In April 1989, when the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher was still in the full flush of her discovery of the threat of climate change, she hosted a seminar on global warming for the cabinet, at 10 Downing Street. They all had to attend, like slacking schoolboys. The grumbling must have been memorable.
The seminar was addressed by Mrs Thatcher’s favourite diplomat, Sir Crispin Tickell, a former UN ambassador who was himself seized of the climate threat, and by her favourite scientist, Jim Lovelock, the man who conceived the Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism.
I was doorstepping the meeting, as we say in journalism – waiting outside in Downing Street – and eventually Jim Lovelock ambled out. I went over to speak to him followed by a posse of TV reporters, one of whom, an American, stuck a microphone in the Lovelock face and demanded: “Professor Lovelock, waddle be the first signs of global warning?”
Jim Lovelock uttered a single word. He said: “Surprises.” The TV reporter was bemused. He said: “Waddya mean, surprises?” Jim Lovelock said: “We had a hurricane here recently. It was a surprise. There’ll be more. Good day.”
In the years since that encounter I have grown ever more convinced of the wisdom of Lovelock’s brusque response, indeed it is the single wisest thing I have heard in two-and-a-half decades of covering the climate issue. And I am put in mind of it by the extraordinary weather events of recent weeks.
You may have forgotten, but it is barely a month since a conference at the Met Office suggested that the unbroken succession of wet summers since 2007 meant that there had been a significant shift in British weather patterns towards a damper, cooler summer climate. But now, after the coldest spring on record, we suddenly have searing heat, once again.
This has certainly surprised me; but then, the recent run of wet summers surprised me even more when it began – I remember precisely – with the first monstrous downpour on 10 May 2007 (the day Tony Blair announced he was resigning).
That was such a shock because everything in the previous year suggested that 2007 might be the hottest summer ever. Consider. The previous July was the hottest month ever recorded in Britain, and 19 July 2006 was the hottest-ever July day. The autumn of 2006 was the warmest on record, and the winter of 2006-7 was the second-warmest. Spring 2007 (March, April and May) was the hottest spring on record, April 2007 was the hottest-ever April, and the 12 months from the end of April 2006 to the end of April 2007 constituted the single hottest 12-month period ever noted down in this country.
Under the circumstances, I wrote a piece as April ended, saying that we might expect a record hot summer of maybe 40 degrees C, or 104 degrees F. We put it on The Independent’s front page; and then the heavens opened. I duly felt foolish, and learned my lesson.
It’s not that I now feel that global warming will not happen; with the 36 billion tonnes (and increasing) of CO2 we are pumping into the atmosphere annually, nothing is more certain, unless the laws of physics are torn up.
It’s just that I feel it very probably won’t happen as anyone has predicted. The process is non-linear, and there are too many intangibles, too many buffers in the ocean-atmosphere system. It’ll come as a surprise, like the sea invading the Manhattan subway last October was a surprise. Calling it, is a mug’s game.
The current heatwave is already starting to feel unusual. Maybe the British temperature record will be broken this year. Maybe it won’t. Maybe something else will happen with the climate, which is itself a surprise. But if there is a surprise – don’t be surprised.