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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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The sceptics are right. Don't scapegoat them.

Floods and gales in the UK are not evidence of climate change

This is my column in the Times this week. I have added some updates in the text and below.

 

In the old days we would have drowned a witch to stop the floods. These days the Green Party, Greenpeace and Ed Miliband demand we purge the climate sceptics. No insult is too strong for sceptics these days: they are “wilfully ignorant” (Ed Davey), “headless chickens” (the Prince of Wales) or “flat-earthers” (Lord Krebs), with “diplomas in idiocy” (one of my fellow Times columnists).

What can these sceptics have been doing that so annoys the great and the good? They sound worse than terrorists. Actually, sceptics have pretty well all been purged already: look what happened to Johnny Ball and David Bellamy at the BBC. Spot the sceptic on the Climate Change Committee. Find me a sceptic within the Department of (energy and) Climate Change. Frankly, the sceptics are a ragtag bunch of mostly self-funded guerrillas, who have made little difference to policy — let alone caused the floods.

What’s more, in the row over whether climate change is causing the current floods and storms, the sceptics are the ones who are sticking to the consensus, as set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — you know, the body that the alarm-mongers are always telling us to obey. And it is the sceptics who have been arguing for years for resilience and adaptation, rather than decarbonisation.

Mr Miliband says: “This winter is a one-in-250-year event” (yet it’s nothing like as wet as 1929-30 if you count the whole of England and Wales, let alone Britain) and that “the science is clear”. The chief scientist of the Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, tells us “all the evidence” suggests that climate change is contributing to this winter’s wetness. (Why, then, did she allow the Met Office to forecast in November that a dry winter was almost twice as likely as a wet winter?) Lord Stern, an economist, claimed that the recent weather is evidence “we are already experiencing the impact of climate change”. [For a thorough debunk of Lord Stern's comments on the global position, see below.]

All three are choosing to disagree with the IPCC consensus. Here’s what the IPCC’s latest report actually says:

“There continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.”

Here’s what a paper published by 17 senior IPCC scientists from five different countries said last month:

“It has not been possible to attribute rain-generated peak streamflow trends to anthropogenic climate change over the past several decades.”

They go on to say that blaming climate change is a politician’s cheap excuse for far more relevant factors such as “what we do on or to the landscape” — building on flood plains, farm drainage etc.

As for recent gales caused by a stuck jetstream, Dr Mat Collins, of Exeter University, an IPCC co-ordinating lead author, has revealed that the IPCC discussed whether changes to the jetstream could be linked to greenhouse gases and decided they could not. “There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jetstream to get stuck in the way it has this winter,” he says, in a statement that raises questions about Dame Julia’s credibility.

In 2012, the Met Office agreed:

“There continues to be little evidence that the recent increase in storminess over the UK is related to man-made climate change.”

So please will Lord Stern, Dame Julia and Mr Miliband explain why they are misleading the public about the science?

That consensus, by the way, has never said that climate change will necessarily be dangerous. The oft-quoted 97 per cent agreement among scientists refers to the statement that man-made climate change happens, not to future projections [and anyway it has been comprehensively discredited and described as infamous by a prominent climate scientist]. No climate change sceptic that I know “denies” climate change, or even human contributions to it. It’s a lazy and unpleasant slur to say that they do.

Sceptics say it is not happening fast enough to threaten more harm than the wasteful and regressive measures intended to combat it. So far they have been right. Over 30 years, global temperature has changed far more slowly than predicted in 95 per cent of the models, and has decelerated, not accelerated. When the sceptic David Whitehouse first pointed out the current 15 to 17-year standstill in global warming (after only 18 to 20 years of warming), he was ridiculed; now the science establishment admits the “pause” but claims to have some post-hoc explanations.

While the green lobby has prioritised decarbonisation, sceptics have persistently advocated government spending on adaptation, so as to grab the benefits of climate change but avoid the harm, and be ready for cooling as well if the sun goes into a funk. Yesterday Mr Miliband yet again prioritised carbon limits — cold comfort to those flooded from their homes. Huge sums have been spent on wind farms and bio-energy, with trivial impact on emissions. The money has come disproportionately from the fuel bills of poor people and gone disproportionately to rich people.

Given that there are about 25,000 excess winter deaths each year, adding 5 per cent to fuel bills kills far more people now than (possibly) adding 5 per cent to future rainfall totals ever would. If just a fraction of renewable energy subsidies sluiced towards wind farms by the climate secretaries Ed Miliband and Ed Davey had instead been put into flood defences, they would have done far more good.

Meanwhile, please notice that those lambasting the sceptics work for you, drawing wages from public bodies supported by the taxpayer: Lord Stern, Lord Deben, Dame Julia Slingo, Sir Mark Walport, Professor Kevin Anderson, even a spin doctor called Bob Ward, and more. Most of the sceptics operate on self-employed shoestrings and cost you nothing: Andrew Montford, David Holland, Nic Lewis, Doug Keenan, Paul Homewood, Fay Kelly-Tuncay. There is only one professional sceptic in the entire country — Benny Peiser — and he is not paid by the taxpayer.

Despite the fuss, sceptics have had little effect. Renewable subsidies for the rich grow larger every year. Jobs are still being destroyed by carbon floor prices and high energy costs. Emissions targets have not been lowered. At the very most, George Osborne and his allies may have slightly pinched the flow of funds to consultants and academics to talk about the subject. Maybe that’s what makes the great and the good so cross.

 

Notes:

1. Some details on the row about the "pause", which was furiously denied for a while, then suddenly explained. Whitehouse's account is well worth reading for those interested in the history of the subject. Whitehouse was accused by Mark Lynas of the New Statesman of being ‘wrong, completely wrong’, and ‘deliberately, or otherwise, misleading the public’. So Bob Ward asked Phil Jones of UEA to put the record straight. He wrote:

"What you have to do is to take the numbers in column C (the years) and then those in D (the anomalies for each year), plot them and then work out the linear trend. The slope is upwards. I had someone do this in early 2006, and the trend was upwards then. It will be now. Trend won’t be statistically significant, but the trend is up."

This last self-contradiction caused much amusement later. Ward was unable to assemble a rebuttal. Jones eventually stated:

"Bottom line: the no upward trend has to continue for a total of 15 years before we get worried."

That point is now well past on nearly all the temperature records. By 2007, the Met Office was boasting that its new computer could see a resumption of warming in the future:

"We are now using the system to predict changes out to 2014. By the end of this period, the global average temperature is expected to have risen by around 0.3 °C compared to 2004."

In fact, as of now, at the start of 2014, global temperatures are if anything slightly lower than in 2004. The pause continues. Attempts to explain it, using volcanoes, aerosols, natural cycles, missing Arctic heat and ocean absorption of heat have proliferated, but so far they are extremely unconvincing.

The latest example is the paper by Matthew England et al, on which Nic Lewis had this to say:

"Matthew England's paper claims to show that the hiatus in global surface temperature since around 2001 is due to strengthening Pacific trade winds causing increased heat uptake by the global ocean, concentrated in the top 300 m and occurring mainly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But his study uses model-based ocean temperature "reanalyses", not measurements. A recent study by Lyman and Johnson of the US Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory shows, using actual measurements of sub-surface ocean temperatures (infilling data gaps using a representative mean), that ocean heat uptake has actually fallen heavily from around 2002, whether measured down to 100 m, 300 m, 700 m or 1800 m. Indeed, they show an exceptionally large 90% fall in the heat content trend for the top 300 m between the decades 1993–2002 and 2002–2011. Several other observational datasets for the more often cited top 700 m ocean heat content also show a substantial reduction in heat uptake between those periods. So, unfortunately, ocean temperature measurements completely contradict Matthew England's neat explanation for the warming hiatus."

 

2. The seasonal forecasting failures of the Met Office are becoming a habit. The Met Office forecast “drier than average conditions” just before the extremely wet April-June of 2012. It forecast a warm March last year before the coldest March in years. It forecast mild winters in 2008-9, 2009-10 and 2010-11: all three were hard and the authorities were caught unprepared. (Don’t get me wrong – I hugely admire the Met Office as a short-term weather forecaster, but it’s no better than the Daily Express at seasonal forecasts).

 

3. On how to deal with carbon emissions, the most delightful irony of all is that Lord Stern believes we are doing too much. Really. Go and read his report and you will find a clear statement that a Pigovian tax of $80 per tonne of carbon dioxide (equivalent) should compensate for all the harm likely to be done by carbon dioxide emissions. If so, as the Adam Smith Insitute’s Tim Worstall points out, then fuel duty is already 15p a litre too high and other taxes on fossil fuels about right. So let’s give him another knighthood, cancel all the wind turbines and declare job done. Then there might be some more money for flood defences.

as Worstall puts it:

"We can go further as well. As My Lord Stern has pointed out (and as have eminences like Richard Tol, William Nordhaus, Greg Mankiw and, in fact, just about every economist who has bothered to look at the issue) the correct solution to the results that come from the IPCC is a carbon tax. Of some $80 per tonne CO2-e in fact according to Stern. And it's well known that UK emissions are around 500 million tonnes. And also that we already pay some swingeing amount of such Pigou Taxes: the fuel duty escalator alone now makes petrol a good 15p per litre more expensive than it should be under such a tax regime. And there are other such taxes that we pay, so much so that we are already, we lucky people here in the UK, paying a carbon tax sufficient to meet Lord Stern's target (which is, it should be noted, rather higher than what all the other economists recommend: we're not stinting ourselves in our approach to climate change).

We don't quite pay it on all the right things as yet, this is true, but the total amount being paid is about right. We just need to shift some of the taxation off some products and on to others. Less on petrol and more on cowshit for example.

That is, according to the standard and accepted science of climate change we here in the UK have already done damn near everything we need to do to beat it.

This, in turn, means that we now have to fire everyone who disagrees with this application of that accepted science. Which means we get to fire Ed Davey for suggesting more windmills for example. We don't need any other schemes, plans, subsidies, technological boosts nor regulations. As Stern and all the others state once we've got that appropriate carbon tax in place then we're done, problem solved. We just then sit back and allow the market to churn through the various options now that we've corrected the price system for externalities."