Commentary

Reaping the Hurricane

Dr. Christopher Landsea, a scientist at the Hurricane Research Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce and one of the world’s foremost experts on hurricanes, has publicly resigned from authorship of an upcoming United Nations report on climate change. Landsea charged that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is “both being motivated by pre-conceived agendas and being scientifically unsound.”

He has a point. The IPCC is more of a political body than a scientific authority. Its members are selected by their respective governments and approved by the UN Secretariat. This is not an unbiased, blind process.

Remember those press conferences last fall where esteemed scientists blamed the severity of the 2004 hurricane season on global warming? One of them was another federal employee, Kevin Trenberth. According to Landsea, Trenberth hasn’t “performed any research on hurricane variability.” Nonetheless, he is the U.N.’s designated “Lead Author” for the chapter of the report that discusses hurricanes and global warming, and as a result would supervise Landsea’s contributions.

According to Landsea, “Given Dr. Trenberth’s role as the IPCC’s Lead Author responsible for preparing the text on hurricanes, his public statements so far outside of current scientific understanding led me to concern that it would be very difficult for the IPCC process to proceed objectively with regards to the assessment on hurricane activity.”

Indeed, there is absolutely no evidence that hurricane frequency or severity has increased because of global warming. In fact, the only detectable change in Atlantic hurricanes is a decline in average maximum wind speed, as shown in Landsea’s own published scientific writing.

Trenberth also advocates the position that global warming will make “El Nino” stronger, with very little scientific evidence. El Ninos are periodic reversals of Pacific trade winds that change storm tracks thousands of miles away. They also destroy Atlantic hurricanes. If global warming actually did make El Ninos more frequent or stronger, hurricane intensity should decrease.

Landsea appealed to the head of the UN’s climate panel, Rajenda Pachauri, to uphold genuine scientific inquiry.

He should have known better. Pachauri penned the foreword to the 2004 report, “Up in Smoke,” distributed by environmental activists including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Referring to hurricanes, it said “in a world in which global warming is already happening, such severe weather events are likely to be more frequent, and extreme.”

Pachauri dismissed Landsea’s complaint out of hand, which led to the scientist’s principled resignation.

If elements of this story trigger a sense of déjà vu, then readers have been paying attention. There was a minor stir last fall when two government scientists predicted a slight (6 percent) increase in hurricane strength over the next century, due to global warming.

They arrived at this prediction by using a computer model that assumed carbon dioxide will leach into the atmosphere at a rate that is twice what has been observed in recent decades. The model fails miserably when it attempts to forecast hurricanes in the real world, because it assumes no changes in hurricane environments as the planet warms. Critical scientists knew about the model’s shortcomings, but they held their peace.

This is becoming a pattern. Scientists, or people claiming the mantle of science, advance terribly flawed claims that the sky is falling; climate scientists who understand that this is false say next to nothing.

Why?

There are several reasons. Just as medical doctors care about human suffering, environmental scientists are often philosophically concerned about what they judge to be environmental degradation. Neither concern is “scientific” in the sense that it is concerned with testing theories against available evidence, but they do influence the way scientists behave.

Then there’s the money. Climatology used to be very un-cool, and largely un-funded. It was an impoverished backwater until global warming came along. Now it’s a tremendous sink hole for tax dollars.

The next federal budget is likely to propose around $4 billion for research on climate change. That money will only be allocated if global warming is presented as a severe threat to our health and well-being on the level of AIDS or cancer. So we end up with under-funded voices of sanity and a lot of well-funded Chicken Little-types.

So far, this level of distortion has carried no cost to the prestige of the dissemblers. The United Nations now passes itself off as the world’s authority on the effects of climate change and tropical cyclones while keeping a propagandist on the payroll. Perhaps President Bush, who ultimately must approve U.S. members for the panel, should approve none, effectively withdrawing his government from this pseudoscientific charade.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media (2004).