks, “The actual reason for the increasing number of damaging tropical storms has to do with the reporting of damages.”

What about elsewhere? There has been no trend in tropical cyclone intensity or frequency worldwide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in a recent special report on climate extremes that over the coming two to three decades “signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability” and that “even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain”. Translated: the weather is just as likely to become less extreme as more extreme.

So why is everybody convinced otherwise? Partly because they have been listening too much to the big insurance companies, which have a vested interest in bidding up our anxiety, as Pielke’s remark reminds us. Also, it seems even government chief scientists suffer from what psychologists call “availability heuristic”: when people judge the probability of events from how easy it is to think of examples. […]

The lesson that weather matters more than climate is not just a bit of fun. Airports and our councils forgot to plan for snow a few years ago because they were more focused on the trend than the variability. In 2010 Brisbane disastrously overfilled a dam because it expected drought to return; the dam could not absorb a flood when it came.

Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. Which is presumably what the first chiffchaffs will soon be saying to themselves as they search barren tree branches for frozen insects.

Full comment (subscription required)