It is, as we like to say on this cynical little island, "typical" that a few weeks after the Met Office assured us that this would be one of the warmest winters on record we find ourselves in the midst of the deepest freeze for thirty years. This is, after all, the same Met Office that assured us of a "barbeque summer" last year. The past three years have seen a similar pattern of Met Office hype followed by disappointment and shivering. In today's Sunday Telegraph, Christopher Booker claims that the Exeter-based institution's bad record in recent years is no coincidence:
What is not generally realised is that the UK Met Office has been, since 1990, at the very centre of the campaign to convince the world that it faces catastrophe through global warming. (Its website now proclaims it to be "the Met Office for Weather and Climate Change".) Its then-director, Dr John Houghton, was the single most influential figure in setting up the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the chief driver of climate alarmism. Its Hadley Centre for Climate Change, along with the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU), was put in charge of the most prestigious of the four official global temperature records. In line with IPCC theory, its computers were programmed to predict that, as CO2 levels rose, temperatures would inevitably follow. From 1990 to 2007, the Department of the Environment gave the Met Office no less than £146 million for its "climate predictions programme".
Before the defenders of orthodoxy leap all over me, I'm fully aware that climate is not the same as weather, that a general warming trend is not cancelled out by individual cold days, or even cold years, and that what happens in Britain, or North West Europe, is of small account in planetary terms. Of course. I'm passing no comment here about the climate science, except to say that the more I hear it proclaimed in ever shriller tones that the science is settled, the less I believe it. I used to think the science was settled. I now merely think that there are a lot of people who think that it ought to be settled, which isn't the same thing at all.
But the accuracy or otherwise of the AGW hypothesis doesn't detract from the fact that the following sequence events has become all too common recently:
1) the Met Office says it's going to be hot
2) it isn't
And if they're so catastrophically wrong about the weather, which is after all supposed to be their main job, why should we pay any attention to what they say about the global climate, which is considerably more complex?
The Mail's account of the Great Freeze of 09/10 attracted a fair number of comments critical of the Met Office's record. No surprises there. But then Tony from Norwich came on. He wrote:
I work for the Met office and am appalled by all the negative comments about us on this site. This will be the warmest winter in living memory, the data has already been recorded. For your information, we take the highest 15 readings between November and March and then produce an average. As November was a very seasonly warm month, then all the data will come from those readings. And not to reveal too much, the data does show that the average over those 15 readings will make it a very warm reading. You cannot accept that a week's snow will affect the outcome.
This explains a great deal. There's the question of dates, for one thing. If the Met Office believes that "winter" begins in late autumn and continues until the middle of spring, then it's quite likely that their statistics will differ markedly from many people's perceptions. A really cold couple January and December, sandwiched between three warm months, may not register as "a cold winter" to the meteorologists. But it will be experienced as such, talked about as such, and remembered as such by ordinary folk, who will have less trust in the Met Office as a result. It may be convenient for administrative purposes to define "winter" in this way, but in doing so the Met Office loses touch with the real world and normal people, retreating to a self-referential and self-reinforcing world of statistics. Many government departments have gone down this road in recent years: unemployment statistics that exclude most people who are actually unemployed, crime statistics that exclude many crimes, debt statistics that take no note of PFI schemes...
But you'll have noticed the really amazing sentence in Tony's defence of the Met Office. "We take the highest 15 readings between November and March and then produce an average." They ignore, in other words, the lowest readings. This is a method almost certain to produce massive distortion. A warm November would fix a winter as "mild" even if the temperature in the subsequent three months averaged sixty degrees below zero. Which is almost, but not quite, what is likely to happen this winter.
The Met Office weren't wrong at all, it turns out. They were just "differently right".
"You cannot accept that a week's snow will affect the outcome," says Tony. Maybe not. But why should a week's warm weather affect the outcome? The Met Office, it seems clear, have (deliberately?) adopted a definition of seasonal temperature that exaggerates warmth and downplays cold. This is of no use to anyone except propagandists.
I missed out Tony's final sentence. Here it is:
We at the Met are already looking ahead until spring and judging by the winter results, we think spring could be very dry this year, even possibly drought conditions.
Next week I'm going to buy a new brolly, just in case.