“Freak midwinter” in the local press: a reality check

Someone called Nigel Hasilow wrote an article entitled “Freak Midwinter’ published in the Shrewsbury Chronicle on 31 December, dismissing the idea of human-caused climate change.

I don’t know who Nigel Hasilow is, but the name may be a misprint for Nigel Hastilow, who according to Wikipedia is a journalist, author, businessman and politician, and former editor of the Birmingham Post newspaper. If so, he appears to be a regular contributor to the Express and Star group newspapers and it’s likely the article has appeared in other papers in the group. But he doesn’t look like the sort of person you’d go to for information about the climate.

Mr Hastilow’s article includes a great deal of political comment on the recent Paris conference, but it also includes claims about the science. The main theme of the article depends very much on a logical error called ‘non-sequitur’: that is, because the climate has changed in the past before humans were around or had enough technology to affect it, therefore we can disregard the possibility of humans affecting the climate now.

Suppose that the police discover a murder victim – would he then argue that it can’t be a murder, because millions of people have died natural deaths? No, of course not, because the police will collect forensic evidence that shows that it is a murder, not a natural death.

In a similar way, thousands of climate scientists have collected the evidence and published it in many thousands of scientific papers and shown that our current climate change is largely not natural. These scientists have collected evidence of all kinds – from measurements of temperatures past and present, carbon dioxide concentrations, the history of ancient rocks, the oceans, glaciers and many other sources – together with basic physics, and shown that the only reasonable explanation for our current climate change is that it is largely caused by the fossil carbon we are pumping at a high rate into the atmosphere and oceans. It is worth noting, too, that the only reason Mr Hastilow knows that climate has changed in the past comes from this research by climate scientists – the very research and climate scientists that Mr Hastilow believes are mistaken about human influence on the climate!

We know that we have drastically changed the atmosphere of the planet in a very short time: from around 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide before the Industrial Revolution to over 400 parts per million now – and currently increasing at over 2 ppm per year from the fossil fuels we use. We also know, from very well-established physics, that this extra concentration significantly increases the amount of the sun’s heat that is not radiated out to space, rather as putting on extra layers of clothing keeps you from losing heat on a cold day.

This is not the only error in Mr Hastilow’s article. He confuses climate and weather (a common but serious mistake) and then confuses climate researchers with weather forecasters (although who he thinks “they” are who allegedly forecast the “coldest winter for 50 years” is not stated – it appears to be the Daily Express which says the same thing every year! Certainly not the Met Office.)

It looks as if Mr Hastilow really does not know enough about climate science to write an article on it. But that is not unusual. I’ve been following the self-described “climate change sceptics” for around 8 years now, and the one thing that almost all “climate change sceptics” have in common is that they avoid the science. Almost completely.

On the one hand we have climate scientists, who do scientific research. On the other hand we have the “sceptics”, who lobby through politics and the media, to influence politicians and the public. Put any of the latest news on climate change into Google, and you will find tens or hundreds of websites putting the “sceptic” case for every one that explains the science. But look more closely and you will find that most of these are just repeating each other. Delve a bit deeper and you will find a large number of organisations, like the GWPF in this country, dedicated to promoting the “sceptic” position (who funds these organisations is usually pretty unclear). But dig again and you will find that the number of people actually involved is quite small. Their names pop up again and again. And few have any climate science experience.

The talking points vary little – and have varied little over the last 10 or 20 years, because the purpose of the “sceptics” is to do politics, not science. I call these talking points “zombie memes” because they are not arguments, and although wrong they cannot be killed – “climate sceptics” will never be deterred by pointing out the errors in what they say. These zombie memes look sciency, but they are typically logical errors, factual errors or half-truths intended to mislead (like the Thames freezing over). If you encounter these memes, a good source of information is the Skeptical Science web site, which currently lists 176 of these (it calls them “myths”).

Richard Burnham

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