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Of Sandy, Ducks, and Climate Change



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The world can be a scary place and, for many, cartoon villains and cheap explanations serve to account for its rough edges. “We have so many people,” noticed Ronald Reagan, ”who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.” So it goes with the weather and the climate, in which realms those who scoff derisively at the religious and abhor theodicy as the preserve of rubes and reactionaries are extraordinarily quick to share their own unlettered theories as to how and why we are afflicted by tragedy.

Writing on Real Clear Politics in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson asked, “Will we finally get the message? How, at this point, can anyone deny the scientific consensus about climate change? The traditional dodge — that no one weather event can definitively be attributed to global warming — doesn’t work anymore. If something looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Well, only if it’s actually a duck.

Likewise, on Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul M. Barrett admitted that “it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change” and then went on to do it anyway. Sandy, he wrote, caused “at least 40 U.S. deaths.” The scene: 

Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.

All of this is true, and all of this is awful. But does it make Sandy a duck? New York’s politicians certainly think so. At a press conference, Andrew Cuomo tried the ever-popular Flat Earth approach: “Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality,” he averred. Michael Bloomberg agreed: “What is clear is that the storms that we’ve experienced in the last year or so, around this country and around the world, are much more severe than before.” For good measure, Bloomberg then endorsed Obama, citing him as the only candidate likely to take action on “climate change,” which is as good an endorsement of Mitt Romney as I can imagine.

The usual suspects lined up for the parade. In Salon, George Lakoff stated that Hurricane Sandy was “global warming, pure and simple.” “Yes,” he quacked, “global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy — and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.” This is a fashionable way of saying that you don’t have any evidence that somebody committed a crime, but that they probably had something to do with it because they’re an all-round bad egg. Or, as “Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek),” put it:

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

Sure, it wasn’t Miss Scarlett in the library with the revolver, but she probably had something to do with it somehow. Arrest her forthwith, Inspector!#more#

Or, perhaps not. Reacting to the profusion of hysterical claims, Martin Hoerling, a meterologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraton told the New York Times that:

Great events can have little causes. In this case, the immediate cause is most likely little more that the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. Both frequent the west Atlantic in October…nothing unusual with that. On rare occasions their timing is such as to result in an interaction which can lead to an extreme event along the eastern seaboard. As to underlying causes, neither the frequency of tropical or extratropical cyclones over the North Atlantic are projected to appreciably change due to climate change, nor have there been indications of a change in their statistical behavior over this region in recent decades (see IPCC 2012 SREX report).

So, while it will rain like “black cats and Frankenweenies” over the midatlantic, this is not some spell conjured upon us by great external forces….unless you believe in the monster flicks of Universal Studios fame!

Alas, many seem to believe in monsters. They did when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, too. Back then, exasperated hurricane expert William Gray called for some perspective, pointing out that North Atlantic surface temperatures vary naturally and cyclically. “Instead of seeing a long-term trend up or down,” he wrote, “we do see a quasicyclic multidecade regime that alternates between active and quiet phases for major Atlantic hurricanes on the scale of 25-40 years each.” In the New York Post today, Ben Garrett noted the same thing. In response to the notion that this is “the new normal,” he counters that:

Extreme weather events have plagued mankind for all of recorded history. We have records of massive hurricanes striking what’s now New York as far back as the mid-13th century. The New England Hurricane of 1938 killed more than 700 people — 60 in New York alone. Hurricane Edna, in 1954, killed 29 and caused massive damage. Catastrophic hurricanes also hit in 1821 and 1894.

Yes, Sandy was the second tropical storm to impact New York in as many years, after Irene last August. But these storms don’t even start to compare with the frequency of tropical storms that threatened New York in the mid-1950s.

In fact:

Tropical storms were more frequent in the 1950s than at any previous point in the 20th century or at any point since. In fact, 10 major hurricanes struck the East Coast between North Carolina and New England from 1954 to 1960.

The Atlantic is going through its warm cycle while the Pacific is going through its cold cycle — a perfectly normal pattern in the oceans’ ebb and flow between warm and cool anomalies. The El Nino Southern Oscillation, a measure of warming and cooling in the tropical Pacific known as El Nino and La Nina, also matches the pattern in the ’50s.

With this in mind, Obama might consider adding “a plague of hurricanes” to the litany of “1950s” horrors that the Republican party allegedly wishes to inflict on the middle class. Even better, he could sharpen his attack and accuse Mitt Romney of denying the existence of Big Duck.

Still, it is the Left that seems destined to wind up with egg on its face. Since Sandy hit, progressives have been walking and quacking in a furious attempt to turn Hurricane Sandy into a harbinger that it simply is not. In truth, if Sandy is any sort of duck at all, it is akin to that of Monty Python’s imagination — and it plays by the same junk-science rules:

BEDEMIR: What also floats in water?
VILLAGER #1: Bread!
VILLAGER #2: Apples!
VILLAGER #3: Very small rocks!
VILLAGER #1: Cider!
VILLAGER #2: Great gravy!
VILLAGER #1: Cherries!
VILLAGER #2: Mud!
VILLAGER #3: Churches — churches!
VILLAGER #2: Lead — lead!
ARTHUR: A duck.
CROWD: Oooh.
BEDEMIR: Exactly! So, logically . . .
VILLAGER #1: If . . . she . . .weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood.
BEDEMIR: And therefore . . . ?
VILLAGER #1: A witch! 

A witch! Well, it sure beats the other explanations.



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