Hurricane Hype

The Clinton-Gore Administration has seized upon recent weather extremes to promote the fear of global warming. Speaking in North Dakota after this spring's floods, President Bill Clinton opined, "We do not know for sure that the warming of the earth is responsible for what seems to be a substantial increase in highly disruptive weather events; but many people believe that it is . . ." Assistant Secretary of State Eileen Claussen, who coordinates global warming policies for the Administration, agrees with her boss's assessment: "We can expect that a continued warming of the Earth's atmosphere is likely to result in much more . . . extremely severe weather."

The administration's view is echoed by Washington-based environmental groups and the mainstream media. Journalist Ross Gelbspan is author of The Heat Is On, a newly published screed that seeks to label all critics of apocalyptic climate predictions as tools of the fossil fuel industry. Gelbspan lists every weather anomaly that he can find as further evidence that human activities are warming the planet, even though global satellite and weather balloon measurements both indicate a slight cooling of the atmosphere over the past two decades.

Gelbspan argues that global warming will produce an increase in tropical storms. "Between 1990 and 1995, sixteen floods, hurricanes and storms destroyed more than $130 billion in property – and caused deaths, homelessness, and psychological damage for the many victims of those catastrophes," he writes. He blames these events, and the record-level insurance company pay-outs that resulted, on the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

Contrary to Gelbspan's outrageous assertions, there is no scientific basis upon which to blame recent hurricane activity or storm damage on greenhouse emissions or global warming. Scientific reviews of storm data cannot find any correlation between warmer temperatures and increased hurricane activity. If anything, the existing data shows a slight decline (see chart, page 6). As a just-released CEI paper by Dr. Robert Balling of Arizona State University makes clear, "the observational and theoretical evidence argues against a linkage between greenhouse gases, global warming and the intensification of hurricane activity."

Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University is one of the foremost hurricane experts in the world. He predicts that there will be more hurricanes than normal in 1997 – and in the years ahead. But Dr. Gray has gone out of his way to emphasize that this increase is the result of natural variability, not human-induced climate change. "Some individuals will interpret the recent upswing in hurricane activity during 1995 and 1996 and the expected above normal activity as evidence of climate changes due to increased man-made greenhouse gases," noted Gray and his colleagues in an April report. Yet they warn, "There is no reasonable way that such an interpretation can be accepted."

Increases in insurance company losses have more to do with the unprecedented level of coastal development than the greenhouse effect. Hurricane Andrew was certainly a whopper. It caused an estimated $30 billion in damage in southern Florida. Yet Andrew was hardly the greatest storm to ever hit the Miami area. The storm that struck in 1926 was significantly worse. Research by David and Stanley Chagnon confirms that increases in storm-related property losses have more to due with increased development, and the inflation of property values, than significant variations in weather patterns.

Regrettably, the disparity between environmentalist fear-mongering and the more mundane scientific reality is rarely commented upon in the mainstream press. Few journalists have noted that in recent months many leading scientists have sought to distance themselves from the apocalyptic scenarios that attract television viewers and sell books. Some even appear to be backing away from prior positions.

Dr. Ben Santer, co-author of the controversial chapter in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regularly cited as evidence that warming is here, recently lamented that journalists have exaggerated the implications of his work. "It's unfortunate that many people read the media hype before they read the [IPCC] chapter," he told Science magazine. "We say quite clearly that few scientists would say that the attribution issue was a done deal."

While the scientific jury is still out on whether global warming represents a significant threat to human civilization, the Clinton Administration continues to pursue a binding international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In May, environmental officials from the "Group of Seven" nations – the U.S. France, Germany, Japan, Italy, United Kingdom and Canada – adopted a resolution calling for "legally binding emissions targets." Treaty language will be negotiated through the United Nations this summer, and is to be proposed at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, at the end of the year.

While global warming is highly uncertain, the impacts of global warming policies are not. Dramatic restrictions on energy use would have severe economic effects in this country, and throughout the world. A review conducted at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Lab determined that such a policy would increase energy prices dramatically, threatening the viability of energy-intensive industries, including aluminum, steel and paper.

Other policies favored by Vice President Gore and Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth, such as an increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, would be equally disastrous. An increase in CAFE standards from their current level of 27.5 to 45 mpg, as some have proposed, would force automakers to make smaller and lighter cars than they would otherwise produce. This, in turn, would increase highway fatalities by as many as 1,200 per year.

If this were not bad enough, all this pain will produce little, if any, gain. The computer models upon which international negotiators are relying suggest that proposed reductions won't do a thing to prevent a predicted warming; the level of reductions under consideration are simply too small.

In fact, there are some reasons why an international treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized countries could actually cause global emissions to increase. This is because the treaty to be considered in Kyoto will not impose controls on lesser developed countries, such as India, China, and Mexico. Treaty or not, these nations are expected to account for the lion's share of emission increases in the coming decades. Yet with a treaty, their share of emissions could increase at an even faster rate as industrial production moves to those parts of the world not subject to stringent emission controls. Because the amount of energy use is greater per unit of output in developing countries, the displacement of industrial capacity to these nations could result in greater emissions.

The more we learn about the risks of global warming, the more it appears that they are outweighed by the risks of global warming policy. Seeking to avert greenhouse warming will inevitably cause severe socio-economic disruptions and impair societal resiliency. Embarking on the greenhouse road to serfdom on the basis of scientific speculation is not merely foolhardy, it is wrong.