That’s because the administration has been hell‐bent on conflating the two. Last fall the vice president went to vote‐rich California to deliver the news: El Niño’s coming; it’s going to be bad; I’m from the government and I’m here to help. Further, I know a climatologist who told me that El Niños will be made worse by global warming. In other words, if you think this is bad, wait till you see what happens if you don’t eat your vegetables and pay your carbon taxes.
He didn’t mention that this is an extreme view that flies in the face of archaeological evidence, which shows that when the earth was a few degrees warmer, some 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, El Niños may have been less frequent. But as the 20th century warmed, they became slightly more frequent. They did the same when the planet cooled 300 years ago, according to coral records in the Pacific. Maybe El Niños just don’t care what the planetary temperature is!
How much has El Niño cost? According to Gov. Pete Wilson’s office, so far this winter in California, El Niño has caused about $500 million in damage, only a quarter of the price tag for the big one in 1982–83 that rang up $2 billion in costs. Moreover, this year’s figures aren’t appreciably different from those for last year’s non‐El Niño winter. Sounds more like El Weeño!
In Florida there’s been about $100 million in El Niño‐related damage, mainly from the recent tornado outbreak. The damage/death ratio was far too low to support all the carnage. Consider 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which cost $14 billion in Florida alone, and killed half as many. There’s no doubt that the Florida tragedy — which could have been mitigated by a warning siren system that would have awakened everyone and saved 40 lives — will be the bitterest memory of El Niño.
Winter death rates typically far exceed those in the summer. Many deaths are a direct result of the cold — hypothermia, heart attacks from shoveling snow, pneumonia after slip‐and‐fall injuries. A good cold spell, such as those of the early 1980s, kills hundreds one way or another. A Christmas cold snap in 1983 froze 40 people in South Carolina alone. But slowly freezing to death or expiring in a hospital just isn’t as newsworthy as getting spun to kingdom come by an El Niño tornado. When the homeless die, as they often do in the cold, the news footage just isn’t as heart‐wrenching as are pictures of the bereaved outside a wrecked million‐dollar home.
What about financial benefits? Let’s start with hurricanes. The average damage cost per year is now up to $5 billion. An intense or extreme hurricane (category 4 or 5) will produce around $25 billion in damage, depending upon where it hits. Climatologists generally agree that El Niño reduces the likelihood of that kind of hurricane by at least one‐third and probably more. Given the average frequency of those monster storms (about one every seven years), this works out to an El Niño saving of about $1.25 billion this year.