On his site, science writer Chris Mooney recently posted a fascinating pair of graphs, courtesy of collaborator Matt Nisbet, which chart public interest in global warming.
As the years march by, the charts show what happens when scientific reports are released, when politics intervene — and when hurricanes strike, as measured by coverage at the Washington Post and the New York Times.
What the graphs show is that in these thoughtful newspapers, political and scientific developments can spur stories, but when hurricanes strike, global warming coverage — and, presumably public interest — soars.
This is why Mooney’s new book, Storm World, matters — even though the writer takes every possible opportunity to remind readers that we cannot definitively link global warming to any hurricane.
The book matters because our fears as a nation do link global warming and hurricanes, and when it comes to modern-day hurricanes the size of Texas, as we saw in 2005, our eyes open wide.
Mooney opens the book with a visit to his mother’s house in New Orleans, after Katrina, and seeing it "substantially damaged," in the understated lingo of government disaster workers. He then takes us to the heated debate over global warming and hurricanes at the 2005 American Geophysical Union meeting, where leading researcher Kerry Emmanuel of M.I.T. argued forcefully that, yes, global warming does mean bigger, stronger hurricanes and offered mathematical evidence for that description.
But instead of moving forward into an anti-global-warming polemic, Mooney then flashes back over the history of hurricane study, grounding the present-day dispute between hurricane forecaster Bill Gray and hurricane modeler Kerry Emmanuel in an old dispute between scientists who seek to understand hurricanes via observations, and scientists who seek to understand hurricanes according to their processes.
Opening the historical aperture proves enormously useful; even if you believe with climatologists Kerry Emmanuel and Kevin Trenberth that, yes, global warming inevitably will change hurricanes, and not for the better, nonetheless reading this book will give the tools you need to understand the controversy.
Emmanuel himself went from believing in the l990s that global warming had a slight if discernible effect on hurricanes that could become serious in the future, to publishing an article in 2005 arguing that hurricanes were already substantially stronger by 2000 than in years past. He found a new mathematical method to describe hurricanes by the amount of power they dissipated, which turned out to correlate closely with rising sea temperatures. Mooney makes this clear as day.
Yet reporters — like scientists — are supposed to stand back unemotionally from the data, and Mooney is a good reporter. In the case of this book, this leads to a curious irony. Far from writing a polemic, Mooney has written a book about hurricanes that stars, more than any other scientist, Bill Gray, once a leader in the field but now a global-warming denier.
In recent years Gray has resorted to quoting Michael Crichton, illustrating his talks with stick figures mocking fellow scientists, and even comparing Al Gore to Adolf Hitler. As a great magazine piece by another reporter, Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, put it last year, Gray has "no governor on his rhetoric."
The result in Storm World is hugely informative scientifically, but dramatically limp. Despite any number of enormous storms churning the seas in the background, the book focuses on the decline and fall of Bill Gray’s reputation as a scientist, which is sad, and in the long run, perhaps a little beside the point.
Mooney also is eager to criticize publications such as Time for declaring that we should be "very worried" about global warming, but at numerous points makes virtually the same point himself, less forcefully ("Yet just because we can’t perfectly quantify changing levels of risk doesn’t mean we have no right to feel concerned," he offers at one point, in language that would make George Orwell furious.)
This is Mooney’s second book; his first was The Republican War Against Science, which was something of a miracle — a brilliantly focused and detailed book on a subject that had barely even been reported. Anyone wishing to understand the politics of science in this country today must begin with that book.
Storm World is not as crucial, because — by its own description — it’s not as big a subject, and because it doesn’t risk as much. But for any nonscientist wishing to understand the science of hurricanes, it’s still enormously helpful.
By the way, here’s another interesting pair of graphs from the SciGuy at the Houston Chronicle, showing why we maybe should be concerned about this year’s hurricane season …