Harrabin's Notes: Isn't it warm enough?

Flooding in York 2012 was a year of extremes, with the UK experiencing some of its weirdest weather

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In his column for the BBC News website, BBC Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin assesses the fall-out from the row over Met Office decadal forecasting.

Australia burns; the US rebuilds from Sandy and counts the cost of record heat; and the UK ponders its weirdest year of weather.

The UK Chief Scientist tells me weather extremes now worry scientists as much or more than overall global warming. "If this gets worse, how are farmers going to operate?" he asks.

Yet at the same time there's a relentless spread of climate confusion in parts of the media. The Met Office, a world-leading purveyor of climate information, recently suffered reputational damage that will increase public confusion over whether climate change is important at all.

It happened after bloggers seized on a Met Office paper revising downward its decadal global temperature projection for 2017.

Scientists have been puzzling for some time over exactly what combination of factors is preventing the earth getting even warmer - maybe changes in solar activity, ocean currents or emissions of aerosol pollution.

Sceptics for some time have been calling this a "standstill" in warming. Mainstream scientists are still struggling to find a word that implies that further warming is expected to re-assert itself - maybe a pause in warming, or a hiatus, or an apparent standstill. Either way, this is an important puzzle and sceptics say it was too slow to be recognized as such.

One step further

But Met Office critics went a step further: if it has under-estimated the natural forces holding back temperature increases, maybe the Earth is more resilient in the longer term to greenhouse gases than previously thought?

Mainstream scientists say that's highly unlikely. But it is a tempting notion - especially as combating climate change is so politically intractable, and some of its solutions so controversial.

The story was projected into headlines suggesting that the Met Office admitted global warming wouldn't be as bad as previously thought. The Met Office didn't say that, but often complex messages get distorted when journalists, or indeed scientists, try to condense them into a handful of words. The BBC faced criticism over its reporting of the issue.

The damage to Met Office credibility, though, was exacerbated by a couple of blunders in its own communication.

The first was to put the decadal report on its website on Christmas Eve - the traditional date for burying stories that the authorities don't want publicised. I was initially suspicious. But the Met Office since explained that the scientist responsible was due to finish the work by end of year and was about to go on holiday. That sounds plausible.

The second error was in the caption to a graph comparing the new temperature forecast with one from the past. It was badly-worded and led bloggers to conclude that the Met Office were trying to cover up the disparity between forecasts. (They seem to have accepted later that this is not the case).

The incident has provoked some soul-searching in the Met Office. Some staff are fuming that even though the organisation is under constant closely scrutiny by critics, it is still slipping up.

One told me the publication on Christmas Eve was "highly naive, if not bloody stupid." He said: "We are really angry at the way our science is being misinterpreted. But it was obvious that people would be suspicious if we put something up on Christmas Eve.

"Ideally, we would like to just publish our science. But it is clear now that we have to make sure that we time releases carefully. I hate the idea of that - but it looks like it will have to happen. We'll also have to make sure they are accompanied with explanatory notes."

He also acknowleged a failure to respond promptly to media requests for clarification of the decadal study. He said in future scientists might be put on an on-call rota so queries could be answered in a timely fashion.

Culture shock

This is part of a slow cultural change in which the Met Office comes to terms with its complex identity. At one extreme, it is the provider of relatively uncontroversial weather stats on which other forecasters base their work. At the other extreme is it's a leading researcher into experimental areas like decadal modelling.

Ensuring that the public understand the difference in levels of certainty of these different sorts of science has long been a challenge.

When talking to the media, for instance, some prominent scientists used to use the shorthand phrase: "With climate change the planet will warm by X degrees." What they meant was "according to our best projections the world will warm X degrees". There is a difference.

I was first alerted to the problem by the infamous barbecue summer forecast of 2009. When a Met Office scientist presented his prediction at a news conference, he was asked about the accuracy of previous forecasts. "Pretty good," he replied.

I had the past forecasts in my hand - and they didn't look good to me. Since then the Met Office has stopped issuing seasonal forecasts to the public.

But that period of careless talk and occasional over-confidence did lasting reputational damage. It also drew into the climate debate some libertarian bloggers who fear the impact of climate policies on individual freedoms and who temperamentally distrust authorities.

In a frank conversation this week a Met Office contact told me: "I must admit to feeling a bit misled myself as to how experimental the seasonal forecasts were. When the team said the forecasts were pretty good they meant that they were scientifically good given the extreme difficulty of the challenge. I accept that from the point of view of people deciding where to take their holiday they were actually pretty useless. We have learned a lesson from that."

But is there a lesson for the media in this? Well, (and this is a forlorn hope) it would be helpful to report on the ongoing debate over science and policy without treating climate change like a rancorous "he said, she said" political debate.

Take last year's weather, for instance. With global temperatures ranking "only" ninth in the record we suffered dreadful extremes.

We can't be sure yet which, if any, were made worse by manmade climate change, although a study from researchers in Germany suggests that heatwaves are five times more likely due to current levels of heating.

But let's not forget that the extremes were produced on a planet that has warmed by "only" 0.7C in a century. Even the arch climate sceptic Richard Lindzen agrees it will warm by one degree or so, but maintains we can be fairly relaxed about that. Based on current patterns others may disagree.

And what if the world warms at least 2C, which most scientists think likely - or 4C which the World Bank thinks probable on current trends.

If we get more and more years like 2012 we face serious challenges.

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