Mitch, That Sun of a Gun

The Clinton administration has developed a nasty habit of using personal tragedy to further its global warming agenda. From the snowmelt-caused Red River flood last year, to Florida’s fires this summer (which blazed because there was too much vegetation), to Hurricane Mitch, if there’s any possible way to conflate human suffering with global warming, the administration will do so.

Administration antics on Mitch, a real son of a gun when it came to flooding rain, began during the recent Buenos Aires conference on global warming. There, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, J. Brian Atwood, told CBS News that Hurricane Mitch, which killed an estimated 10,000 Central Americans, was a “classic greenhouse effect.” One hopes that Mr. Atwood actually knows better and is merely engaging in White House huckstering.

In 1974 Hurricane Fifi killed the same proportion of the (then smaller) population of Honduras. In 1971 Hurricane Edith plowed into the northwestern tip of Honduras at Cabo Gracias a Dios as a Category 5 blaster. In 1955 Hurricane Janet, another Category 5 storm, had hit a couple of hundred miles to the south of where Edith landed. Only two storms of that magnitude have ever hit the United States. Flooding is another recurring phenomenon. In 1979 Tropical Storm Claudette produced five feet of rain in Texas — just like Mitch in Honduras — but killed about 10,000 fewer people.

Certainly Atwood’s staffers could have apprised him of the refereed scientific literature on global warming and hurricanes. It contains two speculative papers saying that hurricanes may get worse and an overwhelming number of others proving that notion wrong. In addition, hurricane observations in warm years and during planetary warming argue more for the opposite — weaker storms.

If there’s any possible way to conflate human suffering with global warming, the Clinton administration will do so.

The first paper, published in 1987 in Nature by Kerry Emanuel, speculated that under unrealistic, physically impossible conditions, global warming would increase the strength of hurricanes. While that paper generated a lot of press, scientists knew it was merely an exercise in hurricane vortex mathematics. Emanuel threw more fuel on the fire when he published an article on “hypercanes” in the widely read American Scientist.

The larger community of hurricanologists had by then had enough. In 1994 James Lighthill published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society an extensive review finding no basis for Emanuel’s speculation.

In 1996 a storm surge of literature blew apart Emanuel’s hypothesis. First, the aptly named Chris Landsea, a scientist at the National Hurricane Center, observed in Geophysical Research Letters that there had been a significant decline in the frequency of severe hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin over the last 50 years. The region warmed a few tenths of a degree during the period.

Later that year Johnny Chan published in the same Journal an article finding no net trend in Pacific typhoons. Even the computer modelers got into the act. Europe’s Lennart Bengtsson published a paper in the journal Tellus showing that a computer climate simulation with an enhanced greenhouse effect predicted fewer hurricanes and lower average winds.

Also in 1996 J. B. Elsner found that the regions in which hurricanes form had shifted in the last 40 years and now favor the development of weaker storms. And Landsea, in yet another report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1996, showed that there has been a statistically significant decline in the maximum windspeed measured in Atlantic hurricanes since World War II.

Australian climatologist Ann Henderson-Sellers and 10 others re-reviewed the hurricane/global warming situation in last January’s Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. They called their work a “Post IPCC Assessment,” meaning that they believed it stood for the consensus of scientists on the issue. They simply could not find any increase in hurricane frequency or severity, and they looked everywhere. They also took pains to note that the conditions assumed in Emanuel’s initial work are just about impossible. That work and its ilk contain “known omissions [that] all act to reduce these increases” of hurricanes, Henderson-Sellers wrote.

It’s rare to get such scientific consensus in climatology. But in one last attempt to bring the exaggerators and the alarmists to heel, Henderson-Sellers recently published in the journal Climate Change a paper detailing the whole sorry history of the campaign to hype hurricanes. Ironically, Henderson-Sellers herself is not shy about touting the dangers of global warming.

Who gains here? Rumors persist that Vice President Gore has been advised to make global warming a central theme of his presidential run in 2000. Threatening hundreds of thousands with imminent drowning unless they vote for him is a crude but probably effective trick.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and science advisor for the Greening Earth Society in Arlington, Virginia.