Stop the Loose Talk About Hurricanes and Global Warming

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been criticized for his remarks to CNN that the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is not the time to be talking about global warming when the focus should be on helping people.

He said that providing access to clean water, containing toxic spills and providing fuel “are things so important to citizens of Florida right now, and to discuss the cause and effect of these storms, there’s the place to do that, [but] it’s not now.”

Pruitt is of course absolutely right to focus on government action rather than idle chatter, but that has not dissuaded global warming activists and even some elected officials from trying to take political advantage of these two huge storms to promote their pet cause — policies to limit the use of fossil fuels.

We, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, think it’s important to nip in the bud the assertion that Harvey and Irma are ominous signs of global warming; and since we’re not involved in hurricane relief, we will not be wasting time that should be spent on more important matters.

There is a lot of loose talk by some climate scientists that global warming is going to increase the intensity, size, duration and/or frequency of hurricanes. This loose talk is then blown way out of proportion by Al Gore and other Old Testament prophet-wannabes. But there is little in hurricane science to support those claims.

The chapter on severe weather events in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report assigns a rating of “low confidence” to attributing any human contributions (that is, increasing greenhouse gas emissions) to changes in tropical cyclone activity. Harvey and Irma are the first two Category 3 or above storms to make landfall in the United States since Katrina in 2005. That’s 12 years without a major storm.

True, Harvey and Irma, like Katrina, were enormously destructive storms. But they were not unique or even unusual.

Harvey hit the Gulf Coast near Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 storm and then stalled as a much weaker tropical storm where it dumped a colossal amount of water on the Houston area. The Weather Channel reported in 2015 that three tropical storms had brought more than 40 inches of rain to Texas since 1950: Allison in 2001, Claudette in 1979 and Amelia in 1978.

Allison caused massive flooding in Houston and killed 41 people in several states. Claudette set the record for heaviest rain in one 24-hour period — 43 inches at Alvin, near Houston. Amelia moved inland and flooded several river basins. Medina, Texas, west of San Antonio, recorded 48 inches of rain.

Similarly, Irma was a huge but not unprecedented hurricane. Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a high intensity Category 4 storm, but quickly diminished to a Category 3, making landfall again on the west coast of the Florida peninsula. The storm gained significant hype in the news, but did not follow its modeled path, which had predicted a direct hit on Miami, and thus did much less damage than feared.

The southern tip of Florida is a known hurricane war zone that has seen eight Category 4 or 5 storms in the last century. As one of the authors (O’Neill) who grew up in southern Florida knows, living with hurricanes is a part of life and most homes are well equipped with hurricane shutters and strong roofs to protect against the inevitable.

Some researchers have claimed that there has been an uptick in Atlantic hurricane activity, but the uptick is almost certainly an artifact of improved weather-monitoring capabilities, as Chris Landsea at the National Hurricane Center has documented. Since the mid-1960s, weather satellites have collected information about temperature and some imagery, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s when NASA established Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites that scientists have been able to consistently monitor hurricane activity. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard began its National Data Buoy Center in 1966, which dramatically expanded data collection capacity. Today, hundreds of buoys monitor wind speed and direction, air temperature and barometric pressure.

Before weather satellites and the vast buoy network, hurricane data was collected by unlucky towns and ships hit by the storms. Some storms were simply never noticed. For most storms, measurements of wind speed and barometric pressure were few and far between. This means that the intensity of many storms in the pre-satellite, pre-buoy era was almost certainly underestimated.

When Harvey and Irma are put in this historical context, we can see that climate change is irrelevant. And thus while millions of people in Florida and south Texas work to rebuild their homes, businesses and communities, we should resist efforts by shameless propagandists to tie the death and destruction caused by these two big hurricanes to global warming.

Originally published to The Hill.