Heatwave: Spring was freezing. Summer’s boiling. We’d better get used to these surprises

The process is non-linear. There are too many intangibles


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.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living