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Ross Clark: Why is there always a round of climate scaremongering after the weather changes?

Ross Clark, The Daily Telegraph

Whether it’s floods or a drought, snowfall or no snow ever again, there’s always a prediction about the impending doom of climate change

Had we not had a cold spell a couple of weeks ago I doubt many people would have got to hear about a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience claiming that something called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could, thanks to human-induced climate change, reach a tipping point by the end of the century bringing Europe much colder winters. 

Yet, thanks to us all shivering for a few days, the paper, by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has fuelled claims that this month’s big freeze is a mere harbinger of even greater terror to come. 

It is only when you read the details that the case starts to weaken, rather like the AMOC itself.    Direct measurements of AMOC currents have only been taken since 2004 – incidentally the same year as the Hollywood blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, took to the screens, depicting London covered by an ice cap which reaches to near the top of Big Ben. To work out what happened before that, scientists rely on trying to interpret factors such as currents from patterns of ocean sediments and Greenland ice cores. And these, it seems, indicate that the AMOC has been weakening since 1850, well before carbon emissions could have had a significant impact on the climate. Moreover, ocean currents are only one influence on our climate; they are different from atmospheric circulation.

Hysteria, though, has a life of its own, far removed from proper scientific study of the climate. It is largely driven by what kind of weather we happen to have had recently. Last year, when we had floods in February, they, too, were a warning sign – in this case of much milder, wetter winters to come. This year, we had a cold spell – so now we’re doomed to a freezing future instead. Last December a Met Office scientist was telling Panorama that snow in Britain could soon be a ‘thing of the past’, with freezing days extinct from most of England by the 2040s. That doesn’t quite fit with record snowfall in parts of Aberdeenshire earlier this month, nor with current scaremongering over AMOC.   

Just listen to the words of James Bevan, chair of the Environment Agency, who told the Association of British Insurers this week: “over the last few years the reasonable worst case for several of the flood incidents the EA [Environment Agency] has responded to has actually happened, and the reasonable worst case scenarios are getting larger”. Could this be the same James Bevan who last June, during a dry spell, said that we were wrong to think of Britain any longer being a “wet and rainy country” and blamed water shortages, too, on climate change?

In the Environment Agency’s case, climate change is a convenient excuse to bat away accusations that it is failing to manage river flows properly – although in the agency’s defence, flooding and water shortages are also a factor of things beyond its control, such as planning, land use policy and the water industry’s failure to make water meters universal in order to manage demand.

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