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Factcheck: Christopher Booker and the missing ice age

  • 07 Jul 2011, 17:00
  • Christian

Christopher Booker's latest article, published by the Mail yesterday, suggests that we are facing a new ice age, that climate scientists are unreliable and can't actually draw any conclusions about how the planet's climate is changing, and that green taxes are responsible for recent rises in fuel bills.

The piece contains numerous inaccuracies, and some very odd presentations of recent scientific papers.

It begins:

"The latest news is that the world may be threatened by a sharp drop in temperatures, possibly so severe that it could herald a new mini ice age."

"And one reason being put forward for this is that all the pollution being chucked out by thousands of coal-fired power stations may be blocking the sun's heat from the Earth."

and ends

"..the same people who told us the world is about to fry unless we close down all those power stations are now telling us the same power stations may be heading us into a new ice age".

The argument that we are about to face 'a new ice age' could be inspired by one of two different research papers which have attracted media attention this week. But which one was it?

Booker attributes the prediction to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used computer modelling to investigate the slow-down in the warming trend over the last decade.

The paper concludes that rapid growth in sulfur emissions from Chinese coal-fired power stations may be offsetting some of the warming effect of greenhouse gases, but doesn't sugest that this could lead to a new ice age. Indeed as the Daily Mail itself recognised in its coverage of the paper, it could indicate the reverse - that we may face a 'spike' in global temperatures as Chinese coal power plants are cleaned up and the impact of sulfur emissions reduced.

Another study which attracted "new ice age" headlines last week was a paper in Environmental Research Letters, suggesting that there's around a ten per cent chance that a dip in solar activity means the UK may face harsher winters in the near future.

This was written up in some media outlets (including the Mail Online) as heralding a new "little ice age." However as the BBC reported on Monday - two days before the Booker piece came out - the lead researcher Professor Lockwood was

"...keen to point out that his team's paper did not suggest that the UK and mainland Europe was about to be plunged into a "little ice age" as a result of low solar activity, as some media reports had suggested."

Lockwood's previous work has identified a link between fewer sunspots and atmospheric conditions that "blocked" warm westerly winds and allowed cold easterlies from the Arctic and Russia to sweep across Europe in the winter. However, he explained to the BBC that when this happened previously  

"...it was a regional redistribution and not a global phenomenon like an ice age."

and 

"It was nothing like as cold as a real ice age - either in its global extent or in the temperatures reached. The summers were probably warmer if anything, rather than colder as they would be in an ice age."

The piece has many other questionable assertions in it, many of which we have considered before. Booker continues

"…more recently, it became obvious that something had gone seriously awry with the [greenhouse gas] theory… Sure, CO2 in the atmosphere was still continuing to rise. But no longer were temperatures rising in sync, as the computer models predicted they should."

As we have pointed out before, computer models do not predict that temperatures should rise 'in sync' with rising levels of carbon dioxide, because scientists understand that the climate is also impacted by other factors - including the solar cycle, El Nino/La Nina and volcano eruptions, which lead to considerable short-term variability. As the Met Office has put it, short-term fluctuations in temperature are

"....entirely consistent with our understanding of natural fluctuations of the climate within a trend of continued long-term warming"

Booker also claims that

By 2007, as temperatures temporarily plummeted by as much as their entire net rise in the 20th century, experts were beginning to question the global warming orthodoxy.

The perennial problem with Booker's writing is that it is difficult to check his claims because he rarely provides any references, and it is not clear where this claim comes from. 

However, as we have outlined before, Booker has previously claimed that in 2007, temperatures fell by 0.75C - "more than the entire net recorded rise in the twentieth century".

It proved impossible to source this claim to any scientific literature. In early 2008 however, prominent climate skeptic website Watts Up With That claimed NASA figures showed temperatures falling by 0.75˚C between January 2007 and January 2008.

However, as can see from the graph below, temperatures fluctuate all the time. This doesn't change the long term trend.

The 0.75 degrees figure appears to come from cherry-picking two particular moments in time over a very short time period - exactly the opposite of scientific best practice.


Temp _rise

Booker also claims that by 2007

An increasing number of breakaway climatologists were saying the cause of that late 20th century rise in temperatures might not be CO2 at all. Perhaps, they suggested, there were other factors responsible for shaping the earth's climate - such as fluctuations in radiation from the sun and shifts in the world's major ocean currents.

Climate scientists are clear that carbon dioxide is not the only thing to have an impact on the earth's climate. It's possible to understand this if you read their work - as well as examining greenhouse gases, for example, the IPCC considers the effect of solar variation, the ocean, and the impact of water vapour and clouds on the climate, as well as many other factors. Climate scientists are at pains to point out that only by considering both natural and man-made factors can climate models explain the warming observed over the course of the 20th Century.

Booker continues 

Whatever happens now, whether it is hot or cold, whether we get heatwaves or record snowfalls, floods or droughts, sooner or later we hear those familiar little voices piping up to tell us that the blame for all these 'extreme weather events' still lies on 'disruption' to the climate caused by the sinful activities of mankind.

As we detailed last week, climate scientists make these kind of claims only cautiously and in specific cases. For example, Dr Peter Stott of the Met Office and a team of researchers found that the likelihood of the devastating heatwave that hit Europe in 2003 was 'very likely' to have been doubled by human activity. But on the other hand, the Russian heatwave of 2010 was found to result largely from natural climate variation by US research institution NOAA - not necessarily influenced by human activity.

Although scientists are traditionally very cautious about attributing specific extreme weather events to climate change the media is often somewhat less so. But Booker though also attributes these predictions to the "thousands of scientists across the world" who are "battling to keep in being the greatest scare story in the history of the world".

The truth is that it becomes ever more obvious that none of them really has a clue as to what is responsible for the changes in our climate. They can't even tell us what global temperatures will be next month or next year, let alone what they will be in 100 years' time, as they like to pretend their computer models can predict.

This is an old argument. Weather is very difficult to predict into the future, but because climate can be seen as the 'average' of weather, it can be predicted, and when scientists do so, they include appropriate descriptions of uncertainty.

A useful analogy here is that of flipping a coin. It's not possible to predict with any certainty whether an individual coin flip will come up heads or tails. But if the coin is fair you know that over a 1000 flips you'll get about half heads and half tails, and if you're a mathematician you can give an assessment of how likely that's going to be.

Finally, he turns his attention to energy bills:

As our politicians continually impose on us ever higher taxes and other costs supposedly in the cause of 'fighting climate change' - costs that have already helped to increase every family's energy bills by an average £200 a year - they have been carried away by a collective fantasy that has no parallel in history.

The claim that "green taxes" are adding £200 - or about 20% - to every householder's bill is based on an estimate by the climate skeptic think-tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It was first promoted in the Mail in a series of articles published a few weeks ago (including a front-page lead).

When we checked the sources for the claim however, we found that figures by Ofgem indicate that green costs account for about 8% (or £80) of the average householders' bill; and DECC put the figure at about four percent. Neither the Daily Mail nor the GWPF have responded to our queries about this figure.

The end of the article is as mystifying as the rest of it:

And all this is happening in the name of a theory so fraudulent that the same people who told us the world is about to fry unless we close down all those power stations are now telling us the same power stations may be heading us into a new ice age.

As demonstrated at the beginning of this blog, climate scientists are clearly not telling us that we "may be heading into a new ice age". In fact they appear to be going out of their way to try and counteract misrepresentations of their work which suggest this. Too bad Christopher Booker doesn't appear to be listening.

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