Apocalypse Now?

My grandmother from Devon was a fey country woman and superstitious as hell.  Broken mirrors were cause for hysteria at my house and salt was always being thrown over shoulders.  Dropping a glove was a disaster and singing Christmas carols in April, a sin – “Singing songs out of season brings sorrow without reason”.  Dreaming of a birth meant a death and boasting could bring cataclysm.

My grandmother’s late conversion to Catholicism added the tales of the Book of Revelation to an already bursting catalogue of superstition.  Many occasions and occurences were evidence of the coming apocalypse and the apocalypse, as explained to me, was not an event I wanted to be around for.  So it was with a great deal of apprehension that I noted snow in late April or cold weather in July:  “And the seasons shall be as one” – a sure sign that the end was near.

I don’t know if that’s in the book but my grandmother said it was and  repeated it as often as the weather was strange.  As I remember, that was often.

I think of my grandmother when I hear people saying that the force of Hurricane Katrina and the extreme heat of the past few summers mean that theories of global warming are right, as evidenced by the current weather report.  I’m as serious about pressing governments to take immediate action to stem global warming but I’m not convinced that these interpretations of daily weather provide evidence that the planet is getting warmer.  A problem with such arguments is that the opposite can just as easily be claimed when it snows in London, England.

I’m not the only one worried about these arguments.   David Adam at The Guardian has this report on the “apocalyptic” claims being made by some environmental scientists and advocates:

Experts at Britain’s top climate research centre have launched a blistering attack on scientific colleagues and journalists who exaggerate the effects of global warming.

The Met Office Hadley Centre, one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world, says recent “apocalyptic predictions” about Arctic ice melt and soaring temperatures are as bad as claims that global warming does not exist. Such statements, however well-intentioned, distort the science and could undermine efforts to tackle carbon emissions, it says.

In an article published on the Guardian website, Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, calls on scientists and journalists to stop misleading the public with “claim and counter-claim”.

She writes: “Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

She adds: “Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically.”

Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office, said a common misrepresentation was to take a few years data and extrapolate to what would happen if it continues. “You just can’t do that. You have to look at the long-term trend and then at the natural variability on top.” Dramatic predictions of accelerating temperature rise and sea ice decline, based on a few readings, could backfire when natural variability swings the other way and the trends seem to reverse, he says. “It just confuses people.”

Pope says there is little evidence to support claims that Arctic ice has reached a tipping point and could disappear within a decade or so, as some reports have suggested. Summer ice extent in the Arctic, formed by frozen sea water, has collapsed in recent years, with ice extent in September last year 34% lower than the average since satellite measurements began in 1979.

“The record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer ice increasing again over the next few years,” she says.

“It is easy for scientists to grab attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted. The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

The criticism reflects mounting concern at the Met Office that the global warming debate risks being hijacked by people on both sides who push their own agendas and interests. It comes ahead of a key year of political discussions on climate, which climax in December with high-level political negotiations in Copenhagen, when officials will try to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

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