Storm World by Chris Mooney (Book Review)

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Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming
I’ve been putting off posting my review of this book until just the right moment. Perhaps that moment is now, with the juxtaposition of a serious storm … hurricane Gustav … arriving in the vicinity of New Orleans and the opening day of the Republican National Convention, since both charismatic hurricanes and not so charismatic politicians play such a large role in the book at hand.
Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, by Chris Mooney, is a well written, informative, captivating, and important book exploring this question: Does global warming mean that there have been, or will be, more hurricanes, more hurricanes that hit us, or stronger hurricanes? In other words, is a consequence of global warming a world in which the Gulf and Southeastern States of the US becomes a deadly place, as well as regions such as the Bay of Bengal, and will hurricanes begin to affect regions previously untouched by them, such as the Amazon and Europe?

I strongly recommend this book. Here, I’ll give you the gist of the book, explain why it is important, and pontificate a bit on one particular theme regarding hurricanes and global warming.


~ A repost for Back to School Special ~

On Christmas Day, 2005, author Chris Mooney found himself, with various family members, visiting the site of his mother’s heavily damaged home in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. He recalls that the local newspaper was running a story on what the “future New Orleans” would look like five years hence.

…light rail, raised houses, and new green spaces …. [and] “Surrounding it all is a dependable Category 3 levee system…” That hardly sounded like planning for the worst-case scenario. Katrina was a mid-range Category 3 storm … when it made its final landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Winds experienced in New Orleans weren’t even at Category 3 strength, since the storm didn’t hit the city directly. It missed.

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Chris Mooney, author of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming and The Republican War on Science. Mooney writes a blog at Scienceblogs.com called The Intersection. [Photo by Neurophilosophy.
This recollection encapsulates the fundamental level of misunderstanding of hurricanes and climate systems in general among two of of the four major stakeholders in the ongoing public debate about these important issues: The public and the press. The other two major stakeholders are politicians and scientists. Storm World maintains a focus on the scientists, but also thoroughly explores the role of public (mis)understanding and journalism, as the role of hurricanes in understanding climate systems, and visa versa, has evolved over the last century and a half. This is not, however, a comprehensive history of 19th and early 20th century meteorology and Earth science (that might be a bit much). Rather, Mooney provides sufficient historical discussion to root the modern debates over the very nature of hurricanes properly, and focuses mainly on the first few years of the 21st century.

This is a story about:

1) Fundamentally different ideas about how storms in general and hurricanes in particular form and operate, and how these ideas have changed with increasingly better and more abundant observations, as well as better theory;

2) Dramatically different interpretations of the role of global warming (and to some extent, whether or not global warming is real and anthropogenic) in hurricane formation, frequency, and severity;

3) The politics of the American Left vs. Right in relation to environmentalism;

4) The politics of Big Science, in this case, Big Storm Science, both at the level of the scientists themselves, regarding their lineages, alliances, proclivities, personalities, and so on , and at the level of the interaction between the process of doing science and how science ‘works’ in large well funded government agencies operating under an anti-science administration (Bush, Republicans, etc).

5) The role, almost as personalities, of the beautiful and horrific outcomes of atmospheric disturbances — the hurricanes. These storms, in certain regions of the world, play a large role in the highly organized transfer of solar energy from sub-equatorial regions to temperate regions and from the Earth’s surface back into space. That we tend to know of these hurricanes by name and that they almost play the role of actual characters in Mooney’s book is a testament to their ability to invoke emotional responses in humans, once the humans know about them.

Don’t get me wrong: Mooney does not anthropomorphize the hurricanes even a little. That would be terribly annoying. But it simply is true that of the hundreds of hurricanes we know about and have named, several dozen really are stars for their association with broken records (wind speed, pressure, time of year, size, and so on) as well as broken lives (tens, hundreds, thousands killed; thousands, hundreds of thousands displaced) and cost.

From the 19th century well into the 20th century, there were multiple competing theories as to how storms in general form. These theories were linked with large personalities, as well as schools of thoughts, and even specific countries (well, at least, the French and the British took opposite sides on one key issue). Anyone who has studied the history of any major science will see this as a familiar pattern. As you would expect, some of the more elegant theories were to be disproved as new facts became known, and more useful facts have become known with improved methods.

Over time, what started as difference in viewpoints of how storms form developed to become different views depending on the kind of weather system one studies (as the fact that hurricanes are not the same as other storms became clearer), and Mooney follows the hurricane … a tropical or subtropical phenomenon … as that happens.

Eventually, the divergences in storm formation theories become increasingly nuanced and specific, and the real differences become not so much a matter of what the storms are doing, but the approaches the scientists are taking. Mooney paints a world, and I have every reason to believe that this is accurate, in which there are forecasters on one hand and modelers on the other. Forecasters, profane and red-necked, develop their ideas from the trenches where they wrestle every day with wet and windy empirical realities, while modelers are prim and proper super-computer yielding dandies. (And I’m only exaggerating by an order of magnitude here.)

More realistically: For the most part forecasters also have tended to be global warming deniers or if not deniers, they felt strongly that global warming has not increased hurricane strength or frequency. In contrast, those suggesting that there either have been, could be, or will be changes in hurricane dynamics are to be found mainly among the modelers.

In the end, history shows and Mooney documents that clearly, in the fight between forecasting naysayers of a global warming – hurricane link vs. modeling supporters of the link, the clear conclusion is … well … not entirely clear.

By the end of Mooney’s study and by the end of his book, the modelers and their ideas of increased hurricane something (see below) are clearly winning the debate, but not like Big Brown at the Kentucky Derby. But more than Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly.

(In my view, the modelers are totally right by a mile, but that can be addressed elsewhere.)

Mooney does an excellent job, in an engaging style that is well and fairly executed as documentary (extensive notes and all), of describing the drama of the last few years of hurricane research, a drama that is in essence the perfect storm formed of the collision of the global warming debate, public panic arising from a series of unprecedented hurricane seasons (which may still be more or less happening), and a deeply anti-science party in control in Washington.

And as Mooney notes, the focusing storm, Katrina … the storm that missed New Orleans … was not even close to impressive compared to many other storms over those few years and previously. Indeed, Hurricane Gustav may be giving New Orleans about the same amount of wind that Katrina provided. Katrina owes her awesomeness to the lack of preparedness of her contemporaries.

The conclusion, and current best guess regarding the relationship between global warming and hurricanes is this: Global warming probably does not increase the number of tropical storms and hurricanes as a whole. Global warming probably does increase the severity of these storms in general. Global warming might (but it is way to early to be sure) increase the likelihood of hurricanes forming in some of the regions of the world where they are currently not believed to form.

Now, my pontification.

Mooney states again and again, correctly so, that a given storm cannot be attributed to global warming, even if global warming has caused an increase in storm frequency (which is questionable). Moreover, the intensity of a bad storm cannot be attributed to global warming even if global warming has caused an overall increase in storm severity (which is very likely). This is because global warming, assuming it has played a role in hurricane patterns, has had a statistical effect on storms in general, not a specific effect on a specific storm. Therefore a given event cannot be linked directly to the cause; Only trends can be described.

I agree with that in principle, but I think that the understanding of the situation that this sort of carefully worded caveat generates for the average person presents a big problem. What really happens is this: People hear “You can’t attribute this or that storm to global warming” and then they conclude “Global warming is not a factor with hurricanes” or even “Global warming is not real or important.”

It IS correct to say (probably) that of the X billion dollars of storm damage over the last 10 years, and the Y number of deaths from hurricanes over the last 10 years, Z percent can be estimated as having been caused by global warming, above and beyond what would have happened without global warming. But that is a ‘fact’ that is not particularly useful in discussing a particular storm event, and as Mooney so clearly documents, the individual storms are what gets people’s attention.

One of the interesting themes that Mooney starts to follow but cannot really develop beyond a suggestion (because the science is not there yet) is the idea that qualitative shifts in hurricane formation and activity could occur in relation to global warming. One could actually ask this question about the very existence of hurricanes. I can easily imagine a world with no hurricanes at all. Earth’s atmospheric and ocean currents move the way they do in part because they are moving equatorial heat towards the poles (and in the case of the atmosphere towards outer space as well). In a world with a uniformly deep continuous ocean and no land masses, this movement would be potentially very regular, and while there might be storms, hurricanes may not occur at all. Or, perhaps, they would occur very uniformly in a particular band around the Earth, be of a narrow range of size and strength, and rarely if ever stray from that zone.

(This ideal world also has not moons and spins very uniformly on its axis which is perfectly perpendicular to the equatorial plane of an invariant, single, sun. And there are no asteroids hitting this world. And so on.)

As it is, hurricanes on Earth form only in certain areas and vary tremendously in rate of formation, size, and strength, and this depends on the distribution of the continents in relation to the oceans. Atmospheric waves caused by the position and nature of continental land masses, and blobs of very warm water caused by restrictions to the movement of ocean currents, determine if hurricanes are even possible, and when, where, and in what way they are generated.

So, one could in theory look at a lot of different roughly Earth-like (in size and temperature range) planets across the universe and say “These planets …. these ones with the continents that traverse the equatorial regions …. tend to have hurricanes, while these continent-free or polar-only continent planets do not have hurricanes. Thus, trans-equatorial continents cause hurricanes.”

In the meantime, meteorologist confined to planets with hurricanes who cannot see this big picture because they are mere Earthlings might properly say “we can’t really blame a given hurricane on the continents” … But of course, they can. They can blame every single hurricane on the existence of continents. A necessary but not sufficient cause can be blamed, especially if it is proximate. So we may not want to blame plate tectonics (which made continents move to their present locations on The Earth) but we can implicate the northern half of Africa, from which the Atlantic Waves that sometimes form into hurricanes arise, in the formation of certain hurricanes. Or at least, if hurricanes were bank robberies, the FBI would be looking hard at North Africa.

And here, I’m using the term “blame” quite intentionally. This is not a scientific discussion of causality. This is a vernacular discussion of what voters may be thinking. That is an important distinction.

So, getting back to Mooney’s book: Mooney points out that at present, it seems that hurricanes are formed under certain conditions, but he also notes that there are, in theory, conditions that are not known to occur very often such that if these conditions existed, hurricanes may be caused under THOSE conditions as well. One of these is a very warm ocean. If the oceans are warm enough, hurricanes could form without the wave disturbances that are known to seed them now. Also, hurricanes are “known to not form” in certain parts of the ocean. But hey, it turns out that they DO form in some of these no-hurricane zones, just very rarely. But under somewhat different conditions, they may form in these zones more regularly.

Today there are virtually no South Atlantic hurricanes because the conditions for their formation in the South Atlantic don’t occur. But if global warming caused this to change, and we started to get numerous hurricanes in the South Atlantic, then, would be we able to say that every South Atlantic Hurricane is caused by global warming?

According to the logic that Mooney is using, the answer might be “no” but only in a trivial way. the fact that out of every 100 or so years, one or two times a hurricane forms in the South Atlantic, could mean that any given hurricane cannot be positively identified as the result of global warming in this scenario.

Some of you are already thinking what I’m about to say: This is a little like the firing squad. It is said that in a firing squad of, say, five shooters, one individual will have a blank instead of a bullet in his rifle. None of the shooters know which has the blank, so each can go home after work knowing that there is a chance that they did not shoot someone to death that day. An extreme version of this is a firing squad of five shooters where only one shooter has a bullet. In this scenario, each can go home that day knowing that there is a chance that they DID shoot someone to death that day.

If global warming increases the average strength of tropical storms and hurricanes by enough to ramp up each by an average of one-half a category on the Saffir-Simpson scale, then we can’t blame any given hurricane or its destructiveness on global warming. But we can blame a palpable increase in severity of every single storm on global warming and only be wrong some of the time.

There was a time when hardly anyone in Chicago died of heat waves. Over the last few decades, we have seen many summers in which dozens of people in Chicago died of heat waves. Today hardly anybody dies of heat waves in the Twin Cities. If trends continue, in ten years it will be the case that every couple/few years dozens in the Twin Cities will die of this or that heat wave. One could argue that we will be able to firmly and clearly blame these Twin Cities tragedies on global warming. Today, perhaps we can blame the Chicago deaths on global warming. But never will we be able to blame any deaths that occur in, say, Dallas Texas due to heat waves on global warming because people in the semi-arid southern regions have always had this problem. Yet, global warming kills Texans. Texans are getting ripped off when it comes to laying blame.

What I’m trying to show here is that the average person on the street does need to understand these issues in tangible, measurable, and street-meaningful ways, but the subtleties of how we discuss, in science, causality and probability do not lend themselves to helping people to understand what they should really be concerned about. So, while I agree with Mooney in what we really can and cannot say about the role of global warming in hurricane formation, I think we are left with an in adequate approach for framing this issue.

I truly enjoyed Storm World. Read it.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Bob
    September 22, 2010

    great review. I’ll put this on my list of books I need to get around to reading (along with Mooney’s other book I wanted to read, The Republican War on Science)

  2. #2 Tom Bri
    September 22, 2010

    Your main argument can be as easily applied in the opposite direction. Global warming may change where and how often hurricanes form. If so, fewer and/or weaker hurricanes may form where they are now common.

    I have heard arguments to that effect, but not being up on hurricane science I can’t make a judgment either way.