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Open Letter to London Mayor Boris Johnson - Weather is not Climate

Posted on 21 January 2013 by dana1981

Mayor Johnson, I was rather puzzled to read your recent opinion-editorial in the Telegraph, suggesting that the sun is to blame for global warming because it has been snowing in London in the winter.  Quite simply, weather is not climate.  The main necessary ingredients for snow are cold temperatures (which tend to occur in winter) and moisture in the atmosphere, which has increased as a result of global warming.  In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that winter precipitation in the United Kingdom will increase in a warming world.

In your editorial, you acknowledge your lack of expertise on the subject, but defer to weather forecaster Piers Corbyn due to his alleged accuracy in predicting British weather (that accuracy being generally exaggerated, with many counter-examples).  However, irrespective of his accuracy in making weather predictions, Corbyn is not a climate scientist; weather forecasting and climatology are very different scientific fields.  If your cardiologist informed you that you need open heart surgery, would you ask your dentist for a second opinion?

If Corbyn would like his climate opinions to be taken seriously, he should subject them to the peer-review process like climate scientists do.  However, it is very easy to see why he is wrong.  Were the sun the main driver of global temperatures, the planet would have cooled slightly over the past 50 years.  Instead it has warmed rapidly, and the United Kingdom has warmed nearly 1.3°C during the period of downward solar activity.  Additionally, right now we are approaching the peak of the current 11-year solar cycle, which is difficult to reconcile with efforts to blame your wintery weather on low solar activity. 

Global temperature (red, NASA GISS) and Total solar irradiance (blue, 1880 to 1978 from Solanki, 1979 to 2009 from PMOD), with 11-year running averages.

Even with the rapid rate of global warming, it will still be cold enough in winter to snow in most places where that has historically been the case.  Nevertheless, we are in the midst of the hottest decade on record, which is also difficult to reconcile with Corbyn's assertions that we are headed into a mini ice age.

What might be responsible for your current severe winter weather?  As you note in your editorial, some research has suggested that changing atmospheric patterns due to the human-caused decline in Arctic sea ice could be responsible.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains some of the science.  For example, Francis and Vavrus (2012) attempted to answer this question.

"Can the persistent weather conditions associated with recent severe events such as the snowy winters of 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 in the eastern U.S. and attributed to enhanced high-latitude warming? Particular causes are difficult to implicate, but these sorts of occurrences are consistent with the analysis and mechanism presented in this study."

Jennifer Francis also told The Guardian in September 2012,

"We can't make predictions yet … [but] I wouldn't be surprised to see wild extremes this winter,"

However, British winter weather is still weather, not climate, and only represents a small part of the world.  Please also remember that Australia is breaking heat records at the moment, for example. 

The scientific data and body of research have very clearly established that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming.  This question is indeed settled science, and while your gut or your local weather forecasters may tell you otherwise, they would be wrong to do so.

Before opining about climate science, perhaps ask yourself how you would feel if a climate scientist were to write an article detailing how he would run the City of London very differently than you are, based on his conversations with an attorney friend.  You would likely scoff that somebody would publish such an ill-informed article on a subject so far outside of his and his attorney's expertise.

And you would be right, because expertise matters.  It's important for our elected officials to consult with individuals with appropriate expertise, particularly on matters as important as climate change.  Several British climate experts have offered you their services, and a number of climate scientists were able to quickly explain this subject to The Carbon Brief.  The expert resources are available - please make use of them.

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Comments 1 to 24:

  1. Dana, have you considered submitting this as an op-ed piece to the Telegraph? Paul Vincelli
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  2. Paul @1 - I don't see where to submit pieces on the Telegraph website.
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  3. Dana: Nicely done.
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  4. dana - perhaps you could try writing a letter to the editor?
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  5. A number of prominent British climate scientists have also critiqued the Mayor’s opinion piece. Their statements are contained in: Boris Johnson says snow casts doubt on climate change science by Leo Hickman, The Guardian (UK), Jan 21, 2013
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  6. Dana - Lucid and concise. Should definitely by sent to the Telegraph Editor - and to Boris!
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  7. Please do send it to the Telegraph.
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  8. Boris Johnson is a likeable figure, tipped to be Prime Minister one day, and it is a pity he has made a fool of himself in this way. Definitely, puts a damper on his ambtions, IMHO. William Connolley did an analysis of Piers Corbyn's forecasts a few years ago, and found he was no better than 50% correct in his predictions. Corbyn also refuses to publish his "model" for peer-review, and his reputation rests mainly on the hype he gets in the Daily Mail and Telegraph. Of course the "story" writes itself - "Maverick genius proves pointy-heads wrong". Well written, dana.
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  9. shoyemore @8 - I've read some speculation that Johnson's comments may be an appeal to conservatives to help him win the PM nomination. But not being familiar with British politics, I don't know how accurate that is.
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  10. dana1981 #9, After reading Leo Hickman's article, I think that speculation may be correct. The Tory right are nervous about Europe and immigration, and they have the farther-right United Kingdom Independence Party on their case, threatening their turf. The UKIP once had Christopher Monckton as its Deputy Leader! It is more about publicly attacking renewable energy, especially wind farms, an issue with more public traction, than about climate change, but deniers they are. The Tory right-UKIP are a sort of British Tea Party, and Johnson is probably signalling to that wing of British Conservatism that he is willing to be their man. I see the influence of Lord Lawson (an ex-Tory "Grandee") of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in this also, but that is a guess. Politicians are always running for office, and this was more than an off-the-cuff comment by Johnson on the British weather.
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  11. Boris Johnson has made a political career of courting maximum publicity while sending mixed messages. Is he the affable fool or should some part of what he says or does be seen as a the true Boris, a calculating and focused campaigner? This recent Op Ed is not the first time he has made climate denier noises. Last year, for instance, he staged 4 events to discuss 4 imperatives facing London. One of these was The Environmental Imperative. "The question of the environment is often described as the most significant challenge faced by the planet today."" So who gets asked to provide the Key Note speech? One Matt Riley, one of the GWPF crowd. You can see the slides of Riley's presentation here and then ask if Boris is a fool, a dyed-in-the-wool denier, or a consummate politician buttering up the right-wing tories. It makes for an interesting question.
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  12. Dana I've posted the text of your message on the Telegraph website following the Boris Johnson article, here. It will probably get rapidly buried by other posts, but will at least alert a few to SKS. I thing it is the case that the UK Conservative party, which is signed up to acceptance of the scientific position on global warming, is getting increasingly worried by UKIP (UK Independence Party) whose main stance is in favour of the UK leaving the European Union, but which is also in denial about AGW. So, my reading is that Boris, who is Conservative Mayor of London, has been asked to make these sort of comments so as to slow the loss of support from the Conservatives to UKIP. Boris is a maverick, and something of a buffoon, so if his statements prove problematic for the Conservative Party they can be dismissed, whilst still giving the impression that there is room within the Conservatives for fruitcakes who dismiss the science on AGW.
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    Moderator Response: [PW] Hot-linked Telegraph website URL
  13. dana and shoyemore: Keep in mind that the process of becoming Prime Minister is not at all like the process of becoming President. The PM is chosen by the Queen - traditionally, the choice is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament. It is up to the party to choose the leader they want, and if Britain is like Canada, it is up to the party to decide how that selection process works. My understanding is that British parties usually used to leave selection of the leader up to the sitting MPs in the party, which could lead to some quick switches to a new PM when the old one retired. (In Canada, traditionally parties held a huge national convention, with delegates elected from each riding. These days, parties are moving towards a direct vote of the membership.)
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  14. "The PM is chosen by the Queen" In theory, but not in practice. This provides a good explanation.
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  15. Bob Loblaw #13 The British have an unwritten Constitution, or accretions of tradition over the the years. The day when the Monarch could independently choose the Prime Minister are long gone - now the outgoing PM (one who has lost the Party leadership, lost an election, retired or lost a vote of confidence) "advises" the Monarch on whom to call to form a Government - always the leader of the strongest party in the House of Commons. Boris is an eccentric, an endearing one, a true original, but I think pretty shrewd on the inside. He has made quite a competent Mayor of London, and he surely must be looking for his next career move. I think this is a false step on his part, but he might undo it with a brilliant speech somewhere on science. He has been contradictory in the past. I think you are right in that this is not really for public consumption, but a politician saying to a group of potential supporters "I am one of you". Bit off-topic I suppose, but when an ambitious politician starts sounding off on climate, then look out. There is more going on than meets the eye.
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  16. Phil, Shoyemore: Oh, I agree that the Queen doesn't really have much choice. In Canada, it's the Governor-General that doesn't have much choice. The only time it gets interesting is when one party doesn't have a clear margin of seats, or has lost a confidence vote shortly after an election, and there is a question of coalitions or PMs from the non-leading parties. Then you get the constitutional lawyers arguing about precedents, the pundits pretending they know more than the lawyers, and the public wondering what it's all about. The point is, there isn't an election for Prime Minister. You get elected to the house as an MP, not a PM, and you get chosen (maybe "elected") by your party to become leader. If you become leader of an opposition party, then people can elect your MPs in the hope that you'll become PM. If your party already forms the government, then you can become PM by being chosen as leader, even if the people never had a say.
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  17. Bob Loblaw @16, in other words, it is pretty much the same as the US system, except the "electoral college" gets to hang around and be the legislature.
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  18. His comments don't even fit in with his official policy! “London has an unrivalled opportunity to benefit from the shift to a low carbon economy. The time for trials and experiments is over - we are putting in place large scale programmes that can deliver significant CO2 reductions and billions of pounds of energy savings.” Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
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  19. Increased winter precipitation is even mentioned! "Hotter and drier and warmer and wetter The summers are set to get hotter – by an estimated 1.6°C in the 2020s and 2.7°C in the 2050s. They are also getting drier – by an estimated 7% in the 20020s and 19% in the 2050s. The winters by contrast will get warmer and wetter – 6% wetter in the 2020s and 14% in the 2050s. In London we face three major challenges as a result of this changing climate and weather: •flooding •drought •heatwaves. To ensure we stay on top of the threats, we are responding to each challenge with a set of management measures that form part of the London Plan. Link
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    Moderator Response: [PW] Hot-linked reference
  20. I have submitted a message to his official communictaions site. I would advise others to do so, but please keep it very polite, we don't want to stoop to the lows of the more outragous deniers! Official Communications site
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  21. Tom@17: ...well, in Canada the executive branch (cabinet ministers) also need to be selected from the MPs (elected) and senators (appointed), and the governing party almost always has a majority in the House, so you don't get the dysfunctional US pattern of a President without support in Congress, and when the government doesn't have a majority the whole government can fall on confidence motions, giving the electorate another chance without having to wait until the normal end of term. And having more than two parties gives more choice, and less polarization (although we're working on that). ...but other than that, pretty much the same.
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  22. Tom @17, a much closer approximation would be no electoral college and the majority leader in the House of Representatives is the head of government (Prime Minister) instead of the President, and the secretaries (ministers) are all members of Congress and appointed by the majority leader. (The minority leader would be called Leader of the Opposition, and he would in turn appoint "shadow ministers" who are responsible for keeping an eye on the corresponding minister.) The head of state would still be the President (Queen or Governor General, depending on country) but the role is not a political one, more symbolic (but with reserve power that is rarely exercised). The key difference with this rather than the electoral college is that those choosing the leader are (usually) politicians who's political future depends on the success of their choice, so being Prime Minister is a much more precarious position that can be revoked at any time (as happened to Australia's Prime Minister a couple of years ago) if the members of the ruling party get nervous about their political prospects at the next election. Different parties can have different rules about who gets to vote for the leader of their party and when but members of the party who have been elected to parliament is very common. (The Australian Democrats elected their leader on a popular vote of all party members, if I recall correctly.) The House of Representatives can also effectively dismiss a PM at any time by passing a motion of no confidence. (Technically, the person picked to become PM is the person who convinces the head of state that they can survive motions of no confidence, which would naturally be the leader of a party that happened to have a majority in the House of Representatives but can also be a minority leader if they can get enough other MPs to agree not to support motions of no confidence, such as the current Australian PM.)
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  23. Bob Loblaw @21 & JasonB @22. The UK Tory party's leader election process is a little odd. It still has the same rules that saw Thatcher unexpectedly ousted as Prime Minister in 1990. That took just 14 days. The rules allow a vote of no confidence in the leader by Tory MPs if 15% of them call for it (and the call is an anonymous one). Losing the no-confidence vote results in a party leadership contest. For the Tories it matters not that the leader is also Prime Minister of the country. To win the leadership you need 50% of the vote of Tory MPs and if that is not achieved, the least successful candidate is eliminated and the vote re-run. Due to tactical voting and backroom deals, this system can throw up unexpected winners like John Major and Iain Duncan Smith. Remember Cameron was far from being the front runner in 2005. If it wasn't for the coalition partners, Cameron today would be very vulnerable to a challenge from the growing number of his dissatisfied right-wingers. Then again, if the coalition agreement didn't bind Cameron's hands, he may well have done a lot more of their bidding including reversing the UKs GHG policies.
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    Moderator Response: [PW] All interesting, folks, but maybe we can steer this back to the topic of the post? Election processes are good to know about but perhaps this isn't *quite* the correct venue to elaborate a lot further on that subject.
  24. Boris though was talking about the UK, not the globe, so would a better graphic have been the 10 year moving average UK temperature from here ?
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