• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

It’s 15 below zero as weathermen go witch-hunting

A dramatic sounding voiceover informs us that David Shukman, who is the BBC’s environment and science correspondent, will report “on how one of the longest cold snaps for a generation fits in with theories of a warming planet and global climate change”.

Adopting a solemn tone that hints at catastrophes to come, Shukman announces that it is minus 15C in the Pennines and five cars are stranded before stating, “No wonder many are asking, `What about global warming?’ “

Just in case the cold temperature encourages the British public to assume a degree of scepticism towards climate change alarmism, Shukman reassuringly informs us that the big freeze is not inconsistent with theories of global warming. A swift cut to a chap from Kew Gardens who insists that “snowdrops are already blooming” . Apparently flowering is starting much earlier than previously, which must mean that the world is getting very, very warm.

Concern that the present episode of cold weather might encourage public scepticism towards apocalyptic climate change scenarios is not confined to the BBC.

“Britain’s cold snap does not prove climate science wrong,” argue two climate alarmist journalists in The Guardian.

Leo Hickman and George Monbiot helpfully inform their readers that “weather is not the same as climate and single events are not the same as trends”.

They are, of course, absolutely right, but rather selective in the way they minimise the significance of a single weather event. A few years ago when the temperature was relatively high and there was little rainfall across southeast England, weather forecasters and campaigning journalists ignored the distinction between climate and weather and insisted it was all a symptom of global warming. Indeed, an unexpected rise in temperature is presented as yet more evidence of the disaster to come.

Just in case you are a complacent sceptic, Hickman and Monbiot seize on an announcement made by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology that claims that the past 10 years are officially the hottest since records began. Apparently a rise in temperature in Australia may have direct significance for making sense of harsh wintry conditions in Britain. They speculate that the cold of the north and the warmth of the south “could be related”. It could be, and no doubt their alarmist imagination will have no problems in linking the two as different forms of extreme weather.

The term extreme weather speaks for itself and has become the new normal. “Extreme weather on the rise,” warns the website of the Australian Weather Channel. It communicates a sense of helplessness: “But our emergency response teams are under stress” so “who is going to help you”? This is a rhetorical question.

Extreme weather is not so much a scientific as a cultural metaphor that expresses the anxieties of our time. The conceptual linkage of weather with extreme symbolises a growing tendency to endow natural phenomena with moral meaning.

We can no longer accept that sometimes harsh climatic conditions just happen. As in ancient

times when superstition reigned, we interpret bad weather as a symptom of divine displeasure.

Today unexpected weather conditions are blamed on the impact of human beings on the environment. In medieval times unusual climatic episodes were seen as the handiwork of wicked demonic forces. Witchcraft was used to account for virtually every misfortune and unpleasant act. It was the climatic change brought by the so-called Little Ice Age in the 16th century that led to a resurgence of witch-hunting in Europe. From 1380 onwards, accusations of magic and weather-making increased dramatically in inquisitorial trials.

The resurgence of witch-hunting in the late 16th century was influenced by the belief that witches possessed demonic powers that could manipulate the climate in order to undermine the welfare and health of the communities in which they lived.

Throughout history people have sought to blame unusual climatic conditions on demonic forces. What the association of witchcraft with weather-making accomplished was to mobilise people’s fears against the evil forces of heretics and non-believers. Scaremongering about witchcraft promoted the idea that its demonic powers could literally dominate nature. Father Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit critic of witch-hunting, noted sarcastically that “God and nature no longer do anything; witches, everything”. But such beliefs were no joke. A late winter in the province of Treves in the 15th century led to more than 100 people being burned at the stake.

Since burning witches leaves a big carbon footprint, we are likely to find more environmentally friendly ways of punishing those who transgress society’s confusing moral boundaries.

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