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Coffee House

Why the Met Office has hung its chief scientist out to dry

18 February 2014

10:57 AM

18 February 2014

10:57 AM

Last week the Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology issued an admirable joint report on the floods and their possible connection to climate change, concluding that it is not possible to make such a link. ‘As yet’, it said, ‘there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding’. In many ways this was not much of a surprise, since only the wild activist fringe among the climate science community have tended to try to make the link in the past.

Taking such a level-headed view, the Met Office report represented a valuable opportunity to bring some calm to an increasingly frenzied debate over the flooding. However, unfortunately for everyone, the good work was all undone by the Met Office’s own chief scientist, Professor Dame Julia Slingo. Newly ennobled in the New Year’s honours list, Slingo seems to have found the temptation to put a global warming spin on everything that crosses her desk too much, and she blurted out to journalists the extraordinary claim that ‘all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change’.

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Her position was undoubtedly a big problem for the Met Office, directly contradicting her own organisation’s report and the views of the scientific mainstream. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that these differences would be picked up in the media. Over the weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported a senior climatologist, Professor Mat Collins of Exeter University, as saying that:-

‘There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside our knowledge.’

As the newspaper pointed out, there was an obvious discrepancy with what Slingo was telling the press.

On the grapevine I hear that climate scientists are privately furious with Slingo; their profession has had a rough ride in recent years and efforts to restore its battered reputation are not to be cheaply squandered. The signs are that climatologists have hung Slingo out to dry. Last night, Collins and the Met Office issued a much-anticipated response to the Mail on Sunday article. This made a great deal of global warming having increased the water content of the atmosphere, leading to increased rainfall, a surprising point given that as recently as 2012 Slingo had told Parliament that global warming was ‘loading the dice’ in favour of cold, dry winters. It also made a strong sales pitch about the potential of climate models to predict increases in storminess in future. But it was what it did not say that was most significant. For while it artfully implied that the Mail on Sunday had got things wrong, in fact it went on to show only that the original report was consistent with Collins’ mainstream views. Regarding Slingo’s outlandish claims about ‘all the evidence’ supporting a link between the floods and global warming, there was only an ominous silence.

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