Political Animal


October 29, 2012 5:42 PM Should Climate Change Activists Sandy-gogue?

By Ed Kilgore

You don’t have to be a meteorologist or a scientist of any sort to understand that violent weather patterns are increasing in frequency, and that there are all sorts of less-than-circumstantial connections between storms and climate change. It’s the kind of wake-up call that Americans who often view energy and environmental policies via gasoline prices or what their employers tell them really need.

But how far should people with every reason to dumb down climate science just a bit to get public attention go when they are fighting climate change deniers with gigantic corporate backing and the explicit or implicit support of one-and-a-half of the two major political parties?

Here’s what NPR’s Adam Frank has to say:

There is a hierarchy of weather events which scientists feel they understand well enough for establishing climate change links. Global temperature rises and extreme heat rank high on that list, but Hurricanes rank low. As the IPCC special report on extreme events put it “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”
The reasons for “low confidence” are manifold. Some part of the caution comes from the complexity of the problem, and some part comes from the lack of good data before the satellite era (about 1970). Thus, many climate scientists will not want to go out on a limb for hurricanes. They just don’t have the tools to make strong inferences.
This is not to say progress isn’t being made. One thing that does seem clear is that warmer oceans (a la global warming) mean more evaporation, and that likely leads to storms with more and more dangerous rainfall of the kind we saw with Hurricane Irene last year. In addition, a paper published just last month, used records of storm surges going back to 1923 as a measure of hurricane activity. A strong correlation between warm years and strong hurricanes was seen. Thus if you warm the planet, you can expect more dangerous storms.
Which brings us to our bottom line. The science of climate attribution is very exciting and full of cool, new ideas. It has already provided us with first steps towards more precision in understanding how climate change is changing climate now, already. For hurricanes, however, sticking to the science means it is still hard to point to an individual storm and say, yes! Climate change! A more reasoned approach is to take the full weight of our understanding about the Earth and its systems and go beyond asking if any particular event is due to global warming or natural variability. As Kevin Ternbeth of NCAR says “Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

Sensible and responsible, of course. But you can certainly forgive progressives for saying in response to to climate-change denying conservatives whose compassion with respect to energy policy extends no further than coal, oil and natural gas industries: Surf’s Up! Way Up!

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TCinLA on October 29, 2012 5:51 PM:

    Thanks once again for reminding me why National Poop for Republicans is crap. (outside of KJZZ, the last jazz station in the country, and KUSC, the last classical music station in the country).

    Even with only the little bit that could be argued on hurricanes back in 1974, the Club of Rome did a better job than this in their book "The Limits to Growth." All of their forecasts of what would happen in 30 years if nothing was done have come true.

    Why can't it be just the failed evolutionary experiment in creating biological intelligence that can foresee the results of its actions and change its plans accordingly, the hairless biped more properly known as Homo Sap, go extinct for our ignorant stupidity without taking everything else on the planet with us?

    How glad I am I didn't have children.

    "iclimisu ludicrous" indeed!

  • troglodyte on October 29, 2012 6:11 PM:

    Don't Sandy-gogue.

    The hurricane is making the argument for global warming all by itself. Most people are aware of the reasoning why global warming could increase the frequency and intensity of violent storms. Most people I speak with know that natural variability is an important factor, but Irene was just last year, so how many storms-of-the-century does it take? The storm answers the question some would prefer not to ask.

  • Mimikatz on October 29, 2012 7:29 PM:

    One thing that is different about this storm is it's lateness, which may or may not be connected to summer lasting a bit longer than before global warming. Another difference is the effect of the direction of the polar air masses which have almost certainly been affected by the large decline in Arctic sea ice this year, a direct effect of global warming.

    Kevin Trenberth has some statements about the connection that are stronger than what was quoted, for example that climate change "loads the dice" so that extreme weather is more likely, even though one can only rarely point to a single event and say that global warming "caused" it.

  • flubber on October 29, 2012 7:44 PM:

    "You don’t have to be a scientist of any sort to understand that violent weather patterns are increasing in frequency"

    To make a statement like that, yeah, you DO need a lot of science and statistical analysis before coming to the conclusion. It's easy to fool yourself with anecdotes and personal observations. But actual scientists who study such things say that, yeah, violent weather events seem to be increasing.

  • danimal on October 29, 2012 8:15 PM:

    The direct connection of a hurricane to global warming may be a little too controversial, but the connection of higher sea levels to global warming is incontrovertible for those who value scientific objectivity.

    If sea levels rise 2-4 feet or more in the coming decades, the associated storm surges and flooding risks will make hurricanes much more dangerous, even if hurricanes are not caused or intensified by global warming.

  • hornblower on October 29, 2012 9:13 PM:

    Not enough evidence to push this story today. I really think it's a bad idea to view every unusual weather event as an opportunity to mention climate change. I still remember Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Damn that was a bad one.

  • hornblower on October 29, 2012 9:46 PM:

    Not enough evidence to push this story today. I really think it's a bad idea to view every unusual weather event as an opportunity to mention climate change. I still remember Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Damn that was a bad one.

  • SecularAnimist on October 29, 2012 11:14 PM:

    NPR has been serving the interests of its corporate funders -- which include the American Petroleum Institute's "Vote4Energy" pro-fossil fuel, anti-renewable energy propaganda campaign -- by minimizing the threat of global warming in their news coverage for years. They continued to present fossil fuel funded deniers as credible "skeptics" long after their nonsense was thoroughly debunked.

    Now that the destructive impacts of global warming in the form of EXACTLY the sort of "extreme weather events" that climate models have long predicted are upon us, NPR is busily cautioning us against making any connection. They have run entire stories about the mega-drought affecting the American midwest, southwest and Mexico without ever MENTIONING the very clear connection to global warming.

    For excellent analysis of the influences of global warming on Sandy, with links to the relevant science, see these two articles by Joe Romm at ClimateProgress:

    CNN Bans Term ‘Frankenstorm’, But It’s A Good Metaphor For Warming-Driven Monster: ‘Largest Hurricane In Atlantic History’

    Did Climate Change Help Create ‘Frankenstorm’?

  • Alex on October 30, 2012 5:38 AM:

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