Forecasting based on climate change is delusional


The only predictable thing about global warming is that it won't negate our weather's unpredictability, writes John Waters

THE IDEA seems to be taking hold that climate change will render the Irish weather more predictable and that we'll never see a dry August day again. Anyone who has lived more than a week or two in this country knows that this is delusional.

The Minister for the Environment has been going about the place, a Jeremiah in Wellingtons, shaking his head at the rising flood waters and implying that all this could have been avoided if people had listened to him before. Various meteorologists have been trotted out in the media to explain that this year's August rain is due to precipitation over Newfoundland, itself the consequence of greenhouse gases.

I am momentarily struck by the idea that Newfoundland will in the future acquire a significance in Irish life equivalent to the shadow cast in the past by our nearest neighbour. But experience tells me that, in a month or two, everyone will have stopped talking about Newfoundland, the media having found an expert with an even scarier theory about something else.

The main role of media nowadays is to market scares which cause us to worry for a while and then move on to a different problem. If society is not consumed with fear about being wiped out by some new disease, it is fretting about nuclear Armageddon, a meltdown in house prices or, as in recent weeks, the climate apocalypse.

This process has little about it that one could call rational. Very often, the scare rapidly evaporates without trace, leaving behind a total information vacuum and no sense of closure.

Remember, for instance, Sars, an exotic disease with flu-like symptoms that a few years ago claimed a number of lives, mainly in Hong Kong, and which for several weeks gripped the Irish media and consequently Irish society with a profound morbidity? At one point, reports of a single case in Dún Laoghaire caused people to avoid the town for weeks. And yet, for five years now, there has been no talk of Sars at all. The subject rapidly disappeared from the news pages and bulletins, and most of us have since hardly given it a thought.

Bird flu. It's just a year or two since we went around all a-flutter because the "experts" were telling us to be very afraid. But for many months now there has been no talk at all about bird flu or its dire consequences for western civilisation. The newest references to be found on the internet are more than a year old and there is no sense that the saga has either ended or was understood. Bird flu just sort of went away, but nobody has been fingered for creating a spurious scare.

I'm not suggesting that climate change is a similarly phantom phenomenon. Undoubtedly the trend is real and, for the moment, advancing. But it is noticeable in much media discussion of the subject that, most of the time, only the ideologically committed claim to know what is happening. Green politicians, for example, are enjoying the opportunity for head-shaking and tut-tutting, implying that everything they've ever said must now be re-examined.

The scientists, however, are noticeably more circumspect. An excellent article in the current edition of New Scientist says that the science of forecasting on the basis of climate change is still in its infancy. The equations are so complex and the variables so numerous that the sensible scientists say they just don't know. Yes, the earth is warming. Yes, this will have an effect on future weather patterns. But many aspects of the matter are poorly understood and nobody can say with certainty how things will play out. Natural variability remains a far more powerful factor than anything to do with global changes.

And variability is the middle-name of Irish weather. The Spanish, by and large, can predict tomorrow's weather; we in Ireland can predict that tomorrow's weather will take us by surprise. John Gormley seems to be on safe ground when he predicts that we will have more rainfall in the future, but if I were him I wouldn't put my shirt on it.

Contrary to the current mood, therefore, I confidently predict that, one August, sometime in the next few years, we will be complaining about the heat and praying for rain. This is our fate and our nature. Our weather is so unpredictable that we never seem even to claim ownership of any particular element, in the way the Spanish lay claim to sun or the Eskimos to snow.

Without the variability of our weather patterns, God knows what we would talk about. My 12-year-old daughter often remarks on the way we go about when it is raining, all scrunched up against the drops as though we have never encountered a shower before. Despite what outsiders might conclude about the dampness of our climate, we greet every new rain cloud with shudders of outrage and dismay, as though this is the last thing we expected to happen.

The forecast, therefore, is for the Irish weather to remain predictably unpredictable. It will rain and occasionally stop.

Everything else is speculation.