After fires here, storms in London and Europe

In October 1987 I was in London on a business visit, staying in a pub close to the University of London. About 3 am I woke to a great, irregular, noise. It was not a dream after all. I got out of bed and went to the window. I could hear a high, screaming wind, and down in the yard of the hotel the lid of a large skip was rising and falling as gusts of wind pulled it up and then let it drop. I could see nothing else, and eventually went back to bed.

In the morning service in the hotel was disrupted by the Great Storm, as it was now called. Trains had been cancelled, staff had not arrived, and so on. Breakfast was ‘continental’, because the kitchens had lost power. I had only to walk to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a couple of blocks away, and set off. To my astonishment some of the trees in Russell Square had been snapped like twigs. They had been planted there when the gardens were formed, around 1790.

As the day wore on the details of the storm began to mount. It was  technically ‘an extra-tropical cyclone’, with winds reaching speeds of 196 kph. Those winds proved to have taken out 15 million trees, while hundreds of thousands were without power. Large sections of the railway track were unusable, all over south east England. I had never seen anything like the aftermath of the storm, said to be the worst since 1703, when thousands of sailors were drowned when ships in harbours were overturned, and several thousand oak trees were lost in the New Forest.

What caused these great storms? The one in 1703 was put down to ‘the wrath of God’, while no one had an explanation for the one of 1987, other than it was ‘unprecedented’. It was a bit too early for it to be seen as a sign of ‘climate change’, though that is one popular explanation for the severe storm again in southeast England over the last few days. The images of waves breaking over railway lines were dramatic, but in comparative terms the storm of 2013 was much less fierce than that of 1987. As it happens, these storms do have a return period of 30 to 40 years. What is unusual about the recent ones is their track: the cyclones tend to pass the land by, and exhaust their fury in the Atlantic.

There is a lot of historical evidence about these storms, just as there is about bush fires. So when stories began to appear about how our October bushfires were ‘unprecedented’, and must therefore be due to ‘climate change’, it was not difficult to show that in fact there have been other bad fires in previous Octobers. We do have a short memory for weather events, and it is easy for the news media, who do need to make news dramatic, to exaggerate the importance of what is happening now. We do it ourselves, because we are alive now.

A more subtle version of the need to link the bushfires with ‘climate change’ can be seen in this extract from an article in New Matilda by someone whose writing on economics I always read with interest.

No-one can categorically state that these fires, the lengthy dry spell in inland Queensland, or last year’s floods, were caused by climate change, but the record high temperatures we have been experiencing, and the consequent severe weather events, are consistent with the predictions of climate change models. They may be the result of random variations unconnected with climate change, but that explanation is becoming less plausible. 

The trouble with that proposition is threefold: almost anything is consistent with the projections (not predictions) of the climate models, for they allow for every kind of weather — floods, droughts and fires included; the models themselves have signally failed to accurately predict  average global temperature; and the models are admitted to be poor at anything at a regional level. Why should we take any notice of them at all? The lack of connection with anthropogenic global warming is, I think, becoming more plausible, not less.

The writer then buttressed his remark by referring to a comment by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: she said that while there is not a direct link between any particular wildfire and climate change, there is a general relationship between climate change and wildfires: “Science is telling us that there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe, and Australia, that these will continue, that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency”.

Mr Abbott said that she was talking through her hat. I would perhaps have said that you would expect someone in Ms Figueres’s position to say something like that. The point is that the supposed link between ‘climate change’ and weather events, whatever they are, is easy to point to and impossible to disprove.

But it is relatively straightforward to show that there have been examples of the same kind of weather event in the past. Great storms, floods, droughts and fires are in the human record. On the face of it, if they have all been part of ‘climate change’ then ‘climate change’ can’t have much to do withe elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If only the recent events are linked to CO2, then one has to ask why.

And the pause in warming is now fifteen, sixteen or seventeen years long, depending on what dataset you choose.

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