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

The Met Office global warming forecasts have been only slightly tweaked

Share
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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable