Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence

What is it with Met Eireann and climate change? Take the below, entirely typical, recent comments from forecaster Joanna Donnelly:

“It is a global phenomenon that needs to be looked at globally over decades and not days…Our climate is changing but you could not use the weather in any one country in any one month, day or year to say that this is the evidence of climate change…Climate change is evident all over the globe all of the time”.

The above quote is from a news article in the Irish Independent, dated December 3rd last. Just four days later, the Irish Examiner carried a report headed: ‘Storm Desmond: All the evidence points to climate change, says Met Office’. The Met Office in question is of course the UK version. Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo had no difficulty stating the obvious, which is: “all the evidence points to climate change”.

In a BBC Radio Four interview, Dame Slingo expanded: “The latest research we published last month looking back at the 2013/14 floods was that for the same weather pattern, heavy rainfall of the type we have seen this weekend is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

So, while the UK Met Office states in plain language that the types of ferocious rainfall accompanying Storm Desmond is seven times more likely as a result of anthropogenic GHGs, the best its Irish counterpart can come up with is a largely meaningless combination of words like this: “Our climate is changing but you could not use the weather in any one country in any one month, day or year to say that this is the evidence of climate change…”

This is not to single out Ms Donnelly. Dr Gerard Fleming, its head of forecasting and forecaster Evelyn Cusack have both been at pains in their recent public utterances on the almost unprecedented series of December flooding events to ensure no one could form the impression this latest freak weather is part of any larger pattern, or, heaven forbid, be actually be precisely what we can expect from climate change.

On a Morning Ireland interview in late December, Fleming dodged several attempts by the interviewer to attribute any possible cause for the recurrence so soon of the so-called once-in-a-century flooding events last endured just six years ago. While quite reasonably emphasising the enormous variability within the weather system, and nodding to the contribution of the current El Nino event, as well as the underlying climate change signal Fleming concluded by reminding the interviewer that Ireland is located adjacent to a vast ocean, the unavoidable implication being that this is just another of those random ‘weather events’.

In an Irish Times article from mid-November under the entirely unfortunate heading: ‘State better prepared than ever to respond to extreme weather’, even the Minister for the IFA, Simon Coveney was prepared to concede that climate change is beginning to bite right here in Ireland. The strongest Fleming could add was that climate change projections suggest “our weather is likely to become more extreme” with wetter winters and drier summers and “less of what we might call ‘normal’ weather”.

I am quite sure that Dr Fleming, a respected meteorologist, is not engaged in some sinister plot to deny the reality of climate change, a reality I know from first hand experience he is au fait with. But the reluctance of Met Eireann personnel across the board to engage in ‘attribution’ is so widespread it looks like it’s a policy, rather than personal, decision.

Met Eireann staff are civil servants, and civil servants quickly learn to know which way the wind is blowing. And, since 2011, there has been a distinctly chilly breeze emanating from Government Buildings regarding climate change. Remember the first Coalition Environment Minister, Phil ‘the fixer’ Hogan? Fine Gael put down a clear marker with Hogan’s appointment that all that “green crap” was strictly off the political agenda. Passing the Environment baton to uninterested Labour neophyte Alan Kelly reinforced its fall from relevance.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the good folks in Met Eireann’s Glasnevin HQ got the memo too – stick to the weather, boys and girls, and don’t be upsetting the apple tart, as a former Taoiseach might have put it, with all this aul’ guff about climate change.

After all, if climate change were to become a widely understood and accepted reality among the Irish public, then pet political projects keeping key special interest groups sweet, specifically Food Harvest 2020, would be dead in the water.

And, by and large, Met Eireann has done a solid job of avoiding giving the public and media any meaningful guidance as to the fact that climate change is already in full swing, both here and globally.

If this sounds harsh, compare and contrast the respective websites of the Irish and UK Met services. The latter places the ‘Weather’ and ‘Climate’ tabs in the most prominent positions on the site navigation. Clicking the ‘Climate’ button takes you into a rich channel with articles, news feeds and videos featuring senior Met Office personnel setting out in plain language the reality of climate change, and directly linking it to recent and current extreme weather events.

Article titles include: ‘Planet under pressure’ and ‘What do we mean by climate?’, as well as an in-depth section dealing with the science of climate change, and featuring links to the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services. You’ll also find ‘Expert climate advice for policy-makers’ plus background on the ‘AVOID2 programme on avoiding dangerous climate change’. And, as you might expect, the UK Met Office offers in-depth resources under ‘Helping the UK prepare’.

The UK Met Office works with the insurance industry to investigate “how climate change may alter the frequency, severity and location of extreme events. This is helping insurers to manage the changing risks posed by the changing climate”. It also advises the UK government by contributing to Britain’s first nationwide climate risk assessment across a wide spectrum of sectors. It gives expert guidance to the UK rail industry and Highways Agency on the projected impacts of high temperatures and increases in severe rainfall events on the entire rail and road infrastructure.

You can also download an 8-page synopsis, ‘Our changing climate – the current science’ from its website. This lays out in as non-technical a language as possible the key elements of what we know about climate change, including unequivocal guidance on event attribution. Commenting on the ‘UK winter rainfall 2013/14 – the wettest winter in UK observational records’, its Findings state: ‘Under the same weather pattern experienced in winter 2013/14 (a persistent westerly flow), extreme rainfall over 10 consecutive winter days is now seven times more likely than in a world without man-made greenhouse gas emissions”.

Its guidance on the IPCC science on emissions and, in particular, the need for ‘Early action…to reduce the chances of dangerous climate change’ is clear and leaves little room for the peddling of dangerous nonsense which, regrettably, still passes for discourse on climate change in parts of our media, most notably RTE’s flagship current affairs programme, ‘PrimeTime’. Its show, broadcast on December 3rd last, under the title ‘The cost of climate change’ featured a studio ‘debate’ so badly skewed and so blatantly misleading that, were it about almost any other subject than climate change, the editor of PrimeTime would by now be busy updating his CV for the 2016 jobs market.

Atrocious programming like this does not happen in isolation. If the show’s production team had looked up the Met Eireann website for guidance on the science of climate change, what might they have found? They would likely have clicked the tab marked ‘Climate of Ireland’, where articles on temperature, rainfall, wind, sunshine, water vapour, major weather events and weather extremes are located.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Met Eireann website does not address climate change. I dug around and found a subsection of an article entitled ‘Climate of Ireland’, but had to scroll down 10 sections or so before encountering a heading: ‘What does Climate Change mean for Ireland?’ This section in total runs to around 370 words, and includes a couple of quite technical charts (a version of this was posted to the site’s home page ‘Weather News’ section on December 22nd, under the heading “What does climate change mean for Ireland?”, authored by Séamus Walsh, Head of Climatology and Observations).

I invite you to read this sub-section in full. It confirms that Ireland’s average air temperature has risen by 0.8C in the last century, and that this has already impacted, for instance, the growing season. By mid-century, is says, all seasons are likely to be 1-1.5 warmer, but it’s not all doom and gloom by any means: “Milder winters will lead to a reduction in winter mortality due to fewer cold spells but the increasing likelihood of heatwaves and hot days (days over 30 °C) may have the opposite effect in summer.”

So, good news and bad news then. On precipitation, it continues: “climate projections…show an increased risk of winter flooding, an increased risk of short duration ‘flash’ floods and possible water shortages in summer months due to higher temperatures and lower rainfall. The rise in sea levels will make low lying coastal areas more prone to flooding, especially from storm surges.”

Happily, none of that alarmist IPCC nonsense about the impossibility to adapting to a world of +4C climate change, as set out on the UK Met Office website, has found its way onto its Irish counterpart. Instead, we get this soothingly reassuring commentary: “Changes in our climate regime will continue to be incrementally small and barely noticeable on a year to year basis, and will occur against the background of natural climate variability such as El Nino and variations in the sea temperature of the north Atlantic”.

It continues: “Extreme weather events will continue to occur, while it might not be possible to explicitly attribute these to human induced climate change, the probability of occurrence of extreme events is expected to increase.” Finishing on an upbeat note, the Met Eireann article adds: “The impacts of climate change on Ireland may be less severe than those expected in other parts of the world, nevertheless we need to put adaptation and mitigation strategies in place now to ensure the best societal outcome for Ireland.”

There is certainly nothing in the foregoing to alert any reader to the possibility that the series of recent weather calamities to have battered Ireland have anything whatever to do with, ahem, climate change. Ironically, in its news feed, the Met Eireann site carries a WMO press release dated November 27th, and the good folks in the WMO have no problem whatever in attributing current severe weather events to climate change. “Scientific assessments have found that many extreme events in the 2011-15 period, especially those relating to extreme high temperatures, have had their probabilities over a particular time period substantially increased as a result of human-induced climate change – by a factor of 10 or more in some cases.  Of 79 studies between 2011 and 2014, more than half found that anthropogenic climate change contributed to extreme events. The most consistent influence has been on extreme heat, with some studies finding that the probability of the observed event has increased by 10 times or more.”

Met Eireann boasts many excellent scientists, who have of course undertaken and published plenty of high quality climate-related studies. The 2008 document, ‘Ireland in a Warmer World‘ for instance, runs to over 100 pages and features studies on climate and hydrology as well as storm surges in Ireland, with flooding mentioned on no fewer than 23 pages.

A more recent (2013) Met Eireann publication, ‘Ireland’s Climate – The Road Ahead’ includes a chapter, by Paul Nolan, Ray McGrath, Emily Gleeson and Conor Sweeney, entitled: ‘Impacts of climate change on Irish precipitation’. Its findings point to a sharp (>20%) increase in the frequency of ‘very wet days’ in winter. It adds: “Changes in the occurrence of extreme rainfall are particularly important because of the link with flooding”. However, these findings are based on modelling of expected changes by mid-century (2041-2060) and so offer no useful guidance on attribution for the severe hydrological events that are happening in the opening decades of this century.

In stark contrast, the UK Met Office is crystal clear on climate change attribution of the severe weather of the last number of years; ditto the WMO (of which Ireland has been a member since 1950) yet the cat seems to have got the collective tongues of our national meteorological service. It wasn’t always like this. In September 2011 forecaster Evelyn Cusack concluded a broadcast one evening by stating: “climate change is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of physics”.

In case nobody noticed, the historic Paris Agreement on climate change also happened this month. Oh, and 2015 is off the charts globally as the hottest year ever recorded, smashing through the +1C milestone, i.e. fully half way to irreversible climate chaos. As long as our professional meteorologists continue to engage in fence-sitting, the field remains open for spoofers and emeritus contrarians to fill the gap in the public discourse, hiding behind their ‘expert’ status to slyly misrepresent climate science and skew the crucial policy decisions that arise from it.

Dear Met Eireann: the tide has turned. The deniers are on the run. You hold a crucial public trust; there is no reason for you to be afraid or reluctant to speak up. After all, saying nothing also speaks volumes. Here’s a New Year’s resolution for 2016: Time to give it to us straight.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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6 Responses to Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence

  1. Eric Conroy says:

    Very good article John. Like you I’ve felt Met Eireann have pulled their punches on climate change. If the ordinary viewer in their sitting room was getting a decent read on climate change by the weather forecasters, we would have more views on it when politicians called looking for votes.

  2. Toby Joyce says:

    I suggest there is a clear reason for Fleming’s reticence – fear of public attack in the media.

    Like a good civil servant, he is covering himself until retirement.

    It is the second time in a decade that the moral cowardice of “public servants” has cost the country dearly.

  3. Logically says:

    I wasn’t sure about your above post, as I’d tend to give Met Eireann the benefit of the doubt, but when I read today’s Irish Examiner article online, am now inclined to see your point.
    http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/flooding-increase-in-frequency-and-intensity-of-severe-weather-says-met-eireann-375251.html

    They went to extraordinary lengths to avoid stating whether climate change could possibly have anything to do with our ever worsening weather. I appreciate it’s the job of professional scientists to be cautious, but this is beginning to look like something a bit more!

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Eric, thanks for your feedback. Like you, I believe Met Eireann are doing their job as they understand it, but I do strongly agree a credible organisation like them could be of great assistance in developing a more robust dialogue on climate change if they were prepared to be a little less, shall we say, diffident on this topic from time to time, and were prepared to say: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc…

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Toby, I understand your sentiment but wouldn’t agree with your choice of language. I think “moral cowardice” is a little too strong. Few scientists have either the training or temperament to put up with being vilified and slandered in public, and sadly, this has happened to anyone who, in the last decade or so, has gone public about climate change, as I know from first hand experience.

    It’s probably hard to blame folks in Met Eireann who just want to do their job that they start to subtly avoid mentioning the ‘C’ word, knowing from bitter past experience that it is sure to see them set upon by internet trolls, while receiving precious little support or cover from their political masters for speaking out on climate change.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Logically, yes, that article today isn’t very encouraging at all. Their statement: ‘climate must be assessed over decades before genuine trends can be identified, as opposed to natural variability’, assuming they have been accurately reported, is most unhelpful. Climate HAS been assessed over decades and clear trends HAVE been seen emerging from the noise of natural variability. If they don’t believe me, they should look up what the WMO has to say on climate attribution (the press release is actually available on the met.ie website

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