Katrina, Republican “witch-hunt” worry climate scientists

Warmer sea-surface temperatures caused by climate change could boost the frequency and potency of hurricanes, and that may be what we are now witnessing following the wave of ferocious Atlantic storms in recent years. A paper published last month in the journal Nature by meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes increased 50% over the last half century, and that a rise in surface temperatures linked to global warming was at least partly responsible.

“People are beginning to seriously wonder whether there is a [global warming] signal there,” said Emanuel. “I think you are going to see a lot more of a focus on this in coming years.”

Hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been higher than normal in nine of the last 11 years, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This month, the agency raised its already-high hurricane forecast for this year to 18 to 21 tropical storms, including as many as 11 that would become hurricanes and five to seven that would reach major-hurricane status. That could make 2005 one of the most violent hurricane seasons ever recorded. A typical storm year in the Atlantic results in six hurricanes.

But the agency believes that the increase is the result of a confluence of cyclical ocean and atmospheric conditions that tend to produce heightened tropical storms every 20 to 30 years. If global warming is playing any role in the hurricanes, it is a minor one, NOAA maintains.

Computer models have shown for years that rising sea-surface temperatures resulting from global warming could create more ideal conditions for hurricanes. Yet before Emanuel’s research there were few indications that hurricanes had become stronger or more frequent, despite well-documented increases in surface temperatures.

But the idea is a controverisal one. NOAA hurricane expert Chris Landsea withdrew this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international scientific group that periodically sums up the consensus on global warming. Landsea said in a letter to scientific colleagues that he resigned because he strongly disagreed with public statements made by Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also part of the panel, suggesting that last year’s Atlantic hurricanes were linked to global warming.

While the scientists argue, the prospect of stronger hurricanes has alarmed insurance companies. Munich Re, the world’s largest insurance company insurer, said that global warming was at least partly responsible for a rise in worldwide insurance losses over the last 50 years, including $114.5 billion in losses last year, the second-highest total ever. Critics, including Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, attribute the losses to more people living in harm’s way in areas such as Florida and Louisiana.

But more and bigger storms in recent years is a reality. “You are seeing more intense storms, which is consistent with what you would see” under global warming scenarios, said Richard Murnane, a hurricane expert with the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, which studies storms for insurance companies. “The majority view is that if this keeps up for a few more years, we will be outside of natural variability.” (LAT, Aug. 30)

Ross Gelbspan writes in the Boston Globe Aug. 30:

The Hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming.

When the year began with a two-foot snowfall in Los Angeles, the cause was global warming.

When 124-mile-an-hour winds shut down nuclear plants in Scandinavia and cut power to hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland and the United Kingdom, the driver was global warming.

When a severe drought in the Midwest dropped water levels in the Missouri River to their lowest on record earlier this summer, the reason was global warming.

In July, when the worst drought on record triggered wildfires in Spain and Portugal and left water levels in France at their lowest in 30 years, the explanation was global warming.

When a lethal heat wave in Arizona kept temperatures above 110 degrees and killed more than 20 people in one week, the culprit was global warming.

And when the Indian city of Bombay (Mumbai) received 37 inches of rain in one day – killing 1,000 people and disrupting the lives of 20 million others – the villain was global warming.

As the atmosphere warms, it generates longer droughts, more-intense downpours, more-frequent heat waves, and more-severe storms.

Although Katrina began as a relatively small hurricane that glanced off south Florida, it was supercharged with extraordinary intensity by the relatively blistering sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

The consequences are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying.

Unfortunately, very few people in America know the real name of Hurricane Katrina because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt about the issue.

The reason is simple: To allow the climate to stabilize requires humanity to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent. That, of course, threatens the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in history.

In 1995, public utility hearings in Minnesota found that the coal industry had paid more than $1 million to four scientists who were public dissenters on global warming. And ExxonMobil has spent more than $13 million since 1998 on an anti-global warming public relations and lobbying campaign.

In 2000, big oil and big coal scored their biggest electoral victory yet when President George W. Bush was elected president – and subsequently took suggestions from the industry for his climate and energy policies.

As the pace of climate change accelerates, many researchers fear we have already entered a period of irreversible runaway climate change.


For years, the fossil fuel industry has lobbied the media to accord the same weight to a handful of global warming skeptics that it accords the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations.

Today, with the science having become even more robust – and the impacts as visible as the mega-storm that covered much of the Gulf of Mexico – the press bears a share of the guilt for our self-induced destruction with the oil and coal industries.

As a Bostonian, I am afraid that the coming winter will – like last winter – be unusually short and devastatingly severe. At the beginning of 2005, a deadly ice storm knocked out power to thousands of people in New England and dropped a record-setting 42.2 inches of snow on Boston.

The conventional name of the month was January. Its real name is global warming.

(Both stories via TruthOut)

Some of the United States’ leading scientists have accused Republican politicians of intimidating climate-change experts by placing them under unprecedented scrutiny. A far-reaching inquiry into the careers of three senior climate specialists has been launched by Joe Barton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He has demanded details of all their sources of funding, methods and everything they have ever published. Barton, a Texan closely associated with the fossil-fuel lobby, has spent his 11 years as chairman opposing every piece of legislation designed to combat climate change. He is now using the powers of his committee to force the scientists to produce great quantities of material, alleging flaws in their research.

The scientific work they are investigating formed part of the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which convinced most world leaders–George Bush being a notable exception—that urgent action was needed. The demands in letters sent to the scientists have been compared by some US media commentators to the anti-communist “witch-hunts” pursued by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.

The three US climate scientists—Michael Mann of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University; Raymond Bradley of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts; and Malcolm Hughes formerly of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona—have been told to send large volumes of material. A letter demanding information on the three and their work has also gone to Arden Bement, director of the US National Science Foundation.

Barton’s inquiry was launched after an article in the Wall Street Journal quoted an economist and a statistician—neither from a climate science background—saying there were methodological flaws and data errors in the three scientists’ work. It accused the trio of refusing to make their original material available to be cross-checked.

Barton then asked for everything the scientists had ever published and all baseline data. He said the information was necessary because Congress was going to make policy decisions drawing on their work, and his committee needed to check its validity.

Eighteen of the country’s most influential scientists from Princeton and Harvard have written to Barto expressing “deep concern.” Their letter says much of the information requested is unrelated to climate science. It says: “Requests to provide all working materials related to hundreds of publications stretching back decades can be seen as intimidation—intentional or not—and thereby risks compromising the independence of scientific opinion that is vital to the pre-eminence of American science as well as to the flow of objective science to the government.”

Alan Leshner protested on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also expressing “deep concern” about the inquiry, which appeared to be “a search for a basis to discredit the particular scientists rather than a search for understanding.”

In the House, Henry Waxman (D-CA), wrote complaining that this was a “dubious” inquiry, viewed by many as a “transparent effort to bully and harass climate-change experts who have reached conclusions with which you disagree.” The strongest language came from another Republican, Sherwood Boehlert of upstate New York, chairman of the House Science Committee. He wrote to “express my strenuous objections to what I see as the misguided and illegitimate investigation.” He said the precedent was “truly chilling,” and the inquiry “seeks to erase the line between science and politics.” (UK Guardian, Aug. 30 via TruthOut)

See our last posts on the disaster in New Orelans and global climate destabilization.