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

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone