Kerry Emanuel, the influential M.I.T. climate scientist who has been at the forefront of making the argument that global warming will lead to more intense hurricanes, has released a new study that backtracks on his earlier findings, revealing more uncertainty on the question of whether such a link exists. (Hat tip: InstaPundit.)
I’ve pointed out repeatedly that the question of what global warming would do vis a vis hurricanes is an entirely separate issue — about which there is much less consensus and much more uncertainty, even among the most ardent AGW true believers — from the question of whether global warming is happening (and the subsidiary question of whether, and to what extent, human activity is causing or contributing to it). This new Emanuel study basically reinforces that point. Entirely aside from the broader global warming debate, everyone ought to recognize that we really just don’t know for sure yet what the impact on hurricanes will be, if any. (cc: Al Gore)
Personally, notwithstanding my entirely tongue-in-cheek headline, I think the most important point is the one made by Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle’s “SciGuy”:
This should put to rest a lot of the nonsense about a global warming conspiracy among scientists. Emanuel, faced with new evidence, has moderated his viewpoint. That’s what responsible scientists do, and most are responsible. The amount of scientist-bashing when it comes to global warming is generally quite deplorable.
Indeed. (I would have loved to see Glenn Reynolds quote that point, instead of rehashing the silly, trivial and misleading point about a “relative paucity of hurricanes over the last couple of years.” See my Pajamas Media article for a full rebuttal to that.) [UPDATE: Glenn has updated his post, adding a link to this post and quoting the very passage I wished he had quoted initially. Thanks, Glenn.]
Berger also points out that “if you’re a skeptic, and you welcome these results, please remember that [the climate models used in this new study] are the same climate models you bash when they show global temperatures steadily rising during the next century.”
Meanwhile, Becky tells me she saw the National Hurricane Center’s new director, Bill Read, talking on The Weather Channel last week about how we need to stop obsessing over the global warming issue when talking about hurricanes, and focus more on promoting greater preparedness. I agree 100% with that, and I would add that we also need to focus on figuring out what to do about runaway coastal development. As I wrote in my PJM article:
[T]he whole argument over global warming really misses the point, in a certain sense. The biggest downside of the politicization of weather is that it has largely blinded us to more pressing issues related to disaster preparedness.
Regardless of whether global warming is real and manmade Ã¢â‚¬â€ and regardless of whether warming ocean temperatures will lead to more active hurricane seasons, which is actually a separate question Ã¢â‚¬â€ it is an undeniable reality that hurricanes are going to become more damaging and deadly in the coming decades because of increased coastal development. It is also undeniable that certain cities (e.g., Houston/Galveston, Tampa, Miami, New York, and, still, New Orleans) are incredibly vulnerable to absolute devastation from a major hurricane, and more steps need to be taken to protect them, regardless of global warming. Disaster preparedness should not be a political issue, but because of intellectual dishonesty and laziness on both extremes in this feud, it has become one.
Whatever our positions on global warming and related political issues, we should all be happy that the 2006 and 2007 hurricane seasons have turned out to be relatively less devastating than some other recent seasons Ã¢â‚¬â€ and we should use that relative inactivity not as an excuse to grow complacent, but as an opportunity to get ready for the next big storm. Because there will be another big storm. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one inconvenient truth that nobody can deny.
As the Atlantic hurricane season gets underway, the possible influence of climate change on hurricane activity is receiving renewed attention. While the debate on this issue is of considerable scientific and societal interest and concern, it should in no event detract from the main hurricane problem facing the United States: the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions. These demographic trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters, especially in this era of heightened activity. Scores of scientists and engineers had warned of the threat to New Orleans long before climate change was seriously considered, and a Katrina-like storm or worse was (and is) inevitable even in a stable climate.
Rapidly escalating hurricane damage in recent decades owes much to government policies that serve to subsidize risk. State regulation of insurance is captive to political pressures that hold down premiums in risky coastal areas at the expense of higher premiums in less risky places. Federal flood insurance programs likewise undercharge property owners in vulnerable areas. Federal disaster policies, while providing obvious humanitarian benefits, also serve to promote risky behavior in the long run.
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.
Amen. (Emphasis mine.)
P.S. Since I now have a mini-Instalanche headed my way, which inevitably means a global warming flame-war is imminent, I wanted to quote one other key passage from my PJM article. I’ve added a few bracketed points for the sake of clarity.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“All scientists agree,Ã¢â‚¬Â Berger writes, Ã¢â‚¬Å“that a single hurricane season cannot make or break an argument for global warming having a measurable impact of hurricanes.Ã¢â‚¬Â Alas, this message is often lost on non-scientists in the pro- and anti- crowds.
Just as it was both unsound and unwise for some global-warming advocates to hold up the 2005 hurricane season as proof of their position, it would be equally unsound and unwise for global-warming skeptics to hold up 2006 and 2007 as somehow disproving the existence of global warming [or of a link between global warming and hurricanes]. Such arguments are unsound because they confuse climate, which is comprised of long-term trends, with weather, which chronicles individual events. They are also unwise strategically because they are so vulnerable to attack when things Ã¢â‚¬â€ predictably Ã¢â‚¬â€ turn out differently in future years.
The heavy reliance on 2005 in certain quarters, which gave some lay observers the false impression that all hurricane seasons would henceforth be similar to the freakish Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ05 season, left global-warming advocates open to cynicism, criticism and rebuttal when 2006 and 2007 failed to live up to expectations. Similarly, a global-warming skeptic who claims today that 2007 disproves global warming [and/or an AGW link to hurricanes] is leaving himself open to the argument, if 2008 is an active season, that Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ08 proves global warming is real [and linked to hurricanes] after all. The more honest (and strategically sound) course, for both sides, is to discuss global warming on its actual merits, and not obsess over minor year-to-year variations that tell us very little, if anything, about long-term trends.
Something for everyone, on both sides, to keep in mind as the 2008 hurricane season approaches.