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Diary

Matt Ridley’s diary: My undiscovered island, and the Met Office’s computer problem

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

We’ve discovered that we own an island. But dreams of independence and tax-havenry evaporate when we try to picnic there on Easter Sunday: we watch it submerge slowly beneath the incoming tide. It’s a barnacle-encrusted rock, about the size of a tennis court, just off the beach at Cambois, north of Blyth, which for some reason ended up belonging to my ancestor rather than the Crown. Now there’s a plan for a subsidy-fired biomass power station nearby that will burn wood (and money) while pretending to save the planet. The outlet pipes will go under our rock and we are due modest compensation. As usual, it’s us landowners who benefit from renewable energy while working people bear the cost: up the coast are the chimneys of the country’s largest aluminium smelter — killed, along with hundreds of jobs, by the government’s unilateral carbon-floor price in force from this week.

There were dead puffins on the beach, as there have been all along the east coast. This cold spring has hit them hard. Some puffin colonies have been doing badly in recent years, after booming in the 1990s, but contrary to the predictions of global warming, it’s not the more southerly colonies that have suffered most. The same is true of guillemots, kittiwakes and sandwich terns: northern colonies are declining.

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It’s not just here that the cold has been relentless. Germany’s average temperature for March was below zero. Norwegian farmers cannot plant vegetables because the ground’s frozen three feet down. In America snow fell as far south as Oklahoma last week. It’s horrible for farmers. But in past centuries, bad weather like that of the past 12 months would kill. In the 1690s, two million French people starved because of bad harvests. I’ve never understood why people argue that globalisation makes for a more fragile system: the opposite is the case. Harvest failures can be regional, but never global, so world trade ensures that we have the insurance policy of access to somebody else’s bumper harvest.

Gloriously, the poor old Met Office got it wrong yet again. In December it said: ‘For February and March… above-average UK-mean temperatures become more likely.’ This time last year it said the forecast ‘slightly favours drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June, and slightly favours April being the driest of the three months’ before the wettest of all Aprils. The Met Office does a great job of short-term forecasting, but the people who do that job must be fed up with the reputational damage from a computer that’s been taught to believe in rapid global warming. In September 2008 it foretold a ‘milder than average’ winter, before the coldest winter in a decade. The next year it said ‘the trend to milder and wetter winters is expected to continue’ before the coldest winter for 30 years. The next year it saw a ‘60 per cent to 80 per cent chance of warmer-than-average temperatures this winter’ before the coldest December since records began.

At least somebody’s happy about the cold. Gary Lydiate runs one of Northumberland’s export success stories, Kilfrost, which manufactures 60 per cent of Europe’s and a big chunk of the world’s aircraft de-icing fluid, so he puts his money where his mouth is, deciding how much fluid to send to various airports each winter. Back in January, when I bumped into him in a restaurant, he was beaming: ‘Joe says this cold weather’s going to last three months,’ he said. Joe is Joe Bastardi, a private weather forecaster, who does not let global warming cloud his judgment. Based on jetstreams, el Niños and ocean oscillations, Bastardi said the winter of 2011–12 would be cold only in eastern Europe, which it was, but the winter of 2012–13 would be cold in western Europe too, which it was. He’s now predicting ‘warming by mid month’ of April for the UK.

David Rose of the Mail on Sunday was vilified for saying that there’s been no global warming for about 16 years, but even the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now admits he’s right. Rose is also excoriated for drawing attention to papers which find that climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide is much lower than thought — as was I when I made the same point in the Wall Street Journal. Yet even the Economist has now conceded this. Tip your hat to Patrick Michaels, then of the University of Virginia, who together with three colleagues published a carefully argued estimate of climate sensitivity in 2002. For having the temerity to say they thought ‘21st-century warming will be modest’, Michaels was ostracised. A campaign began behind the scenes to fire the editor of the journal that published the paper, Chris de Freitas. Yet Michaels’s central estimate of climate sensitivity agrees well with recent studies. Scientists can behave remarkably like priests at times.

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