Editorial: Climate change - no less of a problem than it was

The Met Office global warming forecasts have been only slightly tweaked

Related Topics

There is a difference between weather and climate. Weather is what you see when you look out of the window; climate is the pattern that remains when day-to-day variations are set aside and the long-term average is considered. Weather is about events; climate is about trends. Climate is what we expect to see; weather is what we actually get.

The Met Office's revised predictions on medium-term climate change released this week have been seized upon by sceptics who insist that man-made global warming caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere is an invention of over-zealous environmentalists. Global warming is "at a standstill", headlines have crowed, and the danger posed by greenhouse gases is more seriously questioned than ever. If only it were so simple.

What the Met Office's latest computer model actually says is that the global temperature may rise at a fractionally shallower rate over the coming five years than had been predicted. But we can still expect more above-average warmth than the world has experienced in the previous 50 years. Climate change is, then, no less of a grim reality than it was and there is no reason to conclude that it has "stalled".

What is important here is distinguishing the natural variability of the Earth's climate – an inherently chaotic system – with the man-made warming caused by greenhouse gases.

Natural rhythms in the Earth's weather have many causes, including volcanic eruptions, oceanic currents and the 11-year solar cycle. In El Niño years, for example, warm water spreads out across the equatorial Pacific and heat leaves the ocean for the atmosphere, while at other times the seas absorb more heat from the atmosphere. In fact, the phenomenon is thought to have played a role in last year's dramatic melting of the Arctic sea ice, which occurred despite summer air temperatures that were not particularly high.

To conclude from the Met Office data that man-made global warming need no longer concern us is, then, a misunderstanding of both the figures themselves and the nature of the climate. Meteorologists are only beginning to understand the complex interactions between the elements of the Earth's various natural cycles. But what is now clear is that rhythms which cover a few years can mask longer-term trends. Thanks to their natural cycles, the oceans – which one climate scientist has described as the sleeping giant of climate change – have acted as a vast heat store. Indeed, as much as 90 per cent of the heat generated from accumulating greenhouse gases has been absorbed by the oceans. And the latest Met Office modelling suggests that this phase will continue for the coming four or five years, leaving global average air temperatures only a little hotter while the warming from greenhouse gas emissions nonetheless continues.

At the end of the decade, though, the oceanic cycles may change. At which point, the seas might start to release heat, instead of soaking it up, perhaps provoking another sharp rise in global temperatures. The underlying problem will not have changed, but the ocean's absorption will no longer be masking it.

There is much uncertainty here. Scientists' understanding of the mechanisms of and influences on the Earth's natural rhythms is still inexact. Measurements of the underlying problem of climate change are frighteningly clear, however. They can be neither ignored, nor denied. The comfort blanket of the climate sceptics is a delusion. And the need for global action on climate change is as desperately urgent as ever.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice