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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Whether it's weather or climate that matters

Yes, cold weather is just weather. But that's the point.

 

 

I have an op-ed in today's Times on the subject of whether the man-made climate signal is going to be visible against the weather noise. Here is the gist of it, with some links.

I have just cleared fresh snow in my back yard for the ninth day in a row. Powder lies 13 inches deep on my lawn: I probed it with a tape measure. Ten years ago David Viner, a climate scientist from (inevitably) the University of East Anglia, told us that within a few years winter snowfall would become `a very rare and exciting event' and that `children just aren't going to know what snow is'. My children have seen more snow in Northumberland in the past 11 months than I had before in any year of my life.

That's not a trend. It's not climate change. It's weather: just a cold snap. But that's the point: the climate is just not changing very fast. We have now had a third of a century of man-made warming. This was meant to be the fastest bit - the curve is logarithmic - and yes, it has warmed, but not even enough to make winter noticeably different from 1978, let alone cause catastrophe.

Last week saw the coldest 28thNovember Britain has ever experienced, and Wednesday was the coldest 1st December. By contrast we have not broken a heat record for a particular date since 10 May 2008. Yet, with weary predictability, in October the Met Office's shiny new £33m supercomputersaid there was a high probability of a warmer winter for the east of England and Scotland, just as it did last winter and the one before, with a `barbecue summer' in between. They should ask for their (or rather our) money back at PC World.

The climate `experts' sternly admonished anybody who even hinted that last winter's cold might not fit the global warming creed. `It is really stupid,' said Peter Inness of Reading University in January, `to say that the current cold weather proves that climate change is not happening.' Yet when somebody prays in aid the Pakistan floods, Hurricane Katrina, or the hot summer of 2003, you hear not a peep of complaint from the scientific establishment. When it is cold, it is just weather. When it is warm or stormy, it is `linked with climate change'.

Case in point: Oxfam's shiny new £40,000-a-year `climate change press officer' (I saw the adsaid this week that climate talks are urgent because `21,000 people died due to weather-related disasters in the first nine months of 2010 - more than twice the number for the whole of 2009'. This is blatant cherry-picking. Take less than one year's number, compare it with one other year's number and draw a trend? Seriously? Even though the events in question have - they admit - no proven connection with climate change, only with weather? And expect reporters to fall for it? (Oh: they did?)

You probably got the impression from the Oxfam press release that weather-related deaths are on the rise, maybe even at an all time high. Let us look at a longer trend to see if this is true. That figure of 21,000 weather-related deaths is lower than the annual average for the nine years 2000-2008: 35,000. It is also lower than the annual average in the decade before that: 33,000; or the decade before that: 66,000; or the decade before that: 54,000, or the decade before that: 168,000.

You get the gist. The average number of people dying each year in weather-related events has been going down ever since the 1920s, when it stood at a terrifying 485,000 a year. It is down by 93% since then, or 98% as a proportion of the population. (In the decade 1910-1919, the average yearly death rate was supposedly about as low as 2010 - but one suspects statisticians had man-made disasters on their minds then.)

I owe these numbers to a forthcoming paper from theInternational Policy Network written by a scholar called Indur Goklany, who collated them from the EM-DAT International Disaster Database maintained by the Université Catholique de Louvain - a database that, if anything, understates older death rates. Goklany finds that, even so, compared with the 1920s, deaths from drought are down by 99.97%, and compared with the 1930s deaths from floods are down by 98.7%. This puts Oxfam's trick into perspective, does it not? The risk the average human being runs of dying because of weather is just 2% of what it was 90 years ago.

The reason for the huge fall in the death rate from weather over the past century is not that the weather has changed but that the human world has changed. Better transport now enables supplies to reach people affected by droughts, better housing enables people to survive storms and better communication enables people to escape floods.

When a cyclone hit impoverished and despotic Burma in 2008, it killed 200,000 people, whereas an equally strong one in middle-income Mexico the year before killed nobody. In the same way, this week's snowstorms would have killed thousands of rural vagrants before the eighteenth century, and starved thousands of peasants when their cattle died. Economic development is what helps human society to adapt to weather and is what will help it to adapt to climate too.