Climate scientists on mayor Boris Johnson's climate whiff-whaff
- 21 Jan 2013, 13:15
- Ros Donald and Christian Hunt
Mayor of London Boris Johnson bemused the world in
the run up to the Olympics with a patriotic
speech about table tennis's purported
ancestor 'whiff-whaff', an ancient game built around the idea of a
good back and forth.
Johnson's conception of climate science also seems to
be based around the idea of a good back and forth - between
scientists and skeptics. He gave his latest thoughts on the subject
Telegraph readers today, as from
his window in snowy Islington, he muses on the subject of snowy
winters. He turns to the theories of climate skeptic meteorologist,
Piers Corbyn, who believes that far from warming, the globe might
be heading for a "mini ice age".
This isn't the first time Johnson has touted this
idea. In fact, any season appears to offer an opportunity to
suggest that we're due an ice age. Just before the Olympics the
£250,000-a-year Telegraph columnist was
inspired to write
another defence of Corbyn's theory,
this time after looking out of the window at the rain.
The gist of Corbyn's theory was laid out yesterday by
Johnson in a paragraph that does at least prove the mayor is a fan
of recycling - it is taken almost verbatim from the
earlier article. He says:
"There are times in astronomical
history when the Sun has been churning out more stuff - protons and
electrons and what have you - than at other times. When the Sun has
plenty of sunspots, he bathes the Earth in abundant rays. When the
solar acne diminishes, it seems that the Earth gets colder. No one
contests that when the planet palpably cooled from 1645 to 1715 -
the Maunder Minimum, which saw the freezing of the Thames - there
was a diminution of solar activity. The same point is made about
the so-called Dalton minimum, from 1790 to 1830. And it is the view
of Piers Corbyn that we are now seeing exactly the same phenomenon
We asked some climate scientists for their thoughts
on the piece, and this argument in particular.
Joanna Haigh, a professor of atmospheric physics at
Imperial College, specialises in studying the effect of the sun on
climate. She explained to us that most scientists have moved on
from looking out of the window to tell them what's going on with
"I'm delighted that the mayor
maintains his interest in weather and climate but he should be wary
of drawing generalised conclusions from his observations. He
suggests that the cold weather in London is due to declining solar
activity - but actually the Sun is more active now than it has been
since 2009, and about the same as it was in 2004 and 1998.
"On longer timescales - decades to century - the sun may be very
slowly declining in activity but this can't explain year-to-year
variations in UK winter weather. The mayor makes an
interesting point about the weather during the
Maunder Minimum in sunspots and,
although the cooler weather then was largely confined to north-west
Europe, that may quite likely have been influenced by the Sun.
But at that time solar energetic output was considerably
lower than it is today.
"What we have is the lovely variability and uncertainty of British
weather sitting on top of a long term global average warming due to
greenhouse gas increases. This is not an issue of opinion but
one of basic physics. We just don't need to invoke mysterious
effects of solar particles to understand long-term trends in global
Dr Peter Stott, who leads the Met Office's climate
monitoring and attribution unit, told us the idea that the sun
could override the effects of human activity on the climate doesn't
"There is a strong scientific
consensus that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are the main
cause of global warming over the last fifty years and it is
misleading to the public that other theories, such as that most of
the warming is caused by solar changes, carry equal weight.
"In fact the fingerprint of human activity is very clearly seen in
the observed pattern of temperature changes including warming in
the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) and cooling in the
stratosphere (the upper atmosphere above about 10km) and greater
warming over land than ocean. Solar forcing on the other hand has
not been increasing over the last 3 decades and an increasing solar
contribution to global warming would have lead to warming of the
stratosphere not cooling."
Chris Rapley, professor of
climate science at University College London, told us why Corbyn's
views are at odds with the broader scientific understanding of how
the climate works. He says:
"Climate science shows that the sun
does have an influence on climate; this is not controversial. The
planet responds to changes in the flux of energy that it intercepts
from the Sun - known as the Total Solar Irradiance (TSI). What is
in dispute is whether the sun has contributed to the energy
imbalance (and associated energy accumulation) that the earth has
experienced over the last half-century or so. Climate scientists
have concluded that the answer is no, based on the known ways in
which the sun exerts its influence.
"If anything, the sun (through a slightly lower TSI) has
diminished the human-induced warming a little. But it may be that
there are solar influences not recognised or understood. In this
respect, Piers Corbyn should publish his insights so that they can
be scrutinised and a judgement made about their credibility. If he
has a genuine contribution to make, why would he not do so? The
issue is, after all, rather important!"
Of course, BoJo is nothing if not entertaining - and a
canny politician. We can't imagine his latest column will do him
any damage with the wing of the Conservative party that is
less-than-keen on climate policies.
And the whole thing is done with an air of
tongue-in-cheek - with Boris assuring us:
"I am not for a second saying that I
am convinced Piers is right; and to all those scientists and
environmentalists who will go wild with indignation on the
publication of this article, I say, relax.I certainly support
reducing CO2 by retrofitting homes and offices - not least since
that reduces fuel bills. I want cleaner vehicles."
Unfortunately polling data shows a significant number
of people are still
confused about what's causing climate
change. Fringe scientific theories receiving more attention than
they warrant from some parts of the media - and some columnists -
probably doesn't help.
wrong about the origins of whiff-whaff
has limited consequences. A potential future prime minister who is
easily led by fringe theories about the basics of climate change
might give more pause.
Updated: This piece originally said the article
was in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. In fact, it was in today's