Inside the new climate row as Mystic Met Office goes cool on warming
Worst set of predictions ON RECORD?
Analysis Britain's Met Office has come under fire for two pieces of crystal-ball gazing involving global temperature and British rainfall. On Christmas Eve, the Met's temperature prediction for the UK was quietly revised downwards, and only merited a press release this week after physics blog Tallbloke's Talkshop noticed the change.
According to the Met's Richard Betts, an IPCC lead author and head of the Met's Climate Impacts team, the new projection the result of new climate models, with different inputs.
The new temperature prediction is 20 per cent lower than the previous estimate, with a mean deviation of 0.43°C above the 1971 to 2000 average over the next five years. If it holds true, then global temperatures will have experienced a 20-year standstill, with no statistically significant warming. The Met didn't predict, as the BBC erroneously reported, a 0.43C increase in global temperature over the next five years.
comparison of old and new temperature anomaly
In a comment at the Tallbloke science blog, Betts explained that the new cutting-edge models incorporated, "a whole new setup for simulating the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere", and are initialised using more recent atmospheric data. The models also make more detailed shorter-term projections, so it should be easier to evaluate how they are performing, Betts added.
However, MP Graham Stringer said the Met Office should have been more upfront.
"By putting out the information on Christmas Eve they were just burying bad news – that they have got their climate change forecast wrong," said Stringer.
A twenty year period without statistically significant warming doesn't falsify the theory that manmade industrial emissions are the key driver in climate change - the oceans may be storing energy that isn't yet manifest in higher atmospheric temperatures. But it certainly wasn't in the script, which raises questions over the validity of the models on which policy decisions have been made, as the BBC's Paul Hudson points out here. 11 of the last 12 annual Met forecasts erred on the warm side - so new and better models should be widely welcomed.
Another claim by the Met has also drawn fire - as the criticism directly addresses the validity of the Met's science, rather than its communications strategy. Last week the Met made a widely-reported claim that Britain is experiencing more frequent extreme rainfall. Statistical analysis of rainfall records by the Met Office claimed to show days of heavy rainfall had become more common in England since 1960. "The apparent trend mirrors increases in extreme rain seen in other parts of the world," wrote the BBC's Roger Harrabin.
For Channel 4 news, the Met's statistical press release was apocalyptic. There were "clear signals of wetter weather emerging", apparently:
But the claim has puzzled some observers, not least because last March the Met was predicting a continuing drought for the UK, advising last March that:
"The probability that UK precipitation for April-May-June will fall into the driest of our five categories is 20-25% whilst the probability that it will fall into the wettest of our five categories is 10-15%".
When the data is examined, statistician Doug Keenan finds, anything but a clear trend is apparent:
Annual rainfall (mm) England and Wales 1766-2012
In correspondence with the Met's chief scientist Julia Slingo, Keenan points out time series analysis has not been performed, and adds that it is not possible to draw the conclusions the Met does, based on recent data. The Met failed to consider autoregression, it told Lord Donoghue in a written answer to a Parliament question. Keenan concludes:
"Was the Met Office aware that there is no valid evidence for an increase when it issued its news release? Either it knew, and thus acted fraudulently in issuing the release, or it was misleading when it told Lord Donoughue that it has the requisite expertise. (I suspect the latter.)
"Taxpayers pay for the Met Office to provide expertise with climatic analysis. They are not getting anything close to what they pay for."
You can find the Keenan-Slingo correspondence here.
There's no argument that the UK had a very wet 2012, just as it had a very dry 2011. UK rainfall for April-June turned out to be 176%, 94% and 203% of normal. The Met would make four more monthly predictions a likelihood of drier-than-normal weather for the UK, all subsequent months were wetter than normal (September 117%, October 101%, November 111%, and December 150%). As one climate blogger noted dryly:
"It is very kind of Julia [Slingo] to tell us now that she knew all along it was likely to be wetter. It is just a pity, though, that she forgot to tell us at the time."
And that seems to encapsulate the problem. Forecasting is notoriously difficult, and every scientist working in the field deserves some understanding. It's the agency executives' desire to feed the news media with alarmist and politically-motivated "stories" that's the problem - and perhaps the fact that the Met Office is dependent on global warming being a clear and present danger for much of its funding nowadays. It's hard to imagine the shoddy rainfall press release being issued were this not the case.
Time for new management at the Met? ®
Re: Not the Met Office's fault.
"I believe there are dark (i.e. probably political) forces behind this".
Not necessarily - unless you believe (plausibly enough, I'll admit) that all political forces are dark. The trouble is that meteorology, like many other important fields of practical knowledge, is simply not well enough understood to serve as a reliable basis for large-scale political action.
I'll cite you another two fields of knowledge in which charlatans and blowhards have been sounding off officiously for decades, yet which no one really understands yet because they are just too complicated. Nutrition and economics. In both domains there are famous, well respected, very highly paid individuals whose voice is as the voice of God, and to whom everyone listens deferentially. Worst of all, governments act on those people's recommendations - whether naively or cynically is anyone's guess.
In nutrition, there is huge anxiety over the so-called "obesity crisis" in Western nations (and increasingly elsewhere, as Western lifestyles spread). Since the 1970s the prevailing orthodoxy has gradually set like concrete: overweight and obesity are caused by eating too much and exercising too little. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and so on. Well, in the last few years a growing number of scientists have started to notice that there was never any actual evidence to support the view that cholesterol and saturated fat are bad for you, and you must eat whole grains and vegetables to be healthy. The very scientists who stated those things in ringing tones - and eventually got governments to parrot them - were contradicting the results of their own experiments and surveys, which showed nothing of the kind. No one really knows whether the Atkins diet, for example, is good, bad, indifferent, or what. But if you look around, in the media and the interwebs, what you will find is huge numbers of completely unqualified "experts", all relentlessly preaching their particular dogmas.
In a recent radio talk, the estimable Will Self suggested that finance is actually a religion - and, what's more, the dominant religion in the West. What is certain is that finance and economics are other domains pervaded by arbitrary dogma, most of which is selective and partial at best, and flat wrong at worst. Fifty years ago I first heard the remark that, for every world-class economist who preaches a given point of view, one can easily find another world-class economist to call him a gold-plated liar. As well as the sentiment, with which we can all sympathize, that if all the economists in the world were laid end to end it would be a very good thing. Ever wonder why economists and financial gurus are always listened to with silent respect, even though they all disagree and none of them can predict anything? It's a religion! (And a very good living - see Norbert Haring's excellent book "Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards".
Unfortunately, most human beings are very bad indeed at suspending judgment. We don't want tentative hypotheses, ongoing experiments, cautious suggestions. Instead, we want certain, concrete knowledge followed by fast, decisive action - right now! Businesspeople and politicians are among the worst offenders in this respect: they like to do stuff, not ponder while credibility and votes trickle away. As George McGovern notoriously told doubtful nutrition scientists back in the 1970s, "we Senators don’t have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in". So they hastily and superficially sample opinions - foolishly giving more weight to the "good and the great", scientists who have long passed their sell-by date and no longer do much (if any) active research, and whose ideas have fossilized as a result. And, of course, those scientists who are shrillest and most insistent in presenting their conclusions are all too often the ambitious rather than the talented and persistent.
Re: Not the Met Office's fault.
El Reg reported recently on an appeal over a Freedom of Information request where the BBC tried to hide who had been present at a big meeting where the BBC decided to "go AGW". But then the names leaked out anyway.
So yes, the BBC is guilty of hiding its policy-making.
The problem is weather is an exceptionally complex system. Most predictions of globall warming tend to focus only on a few of the million possible variables. Also, it doesn't help that various organisations are pushing their model while denigrating the models of other organisations in what I think can only be because of the grant money being made available.
My fear is that the whole event will turn out to be cyclic but in the meantime a 'solution' will be put in force that will leave us worse off in the long run. I call this the Australian Cane Toad Effect.