In the spirit of pissing off friends and foes alike, let me make the following three claims:
- Global warming is already affecting hurricane intensity, and will only do so more in coming years;
- the Bush administration is actively attempting to hide this fact from the public;
- the connection between hurricanes and global warming is not, contra conventional activist wisdom, a good argument for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
While the correlation between global warming and hurricane strength is still a matter of some controversy in the scientific community, a series of recent studies all confirm the suspicion — bolstered by common sense — that warmer ocean surface temperatures mean stronger, wetter storms.
The Bushies don’t want you to know this. A source of mine (seriously!) told me last week that there is almost certainly an internal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report or "fact sheet" that summarizes growing scientific evidence of the connection; it is now languishing on the desk of a mid-level political appointee at the Department of Commerce. Apparently, he told Nature the same thing. (Look in the middle of the Google-cached copy of this web page. "Hurricane Fact Sheet, Due Date: May 2, 2006." Hm … tell us, Ahsha Tribble, what’s the hold up?)
This follows the news — as reported by Paul D. Thacker in Salon — that after Katrina, NOAA political appointees blocked press access to agency scientists who failed to toe the party line on hurricanes and climate change. (The party line, as if you couldn’t guess, is that there is no connection at all.)
Why is the administration suppressing this news? Besides just being in the habit of suppressing science, I mean. This bit from the AP offers a clue:
The possibility of global warming affecting hurricanes is politically sensitive because the administration has resisted proposals to restrict release of gases that can cause warming conditions.
Look, this whole Mayberry-meets-Mao subterfuge is completely unnecessary. If the American people expect Bush to prevent another Katrina by raising CAFE standards or capping CO2 emissions, they are going to be woefully disappointed. Junior’s not even competent, much less a magician. A sane federal energy policy would be welcome — most welcome — but it would not have any substantial effect on human or economic hurricane-related damages.
An overwhelmingly large majority of the costs imposed by hurricanes can be traced to increasing affluence, settlement, and loss of wetland buffers along the coasts — i.e., to socioeconomic factors. Those are the levers you work on if you want to reduce severe storm damage. In contrast, the causal chain between reductions in GHG gases and reductions in hurricane costs is looong and incredibly tenuous.
Don’t take my word for it. Read this July statement from 10 of the world’s most notable hurricane experts, some of whom believe in a strong connection between global warming and hurricanes and some who don’t:
We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention. We call upon leaders of government and industry to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of building practices, and insurance, land use, and disaster relief policies that currently serve to promote an ever-increasing vulnerability to hurricanes.
Global warming activists have seized on Hurricane Katrina as a way to galvanize public support for sensible energy policy. And it’s working: the Bush administration now feels the need to suppress scientific information on hurricanes and climate change.
The less scrupulous sort of climate crusader may say, hey, whatever works. Global warming is a horrifically challenging PR problem. It moves slowly; most of the damage takes place in increments too slow or abstract to capture our attention; we are called on to make sacrifices now for payoff in the distant future. Images from the sordid episode on the Gulf Coast are undeniably, viscerally powerful, in a way that melting glaciers never will be. Might as well put them to good use, right? At least, that’s what the less scrupulous sort might say.
But we should be under no illusions. If we promise the public reduced hurricane damages in exchange for support of good energy policy, we will be playing them for dupes. We can’t uphold our end of that bargain.
Let me state clearly so there is no misunderstanding: I support strong measures to reduce GHG emissions. I’d get behind everything in Gore’s recent speech. I’d support Waxman’s Safe Climate Act. You won’t find anybody more vocal about good energy policy than me.
But I also support measures to address our rising vulnerability to current climate and to climate changes that are already inevitable. When it’s called "adaptation," environmentalists bristle at the notion. Fine. Call it relocalization. But let’s get started.