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

Share

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

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

Renewable Energy Construction Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Wind Energy Due Diligence Project Manager

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Offshore Wind Project Engineer

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Subsea Proposals Engineer

£50000 - £55000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

A woman’s power is in her laughter – no wonder men are scared enough they want to silence it

Howard Jacobson
The new lobby entrance to the Hotel Majestic  

Errors and omissions: There’s strength in numbers – as long as they agree

Guy Keleny
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices