The Intersection

Warming and Storming: My New Project

I frequently get asked how I plan on following up The Republican War on Science, a book that received a considerable amount of attention (and that will probably continue to do so, since there’s still a paperback to look forward to). This is a subject to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought–probably too much thought. Over the past year I’ve been hot and cold on a number of different book ideas, investing too much energy in ideas that didn’t merit it and feeling unjustifiably fickle about ideas that probably should have turned into books (like, for example, a narrative account of the Dover evolution trial).

Meanwhile, I’ve remained officially mum as to my thought process. But no longer. Here it is: I’m doing a book on the subject of hurricanes and global warming. Full stop.

What kind of book? Well, right now it’s extremely early in the research and writing process for me, which means there’s much that I myself don’t know yet about how the project will turn out as I apply myself to it over the course of the year. But in this post, I will try to briefly outline why I made this particular choice, why I felt it was important to announce it here, and what I can say at this point about what I envision for the new book.

One reason that The Republican War on Science succeeded, I’m convinced, is that its actual publication was preceded by nearly two years of devoted blogging on its subject matter, which really helped focus attention on the issue of politics and science while also allowing me to develop my thinking in response to dedicated input from blog readers. For the next book, I plan on doing the same–starting right now. That’s why it’s relevant to all of you folks. (There are already some blogs that have a lot to say on this subject, including Prometheus and Real Climate. I encourage you to check them out.)

Blogging on this topic will take some getting used to, however, because the new book seems certain to diverge significantly from the old one. True, broadly speaking I’m still writing about politics and science (likely to be my area of focus for some time). But in tone and approach, the new book will likely have a different tack–and so will its corresponding blog posts.

The Republican War on Science was argumentative, even polemical, in nature. For this I make no apologies, because I was writing at a time when something very strong needed to be said about attacks on science throughout our government and public life. That the book struck a chord is a testament, I think, to the fact that my calculation was correct. People were outraged, and I was the guy who wasn’t equivocating or pulling punches. I spoke to the moment–a moment, incidentally, that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

But some reviewers of RWoS, like David Appell, pointed out something that really stuck with me: The book I’d produced, whatever its merits, wasn’t really a work of purebred science writing. Rather, it was the hybrid work of a political journalist writing about science. That’s not to say I got the science wrong: I had my statements vetted by experts, and they seem to have stood up very well. However, because I pulled together so many different scientific subjects, and spent most of my time highlighting various political outrages, I really didn’t get a chance to explain many of the fascinating complexities of the scientific issues involved.

By contrast, with my new project, I get much more of a chance to be a real science writer, to talk about scientists, their cutting edge work, its complexities, its uncertainties, its implications. It’s a chance to grow as an author, to try something newer and in some ways much more difficult–and I welcome that.

To be sure, there are some strong echoes of RWoS. Global warming is, again, a central subject (although the new debate is much more complicated than a story of consensus versus deniers). And I’ll be writing about a very political science fight, one that has seen allegations of scientific suppression at federal agencies and debates canceled at scientific meetings because “the dispute had grown so nasty it was too risky to put [two rival scientists] in the same room.”

However, unlike with RWoS, the goal of the new book is not really to make an argument so much as to tell a story: About high-profile scientific findings linking increasing hurricane strength to global warming, the scientists who have produced them, the highly political (and sometimes personal) debate those findings have triggered, and the possible implications of the work.

I chose this topic precisely because it is controversial. But while there’s plenty of animosity in the hurricane-climate field right now, it’s also true that if you step back you can see science working precisely the way it’s supposed to, in all of its gloriously human messiness.

Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch this debate unfold–and unfold it certainly will. There are scientific papers in the works that should sharpen and clarify this battle. Another hurricane season is coming that may (or may not) raise the stakes considerably. And there are long-term decisions being made–about how and whether to protect and rebuild places like New Orleans–that will have to consider what kind of a world we’re moving into with respect to both hurricane behavior and sea level rise over the next century or more. (For more on this, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s feature in the latest issue of the New Yorker.)

So, that’s the project, and expect me to be blogging here on various aspects of it in the coming months. I hope that you’ll all join in the discussion. Since I have an unrelated article to write at the moment, I’m going to leave this post up high for a day and not put anything on top of it. I look forward to all of your reactions.

P.S.: This isn’t the last you’ll hear about The Republican War on Science. Not by a long shot. There will be a paperback in the fall (much more on that later), more book news soon, and I’m continuing to travel and speak; see here for a newly updated list of events…

P.P.S.: For those not familiar with the debate over hurricanes and global warming, click here for more background reading on the subject than you could possibly get through in a day’s time…

Comments

  1. #1 Will
    February 27, 2006

    Sounds like an interesting topic, worthy of a book. Best of luck!

  2. #2 coturnix
    February 27, 2006

    Very, very cool! Very good. I am very excited about this.

  3. #3 Kristjan Wager
    February 27, 2006

    Sounds very interesting, and it is something with a more global appeal than a book about science in the context of US politics (however important that might indirectly be to the rest of us).

  4. #4 odograph
    February 27, 2006

    FWIW I remember a NOAA chief (“the” NOAA chief?) being interviewed on TV immediately following Katrina (the first week or so) and him flatly saying no, the increase in hurricanes had nothing to do with global warming, it was all the decadal whatchamacallit.

    I was shocked at the time at the lack of nuance in his statement. It wasn’t “unproven” it was just “no.”

    Anway, just a note that you might want to check some TV transcripts.

  5. #5 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Odograph–
    Not sure to what you’re referring, but this was National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield’s congressional testimony on Sept 20, 2005:

    “We believe this heightened period of hurricane activity will continue due to multi-decadal variance, as tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic is cyclical. The 1940′s through the 1960′s experienced an above average number of major hurricanes, while the 1970′s into the mid-1990′s averaged fewer hurricanes. The current period of heightened activity could last another 10-20 years. The increased activity since 1995 is due to natural fluctuations/cycles of hurricane activity, driven by the Atlantic Ocean itself along with the atmosphere above it and not enhanced substantially by global warming. The natural cycles are quite large with on average 3-4 major hurricanes a year in active periods and only about 1-2 major hurricanes annually during quiet periods, with each period lasting 25-40 years.”

    http://www.legislative.noaa.gov/Testimony/mayfieldfinal092005.pdf

  6. #6 FishEpid
    February 27, 2006

    IMO the BHAP (big hairy end problem) here that few have written about is the impact of climate change on the food supply, whether it be the devastating effect of hurricanes on farming along the continental margins, century long droughts on water supplies in rivers and fossil acquifers (Ogallala), thermohaline circulation declines and European summer temperature declines. Food supplies are tight; no longer do we have significant stockpiles. Other resources, such as land, are increasing in scarcity. And the human population is increasing. Ocean fisheries are crashing. And climate is becoming more variable beyond just hurricanes. Now what?

  7. #7 David Wilford
    February 27, 2006

    Shorter Chris:

    (image of Earth as seen from space)

    “This is your Earth.”

    (satellite image of Hurricane Katrina)

    “This is your Earth on Global Warming.”

    (image of flooded New Orleans)

    “Any questions?”
    :-)

  8. #8 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Thanks, David. I must point out, though, that actually that will *not* be the “shorter Chris.” This book will be very careful to explain that Katrina was not *caused* by global warming, even if scientists are now seriously discussing whether global warming may be increasing the percentage of storms that reach category 4 and 5 strength.

  9. #9 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    For an explanation of this important point see here:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=181

  10. #10 David Wilford
    February 27, 2006

    Thanks for being willing to endure some my juvenile humor, Chris. That said, I do think you can indulge in a little speculative sizzle while serving up your more serious steak, as long as it’s well done of course. (/rimshot)

  11. #11 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Thanks, David. couldn’t tell if you were joking or not. It sounded like the environmental ad from hell….

  12. #12 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Should have added Stoat to the list of blogs that tackle this topic:
    http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2006/02/hurricanes_update.php

  13. #13 James Bradbury
    February 27, 2006

    Hey Chris,

    Glad to hear that you finally have a topic for the new book! I think it’s a great topic for you to take on, given your interests. I think it’s ambitious, but that’s a good thing. I also agree that it is likely to be controversial (which will probably be good for book sales!)… but I trust that you will approach this topic in a way that will help promote a constructive discussion of 1) the relevant research, 2) the scientific process, 3) the interface between the science and politics.

    One note of caution… and I would say this to anyone attempting to write a book on this subject. As you know, we live in a time when political leaders and issue advocates are all too willing to exploit people’s ignorance and fear to their own ends and, in general, the media are all too willing to go along with alarmist storylines. I think you can probably imagine where I am going with this. Anyway, I trust that you will be as cautious as you are diligent when you report the well established facts as well as the uncertainties associated with the hurricane-global warming link (as you said you would, in the above post). Again, I am not suggesting that you are alarmist. I just wanted to make this point because I was so deeply disappointed with the few environmental advocates who were all too willing to exploit the very real images of human suffering and environmental destruction caused by hurricane Katrina to advance the false notion that the flooding of New Orleans was a direct consequence of greenhouse gas emissions (etc.).

    That said, as someone who is familiar with your work, I’m sure that you are up to this challenge and eagerly await your blogs on this topic. Best of luck to you!

  14. #14 David Wilford
    February 27, 2006

    The quote of the day, from this article about two new books on climate change in today’s New York Times:

    “Republicans would call him a flip-flopper, but he’s really just a good scientist.”

    LOL!

  15. #15 Mark Paris
    February 27, 2006

    This will be a much harder book, I think. At present, an increase in hurricane activity is a possible outcome of global warming. How general is the agreement that global warming will result in an increase? How long a period will be required to identify a related trend (as opposed to trend unrelated to global warming) with a reasonable confidence level? As you note, a particular hurricane or a particular hurricane season cannot be taken as evidence, much less proof, of a trend. Finding an effect will require statistics, and the statistics will require data; that is, more hurricane seasons. And there is a possibility that the presence of any politics in such a book will allow it to be relegated immediately to the area of environmental advocacy.

  16. #16 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Mark,
    We’ll get into all these issues in future posts, but it won’t be me unveiling the statistics–I’ll be writing about the scientists doing this work.

    James: Thanks for your vote of confidence. I’m aware of the pitfalls you cite. I’m pretty sure I can get beyond silly “global warming caused Katrina” assertions to explore what scientists are *really* finding out in this area–and hence, where the debate really lies.

  17. #17 Steve Bloom
    February 27, 2006

    Mark, the studies you ask for already exist: Emanuel (Nature, 2005) and Webster et al (Science, 2005). While Landsea and a few others disagree with the conclusions of these two studies (i.e., that strengthened tropical cyclones are detectable now), there does seem to be broad agreement in the tropical cyclone science community that continued global warming will result in strengthened TCs. The Landsea camp believes that the signal will not become obvious for another 40 years or so, at least in the North Atlantic. Bill Gray is an extreme outlier to the debate (and in fact asserts that there is no anthropogenic global warming to begin with). I should note that the two cited studies did not do the attribution of increased sea surfce temperatures (which everyone, Gray included, agrees is the main driver of TC strength) to anthropogenic global warming, but the authors of both have made it very clear that they think such an attribution far more likely than natural variability/cycles, which is the only other candidate factor. I understand that there are at least four more papers in the pipeline, including one from the Landsea camp. Finally, bear in mind that this whole debate is over TC stength, not frequency, since everyone agrees that the factors driving the latter are poorly understood.

  18. #18 Lee
    February 27, 2006

    Since Katrina I’ve been trying to follow this subject, and what is available — particularly from the mainstream media — I do find rather confusing. My take is that there are really two key issues here — frequency and strength, just as Steve notes. It seems that the “frequency” issue is a very difficult one to nail down, but that the “strength” issue is where global warming does appear to be a significant factor. But separating out the politics, as usual, makes it hard for someone like me with limited technical expertise in the field to come up with any real understanding of the subject. I’ll be interested in seeing what all you can come up with.

  19. #19 Karl
    February 27, 2006

    As most of your correspondents sound like they are scientists, my questions may sound quite naive. I am a only an interested, curious non-scientist.
    Here goes: I live in Oklahoma. We are currently experiencing an unusually dry period – something like 4 or 5 months since a significant rainfall. The paper today has an article about this saying that the current North American climate is very similar to what happened during the 1930′s to cause the Dust Bowl. And that this area has gone through several such 10 to 25 year cycles like this – alternating wet and dry. So the question is: Has anyone examined whether anything in Earth’s path, trajectory, wobble, or precession could be a major factor in either the long or short term variablity of climate?

  20. #20 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Folks,
    In light of the latest modeling studies it seems possible that frequency could actually *decrease* while intensity would go up. I.e., less storms but stronger on average. See for example this study from Japan:

    Oouchi, K., J. Yoshimura, H. Yoshimura, R. Mizuta, S. Kusunoki and A. Noda, 2005: Tropical cyclone climatology in a global-warming climate as simulated in a 20km-mesh global atmospheric model: Frequency and wind intensity analyses. J. Meteor. Soc. Japan, Accepted.

    Here’s the abstract:

    “Possible changes in the tropical cyclones in a future, greenhousewarmed climate are investigated using a 20km-mesh, high-resolution, global atmospheric model of MRI/JMA, with the analyses focused on the evaluation of the frequency and wind intensity. Two types of 10-year climate experiments are conducted. One is a present-day climate experiment, and the other is a greenhouse-warmed climate experiment with a forcing of higher sea surface temperature and increased greenhouse-gas concentration. A comparison of the experiments suggests that the tropical cyclone frequency in the warm-climate experiment is globally reduced by about 30% (but increased in the North Atlantic) compared to the presentday-climate experiment. Furthermore, the number of intense tropical cyclones increases. The maximum surface wind speed for the most intense tropical cyclone generally increases under the greenhouse-warmed condition (by 7.3 m s-1 in the Northern Hemisphere and by 3.3 m s-1 in the Southern Hemisphere). On average, these findings suggest the possibility of higher risks of more devastating tropical cyclones across the globe in a future greenhouse-warmed climate.”

  21. #21 Mark Paris
    February 27, 2006

    Steve, I no longer read the atmo sci journals, and since I left the field I almost never actually talk to an atmospheric scientist. However, I skimmed (emphasis on skimmed) the Webster piece. Their reported increase in number of intense hurricanes, although not in the total number of hurricanes, over 30 years is accompanied by some caveats. I also saw no indication of the statistical significance of the trend, although they do report the statistical significance of some other factors like sea surface temperatures. In the typical way of responsible scientific writing, they say the obsevations are consistent with modeling of the effects of global warming.

    The authors don’t jump to the conclusion that global warming is causing an increase in the percentage of intense hurricanes, although it is clear they lean that way, and so I won’t either. Jumping to conclusions is not the best scientific method, given the current political climate in the US. There needs to be close to as much scientific consensus on this issue is there is on evolution in order to make sure that people pay attention to the results.

  22. #22 Mark Paris
    February 27, 2006

    Climate modeling carries little weight with the public. It’s far too easy for them to say, “They can’t even predict the temperature for next weekend; how can they predict what’s going to happen years from now?” However misinformed that view may be, it is shared and exploited by a lot of politicians and industrialists. There is certainly a need to look at modeling, but it seems more important to me to show where studies bear out model predictions.

  23. #23 Chris Mooney
    February 27, 2006

    Mark,
    Of course model results have to be checked against observations. I’m just citing some of the latest results on the question of frequency vs intensity to inform our discussion.

  24. #24 Mark Paris
    February 27, 2006

    Right, Chris. The Webster study seems to be consistent with the report you cite of modeling results.

    I am not trying to be negative or hypercritical. I just naturally tend to be cautious, that’s the way scientists are. I think your undertaking is well worth the effort. I can see value in bringing this debate to the public in a way that really informs, rather than the way the news media do, in sound bites.

  25. #25 Fred Bortz
    February 27, 2006

    Go, Chris!

    You seem to be following the right trajectory. I’ve been reviewing science books for major newspapers for almost ten years. I’ll use a chronology of my reviews to show you why I think you’ve made a great decision.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/Billions.htm
    In 1997, Carl Sagan discussed global warming as an issue that can bring scientists and religious people together in his final book, Billions and Billions. The current movement among many of the Christian Right seems to be bearing him out at last.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/ChangeinWeather.htm
    In 1999, in The Change in the Weather, William K. Stevens discussed the clear signs of global warming but left open the question of how serious human contributions would ultimately be. He includes contrarian views that disputed the existence of the phenomenon but notes that the data is making those views less tenable.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/ComingStorm_HurricaneWatch.htm
    In 2001, in The Coming Storm, Bob Reiss discusses the human impact on global warming and the impact of global warming on geopolitics. At this point, the best the contrarians could come up with was to dispute the cause, not the phenomenon. The contrarians held sway when it came to discussion of “tipping points,” but the informed speculation about the geopolitical consequences of global warming was severe enough with tipping.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/LittleIceAge.htm
    Also in 2001, Brian Fagan looks at the effect of climate on historical events in The Little Ice Age. The temperature fluctuations he discusses were much smaller than what we are now expecting for the coming century, and Fagan argues that they were largely responsible for major political changes between 1300 and 1850.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/ClimateCrash.htm (a guest review by David Laskin)
    In 2005, Climate Crash by John D. Cox takes seriously the possibility of a climate “tipping point.” It may be unlikely, but the possibility is serious enough that policy-makers need to consider it.

    http://www.scienceshelf.com/ (Exact URL t.b.d. when I write the review)
    Next month, two new books on the subject will appear. Field Notes From A Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. Both show that our trajectory, if unchanged, will threaten the kind of abrupt climate change that Cox discusses.

    When your book is ready, scientists ought to have a clearer picture of where the “tipping point” lies and whether we can avoid sliding past it. Hurricane season will probably be the time when most Americans see a direct impact of global warming in their lives. It will still be difficult to tease out how much of the change in hurricane strength is due to human-induced changes in climate, and the central argument will be whether there is any relationship at all. Your book will be needed to help people understand that argument and its implications for political policies.

    Hurricane season 2008 may very well raise global warming to the status of a major issue in the Presidential campaign. I’d like to see your book on the shelves in time to contribute to the national discussion. I’m sure you’ll have it well vetted scientifically so it can withstand the attacks from those who will still be saying we need to learn more before acting.

    Best of luck!

  26. #26 Aaron
    February 27, 2006

    This is a great topic for your next book. I wish all you the best on your new project!

  27. #27 odograph
    February 28, 2006

    Sorry not to check back sooner. What I remember was an actual live TV question and answer session, perhaps from a “storm center” but shown live on … probably CNN or MSNBC. Hope this helps.

  28. #28 Hank Roberts
    August 20, 2006

    A couple of suggestions:

    http://w3g.gkss.de/staff/storch/material/060731.us-politics.pdf (and ask him to translate the cartoon on his home page).

    http://www.nps.edu/Library/ and follow the ‘How Do I’ — I’ve read only a few recent theses and I haven’t asked the librarians what’s good. I mentioned this one at RC a while back — http://stinet.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=A445788&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf

  29. #29 Roger Hill
    August 28, 2006

    For any one interested in this sublject there is some fantasitc information about politics and science of antropogeneic global warming incuding the Hurricane Sea surface Temperature wars between real Climate Scientist’s and your fake one on your tube.

    You can educate yourselves here –
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/08/fact-fiction-and-friction/

    I have been sudying this phonomenon in Vermont since the late 80s nad Jim Hansen’s run in with John Sununu which pretty much was the starting bell in the ficticious one sided accpted media war.

    I have taken considerable verbal abuse while live on the air discussing global warming as recent as 2 or 3 years ago in relatively educated Vermont no less…but lately no more…as perhaps we are finally getting through bypassing the pro-fossil fueling MSM filter like CNN which are backward and retarded in this field.

    They will be looked at so badly in 5, 10 years and these idiots especially the lap dog jounalist’s have no clue. They are so patheitic. Thought about a betting service to lay your money where your mouth is – so I can put my kids through college. We are screwed, where’s the popcorn?

  30. #30 eddbit
    December 1, 2007

    I with Ukraines but read your blog constantly, thank you, and wait your статтей. Success