Sandy and climate change: media hot air
Paul M. Barrett has made a splash (forgive the pun) on Bloomberg Businessweek with his piece (well on its way to meme-dom) "It's Global Warming, Stupid." He opens:
Yes, yes, it's unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change. Men and women in white lab coats tell us—and they're right—that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.
Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.
An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: "Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes." Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: "We can't say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids."
A shame that Barrett lays himself vulnerable to the denialist counter-attack by citing Tweets instead of serious studies. The counter-attack comes swiftly from Eric Berger of the SciGuy blog in the Houston Chronicle, under the sanguine headline "There will probably be fewer Sandy-like storms in the future." From the start, he disavows "both climate advocacy and denialism" (as if these were equal sins), but his purpose is to tar with the alarmism epithet anyone who would link Frankenstorm Sandy to climate change. In addition to savaging Barrett, he takes on Kevin Knobloch—president of the Union of Concerned Scientists!—for daring to say of Sandy (on The Hill's E2 Wire environment blog):
We're at a place where we have to focus on both mitigation — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and adaptation — starting to move our vital infrastructure out of harm's way. We know this is going to be our future. This is our new normal.
Berger retaliates under subhead "It's Science, Stupid" with the reassuring statement: "Science tells us this is not a new normal." He backs it up by linking to something else he wrote about an "important paper" (note how Mr. Objectivity lards his prose with manipulative adjectives) from Nature Geoscience whose authors "did not conclusively find any detectable human influence on hurricane activity." (I guess we're supposed to overlook those bet-hedging adjectives "conclusively" and "detectable.")
Berger's screed and a similar one by Andrew Revkin on the New York Times' Dot Earth blog cross-link to each other in a cozy mutual admiration society (Berger linked to Revkin first, who returned the favor with an "update" comment hailing Berger's piece as "excellent" without noting that it cites him favorably). Revkin also links to another contribution that favorably cites his own work while sneering at those who see the hand of climate change behind Sandy, by Curtis Brainard in Columbia Journalism Review. Brainard calls out Rebecca Leber of the activist Climate Progress blog for asserting a "scientifically established link that carbon pollution fuels more extreme weather," and Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker for backing up similar claims with a study about heat waves. Gripes Brainard: "It's a classic bait-and-switch and totally irresponsible since the dynamics of heat waves are very different from those of hurricanes."
Calling out sloppy reportage is all fine, but doing so in a way that abets don't-worry-be-happy denialism is definitely not. Mark Fischetti in Scientific American explains why the media bet-hedging is itself misleading:
If you’ve followed the U.S. news and weather in the past 24 hours you have no doubt run across a journalist or blogger explaining why it’s difficult to say that climate change could be causing big storms like Sandy. Well, no doubt here: it is.
The hedge expressed by journalists is that many variables go into creating a big storm, so the size of Hurricane Sandy, or any specific storm, cannot be attributed to climate change. That's true, and it’s based on good science. However, that statement does not mean that we cannot say that climate change is making storms bigger. It is doing just that—a statement also based on good science, and one that the insurance industry is embracing, by the way...
Scientists have long taken a similarly cautious stance, but more are starting to drop the caveat and link climate change directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events, such as the warm 2012 winter in the eastern U.S. and the frigid one in Europe at the same time. They are emboldened because researchers have gotten very good in the past decade at determining what affects the variables that create big storms.
Fischetti cites a study in Oceanography journal by Cornell University scholar Charles Greene finding that receding Arctic Sea ice impacts an atmospheric pressure system called the North Atlantic Oscillation, making it more likely to be negative, which causes the Jet Stream to deliver more cold air south, which in turn jacks up the potency of hurricanes. So—whaddaya know!—it seems that global warming does "cause" super-storms!
Teresa Welsh on US News & World Report (!) cites a recent report from the University of Copenhagen's Centre for Ice and Climate finding that hurricanes in the southeast Atlantic have become more frequent over the past 90 years, with more storms in years in which water temperature is higher.
"You can't say [global warming] caused any single event, but when we start to see a trend like this, I think it shows that there's a good chance these hurricanes wouldn't be happening without warming," said one of the report’s authors, Aslack Grinsted. "What I show is only correlation, but it's purely consistent with the hypothesis that warming goes along with more frequent, large hurricanes."
Science writer Michio Kaku on his Dr. Kaku's Universe blog is also somewhat cautious—but still acknowledges the likelihood of a link between superstorms and climate change. Of Sandy's devastation, he writes:
Is this related to global warming? First, there is no smoking gun, no conclusive evidence that points to global warming, which is an average effect, measured over many years. However, the signs are not good.
Second, global warming is heating up the Gulf waters, and warm water is the basic energy source driving a hurricane. More warm water means, in principle, more energy for a hurricane. But hurricanes also derive energy from the temperature difference between cold and warm air. The unusual collision with the jet stream from the Arctic also helped to feed the hurricane. And the fact that the north polar regions are changing (e.g. 50% decrease in thickness of north polar ice in the last 50 years, the recession of ice in Greenland and Alaska, thawing out of tundra, etc.) means possible changes in the jet stream.
So it is possible (although not 100% certain) that the warming of the earth can cause hurricanes of greater intensity.
Global warming is actually a misnomer. It should be called global swings, so that we can have droughts, flooding, forest fires, etc. happening at the same time in different points of the earth. So global warming is actually the weather on steroids. This is consistent with the 100 year floods, 100 year forest fires, 100 year droughts that we seem to have every few years.
So is this the new normal? We cannot say with certainty, but a case can be made that this wacky weather is, in part, driven by global warming.
It seems that even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not share Berger's conclusion that "There will probably be fewer hurricanes in a warmer world." An analysis by researcher Thomas R. Knutson with NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory poses a 300% increase in frequency and power of hurricanes over the next century:
Observed records of Atlantic hurricane activity...show a strong correlation, on multi-year time-scales, between local tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and the Power Dissipation Index (PDI). PDI is an aggregate measure of Atlantic hurricane activity, combining frequency, intensity, and duration of hurricanes in a single index. Both Atlantic SSTs and PDI have risen sharply since the 1970s, and there is some evidence that PDI levels in recent years are higher than in the previous active Atlantic hurricane era in the 1950s and 60s.
Model-based climate change detection/attribution studies have linked increasing tropical Atlantic SSTs to increasing greenhouse gases, but the link between increasing greenhouse gases and hurricane PDI or frequency has been based on statistical correlations. The statistical linkage of Atlantic hurricane PDI to and Atlantic SST...suggests at least the possibility of a large anthropogenic influence on Atlantic hurricanes... [T]he implications are sobering: the large increases in tropical Atlantic SSTs projected for the late 21st century would imply very substantial increases in hurricane destructive potential--roughly a 300% increase in the PDI by 2100.
So Elizabeth Kolbert needn't have resorted to a study about heat waves, and Curtis Brainard in calling her out for doing so could have pointed to the studies that do link superstorms to climate change.
Brainard himself quotes Kevin Trenberth in a paper (PDF) for the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research:
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.
Thank you. Asking the wrong question is a form of obfuscation. As we have already noted:
We are constantly being admonished that no single weather event can be attributable to climate change. But when taken together—the superstorms, this summer's crippling droughts in the Midwest, the disappearing Andean glaciers, receding Arctic sea ice cover, the Alaskan villages disappearing beneath the waves—whether these are attributable to climate change becomes a dramatically wrong question. Together, these phenomena are climate change. Asking if they are "attributable" to climate change is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees.
This may be termed the "Reverse Reification Fallacy." If the Reification Fallacy is treating an abstraction as something concrete, these ultra-cautious quasi-denialists treat things as glaringly concrete as the withered corn crop or the flooded Lower East Side as if they were a mere abstraction. So busy covering their tracks about the "cause" of the phenomenon, they can't see the phenomenon itself.
"Not the new normal," eh? Stating this with such confidence, Berger and his ilk ironically join the cystal-ball set that they pooh-pooh. Two years of unprecedented storms in a row is not exactly comforting for New Yorkers. But asking whether superstorms are the "new normal" is also a wrong question, actually. The extreme weather of recent years has been termed "global weirding," portending actual destabilization of the biosphere—meaning that weather generally could become less predictable.
What is most appalling about this endless equivocation is the fundamental, inescapable, so-obvious-that-the-chronically-clever-can't-see-it reality that there is only one Earth. And it didn't come with a warranty. Once we've blown this one, we can't take it back to the Wal-Mart for a new one. Gambling with the future of the planet is the most reckless gamble there is. Truly responsible journalism would emphasize the criticality of the precuationary principle on these questions, rather than cheap sneering at supposed alarmism. And what is to be weighed against immediate, decisive measures to mitigate climate change? The God-given right of fat Americans to ride around in SUVs?
Both Barret and Fischetti note that the insurance industry is emphatically not among the denialist crowd (while—gee, funny—the oil industry is). Yet more evidence of the old Marxist saw: Where you stand depends on where you sit.