Ross Clark Ross Clark

Britain, climate change and the reality of extreme weather events

A flooded road in Shrewsbury, January 2021 (photo: Getty)

‘Extreme weather will be the norm,’ says the Guardian. Britain is gaining a more ‘violent’ climate according to Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency. ‘The UK is already undergoing disruptive climate change with increased rainfall, sunshine and temperatures, according to scientists,’ wites the BBC’s ‘environmental analyst’ Roger Harrabin.

But how many people making these sorts of claims have actually read the Met Office’s report – the ‘State of the UK Climate 2020’ – as opposed to merely reading the press release? Not for the first time, the real data presents a very different world from the one depicted in the increasingly hysterical reporting on climate change.

Firstly, temperatures. There is a clear upward trend in temperature over the UK in the past 60 years (following a slight decline in the two decades prior to that). We can argue about heat islands – and I certainly wouldn’t trust temperature records set at Heathrow, with its concrete aprons and jets spewing out hot gases. But the overall data points unmistakably to rising temperatures. There has been a corresponding downward trend in the frequency of frosts, as might be expected. However, the data also shows that in the UK at least the predominant period of warming was the 1980s and 1990s, with a distinct levelling-off over the past decade. Claims that warming is ‘accelerating’ are not justified by data, at least not in Britain.

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Now for rainfall. Much reporting this morning focuses on 2020 being the fifth wettest year since 1862, averaged over Britain. Certainly it was a wet year, but what matters more is the long-term trends. Averaged across Britain, the Met Office report notes, the decade 2011-20 was 9 per cent wetter than the period 1961-90. But there are two things to note about this.

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