Weather wise

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LAST WEEK, as I walked my dog in the park, another dog-walker came up to me, looked up at the blue sky with a pained expression and said: "Lovely weather ... worrying, isn't it?"

A strange response to a sunny February day. Of course, what he meant was: "This warm weather - it must be the greenhouse effect. The end is nigh."

The theory, and it is just that, of man-made carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming, first hit the headlines 10 years ago. It was no coincidence that the summer of 1988 was unusually hot across much of the United States. Britain experienced a very mild winter in 1988/89, and London sweltered in a heatwave the following August (most of the rest of the world had perfectly normal weather at this time; but then few environmentalists live in the rest of the world). The Intergovernmental panel on climate change was formed. And, last year, legally binding agreements were signed in Kyoto, Japan, to "save the planet".

Anyone publicly questioning the greenhouse theory has largely been condemned as at best naive, probably bonkers, and at worst a sinister right-wing agent, probably in the pay of the oil companies. Children are kept awake at night with tales of flood and catastrophe, and it can't be long before Greenhouse Denial becomes a criminal offence somewhere on the planet.

It is surprising, and instructive, to see how the global-warming paradigm became so widely accepted. Of course, an impending catastrophe is a much sexier story than business-as-usual. Environmental reporting is often carried out by advocates of environmentalism. In this climate, the party line trotted out by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a great number of scientists is reported faithfully and uncritically.

The public's understanding of climatology is, quite understandably, rather sketchy. Many people are confused by global warming, identifying it (if it is happening) as bad, but muddled about its causes. Reports often fail to distinguish between the greenhouse effect and ozone-layer degradation - two quite separate things. Most people have got the message that cars are the work of the Devil - and therefore will be happy to swallow any fuel-tax increases that obliging governments may wish to throw at them.

The scientists too, are happy to accept the research grants being put their way to investigate climate change, and produce wild worst-case scenarios that start from the as-yet- unproven assumption that temperatures will carry on rising.

But if the environmentalists have cried wolf, what will happen? If the climatological community is forced to revise or even completely overturn the current doomsday consensus, my guess is, that like those end-of-the- world cults that spring up from time to time, the true believers will not turn in anger on the high priests of environmentalism, but instead calmly pick up their sandwich boards and proclaim the next impending catastrophe. The Ice Age cometh?