The Intersection

Should Max Mayfield Resign?

That’s the contention of a group called the U.S. Climate Emergency Council, whose protest–outside of the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–I attended yesterday. It’s headed by Mike Tidwell, a writer and global warming activist who has a book coming out on all of this.

I must say, the contention that Mayfield (director of the National Hurricane Center) ought to resign because NOAA is not taking the stance that hurricanes are already stronger due to global warming struck me as rather over-the-top. I guess I largely (although not entirely) agree with Kevin Vranes on this.

First, Mayfield doesn’t set NOAA policy; he simply runs the agency’s hurricane branch. Even if you take issue with NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher–as Tidwell’s group does–that doesn’t mean Mayfield also should be the fall guy.

Second, I have seen Mayfield at multiple hurricane conferences during the past few months; I have been in the room as he has listened to the debate rage over hurricanes and global warming. He’s fully aware of what’s going on in the scientific community, but he says he’s not convinced yet by the evidence. Is that an offense requiring resignation?

But finally and most importantly, it’s hard to dispute that Mayfield has done a great job when it comes to the most immediate tasks of the hurricane center: Tracking storms and providing warnings to coastlines and vulnerable communities. Mayfield was a well-informed and reassuring voice last summer during Katrina, Rita, and the rest of it. As we all now know, he briefed Bush–accurately–on the dangers of Katrina well before the storm landed; the real tragedy is that Mayfield wasn’t adequately heeded by the president, FEMA, and the rest of them. I can think of a lot of people who ought to resign before Max Mayfield does.

That’s not to say that NOAA’s behavior has been unimpeachable on the global warming/hurricane issue (something that even some of its scientists have apologized for). NOAA claimed an agency consensus that didn’t exist on the question and had to backtrack. And there’s evidence that scientists have not always been able to speak freely at the agency. But that said, calling for Mayfield’s resignation really staggers me….

P.S.: Here’s where I disagree with Vranes: NOAA can’t merely claim a “debate” on this subject and leave it at that. That’s not a “balanced” perspective. At the very least, it seems to me the agency ought to be telling the public that while there’s real debate at the moment about how big the current impact is, it would be surprising if hurricanes weren’t affected by ongoing global warming, given their reliance upon warm ocean waters as a central energy source….

Comments

  1. #1 Niobe
    June 1, 2006

    I sent those fools an email telling them they were acting just like the “skeptics.” And I disagree with Vranes just about 90% of the time. Big, wide libertarian streak there. Libertarians need to take a few sociology and anthropology courses.

    Hope you’ll post from YKos.

  2. #2 kevin v
    June 2, 2006

    that’s awesome, Niobe, I’ll take the compliment. Libertarian might be right, but Decline To State is always the party I’ve registered for, for a reason. I recently got an email from a gov-employed reader saying “…[you] expose shady practices/flawed reasoning across the spectrum. as a raging moderate, i appreciate that.” I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    Chris, you’re asking NOAA/NHC to speculate on the science (and speculate in your preferred direction). I’d rather them just say, “We prefer not to speculate at this time, but we’re confident that in another couple of years a clearer picture will emerge.”

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    June 2, 2006

    Kevin….I’m not sure “speculating” and inference from established theory are the same thing, which is what you seem to suggest. Even the “skeptics” on this subject would acknowledge some likely GW effect on hurricanes, they just say it hasn’t happened yet or isn’t measurable yet (and perhaps also add that it will be small or insignificant).

  4. #4 Robb Heier
    June 2, 2006

    The last thing we need is to force competent individuals (which is an understatement in Max Mayfield’s case) out of public service because of ideology. There has been a surplus of that over the last 5 1/2 years.

    Not acknowledging that global warming is responsible for stronger hurricanes (which IS a debatable point) does not impede Mayfield from predicting and tracking hurricanes. You know, his job?

    The effort of protesting Mayfield could be put to such better use elsewhere that it makes me wonder if the protesters really understand what they are protesting. Pick real enemies, there are plenty to choose from.

  5. #5 kevin v
    June 2, 2006

    Chris – First, that’s definitely a misreading of the skeptics, who will point out that climate and weather are the amalgamation of many variables — of which temperature is only one — all interacting non-linearly. I think you suggest that a linear link of [warmer globe = warmer water = more intense hurricanes] is to be inferred from “established theory.” This physical oceanographer says no. It might be logical to assume such a link, but I could pave the road to hell with counterintuitive facets of the climate system.

    Currently Trenberth and Emanuel both support the idea that a AGW signal can be seen in the TS record, but they have very different hypotheses to explain why/how it’s happening. Some would say their hypotheses are incompatible. That is not the picture of “established theory” or “emerging consensus” (Nature’s words). Why make NOAA/NHC wade in there and take sides?

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    June 3, 2006

    Kevin,
    Having listened to Chris Landsea give several talks, I’m pretty sure that I have described his position correctly. He regularly invokes Knutson & Tuleya 2004 and says that any change in hurricanes will probably be real but small and far off in the distant future. Others may think differently about this.

    I’m intrigued at your suggestion that Trenberth’s and Emanuel’s hypotheses may be incompatible, can you elaborate or provide more for me to go on?