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Science cop-out expected for COP27

Dr David Whitehouse, Science editor

COP27 is almost upon us. That means it’s the time of year when we take stock of the changes we see taking place in the Earth’s climate, when we begin to think about placing the weather events of 2022 into the context of decadal trends. This review, however, might leave some delegates heading to Egypt for the 27th UN climate summit a little confused.

The data for the summer extent of Arctic sea is already available which – the delegates will be told yet again – is dwindling so rapidly that it will inevitably lead to an ice-free summer later this decade … or most certainly next decade … or almost certainly the decade after that. Confusingly, its minimum extent for 2022 is about the same as 2017 and 2018 and is only the 10th lowest on record. It is clear that the decline in minimum Arctic ice extent seen since satellite records have been available (1979) has levelled off as this year is near the average it was a decade ago. The recent rebound of Arctic sea ice is particularly noticeable in Alaska.

Source: Sea Ice Prediction Network, September 2022

Not that much has happened at the opposite pole either. Although Antarctic sea ice extent hit record lows for most of the growth season there was a strong recovery in September. So the polar ice summary for COP27 is that there is nothing unusual happening, at least as regards polar ice extent (data here).

Speculation about the annual average global temperature of the year tends to increase as the data starts to converge. As usual in the run-up to UN climate conferences, COP delegates will be told that global warming is accelerating dangerously. The data, however, say otherwise. This year seems to be nothing exceptional which is not surprising given the nature of the past decade with strong El Nino’s boosting global temperature, followed by La Nina events cooling it.

As can be seen on the graph below, produced by NOAA, 2022 could be the 6th warmest year on record. Warm certainly by historical standards, but with no sign of the oft-claimed acceleration.

But never mind that. Just look at the heatwave in China, the floods in Pakistan or the very warm summer in the UK. If that doesn’t convince you, read the Guardian: “There can be no more hiding, and no more denying. Global heating is supercharging extreme weather at an astonishing speed. Guardian analysis recently revealed how human-caused climate breakdown is accelerating the toll of extreme weather across the planet.”

Leaving to one side the problem of how the 6th warmest year supercharges extreme weather to a greater extent than the somewhat warmer years of the recent past, in reality it’s highly questionable that extreme weather events have been increasing in recent decades. Take Pakistan. Following an article on Net Zero Watch reporting on climate scientists acknowledging that it is impossible to say whether or not the flooding was linked to global warming, many got in touch saying that scientists and the media have short memories as they relayed details of how comparably bad flooding has been in the past.

Have faith in the climate models, delegates will be told yet again. But perhaps they should consider this. While the atmosphere has warmed in recent decades, a new study has revealed a surprising trend in the tropical oceans: Between 1979 and 2020 the Pacific Ocean off South America has cooled as have regions farther south. The western Pacific Ocean and eastern Indian Ocean on the other hand has warmed in contrast. The Pacific and its environs account for half of the Earth’s surface and its warming-cooling simply can’t be explained by climate models.