“Stuff & Nonsense” confronts climate change

One would like to imagine that Middle England might have woken up to the reality of climate change with ever more frequent heatwaves (not to mention flooding), but judging from the latest screams of derision from the usual suspects at the warnings of imminent heat stress, it’s hard to tell.

So, how do we navigate the conversation on climate change during a heatwave? 

How do we make the link between the latest extreme heat wave to climate change when we have been telling people for years that weather extremes are not to be confused with the long term trends associated with climate change?

For example, in situations such as when a US Senator held up an unseasonal snowball to ‘demonstrate’ there is no global warming, he was rightly reminded of this distinction.

I’ll get back to these questions. I wanted firstly to illustrate the challenge we face in trying to have a conversation with the doggedly unconcerned.

Stuff and Nonsense

I overheard someone in a delicatessen yesterday joking about “hilarious” letters in The Times, writing on how we didn’t need extreme weather warnings back in 1976. 

Can’t we just enjoy it? 

Chuckle, chuckle. 

Bloody nanny state. 

Helloooo … It’s called summer!

What’s the world coming to?

I wanted to ask if she knew that there were 70,000 excess deaths across Europe during the 2003 heatwave, and that just this week fires have been raging across Europe, from Portugal to Croatia, devastating many communities.

I resisted the temptation.  No, I chickened out.

It reminded me of the ‘stuff and nonsense’ sketch French & Saunders did some years back satirising Middle England’s perpetual angst over our alleged nanny state (you know, the one that gave us food banks, Grenfell, and a host of nannyish things). 

The sketch – which I cannot find on YouTube – had two portly conservative stalwarts trying to outdo each other with stories of how much pain they have endured without needing to call a doctor. Shotgun accidentally blew my foot off … ha, ha, ha, no problem!

bloody bed-wetters these days …. 

… stuff and nonsense.

It’s really no different to the ‘Elf ’n’ safety’ campaign Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson and others have pursued over many years in their toxic opinion pieces in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and elsewhere. This is now firmly embedded in the psyche of Middle England and a favourite source of jokes at Conservative Party conferences.

Extreme weather and climate change

Yes, we did have a very hot summer in 1976, but what does that prove? 

Whataboutery only proves that the speaker has no ideas and no grasp of the evidence.

The truth is that as with a progressively loaded dice, the odds keep changing. This is the latest from the MetOffice [1]:

“We found that in just two decades, the probability of seeing those record breaking 2003 temperatures again have become more than 10 times more likely.”

And the chances will keep increasing. Warnings like this are not new. Dr Peter Stott from the Met Office wrote in 2014:

“Updated model projections of future changes suggest that by the end of the century summers as hot as 2003 will be considered unusually cool.”

That is no longer exceptionally hot, but exceptionally cooler than the new normal.

Think about it.

The odds have increased because of our human emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. The odds get worse with every year we continue to emit the stuff.

I don’t think our progeny will be chuckling away in 2100 at anti-woke opinion, just despairing at the obdurate ignorance of those led us to this place.

The language of weather and climate

The British have a very well developed language of weather, which suffuses our every day encounters, our poetry, our paintings and our culture generally.

Surrounded as we are by a warm ocean, a cold pole, a European continent and, from below us, the Mediterranean and Saharan land mass, our weather can seem unpredictable.

We are less articulate when it comes to climate; barely literate.

But we have been told not to confuse weather with climate. Climatologists customarily defined climate change as a trend that could be discerned over a few decades, not a few days. 

This makes it hard to talk about any one particular event – such as the 2003 heatwave – and put it down to climate. This was a godsend to climate change deniers, who like tobacco companies before them would make the defence that this person could have got lung cancer anyway (the increased odds don’t prove that THIS person would not have got it anyway).

Of course the counter reflex of claiming that every extreme event is the result of our human emissions doesn’t convince either; our weather variability doesn’t go away in a warming world, it is just gets superimposed on a rising trend.

So, just as a pinball machine on a tilt will still produce apparently random outcomes, the biases formed by the tilt will increase the odds of some outcomes versus others. The UK is getting warmer, and that has consequences as both ends of the hydrological cycle: be it extreme heatwaves or extreme flooding. 

A new science has come to the rescue in our attempts to unpick the apparent contradictions in talking about short term weather extremes in the context of longer term climate change: extreme weather attribution.

Extreme weather attribution

It is now possible for climate scientists to put a number on a particular event and say how much more likely it was as a result of man-made global heating; 20%, 50%, 3000%, or whatever the physics and historical records together show.

This is actually not so new in its general application, as the quotes from the MetOffice above attest to. General retrospective studies on the raised chance of, say, a hot summer across the UK or Europe, have been published before.

What is relatively new is taking a specific event that may be relatively localised and ascribing odds to it, and doing this within a few days of the event occurring; of extreme weather attributions as a service.

Dr Friederike Otto is one of the pioneers of this science and approach. Her book is an unputdownable account of her journey and the implications of this work: Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change, 2020

Speaking of the floods in Germany in 2021 she said [4]:

“These floods have shown us that even developed countries are not safe from severe impacts of extreme weather that we have seen and known to get worse with climate change,”

In May this year, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) organisation issued [5] its analysis of the extreme / early heat wave in Pakistan/ India in early Spring, which they concluded was 30 times more likely (i.e. 3000% more likely) than it would have been without human caused global heating.

A different conversation

So what do I do next time I’m in a queue and I hear someone chuckling at the latest opinion piece in the papers mocking those concerned at climate change and the latest extreme weather event? I might try a gentle question:

“Can I ask why you think there is nothing to worry about?”

This should flush out enough to respond to with the material I covered earlier. 

It’s real, the impacts can be life threatening, and the trends mean it’s going to get more frequent and more intense. One could continue:

“Why does this have to be part of an on-going culture war?  

Why isn’t this something that should unite us, if not for our own sake, for the sake of our grandchildren?

Surely that is no laughing matter?”

. . . o o O o o . . .

(c) Richard W. Erskine. 17th July 2022.

References and notes

 1. ’New study examines chances of record June temperature’, MetOffice, 29th June 2022, https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2022/climate-change-slashing-odds-of-record-western-european-june-temperatures 

2. ‘Heatwave increases’, MetOffice, 2014, https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/2014/heatwave-increase  

3. ‘Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change’, Friederike Otto, 2020

4. ‘Germany’s deadly floods were up to 9 times more likely because of climate change, study estimates’, Angela Dewan, 24th August 2021, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/23/europe/germany-floods-belgium-climate-change-intl/index.html

5. ‘Climate Change made devastating early heat in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely’, World Weather Attribution (WWA), 23rd May 2022, https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/climate-change-made-devastating-early-heat-in-india-and-pakistan-30-times-more-likely/ 

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