Met Office Chief John Hirst: Ignoring his own scientists – promoting alarmism

Posted: October 7, 2012 by tallbloke in climate, Clouds, Forecasting, government, Incompetence, Philosophy, Politics, Solar physics

Yesterday I attended the annual alumni lecture at the  University of  Leeds, where I work, and studied for my degree in the history and philosophy of science. Last years alumni lecture was given by Kenton Cool, the himalayan mountaineer and guide, who told us how he summited Everest twice in a week, great lecture and fabulous images. This year, the lecture was delivered by alumnus John Hirst, the CEO of the MET Office. His talk was entitled: Separating Climate Science and Politics.

With a title like that I thought it was going to be a pretty interesting lecture. Having just spent three days down at Chicheley Hall at the Royal Society meeting on handling problems in weather and climate prediction, I thought maybe John Hirst was going to tell us how ‘global warming’ had been overly hyped by political influence, and that it was time to return to properly organised science decoupled from the politics of the Green Agenda, and the money juggling behind the Carbon Market.

Not a bit of it.

Instead, after John Hirst introduced the MET Office as the world leading meteorological agency, and showing us some nice graphics of how well the latest high resolution weather models are almost getting it right for the 24 hour forecast, he regaled us with 40 minutes of the same old Al Gore/ James Hansen inspired drivel about the correlation between co2 and temperature over the ice age cycles and how natural variation couldn’t explain the rise in temperature over the last few decades. He even showed an IPCC graphic projecting a rise in temperature of 3 to 4C by 2100.

But I’ll hand it to Hirst, he is a smart propagandist. Rather than delivering a Gore style hellfire and damnation speech, he started by cracking a couple of jokes about how we looked less scary than the audience of A level students he had last addressed, breaking the ice and getting audience empathy. He assured us he’s not a scientist , and that he had learned what he knew from the Met Office during his years of tenure (he was appointed by the MET Office chairman Robert Napier, head of WWF UK from 1998-2006). It was obvious to me he had been briefed by Napier and strongly pro-CAGW people from the climate science side of the MET Office, such as Vicky Pope and Julia Slingo.

He gave the impression he was just there to deliver the facts, and that it was up to us whether to take ‘the science’ seriously, or whether to be influenced by ‘vested interests’ and ‘American Christians who believe God ordains the climate’. Towards the end of the lecture, he commented that according to one poll, only 25% of the UK population believed that global warming was man made, and asked for a show of hands on how many believed ‘the science’ he had presented. I was sat near the front (ready to pounce) and had to look round to see what sort of proportion of the 350 strong audience raised their arms. It was about 80%, a fitting testament to this man’s ability to use biased rhetoric to pull the wool over the eyes of the intelligentsia. That’s why he gets paid more than the Prime Minister.

The Q&A at the end was cut short after one audience member asked why we were still producing as many cars as ever if the situation was really as serious as John Hirst had told us it was, but the convenor had said Mr Hirst could be approached at the end of the meeting for discussion, so I moved down to the front and waited my turn, along with a few others who had questions for him. My first point to him was that the plot he had shown with an error range around natural variation with an upper bound which was below current temperatures was hopelessly over optimistic, because of uncertainty over the solar contribution, among others like cloud variation. He sidestepped this by telling me that ‘the science’ says that uncertainty was contained within the error range on the graph. I assured him it wasn’t, pointing out that the uncertainty over solar/cloud was such that depending on possible numbers within the true range of uncertainty could make the difference between the Sun being responsible for very little of the observed climate change, to all of it.  Then I gave way to Susan, who tackled him on the issue of the Gore graph of co2/temperature over glacial/interglacial cycles. He said he had covered the fact that temperature leads co2 in the lecture. he had done this in a very glib way, amongst a narrative which implied the opposite, and this is what gave him away. he is not a hapless accountant innocently regurgitating the pap fed to him by the alarmists within the MET Office, but an erudite and persuasive propagandist for climate alarmism.

Susan asked him if it was appropriate for the ex president of an advocacy group to have been chairman of the MET Office. John Hirst prevaricated, saying that Napier had been in a non-executive position and that he didn’t influence ‘the science’. Ian pointed out that football club chairmen were also supposed to be ‘hands-off’ but that in reality, they influence the tenor and direction of the club. John Hirst denied this. Clive Best had travelled from Huntingdon for the lecture, and asked Hirst how reasonable he thought it was for the UK to commit economic suicide with the climate change act while China built new coal fired stations weekly. Hirst claimed the Chinese had told him they were preparing for a 4c rise in temperature!

I rounded off our discussion by pointing out that I had spent the last three days at a Royal Society conference on handling problems with uncertainty in weather and climate prediction, and that the MET Office scientists in attendance had been a lot less gung-ho than he had been about long term climate change beyond the abilities of the models to calculate probabilities and impacts. I told him he had therefore wrongly presented vague possibilities as ‘the science’ in his lecture. At this point he realised he had been skewered, threw his hands in the air and said:

OK, I give up.

At this point we let the hapless Mr Hirst off the hook and headed for lunch, where I enjoyed much merriment and fine conversation with Clive, Susan and Ian. Poor old accountant John didn’t really stand much of a chance against a nuclear physicist, a glaciologist, a sociologist and a philosopher of science. 🙂

Left to right: Ian Laidlaw Susan E and Clive Best joined me for a pleasant lunch and discussion.

It’ll take some time to go through the mp3 recording I made of the lecture and write a full rebuttal, but it’ll be worth the effort, because when I arrived, I was given a list of all those attending, and I’ll be sending each and every one of those I can find contact details for (most of them) a copy of the document I’ll be writing. I’ll be sending John Hirst a copy too, and offering him the right of reply to include in the circular. Perhaps one day, the MET Office will do the same for us.

  1. TB. Brilliant. Well done. By the sound of it, it was a skewer job achieved with great restraint and politeness.

    I can’t wait to hear the mp3 and read your rebuttal. It’s a great opportunity to send all the people on that mailing list non-inflammatory, calm, and thoughtful communications. So please restrict the list but not just to yourself!

  2. tallbloke says:

    David, I wish I’d nailed it while the full audience was there, but heckling in the university where you work is not really the way to go. 🙂

    Another of the misleading pieces of rhetoric used was when Hirst told the audience that the global warming they hadn’t experienced in the winter of 2010 was displaced elsewhere in the world. I should have got a shot of the graphic he used. Most of the world was cooler, but showed lots of blood red over Greenland and the Arctic.

    Of course, the world map was on the Mercator projection which makes the polar area look huge compared to its actual size…

    I’ll be posting the rebuttal here after Hirst has responded, if he chooses to. I doubt he will, but you never know.

  3. TB, As you might expect, I take particular exception to John Hirst’s ‘warming chart’, carefully constructed to start in 1960, right at the very trough of what is almost certainly part of a perfectly natural ~67 year oscillatory cycle. Anybody in any doubt should take a look at the full 160 year instrumental record here:

    The irony is, the temperature data used in this chart is the Met Office’s own – from the Hadley Centre no less.

  4. Nick says:

    I think his ‘I give up’ was a polite sign he had lost interest. Seriously,is he going to argue with you about your assessment of the views of people at a conference he didn’t attend?

  5. tallbloke says:

    Hi Nick.
    ” a polite sign he had lost interest”

    No, he was just ducking the issue same as he did with all the other points raised.

    The key point at issue is that if uncertainty in your model is unquantified, then you are not able to make probabilistic estimates from the model runs, no matter how many are included in the ensemble. The MET’s own scientists know this, but that doesn’t stop propagandists like Hirst trying to deceive the public with overly confident statements about ‘the science’. Hirst didn’t need to be at the conference to know this simple truth about probability, but either he won’t own it, doesn’t understand it, hasn’t been made aware of it by his advisors, or just wanted to escape from the hard questions to go and eat his expensive alumni dinner.

    The truth is, a trade off in deterministic models is always made between gridcell size and the truncation of resolution of the Navier-Stokes equation. Not that the Navier Stokes equation is capable of resolving chaotic free convection in the troposphere anyway, but Kelvin-Helmholz is well beyond computation on this scale even in principle so far as I can tell. The ~2km grid the Met uses for UK forecasts is limited to a slice of the north Atlantic and Western Europe for the reason that the very expensive MET supercomputer can’t handle a bigger area. It works reasonably well for 5 day forecasts. 50 year forecasts are not on the menu. In any case all sorts of other more fundamental uncertainties come into play at such a timescale.

    Which is why the IPCC discusses ‘scenarios’ instead. These are possibilities, not probabilities, just as I told Hirst. He was telling the audience that ‘essentially’ the same model that gets the 24 hour forecast nearly right sometimes is used for the long term climate work. While half true in one sense, the statement is fundamentally misleading in others.

    By the way, some of those from the modelling community at the conference were expressing a desire to ‘decouple their schedule from the IPCC report agenda’.

  6. All of our institutions have been suborned by the incompetent climate consensus. All of the people in those institutions — including Mr. Hirst, in this case — have been so suborned. This episode was just another in a generations-long series of “teaching moments” when the truth of my first sentence here is brought, increasingly poignantly, home to you all. The supporters of Immanuel Velikovsky went through many such moments, between 1950 and 1980; Intelligent Design enthusiasts likewise, in the last 2 decades. One can point to serious past and present critics, of many individual modern theories which are no longer allowed to be questioned. The hubris of modern scientists is driving — increasingly quickly — toward a violent revolution, when all the unsupported hypotheses and speculations hit the fan (probably all at once, and once and for all). The only thing you can be sure of is that you are behind on the learning curve (but far ahead of those who refuse to even consider the possibility).

  7. u.k.(us) says:

    Well done !

  8. tallbloke says:

    Hi Harry.
    My viewpoint is that uncertainty exists in all the scenarios for explaining ‘global warming’, including my own. So rather than tell other people they are wrong, or ‘behind the curve’, I prefer to encourage them to face the true depth of the uncertainty, and to be less dismissive of other possibilities.

    For a young and inexperienced science like climate science to be so set in a paradigm so early in its career is a sign of the dogmatic and intolerant times we live in. However, there is light in the tunnel, as some of the scientists working at the coal face of knowledge seem to be readier than their paymasters to entertain the possibility that there are indeed other possibilities. That was my take home impression from the Royal Society meeting anyway.

  9. Roger, being somewhat removed from academia, I tend to miss such events and I expect there are others that find similar. As an idea, could the Talkshop host an event diary and possibly a forum in which interested parties can network around such events? Maybe there is such a website already but I don’t know of it. What do you think?

    Sounds like you guys did a grand job on Hirst. Maybe it will make him think? Somehow I doubt it though.

  10. tallbloke says:

    Hi Jonathan, I did actually advertise this one upfront here

    But I take your point. If you see any events worth the mention, drop them on the suggestions page for now, and I’ll set up an events diary soon.

  11. Thanks Roger. I obviously missed that posting. If I hear of any I’ll let you know.

  12. Clive Best says:

    It is only natural that the chief of the Met Office John Hirst backs up his in-house scientific advice. He is a decent and able manager – hats off to him for that. It was interesting though to see how that same in-house scientific advice is adapting itself to the slowdown in warming (see second photo). Scary figures of 4-5 degrees warming by 21000 are subtly being downgraded to be compatible with the data.

    I was more interested in the politics. How could an economist justify the 2008 climate change act committing the UK to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 80% by 2050, while simultaneously China alone annually increase in CO2 emissions was more than all of UK emissions in 2006 ? He was of course very diplomatic but recounted how that China’s Met Office had already accepted IPCC’s scary 4 degree rise in global temperatures this century but were planning simply instead to adapt their agriculture accordingly. With the UK in recession, fuel bills soaring, an increasing threat of power cuts as coal power stations close, while we continue to chase rainbows imagining that UK CO2 cuts alone can have any effect – can we perhaps now rethink this please ?

    Eventually fossil fuels must run out and this is the main reason in itself to research new forms of energy both sustainable and nuclear. Global warming due to increasing CO2 levels is a real phenomena, but is still imperceptible within a single lifespan. It is IMHO far less likely to be a long term threat to mankind than than the next Ice Age will be. I suspect we still have plenty of time to analyse and assess exactly how the climate reacts to a doubling of CO2 rather than rely on a computer simulation. Is it really worth damaging industrialized Western economies through transient green political posturing to win (or lose) votes ?

  13. suricat says:

    I’m ‘gobsmacked’ TB! Why bother to attend a lecture about climate delivered by a civil-servant?

    Scoring personal points against John Hirst is all well and good, but did you alter his ‘policy’ on science? Would it make a difference (these questions are rhetorical)?

    Best regards, Ray.

  14. suricat says:

    Clive Best says: October 7, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Just saw your post Clive, and I completely concur. 🙂

    Best regards, Ray.

  15. tallbloke says:

    Wise and well tempered words from Clive, and I hear Ray’s admonition too. I guess I just object to overly hyped science being peddled in the lecture theatre where I used to attend lectures by real scientists. Mind you, John Hirst isn’t the first to make grandiose claims there. I well remember the Astronomer Royale telling us that all the cosmology was sorted out, and they were just mopping up the details. I started laughing, which didn’t please him, and I got a dig in the ribs of my philosophy of science prof, who asked me not to laugh at the poor astronomer who was simply doing his job as positivist in chief. That was in 1985.

    I’m still waiting for the mopping up to happen…
    I’m still waiting for greenhouse too. 🙂

  16. hro001 says:

    With any luck, this may be Hirst’s last (WWF Napier inspired?!) hurrah. There was an announcement a few months ago that, effective Sept. 1/2012, Napier was to be succeeded by Greg Clarke. If Clarke’s bio includes such advocacy-tainted prior affiliations they have been well-hidden.

    New Met Office chair appointed

    But that aside, well done, Roger 🙂

  17. tallbloke says:

    Thanks Hilary,
    This was a group effort, we surrounded the hapless Hirst. 🙂
    He not just a mouthpiece for Napier though. There is a culture of over extended science in the climate change division of the MET. The MET O Scientists who attended the Royal Society conference were from the weather forecasting division mostly. People like Julia Slingo and Vicky Pope were conspicuous by their absence. They don’t want to know about ‘problems in handling uncertainty in weather and climate prediction’.

  18. Jerry Ravetz says:

    Maybe we will after all be selling the film rights to ‘Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy’. See you soon – Jerry

  19. Michael Hart says:

    “He assured us he’s not a scientist…”
    …and I can probably assure him that he’s not a scientist.

    Sometimes, I really don’t know whether to laugh or weep when somebody starts with that phrase, and then proceeds to reel off a global-warming speech that is wayyyyy behind-the-curve. On this occasion, some swear words came into my thoughts first, but I’d probably regret it later even if TB allowed.

    If you went to the dentist and the man holding the drill assured you that “he wasn’t a dentist” what would you think? Would you lie back, think of England, and let him get on with it?

  20. tallbloke says:

    heh, hi Jerry. Well, safe pair of hands here, you know. 😉
    See you soon.

  21. Guy Leech says:

    RE Suricat’s albeit rhetorical comment about not bothering to challenge a civil servant advocating CAGW, yes, of course it is. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and if civil servants in DECC, the Met Office etc. actually read Roger’s website and other scientifically literate and enquiring sites, they might find the tools with which to build an escape route from their mad, group think world.

  22. tallbloke says:

    Guy, that’s very kind. I want to move forward with a position both sides can live with while nature performs the crucial experiment for us. I believe I’ve found the right way to go about it.
    Here is a plot showing a simple model which accounts for the rise in SST since 1850 using only solar, atlantic and southern oscillation data:

    However, the solar component is towards the top end of Nir Shaviv’s range of terrestrial amplification to do this if we use a lower estimate of increase in TSI over the C20th. So I’m going to produce another plot which will put the Solar component in the middle of the range of estimate, and add in a co2 component. We will then see what sensitivity that implies.

  23. TB: My instinct is to ignore those who say you may be being a tad too harsh on John Hirst because he is ‘only’ a civil servant, or because he is ‘kind to children and young animals’, or whatever similar guff people dream up in an attempt to obfuscate the issue and take the gloss off your crisp, clear and important post.

    The point is John Hirst is head of an organisation that is promoting global warming alarmism. Therefore he should be able to take criticism on the chin and react to it responsibly.

    In fact the best way forward may be to target, very politely but relentlessly, the Hirsts of this world. They are the ‘apparatchiks’ who must take the can in the end for the misdeeds of their organisations. Therefore they should be the most sensitive to any chinks they are forced to acknowledge in their armoury.

    I think there are three main lines of attack on people such as Hirst, intelligent non-scientists in positions of great power. And the same strategy is equally applicable to politicians:

    1. Challenge them to disagree (with reference to the Met Office’s own instrumental temperature records since 1850) that the average rise in world temperature has been only 0.6degC in 161 years – equivalent to an average rise of 0.41degC per century.

    2. Challenge them to disagree that the rise in temperature that took place between 1970 and 2000 (after which it ended and is currently turning down) is entirely natural, demonstrably un-alarming, and almost certainly part of a well known ~67 year ocean temperature oscillation.

    If they disagree on item 1 then they are incapable of understanding a simple graphical representation of their own data and there is no hope.

    If they disagree on 2 then the onus is on them to justify their claim that the rise in temperature between 1970 and 2000 is unnatural and not part of a natural climate oscillation. Their only defence is that climate models show that this upswing is due to man-produced additional CO2.

    But the climate models on which they depend for their argument are tuned to the ASSUMPTION that the upswing is due to CO2. So naturally the models all exhibit it. If they did not they would have been rejected as bad models long ago and would not have seen the light of day.

    This is the entire basis of their flimsy circular argument. It is not science, it is unscientific nonsense.

  24. tallbloke says:

    Thanks David. Now that is a crisp clear argument.

    When you look at the separated out time series underlying my plot, it’s pretty clear that the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and ENSO are responsible for much of the late C20th warming.

    Hirst never even mentioned these large and important natural variations in his lecture. The Charlatan. Of course, he will counter that in a 40 minute talk it’s not possible to mention everything.

    All the more rerason to be balanced in what you do mention IMO.

  25. Paul Vaughan says:

    TB, something to flash on all met office screens …

    Multidecadal Solar-Terrestrial-Climate Waves …
    Solar Cycle Length/Frequency, Terrestrial Geomagnetic Field Jerks, Antarctic Ice Specific Mass, Northern Hemisphere Sea Surface Temperature (SST), Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temperature (SST), & 0.18 Degrees Celsius (°C) / Century:


    Sounds like maybe it’s time for them to WAKE UP (!) over there.

  26. […] is no pause. It is essentially this data that the head of the UK Met Office, John Hirst, used in a recent lecture. Global warming is taking place at precisely the rate […]

  27. […] Andrew Shepherd’s talk was far more interesting. It was Andrew Shepherd who introduced John Hirst at his Alumni lecture a few weeks ago. He launched into the science of ice sheets and sea level, mentioning in passing […]

  28. edwin says:

    Good work Tallbloke,
    I took the met office weather reading since the 19th century and spent a day entering the numbers in the microsoft office and made a line chart out of the date and it showed a straight line across the chart.
    I am so pissed of with this sh-t the Fascist/Communist amongst us are doing to us, or children are really suffering because these reckless criminals are making it so expensive to live and the poor amongst us me included are living day to day and building up debt to buy this poison they call food.
    I am not a happy camper, but I thank you for your work on exposing these lies there pushing on us.

    Edwin Dodd(

    [Reply] Damn right Edwin. But don’t worry, there’s an easy way to take their climate policy and shove it right where it’ll make their eyes water at the next election.