Alex Witze has an excellent news piece in Nature this week summing up the back-and-forth on the hurricane-global warming link. It shows the debate leaning in the direction of those arguing for a link, but also suggests how currently unsettled the issue is, and why.
I think she gets it just about right.
Over in the comments at Prometheus, I’ve been arguing with Steve Bloom about how journalists should report the discussion. Steve posits:
“an awful lot of people have begun to conclude that the Webster/Emanuel camp is right…. Why shouldn’t journalists begin to draw the same conclusion?”
My answer is that the debate is lively, the question is unsettled, and the best available expert consensus review by the World Meteorological Association reflects the fact that the quesiton is unsettled. To report otherwise would be to pick sides. That’s not what mainstream journalists do (or should do).
Steve points to Nature’s editorial accompanying Alex’s piece, which concludes: “In the past year, an emerging consensus has suggested that rising sea surface temperatures may well be causing hurricanes to become more intense over time,” suggesting that the editorial is an example of good journalism on the issue. But that’s an editorial – Nature’s expression of its institutional opinion on the question, not a news reporter’s explanation of the state of the science. Editorials are supposed to take sides.
More important, though, is a later bit of discussion in the Nature editorial, which Steve and those like him, arguing for the hurricane-global warming connection, should heed:
More worryingly, the science of hurricanes and global warming seems to be falling into the same trap that has ensnared climate-change research for two decades. Researchers are lining up into distressingly familiar camps, with some arguing for the link between tropical storms and climate change, and some against it. They duel at press conferences and snipe at each other on the Internet and in the literature, each side trying to dissect the other’s data.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I refer readers to Daniel Sarewitz on this point, who has ably documented the way public policy and political debates become intractable when disputants choose up sides with competing scientific authorities to support their views.
Steve’s on risky ground here. On the broad questions of anthropogenic climate change, he and the other members of his camp have the IPCC and other expert reviews on their side. Such expressions of consensus provide strong support for their arguments and, I believe, strong support for political and public policy decisions. As soon as they abandon that cover on the hurricane question, picking a side while the science remains unsettled, they lose the authority of their argument.