In a bizarre comment during a BBC Radio panel discussion, the conservative British Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, suggested that climate change is neither real, nor significantly affected by man.
What’s worse, Paterson seemed not to understand the crucial difference between “weather” and “climate,” which is a common mistake made by climate-change denialists. And in so doing, he suggested that the average temperature hasn’t changed in 17 years, and thus, apparently, this is proof that climate change is neither real, nor significantly influenced by man:
[The] Cabinet Minister for the Environment – not Welfare, Education or Defence – clearly stated “The real question is: is climate change influenced by man made climate change? The climate, the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years.”
Q: Are those concerned about climate change talking anti-scientific green ideological nonsense? What is your answer to that question?
Environment Minster Paterson: I have to take practical decisions. The climate’s always been changing. Peter mentioned the Arctic. I think in the [unintelligible] you can see there were beaches there. [Audience begins to murmur] When Greenland was occupied, you had people growing crops. We then had a little ice age, then we have middle age warming. The climate’s been going up and down.
The real question, which I think everyone’s trying to address, is ‘is this influenced by man-made activity in recent years.’ And James is actually correct, the climate has not changed, the temperature hasn’t changed in the last 17 years. What I think we ought to be careful of is that there is almost certainly, bound to be, some influence by man-made activity, but I think we just got to be rational [laughter from audience] and make sure the measures that we take to counter it don’t actually cause more damage.
Other panelist: This man is our Secretary of State for the Environment, for goodness sake.
Did you catch all of that? The climate’s always been changing. The climate’s been going up and down. The temperature hasn’t changed in the last 17 years.
This is the face of climate change denialism, and it’s occupying the most important seat in Britain on the matter.
(First, a quick correction to Paterson: 97% of studies looking at whether science change is man-made say “yes.”)
To fully appreciate Paterson’s folly, here’s a quick primer on the difference between weather and climate, and why that difference matters.
Weather is what happens each day, or perhaps even each year. Climate is the overall trend over a long period of time. For example, here’s a photo of the path taken by a man walking his dog.
If you look at the dog (he’s “weather”), at any one time, he’s traveling north, then south, then north, then south. The dog is all over the place. If you just look at the dog at any one time, or even over a short period of time, you’d say “he’s moving south” or “he’s moving north.” But if you look at the man – and if you look at the long-distance path of the man and the dog (i.e., the “climate”) – you’d say “aha, regardless of the dog’s erratic movements, they’re both clearly heading northeast.”
That’s the difference between weather and climate.
To take a more “real” example, check out the graph below, showing average temperatures over the past 40 years. You can say with perfect honesty that over the past eight years the weather has cooled off, and it may have. But that’s just a momentary blip – over the past 100 years it’s gotten decidedly warmer, and the long-term chart proves it. Note how at any one smaller period of time (shown in blue) the trend might be up or down, but over 40 years (in red) it’s clear that the long-term trend is always towards warmer and warmer weather, regardless of the circuitous path the weather “dog” takes.
Scientists look at the actual trend over the long-term. Denialists look at only a portion of the trend in order to fool you.
So the UK Minister for the Environment, Owen Paterson, just confused weather and climate. Lovely.