Summer's almost here, and the weather is on everyone's mind. In “hurricane country” that's a very special concern, and last year's devastation from Hurricane Mitch is fresh in everyone's mind.
Not everything you hear about hurricanes is true, however, so to ease the minds of the public we offer the following answers to some of the more troubling hurricane-related questions. The questions are real; the answers are true.
- Everyone knows that we're pumping out too much carbon dioxide from our cars and trucks, creating a greenhouse effect that makes it warmer, and getting warmer will cause all kinds of devastation. Don't you care?
- We all care, particularly about the truth, and sometimes “everyone knows” things that just aren't so. The evidence of global warming is mixed at best. Highly accurate temperature data collected by satellites don’t show any warming in recent decades. This contradicts the climate models that predict the greatest warming in the atmospheric layer (the troposphere) measured by the satellites. The surface-based temperature record is not global and is plagued by errors. Moreover, computer models linking carbon dioxide to global temperature make a lot of questionable assumptions that can significantly bias the results. The science just isn't there yet. Even if warming occurs, it could have economic benefits for agriculture, health, tourism, etc. Finally, global warming would not be sudden, unpredictable catastrophe. It would happen slowly, allowing for adaptation.
- I have heard that the weather will become more extreme (more heat waves, droughts, storms, etc.) because of global warming. What’s really going on?
- There's no scientific evidence of a link between short-term weather extremes and an alleged warmer climate. Some climate models predict a possible increase in extreme weather from warming, but most empirical studies don't support that – some even show a negative correlation (i.e. marginal warming linked with fewer extremes). The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that, “Overall, there is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense through the 20th century.”
- But what about hurricanes? The globe is getting warmer, and it sure seems like there have been more hurricanes lately. Isn't the connection obvious?
- As Dr. William Gray, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, and the world’s foremost expert on hurricanes, points out, there is some evidence of warming over the past century, but the incidence of major hurricanes making landfall in Florida decreased up until Hurricane Andrew. According to Dr. Gray’s studies, hurricane activity follows a natural 20 to 30 year cycle in ocean currents. In the 1940s and 1950s there were many land-falling hurricanes, but from 1960 to 1988 there were only two. The recent upswing in hurricane activity is just another shift in the cycle, and has nothing to do with global warming.
- I’ve heard that property damage due to hurricane activity has skyrocketed over the last couple of decades. Isn’t that an indication that things are changing?
- Things are changing, but the changes are demographic, not climatic. According to the American Insurance Association, “The real problem is the tremendous growth in population, homes, commercial development in the most hurricane-prone regions of the United States, especially Florida and other states along the Southeast and Gulf coasts.” For example, three South Florida coastal counties –Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach – have a greater combined population than the entire population of the U.S. coastal counties from South Texas to Virginia in the 1930s.
- What about Hurricane Mitch? Wasn’t it one of the deadliest hurricanes ever, and shouldn’t we do something to prevent future tragedies of this sort?
- Hurricane Mitch was a terrible tragedy that killed about 11,000 people, but the tremendous loss of life was primarily due to poverty, not climate change. By way of comparison, Hurricane Andrew holds the record for property damage, but only 58 people died. The major difference between the two hurricanes was not the intensity, though Mitch was more powerful, but the difference in the ability between North Americans and Central Americans to avoid the worst effects of the disasters. U.S. victims of Hurricane Andrew benefited from a well-developed and sophisticated communications and transportation infrastructure that allowed for early warning and rapid evacuation. They also had the financial means to temporarily relocate, clean up, and rebuild relatively quickly. Central Americans lacked these resources and will be rebuilding for years to come.
Some claim that to prevent such tragedies in the future we should cut energy use and slow down economic growth. The lesson we should learn from Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Mitch is that greater wealth leads to fewer risks. The climate will always change regardless of man’s actions. There will always be hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but the best way to avoid catastrophic risk is to expand wealth, which increases societal resiliency. This is achieved by eliminating barriers to economic growth, not greater government control over energy use.
CEI, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group founded in 1984, is dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government. Home to the largest free-market environmental department in Washington, CEI has studied global warming – the politics, economics, and science – for over 10 years. For more information, please contact Emily McGee, director of media relations, at 202-331-1010.