Journalism, Hurricanes and Climate Change

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.


  1. John, to pick one small nit, I was pointing to the editorial statement not as a statement of the “sense of the science” but rather of a sense of the consensus. Obviously that consensus has yet to be formalized. Part of the problem is that it won’t be in the AR4 (since many of the papers are too late for that), and it’s not clear to me what other venue there would be. The WMO statement is as I understand it is not a WMO statement at all, but rather a letter signed by a number of researchers who happened to be in attendance at a conference. I interpreted it at the time as a temporary papering-over of differences in recognition of the non-productiveness of public debate on this issue before a lot of the research then in the pipeline had had a chance to be published. I still think I was right about that characterization.

    I entirely agree with your point about the opposing camps, but unfortunately that’s just human nature. Having looked at the CVs of the people on both sides and read most of the relevant papers, I think a fair conclusion is that the only person with applicable scientific credibility who is in the “NHC camp” is Chris Landsea. When you get a guy like Stan Goldenberg with no applicable expertise accusing folks like Kerry Emanuel, Greg Holland, Kevin Trenberth, Peter Webster, Judy Curry, Tom Knutson, Mike Mann etc. of resorting to “theology” as a basis for thinking there is a strong hurricane-AGW connection, I think even journalists who didn’t have the chance to attend the Monterey conference can begin drawing the obvious conclusion.

    But just out of curiosity, given the proable lack of availability of the AR4 as a platform for expressing the new consensus, what do you think would serve that purpose?

  2. Seven years? Maybe another one of those letters signed by whoever shows up at the next tropical meteorology conference will have to serve. Certainly RP Jr. had no problem describing the last one as a consensus document.

  3. I was being facetious when I said AR5, I guess. My point is that I think there is no hurry. Alex’s story quite rightly explained the reasons the science is so unsettled now. What’s wrong with waiting to let it settle, rather than expecting an answer with some immediacy? The scientists involved have a lot of work to do. Let’s just let them do it.

  4. John,

    The problem is that scientific consensuses mean exactly nothing in scientific terms – they are states of opinion. For propagandists like Bloom they are an endless source of headlines for this or that belief without any experimental evidence or theoretic underpinning.

    Bloom ignores all of the times when scientific consensuses were completely wrong. He also deliberately and falsely accuses very knowledgeable people who don’t believe in this consensus of behaving like creationists or Holocaust deniers.

    Lots and lots of scientific consensuses have been shown to be false. The people who have stood up against these scientific consensuses have been in the past villified by proto-Blooms as tools of this or that totalitarian belief, capitalism, communism, this or that religious belief. And so it goes on.

    Bloom will never ever admit that he is wrong on anything. He “moves on” from one bandwagon to the next. Eventually people stop listening to him as he gets shriller and shriller.

    The issue of the link between Hurricane intensity and global warming is just one of these cases where people make long term forecasts based on short-term trends. It’s an easy thing to do, because it cannot be refuted without either waiting eighty years or using a time machine.

    In any case, if global warming is to be believed as set in stone, with polar regions warming relative to the tropics, the result would unambiguously be reductions in storm frequency and intensity.

    Bloom portrays the Earth’s climate as constantly on the cusp of disaster, as if the climate system was in some sort of unstable equilibrium. As the last 4 billion years have demonstrated, the climate system is metastable, despite everything that has happened to it, including a huge rock that hit Anatarctica 250 million years ago causing 95% of life on Earth to go extinct.

    But a conclusion like that will never do for Bloom. He’s trying to save the world from evil people who refuse to see things his way. The world is in danger! Gaia is angry! We must return to our natural state (the Stone Age)!

    All I can say is: you first Bloom. Try living in the 3rd World for a year – its not a barrel of laughs. Try living in a place where your chances of dying go up 20 fold, 30% of children die in the first year of life, where floods and drought are not merely inconveniences but could wipe you out at any time and with no warning.

    You first Bloom. Lets see if you can survive that brave new world.

  5. John A., when you say “[i]n any case, if global warming is to be believed as set in stone, with polar regions warming relative to the tropics, the result would unambiguously be reductions in storm frequency and intensity[.]” it demonstrates that you don’t know the first thing about tropical cyclones. But given your single-minded devotion to the “hockey stick” it’s not surprising that you have no time to spend on trying to comprehend the breadth of climate science.

  6. John- Let me just add 2 cents by agreeing that Nature did an excellent job in both the news stroy and the editorial (which should be read in full). Thanks.

  7. Not sure exactly what Eli means with his comment about Roger Pielke Jr., but I “go there” regularly because I think he’s a pretty smart and insightful observer with much to usefully contribute to the discussion.

  8. Ah yes, yr. humble hare has been exiled…

    But the point about Mach was more serious. These sort of things always repeat themselves. It is difficult for us to conceive, but the existence of atoms was not settled at the turn of the 20th century, and what evidence existed was indirect. Many scientists whose intuition was trained in the time when theories based on continua dominated physics found it impossible to accept atomicity. They prefered their intuition to their lying eyes.

    My grandfather was a young man at the time, just married, and that for me is a marker of how rapidly our understanding and control of nature has advanced in a short time. I start my intro chem classes by telling my students about all the new technologies that have come into existence in his lifetime, that of my parents and mine. It provides context.

    For example, when I took general chemistry we were still using the old Mendeleev form of the periodic table which is based on the stoichiometry of the oxides and hydrides. Today. of course, we use the table based on the quantum solution of the Schroedinger Eq.

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