There She Blows

This article appeared on Rea​son​.com on August 17, 2005.
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Given the recent claims that hurricanes are getting dramatically worse because of global warming, it’s too bad we’ve already exhausted the letter “G” for this hurricane season. “Gasbag” would have been a pretty good moniker for the next storm.

In case you’ve missed the hype, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel has a paper in the online version of Nature magazine saying that hurricanes are becoming dramatically more powerful as a result of global warming.

Merely venturing into the discussion of hurricanes and global warming is more dangerous than most tropical cyclones. About Emanuel’s article, William Gray of Colorado State University — the guy who issues the annual hurricane forecast that grabs headlines every summer — told the Boston Globe, “It’s a terrible paper, one of the worst I’ve ever looked at.”

There’s also nastiness if you say hurricanes aren’t getting worse. A month ago, University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke, Jr., posted a paper that was accepted in the Bulletin of The American Meteorological Society concluding there is little if any sign of global warming in hurricane patterns. In a pre‐​emptive strike, Kevin Trenberth from the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told the local newspaper, “I think he [Pielke] should withdraw his article. This is a shameful article.”

Six months earlier, Christopher Landsea of the National Hurricane Research Laboratory, another federal entity, quit the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Landsea is probably the world’s most respected hurricane scientist. He was furious that Rajenda Pauchari, director of the panel, condoned Trenberth’s statements that hurricanes were worsening because of global warming.

What is going on here? Nothing unusual. Behavior like this takes place every day at faculty meetings across academia. But global warming and hurricanes are hot topics right now, so the bickering spills over into the press.

What is unusual is the especially shoddy nature of the current scientific review process on global warming papers.

Consider the recent Nature article. If hurricanes had doubled in power in the last few decades as Emanuel claims, the change would be obvious; you wouldn’t need a weatherman to know which way this wind was blowing. All of these feuding scientists would have agreed on the facts long ago.

Damages caused by doubling the strength of hurricanes would be massive and increasing dramatically. Figures on this are pretty easy to come by, at least in the United States. The insured value of property from Brownsville, Texas to Eastport, Maine — our hurricane prone Atlantic Coast — is greater than a year of our Gross Domestic Product. If hurricanes had actually doubled in power, the losses in the insurance industry would be catastrophic.

Pielke has studied this, and his work is well known. Hurricanes are causing greater dollar damages because more and more people are building increasingly expensive beachfront monstrosities that have financially appreciated during the recent real‐​estate bubble. Account for these and there is no significant change in hurricane expenses along our coast. Illinois climatologist Stanley Changnon has also studied this for non‐​hurricane weather damage over the entire country with similar results.

Pielke told me that, “analysis of hurricane damage over the past century shows no trend in hurricane destructiveness, once the data are adjusted to account for the dramatic growth along the nation’s coasts.”

You would think that reviewers of Emanuel’s paper at Nature would have thought to ask whether, in fact, there was evidence for increasingly powerful storms.

But they didn’t. There is just no incentive in the scientific community to kill the remarkably fertile global warming goose, a beast that feeds on public fears.

The federal outlay on climate research is now $4.2 billion per year, roughly the same amount given to the National Cancer Institute. The climate research community sees a grave threat when research shows there’s no threat from the climate. So papers that hawk climate disaster get superficial reviews and uncritical headlines, while those that argue otherwise are “shameful.”