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Ivo Vegter: Hurricanes Fuel Climate Sensationalism

Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick

Whenever extreme weather strikes, the climate change lobby is all over the papers, blaming the people who produce the means to live. Pity there is so little scepticism about the alarmist media narrative. 

If you haven’t seen the latest Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover, you really ought to take a look.

“It’s global warming, stupid!” blares the news magazine, against an ominous red background and a photo of flooded, darkened city streets. The magazine bears the name of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, which was among the cities struck last week by Hurricane Sandy. Its editors must believe BusinessWeek readers have fairly thick skins, or are smug enough to presume the cover means to patronise someone else. Either way, BusinessWeek seems to have picked up the baton of lurid covers dropped by Newsweek upon the demise of its print edition.

They’d probably call it bold, brave and true journalism. In reality, it is ugly, alarmist and false sensationalism.

Oh, no, wait. They don’t call it true after all. In the very first line of thestory, they admit their phrasing is “unsophisticated”. They add: “Men and women in white lab coats tell us – and they’re right – that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode.”

Quite so. The New York Times grudgingly admitted: “Hesitantly, climate scientists offered an answer this week that is likely to satisfy no one, themselves included. They simply do not know for sure if the storm was caused or made worse by human-induced global warming.”

Scientific American, a magazine with a distinguished history of environmental exaggeration (and consequently a frequent source for my book on this subject), isn’t so coy: “If you’ve followed the US news and weather in the past 24 hours you have no doubt run across a journalist or blogger explaining why it’s difficult to say that climate change could be causing big storms like Sandy. Well, no doubt here: it is.”

Equally cocksure, BusinessWeek can’t resist taking a swipe at a stick-figure caricature of those who disagree with them: “Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.”

It is doubly stupid to assert that there are people who deny that climate even exists, let alone changes as a matter of course. Therefore, one can only interpret the phrase “climate denier” as either a straw-man argument that compares climate sceptics to people who are wrong on entirely different subjects, such as Aids, or a coded personal reference intended to compare sceptics of the catastrophism of the environmental movement to Nazis. Either way, it is an insult that avoids the issue.

So let’s annoy BusinessWeek by having the discussion.

The funny thing is, every time climate sceptics point to some weather event that appears to support their view, the alarmists retort that “weather is not climate”. Yet every time there is a cold winter, or a drought, or a hurricane, the alarmists are all over the newspapers saying “look, it’s climate change”.

Well, no. Weather is not climate. Whether the climate is changing, what the causes might be and what humanity might be able to do about it, are questions that are entirely independent of local weather observations.

However, a common prediction made by those who believe climate change is largely caused by humans is that warming will lead to an increase in the frequency of hurricanes, or failing that, an increase in their severity.

So, to ascertain the validity of this claim, I trawled through 160 years of US and Atlantic hurricane records. I then charted hurricanes that made landfall in the US, per decade, distinguishing major hurricanes of category 3 or higher (see chart alongside).

As it turns out, recent decades aren’t anywhere near record territory, either in number of hurricanes, or in their strength. In fact, as Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulderdocuments, the last decade saw a record period of more than six years between major hurricane landfalls in the US.

For powerful hurricanes, the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were the worst years, with eight or nine majors making landfall in each of those decades. For lesser hurricanes, down to category 1, the worst decade was more than a century ago, long before we supposedly started microwaving the planet.

(Note that there is some discrepancy between records of hurricanes that made landfall in the US, which I show here, and a similar chart of all Atlantic Basin hurricanes, which shows an increase in recent decades. Before the 1980s, hurricanes at sea – some of which never get anywhere near land – could only be reported by instruments on islands, ships or buoys, rather than by satellite observation of the entire ocean. The low rate of recent landfall suggests that claims of increasing hurricane frequency or strength based on the modern satellite record may well be an artefact of inconsistent measurements.)

A quick comeback to this observation is that sure, hurricanes aren’t getting worse, but what about rising sea levels?

That sea levels are rising, at a fairly consistent averaged rate of about 3.2 mm per year, is not in dispute. This has been the case for all of the 160 years charted above, and most scientists expect this rate to continue, or increase marginally, over the next century. Do you know anyone who recalls the 20th century, and tells you, “Ah, son, I remember it well. We sent a man to the moon. We beat both Adolf and Uncle Joe. Some of us went to Vietnam, and the rest dodged the draft and went to Woodstock. We listened to Chuck Berry and the Beatles and Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. We built the Hoover Dam and the World Trade Centre. We saw Kennedy get shot in Dallas. And oh yes, sea levels rose by a foot. That was scary!”

Sure, marginally higher sea levels obviously lead to marginally higher storm surges, but the change is small compared to the variability of the tides. Many climate alarmists recognise that sea level rise attributable to global warming is small and not strongly supported by empirical evidence, so they resort to citing insurance industry data as a last resort to prove their claim that we’re all going to die.

But again, the connection between higher insurance claims and climate is so tenuous that one can’t consider it seriously as proof of anything. There’s a reason damage claims are much higher today than in the past. When Galveston, Texas, got flattened in 1900, or Holland was inundated by storms coinciding with spring tides in 1953, this wasn’t because of rising sea levels or global warming. In those days, the value of property, especially along beach fronts, was much lower, and insurance coverage was less extensive. So measuring by insured value is a deception. It likely doesn’t show what climate change alarmists says it shows, and if it does, the extent to which it does so is very hard to show.

Likewise, deaths caused by hurricanes aren’t serious cause for alarm. There are more people than ever on the planet today to get in the way of storms. The last decade saw an exceptionally deadly storm make landfall in the US, in the form of Katrina in 2005. Still, the decade by no means represents a record, or an indicator of a long-term trend. The 1980s and ’90s recorded remarkably few hurricane-related deaths, and almost six times as many people died to hurricanes in the US in the first decade of the 1900s than in the same decade a century later.

Notably, my source for these numbers, Dr Indur Goklany of the US Department of Interior’s office of policy analysis, points out that almost half of the US deaths due to extreme weather are not due to heat, hurricanes, floods, lightning or tornados, but due to cold.

So, while the routine media hyperventilation about global warming in the wake of unusual weather is, at best, a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy – meaning B happened after A, therefore A must have caused B – it isn’t even certain that all the effects would necessarily be bad for us.

Natural disasters happen. They have always happened and they always will. As the world becomes more populous and more prosperous, they will cause more damage, and we will keep better records. But beyond some theorising by researchers whose livelihood depends on working on matters of grave perceived importance to government policy makers, there is little empirical evidence for the claim that climate change, or our debatable contribution to it, makes bad weather worse.

Besides, has anyone noticed the news that the US has, without signing the Kyoto Protocol, reduced its carbon emissions to such an extent that 1990 levels are, unexpectedly within sight? The drivers of this decline are tighter emission standards, a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation and the economic downturn, of which at least one (and arguably two) are clearly undesirable. But, declining they are, and despite this, Sandy struck. This suggests that there is also not much empirical evidence for the notion that policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will avert severe weather in future.

I wish those affected by Hurricane Sandy the best of luck recovering from this natural disaster. Spare a thought for the island nations that got hit before the storm bore down on the offices of the major US news media. They don’t all enjoy prosperous, productive, energy-intensive capitalist economies like that of the US, which can help them avert severe damage in advance and recover rapidly afterwards.

Daily Maverick, 7 November 2012