‘I see snow, therefore we’re heading for an ice age!’ – scientists debunk Boris’s climate whiff-whaff

Ros Donald and Christian Hunt of The Carbon Brief debunk Boris Johnson's latest climate sceptic rantings.

By Ros Donald and Christian Hunt of The Carbon Brief

Mayor of London Boris Johnson bemused the world in the run up to the Olympics with a patriotic speech about table tennis’s purported ancestor ‘whiff-whaff’, an ancient game built around the idea of a good back and forth.

Johnson’s conception of climate science also seems to be based around the idea of a good back and forth – between scientists and sceptics.

He gave his latest thoughts on the subject for Telegraph readers today, as from his window in snowy Islington, he muses on the subject of snowy winters. He turns to the theories of climate sceptic meteorologist, Piers Corbyn, who believes far from warming, the globe might be heading for a “mini ice age”.

This isn’t the first time Johnson has touted this idea. In fact, any season appears to offer an opportunity to suggest we’re due an ice age. Just before the Olympics the £250,000-a-year Telegraph columnist was inspired to write another defence of Corbyn’s theory, this time after looking out of the window at the rain.

The gist of Corbyn’s theory was laid out yesterday by Johnson in a paragraph that does at least prove the mayor is a fan of recycling – it is taken almost verbatim from the earlier article.

He says:

“There are times in astronomical history when the Sun has been churning out more stuff – protons and electrons and what have you – than at other times. When the Sun has plenty of sunspots, he bathes the Earth in abundant rays. When the solar acne diminishes, it seems that the Earth gets colder.

“No one contests that when the planet palpably cooled from 1645 to 1715 – the Maunder Minimum, which saw the freezing of the Thames – there was a diminution of solar activity. The same point is made about the so-called Dalton minimum, from 1790 to 1830. And it is the view of Piers Corbyn that we are now seeing exactly the same phenomenon today.”

We asked some climate scientists for their thoughts on the piece, and this argument in particular.

Joanna Haigh, a professor of atmospheric physics at Imperial College, specialises in studying the effect of the sun on climate.

She explained to us most scientists have moved on from looking out of the window to tell them what’s going on with the climate:

“I’m delighted that the mayor maintains his interest in weather and climate but he should be wary of drawing generalised conclusions from his observations. He suggests that the cold weather in London is due to declining solar activity – but actually the Sun is more active now than it has been since 2009, and about the same as it was in 2004 and 1998.

“On longer timescales – decades to century – the sun may be very slowly declining in activity but this can’t explain year-to-year variations in UK winter weather. The mayor makes an interesting point about the weather during the Maunder Minimum in sunspots and, although the cooler weather then was largely confined to north-west Europe, that may quite likely have been influenced by the Sun. But at that time solar energetic output was considerably lower than it is today.

“What we have is the lovely variability and uncertainty of British weather sitting on top of a long term global average warming due to greenhouse gas increases. This is not an issue of opinion but one of basic physics. We just don’t need to invoke mysterious effects of solar particles to understand long-term trends in global temperatures.”

Dr Peter Stott, who leads the Met Office’s climate monitoring and attribution unit, told us the idea the sun could override the effects of human activity on the climate doesn’t stack up:

“There is a strong scientific consensus that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of global warming over the last 50 years and it is misleading to the public that other theories, such as that most of the warming is caused by solar changes, carry equal weight.

“In fact the fingerprint of human activity is very clearly seen in the observed pattern of temperature changes including warming in the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) and cooling in the stratosphere (the upper atmosphere above about 10km) and greater warming over land than ocean. Solar forcing on the other hand has not been increasing over the last three decades and an increasing solar contribution to global warming would have lead to warming of the stratosphere not cooling.”

Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, told us why Corbyn’s views are at odds with the broader scientific understanding of how the climate works:

“Climate science shows that the sun does have an influence on climate; this is not controversial. The planet responds to changes in the flux of energy that it intercepts from the Sun – known as the Total Solar Irradiance (TSI). What is in dispute is whether the sun has contributed to the energy imbalance (and associated energy accumulation) that the earth has experienced over the last half-century or so.

“Climate scientists have concluded that the answer is no, based on the known ways in which the sun exerts its influence.

“If anything, the sun (through a slightly lower TSI) has diminished the human-induced warming a little. But it may be that there are solar influences not recognised or understood. In this respect, Piers Corbyn should publish his insights so that they can be scrutinised and a judgement made about their credibility. If he has a genuine contribution to make, why would he not do so? The issue is, after all, rather important!”

Of course, BoJo is nothing if not entertaining – and a canny politician. We can’t imagine his latest column will do him any damage with the wing of the Conservative party that is less-than-keen on climate policies.

And the whole thing is done with an air of tongue-in-cheek – with Boris assuring us:

“I am not for a second saying that I am convinced Piers is right; and to all those scientists and environmentalists who will go wild with indignation on the publication of this article, I say, relax. I certainly support reducing CO2 by retrofitting homes and offices – not least since that reduces fuel bills. I want cleaner vehicles.”

Unfortunately, polling data shows a significant number of people are still confused about what’s causing climate change. Fringe scientific theories receiving more attention than they warrant from some parts of the media – and some columnists – probably doesn’t help.

Risking being wrong about the origins of whiff-whaff has limited consequences; a potential future prime minister who is easily led by fringe theories about the basics of climate change might give more pause.

This article was first published on The Carbon Brief.

See also:

Delingpole debunked by Met OfficeJanuary 10th, 2013

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13 Responses to “‘I see snow, therefore we’re heading for an ice age!’ – scientists debunk Boris’s climate whiff-whaff”

  1. LB


    Theory. Prediction. Test.

    Climate science.

    Theory – Human CO2 production causes Global warming. Tick
    Prediction – IPCC has publish 4 predictions. Good. We can tick this part.
    Test – Fail, Fail, Fail, Fail. The actual temperature is outside the error bounds for the prediction. There is less than a 5% chance anyone of these predictions is correct.

    If we apply a consensus of the predictions, then we get an even more stark failure of the pooled predictions because the pooled variance is reduced in a meta-analysis (the consensus).

  2. mirror man

    If doris is right this would be a perfect time to take the heating allowance of the oap just think how many the condem government could kill off.

  3. John Havery Samuel

    The data shows the IPCC projections have underestimated the effects of climate change. http://www.skepticalscience.com/ipcc-scientific-consensus.htm.

    So, tick, tick and, bloody hell, it’s worse than we thought, tick.

  4. LB

    Over estimated.

    Numerous papers have documented how IPCC predictions are more likely to underestimate the climate response.

    Since the IPCC have overestimated, all these numerous papers have really really got it wrong.

    If you put them into the consensus with the IPCC, they are even more barkingly wrong.

    No increase in temperatures for 15 years.

    Notice too how each successive prediction gets lower, and they reset the state time, postpone the end time.

    Its a bit, please please Sir let me have another go. ….

    Also shades of Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. The bit where the philosphers get told that with 50,000 years before the answer, they could be on the chat show circuit for a long time, pulling in the fees, ….

  5. John Havery Samuel

    It’s still warming. http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-stopped-in-1998.htm

    Don’t take your science from the Daily Mail. Just look at the cleavage.

  6. LB

    Ah, bugger say the alarmists. We’ve been rumbled.

    Turn to strategy two. Try and distract people with a personal attack.

    Doesn’t work any more.

    I would say, look out the window, but even I don’t buy the weather = climate argument used whenever the weather is bad.

  7. John Havery Samuel

    You have executed the complete denier fail – no data and no science, just catchphrases.

    Heat records have been exceeding cold records 3:1 for almost a generation.

  8. John Havery Samuel

    I agree, looking out the window for climate is damnably stupid. That’s what Boris did.

    Let’s see now, predictions. Oh, look, Hansen ’81 was pretty good. http://www.skepticalscience.com/Hansen-1988-prediction.htm>

  9. LB


    Exactly the sort of test that should be applied.

    You take the model. You the compare it against the actual temperatures. [1]

    So far, half way through, Gore is losing.

    Currently, the actual global temperature is outside the 95% confidence interval.

    [1] One caveat.I wouldn’t be unfair against an alarmist taking a bet to say they have to predict volcanic eruptions. However, equally, I would expect them to also undo the bias if there weren’t any. We’ve haven’t had a Pinatobu for a long time, so without the volcanic ash, that means we should be above trend.

  10. John Havery Samuel

    An interesting pattern in this conversation is emerging. I show credible links for my statements. You provide a link that points to a blog that cites the error strewn Daily Mail. Sigh.

    Volcanoes? 1% of man’s CO2 emissions. http://www.skepticalscience.com/volcanoes-and-global-warming.htm

    We are bang on the trend. I know I’ve posted this already. I’m as certain you’ve not viewed it, so here it is again, http://www.skepticalscience.com/16_more_years_of_global_warming.html.

    Heat records exceeding cold records by 3:1 for a generation. Sea levels rising. More insurance claims. Record drought in the US. Record heat in Australia. Record rain in England. Spring earlier, autumn later. Nope, no climate change here. Nope. Keep hiding.

  11. LB

    Well, the bets we’re that we would see huge increases. At no time has any actual temperature exceeded the prediction at the end of the period.

  12. LB

    So lets look at your 1% figure. I don’t dispute it. So Pinatobu goes off. Adds to the CO2, certainly.

    However, look at the temperature drop. Large, and rapid.

    Hold on, Volcanos pump out C02 and temperatures drop? Ah yes, its not caused by C02, but by particulates and suphates causing a drop, for about 3-4 years.

    So why the drop again? 1% of C02 should cause a rise, if you’re correct?

    Record drought in the US. Record heat in Australia. Record rain in England, Record cold elsewhere.

    A good example of claiming weather as climate if ever there was one.

    So I presume the current freeze is really hot?

  13. John Havery Samuel

    Still no science or links to reputable sources. And, yes, lots of weather is climate – climate is the long term trend of weather. Years of record highs outweighing record lows is a sure fire signifier of change. The current UK freeze is hardly a record, now, is it? Unlike the US drought or the Australian heat wave.

    Have another dose of science. ACC is settled fact.

    Anthropogenic climate change (ACC)/anthropogenic
    global warming (AGW) is not a hypothesis. It is a robust theory, referred to as
    “settled fact” by scientists.

    Per the National Academies of Science, in their 2010 publication Advancing The Science Of Climate Change (pp 44-45):

    “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined
    and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small.

    Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts.

    This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that
    much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”


    And note that the above National Academies paper is available for free download
    after a free registration. No purchase necessary. And the quote is from pages
    44 & 45.

    I look forward to hearing your argument as to how America’s prestigious body is wrong. I hope there’s a juicy conspiracy theory behind your reasoning.

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