‘Rio de Janeiro is a city in South America. It is the capital of Brazil. It exports coffee and sugar. It has a tropical climate’, so wrote the first form Richard in his Geography exercise book more than sixty years ago.
He continued: ‘In February there is a carnival, in which women wearing hardly any clothes dance in the streets’.
Of course, he wisely didn’t write that bit down. He just thought it, whilst reflecting on the contrast with the hardy girls of Yorkshire, a place with a climate that was best described as fifty shades of parky, one where girls wore stout flannel knickers, woollen leggings, four layers of woolly undergarments and buttoned up cardies (two). ‘Cast ne’er a clout ’til May is out’. There was a brief window of opportunity for a curious young lad on a few days in ‘flaming June’, but that was it.
Whether Rio or Yorkshire, my twelve year-old self was using the term ‘climate’ quite precisely, though I can’t imagine that I ever looked the word ‘climate’ up in a dictionary. Why would I? – everyone knew what a climate was. In church we sang of the ‘city of God’, whose people were ‘of every age [time] and clime [place]’.
Some harmless drudges
Had I looked it up, what would my schoolboy’s Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1947) have told me?
clim’ate, n. Place’s weather characteristics; region of certain c.
A pretty good definition in seven words, with the three most important being ‘place/region’ and ‘weather’.
Twenty-three years on, the third edition of the two volume Shorter OED (1980) takes more space to say essentially the same thing:
Climate, sb. [etymology omitted] [archaisms omitted] 2. A region considered with reference to its atmospheric conditions, or to its weather 1601. 3. Condition (of a region or country) in relation to prevailing atmospheric phenomena, as temperature, humidity, etc., esp. as these affect animal or vegetable life 1611. […]
Definitions 2 and 3 certainly correspond exactly with my twelve year-old’s understanding of the word. Just as in my Pocket OD, the key words are ‘region’ and ‘weather’.
Let’s look at the American definitions in my Webster’s ninth new collegiate dictionary of 1983:
cli·mate [etymology omitted] 1: a region of the earth having specified climatic conditions 2a: the average course or condition of the weather at a place over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity and precipitation […]
Webster’s has inserted ‘average course’ and ‘period of years’ and dolled up the layman’s word ‘weather’, but ‘region’ and ‘place’ are key. After removing the pomposity, the import of definition 2a is essentially the same as that of the Pocket OD and Shorter OED.
For the avoidance of all doubt, let’s look at a definition in German, in the Duden Deutsches Universalwörterbuch (1989):
Kli|ma, das; -s, -s u. (Fachspr.:) [etymology omitted] l.a) (Met.) für ein bestimmtes geographisches Gebiet typischer jährlicher Ablauf der Witterung: ein mildes, rauhes K.[…].
Even those doomsday neurotics the Germans had the same view of climate as the English definitions we have seen so far. Note in particular ein bestimmtes geographisches Gebiet, ‘a specific geographical area’ and, avoiding the clumsy word ‘average’ used in Webster’s, note the precision of typischer jährlicher Ablauf der Witterung, ‘typical annual sequence of the weather’ – nearly as good as the OED’s ‘prevailing’. The environmental hysteria of the time in the German-speaking world was focussed on acid rain and Waldsterben, the dying of the forests.
I’ll spare you the French and the Italian versions from this period – they are in all respects the same: ‘climate’ being a pattern of weather at a certain place.
The climatologists take over
Returning to English but staying around the same period, let’s look at the entry for ‘climate’ in Pears Cyclopaedia, 96th edition, 1987-88. The entry relies on and paraphrases the work of Hubert Horace Lamb, the doyen of British climatologists, who later founded the Climatic Research Unit.
Climate has been defined by Professor H. H. Lamb as the total experience of the weather at any place over some specific period of time. […] Latitude introduces zones of climate, e.g., tropical rain, subtropical steppe and desert, temperate rain and polar.
So far so good – although not as good as the professional lexicographers it has to be said, who would certainly not write waffle such as ‘total experience’ or ‘at any place’ or even ‘some specific period of time’. Lamb was always a bit shaky with language: what a Climatic Research Unit is I still have no idea.
However, something quite odd now slips into the text: an undefined concept of ‘the climate’ which violates even Lamb’s own initial soggy definition by removing the limitation of a specific place and by speaking of ‘the climate’ as though there were only one diachronic global climate:
The climate is always changing in greater or less [sic] degree. Every year, every decade, every century brings a somewhat different experience. The tendency between 1880 and 1940 for most parts of the world to become warmer has eased off and appears to have given way to a more prolonged cooling tendency.
Lamb, or whoever started this diachronic viewpoint of weather changes, should have chosen a new word, instead of defiling a word with a clear centuries-old meaning that even a twelve year-old can understand.
Lacking the lexicographer’s precision with language, Lamb slithered from ‘place’, via ‘latitude’ and eventually arrived at ‘world’ as the spatial scope of the new climate. When Lamb tells us that ‘the climate is always changing’, we can only wonder which climate he means by ‘the climate’.
By the advent of the new millennium, in the scientific community the diachronic viewpoint had overwhelmed the traditional spatial viewpoint. In 2003, the glossary of the American Meteorological Society – that nest of hysterical warmists, no ‘cooling tendency’ discernable here – now defined climate as
The slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere–hydrosphere–land surface system. It is typically characterized in terms of suitable averages of the climate system over periods of a month or more, taking into consideration the variability in time of these averaged quantities.
Which, when untangled, is an entirely diachronic definition, without place or region. The meaning of the word ‘climate’, generally understood for at least four centuries, has been obliterated. I don’t know what my twelve year-old self would have made of ‘suitable averages’ or ‘averaged quantities’ – we are a long way from my intuitive conception of climate with the loose-limbed ladies of Rio.
An average – and even more so, an average of averages – is just the non-real result of a mathematical procedure on a list of numbers. A cricketer with a batting average of 29 over the season probably never actually hit a score of 29 at all. Reordering the sequence of scores will still yield 29; a very large number of lists of different scores can exist which will also yield an average of 29. One might try to argue that someone with a batting average of 50 is a better batsman, but here the average is not conclusive – only a comparison of the lists – that is, the real-world scores – will allow you to draw such an inference securely.
To treat an average as a reality is to commit the intellectual sin of reification, that is, treating an abstraction as a thing. Mathematicians, understanding the limitations of averages, numbers without real meaning, are rather embarrassed by them; climatologists love them.
Despite the techno-babble from the AMS, the lexicographers have not changed their understanding. If we sample the modern online English dictionaries – Random House (2023), Collins (2012), even The American Heritage Science Dictionary (2011) – all take the traditional lexicographer’s view of climate as applying to a specific region; ditto in French, where Larousse, Littré and even the Académie Française stick with the same tradition; in German, the entry in the current Duden is identical to that of 1989.
The global climate fantasy
The traditional, region-specific definition of climate requires some degree of homogeneity of the weather within the climate’s boundaries. There will be no suburb of Rio called Wuthering Heights; a monsoon in the Sahara would be a surprise.
But if Lamb and the AMS et al. mean some putative climate of the planet, we have to ask where then this climate-defining homogeneity of weather conditions is, that we can measure +40°C in the Sahara and -40°C in Antarctica at exactly the same moment; that at the same moment some places are having a monsoon and others haven’t seen rain for perhaps twenty years; that in February the ladies of Rio don’t wrap up the way the lasses of Yorkshire do, bless ’em. Can we even speak of a global climate – let alone assert that is is warming or cooling? Perhaps we just need to do enough averaging of averages of averages.
No. The idea of a global climate – ‘the climate’ – is absurd. As we have seen, from the word climate’s earliest recorded occurrence in English four centuries ago, the principal characteristic of a climate is that it refers to an integral area with to some degree homogeneous ‘prevailing’ weather patterns.
How much more absurd, therefore, is the term ‘climate change’ – it simply makes no sense.
Too many otherwise sensible people, people who don’t subscribe to the alarmist concept of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, as it used to be called, when accused of ‘denying climate change’ rush to accept that ‘the climate is changing’ or ‘has always changed’, thus making themselves party to the nonsense of a ‘global climate’ a.k.a ‘the climate’.
There is only one intellectually respectable answer possible to this accusation: ‘I have no idea what you mean – to which climate are you referring?’, or a variant thereof. The fastidious minds of the lexicographers have baulked at this aberrant and ultimately nonsensical usage of the word climate, as you should, too.
Diachronic environmental change
No one can dispute that, in the history of the earth’s biosphere, changes in environmental conditions at global and regional scales have taken place, some gradually over centuries, some relatively abrupt. Establishing the study of these diachronic changes became Lamb’s life’s work.
But the mechanisms and processes in the thin skin of air and water which envelopes our planet are complex beyond our current understanding. Lamb at first thought the modern earth was cooling. His successors think it is warming, some think dangerously so.
Despite the extremely expensive explosion of ‘climatological’ research in the last half century, it is fair to say that we still do not understand with any certainty the mechanisms and interactions that have caused most of these changes, some of which have been dramatic enough to have left their trace in the geological record.
The last ice age, which reached its maximum extent 24,000 years ago, put a thick cap of ice over large parts of Europe. The place where I am writing this was 1.2 km under the ice. It is difficult to imagine such a thickness of ice overhead, but if I look across the valley at the majestic mountains opposite, at the height of the last ice age their peaks were mere rocky outcrops sticking up just a few tens of metres above the surface of that sea of ice. We know this without needing the help of the often dubious paleoclimate proxies that have been produced in recent years.
We have some plausible hypotheses that explain the recurring ice ages, but our understanding is not deep enough to allow us to predict with any certainty when our current interglacial will end and the next ice age will arrive.
For more recent changes we have plenty of anecdotal evidence. In Switzerland, in November 1779, around the middle of the Little Ice Age as we now call it, Wolfgang Goethe and his patron, Duke Carl August, trudged from Brig in Valais over the Furka Pass through waist-deep snow and then onto the summit of the Gotthard Pass. Their sturdy local guides often had to trample a track into the snow that the weary and floundering gentlemen from Germany could use. That amount of snow in November would be considered unusual now, in our warming world.
En route that year they visited the termination of the Rhône glacier. Today it has retreated markedly, to the horror of Swiss warmists and the Swiss tourist industry. The glacier is gradually getting back to where it was in Hannibal’s time, that other alp crosser.
But despite all the expensive research since Lamb dropped the pebble that woke the Balrog of historical climatology, no one has any credible idea of why the prevailing weather in Europe was warm for Hannibal, cold for Goethe and is now warming again. No one.
In comparison, the climate of a region – its dominant weather patterns – is generally well understood.
Even the twelve year-old me understood that the prevailing westerlies, loaded with wetness from the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, swept in and dumped much of their excess moisture on Lancashire and then, their clouds slightly wrung out crossing the Pennine chain, swept across Yorkshire.
In Lancashire the humidity was beneficial to the spinning and weaving of cotton; in Yorkshire, hardy sheep with thick fleeces thrived on the drier uplands and a flourishing wool trade grew up. The Yorkshire girls wore thick woollies. The winds are still there, some of the sheep, too, but the cotton and wool trades are now a distant memory. Not climate, economics.
Bring back ‘global warming’ and ‘global cooling’ – at least those terms were honest.
Richard Law is a retired web engineer living in Switzerland.
1Fussy grammarians should note that the 96th edition is one of the many 20th century editions which discarded the apostrophe after the final ‘s’. The cyclopaedia was created by a soap manufacturer, Pears, which combined an educational and cultural mission with brilliant marketing. The inventor of the soap was a man called Andrew Pears. In the early years of the soap and the cyclopaedia his name was treated as a possessive, hence the apostrophe.
2I am citing the Pears Cyclopaedia paraphrase or quotation from 1987, which is referring to the first, 1982 edition of Lamb’s magnum opus Climate, History and the Modern World. I have only the second, 1995 edition to hand, in which the erratic and ungrammatical formulation ‘the climate is always changing to a greater or less degree’ is used on p. 3. The second edition uses the term ‘the climate’ without localisation very frequently, but omits the speculation about a ‘cooling tendency’. The word ‘tendency’ is another of Lamb’s language idiosyncracies, haplessly invoking volition or bias when he means simply ‘trend’ or ‘progression’.
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