Hurricanes and Other Horrors

Hurricanes and Other Horrors

January 31, 1996

When the answer is "Blizzards, heat waves, torrential rains, droughts, hail, and hurricanes," the question must, of course, be "What provides unequivocal evidence of imminent global warming?" Is there any climatic condition that might lead modern day apocalyptics to reconsider their Chicken Little views? I'm afraid not. Consider the comments of Jessica Matthews in a recent Washington Post column, "Is Global Warming the Problem?": "think of the blizzard of '96 as a glimpse of a part of the likely greenhouse future." Jessica's concerns were echoed in the New York Times ("Blame Global Warming for the Blizzard"), Newsweek ("Blizzards, Floods and Hurricanes: Blame Global Warming"), and throughout much of the media. To Jessica and her environmental cohort: "It don't matter whether it burns or freezes, it all proves Al Gore's thesis!"

The argument for blizzards being the consequence of global warming leaps from the observation that a warmer world is a more energetic world (true) to the presumption that it will therefore experience worse weather (not necessarily at all). Although this apocalyptic linkage has been repeated ad nauseam by the doomsday crowd, it is simplistic and almost certainly wrong. Increasing the energy of a system does not necessarily imply more chaotic behavior -- as anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows well.

More significantly, weather is, in part, a by-product of the temperature differences between the polar and equatorial regions. If the impact of global warming were to make the poles colder and the equatorial regions hotter, then we might indeed expect stormier weather. However, the models upon which Jessica's hyperventilations are based suggest exactly the opposite; it is the polar regions that are expected to warm most significantly, the equatorial regions little if at all. As extreme cold is produced by arctic air from the polar regions, global warming should produce less of a deep freeze, even though precipitation and hurricanes may rise.

Indeed, the balance of evidence suggests a warmer world will be a cloudier world, with most of the warming occurring at night, moderating nighttime lows. Also, the increased cloudiness will be greatest in the summer, least in the winter, further reducing temperature variations across the seasons. In effect, the most likely impact of warming -- should it occur -- would be a more benign climate, not a more hostile one.

Not that anyone should throw away their snow shovels yet, however. The evidence that mankind is having any significant impact on present climate patterns remains speculative. The latest round of fear mongering stemmed from a British study that claimed 1995 was the warmest year on record before the December data was in. As it turns out, December was mighty frigid, and 1995 was an ordinary year. According to the satellite data released a few weeks after the hysteria, 1995 was the 8th warmest of the last 15 years -- yet Jessica and the papers largely ignored it.

Why is this? To the Jessicas of the world, global warming is like any religious belief, unmovable by facts or logic. They find Paradise in nature, the Fall in Man's increased reliance on technology and economic growth. Only global planners can protect life outside the Garden! Evidence that the earth is robust, that disaster is not close, weakens the appeal of these coercive utopians' policy prescriptions.

So, while the skies of Planet Earth are likely to remain clear for some time, we should all expect far more stormy political weather. Environmentalism has become the last refuge of scoundrels; the last area where statism retains any popular appeal. We'll see much stormier weather before the policy skies finally clear.

--Fred L. Smith