TCS Daily


Hurricane of Misinformation

By S.T. Karnick - September 1, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the major techniques of modern politics is to take every important event and tie it to the back of one's own particular hobby horse. One of the more ludicrous examples was the utterly absurd claims that the Asian tsunami was caused by global warming. But it happened.

Hence it was inevitable that even before Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast we would begin to see articles claiming that human-caused global warming is creating more and increasingly disastrous hurricanes. The online edition of Time magazine ran a story titled, "Is Global Warming Fueling Katrina?" on the very day the storm hit the shore. Although the article acknowledges the widely documented (and hence undeniable) fact that the number of tropical storms around the world has not risen lately, the author claims that "the storms do appear to be more intense," and named global warming as the likely cause.

The Boston Globe printed an op-ed by Ross Gelbspan, "Hurricane Katrina's Real Name." Gelbspan, as one could easily predict, claims that the real name for this hurricane is "global warming," and goes on to assert that global warming has caused every unusual weather phenomenon of recent years. Examples include last winter's snowfall in Los Angeles, high winds in Scandinavia, a drought in the American Midwest earlier this summer, droughts in Western Europe, a heat wave in Arizona (boy, that's a shocker!), a flood in India, an especially cold winter in Boston (another shocker), and numerous others.

Gelbspan's tactic, now all too familiar, is simply to name as many instances of bad weather as his word count will allow, and then claim that global warming caused them. He makes no attempt to prove that the number of dangerous weather events has actually risen. As to actual evidence linking global warming to these phenomenon, Gelbspan provides absolutely none at all. He just takes it as a premise.

"Brace for more Katrinas, say experts," a story released by the French news agency AFP, went into more detail on the matter. The anonymous author of the story correctly observes that hurricane activity has intensified and looks likely to remain so for a while:

"Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Risk, a London-based consortium of experts, predicted that the region would see 22 tropical storms during the six-month June-November season, the most ever recorded and more than twice the average annual tally since records began in 1851."

The piece also notes,

"Already, 2004 and 2003 were exceptional years: they marked the highest two-year totals ever recorded for overall hurricane activity in the North Atlantic."

That is all quite true. But what does it mean? The article moves on to consider a possible relationship to global warming, as has been posited by advocates of controls over greenhouse gas emissions:

"This increase has also coincided with a big rise in Earth's surface temperature in recent years, driven by greenhouse gases that cause the Sun's heat to be stored in the sea, land and air rather than radiate back out to space."

The characterization of the rise in the planet's surface temperature in recent years as "big" is certainly an exaggeration. However, the article does go on to point out that hurricane activity is cyclical and probably always has been:

"But experts are cautious, also noting that hurricane numbers seem to undergo swings, over decades.

"About 90 tropical storms -- a term that includes hurricanes and their Asian counterparts, typhoons -- occur each year.

"The global total seems to be stable, although regional tallies vary a lot, and in particular seem to be influenced by the El Nino weather pattern in the Western Pacific."

These are very important observations. The article then outlines, at some length, the arguments of global-warming advocates who claim that the earth's warming is creating more intense hurricanes, if not more such storms overall (which is easy to measure and is not supported by the evidence, as the article admits):

"On the other hand, more and more scientists estimate that global warming, while not necessarily making hurricanes more frequent or likelier to make landfall, is making them more vicious."

The evidence the article adduces for this argument is coincidental and not causal, however, and is clearly highly speculative at this point. The piece says, for example, "'The intensity of and rainfalls from hurricanes are probably increasing, even if this increase cannot yet be proven with a formal statistical test,' Trenberth wrote in the US journal Science in June. He said computer models 'suggest a shift' toward the extreme in hurricane intensities."

That is to say, Trenberth believes it although there is no statistical evidence for it.

The article ends on that note, which is a pity because there is a good deal more to the story than that. Readers are not told, for example, that as an article in the forthcoming October issue of Environment and Climate News (ECN) mentions, a group of prominent climatologists and other experts on climate change has noted, "according to a century of National Hurricane Center reports, the decade with the largest number of hurricanes to come ashore in the United States was the 1940s, and that hurricane frequency has declined since then. They also cited data from the United Nations Environment Programme of the World Meteorological Association that hurricane frequency has declined since the 1940s."

The ECN story also quotes James J. O'Brien, director of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University, as arguing that "the more likely cause of hurricane frequency might be found in variations in the Atlantic Ocean Conveyer, the movement of the warm Gulf Stream whose waters, taken from the South Atlantic, replace the cooler, sinking water in the North Atlantic.

"When the Conveyer is strong, O'Brien said, historic records have shown an increase in Atlantic hurricanes; when it is weak, so are the hurricane seasons. For a hurricane to grow stronger, it must keep moving over waters warmer than 80 degrees F, which leads some people to link global warming and the storms. But, he said, there's no scientific evidence to show that such areas of warm water are increasing in size."

When we are talking about making trillions of dollars in expenditures and opportunity costs in payment for a small potential alleviation in the intensity of global warming, it is vitally important to let facts, not speculation, guide our decisions. Unfortunately, the hurricane of misinformation about the causes and consequences of global warming continues to make that increasingly difficult to achieve.

S. T. Karnick is an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and Editor of The Reform Club blog.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

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