Politics & Policy

Global Warming Did Not Cause Sandy

And carbon taxes are the wrong way to protect ourselves from any kind of disaster.

In the wake of the disaster caused by Tropical Storm Sandy, various allies of the Obama campaign have rushed to claim that the event was caused by anthropogenic global warming, thereby justifying the president’s program of crushing the economy with regressive carbon taxes, a supposedly necessary measure to prevent future bad weather. In fact, there is no scientific basis, either empirical or theoretical, to justify such claims.

Weather systems are natural heat engines, and like all other heat engines, both natural and artificial, they are driven not by temperature per se, but by differences in temperature between one location and another. A professor at my old university once illustrated this principle in striking fashion by showing that he could make a car run on liquid nitrogen, using the temperature difference between the ultra-cold fluid and the merely cool ambient Seattle air to derive strong motive power. Similarly in nature, temperature differences, such as that between the warming land and the cold sea at sunrise, create wind, and under the right conditions, can form powerful windstorm systems. Where temperatures are uniform, there is no motive power, regardless of how hot conditions may be.

The Earth is significantly warmed by a greenhouse effect caused largely by water vapor in its atmosphere. But because warm air can hold much more water vapor than cold air, water-vapor greenhousing works more effectively where it is warm than where it is cold, and thus serves to increase the temperature differences between warm regions and cold regions, as well as between day and night. In contrast, carbon dioxide spreads evenly in the atmosphere regardless of local temperature, and thus delivers its insulative warming effect to those water-vapor-poor regions which benefit from it the most. And while it also adds insulation to hot places as well, the marginal effect of the addition is much greater for the have-nots than the haves. (To understand this, just consider the benefit of putting one flannel shirt on a naked chest on a cold day to putting a second shirt over that. The difference between having one shirt and none is much greater than that between having one shirt or two.)

For this reason, it is widely understood that carbon dioxide–driven global warming would have the effect of reducing temperature difference among different parts of the Earth, and therefore reducing the motive force for creating major wind systems. This fact is even acknowledged by the generally global-warming-alarmist U.N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) which states as much in its recent report (page 11, emphasis in original):

It is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged. [3.4.4]

There is medium confidence that there will be a reduction in the number of extratropical cyclones averaged over each hemisphere.

The projection of atmospheric carbon dioxide reducing the number of cyclones is also supported by historical data. The table below compares the number of hurricanes making landfall in the United States between the global-cooling period from 1950 to 1980 and that warming period from 1980 to 2010:

It can be seen that the recent period’s CO2-enriched atmosphere witnessed a 56 percent drop in the number of hurricanes hitting the U.S. The force of the hurricanes has decreased as well, with by far the worst of the period being Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which featured 150 mph winds and sea surges of up to 18 ft along major sections of the Carolina coast. Further information concerning historic hurricanes can be found in an excellent article by Anthony Watts.

Some of those decrying global warming as the culprit have sidestepped these realities and instead pointed to warming-induced sea-level increases as the culprit to blame for Sandy’s destructiveness. However, since 1980, the sea level has only risen 3 inches, while the previous sea level rise of 3 inches, from 1940 to 1980, occurred during a period of global cooling, and, in any case, both put together are negligible. In fact, the actual reason for Sandy’s flooding was the coincidence of the storm’s arrival with the monthly peak full-moon high tide, which raised the sea level several feet above its normal daily average.

While continued rising global carbon-dioxide levels are likely to make storms like Sandy less frequent, there will continue to be some regardless. So what is our best defense? The answer is prosperity.

No one can prevent hurricanes, but prosperous communities are much better able to withstand them than poor ones. To see this, just compare the several-score deaths from Sandy to the thousands from Katrina, or the tens of thousands that perish when such storms hit Haiti or other impoverished countries. Prosperous communities are much better able to survive hurricanes or other natural disasters because they have greater resources, both public and private, to fall back upon. Middle-class homes are stouter, and more likely to be stocked with food, candles, first-aid kits, generators, and other useful items, than poor ones are. Prosperous people are much more likely to own cars or boats and thus have the capacity to evacuate themselves, and they have cash to buy food or check into a hotel if they lose their homes. They are also, on average, healthier than poor people, and thus much more resilient against cold and disease. They’re more likely to have useful survival skills, such as the ability to swim. Wealthy communities can afford better staffed and better equipped emergency services, and their infrastructure will generally be in better shape. Finally, and critically, prosperous communities have a sounder social fabric than poor ones, so that people can generally rely on their neighbors for help in an emergency, instead of fearing them as threats.

Far from implying a need for economy-destroying policies like carbon taxes, the lessons to be drawn from Sandy and Katrina are exactly the opposite. Indeed, such depressive policies have the capacity to create disasters even in the absence of any hurricane. For example, while Sandy may have rendered thousands homeless, since Barack Obama took office, 3.5 million American families have lost their homes to foreclosures (four times the rate under Bush), and countless millions more tenants have been evicted from apartments because they could not make their monthly payments.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Barack Obama, praising his desire to impose carbon taxes for the purpose of weather control. A billionaire himself, Bloomberg has no reason to be concerned about the burden that the tripling of electricity prices Obama’s anti-coal crusade will place upon his city’s poorer residents. No doubt he is also hedged against the fall in the U.S. stock market that will ensue as carbon taxes and other forms of economic strangulation make American industry ever less competitive. Perhaps he simply feels that such minor considerations must be set aside in the interests of public safety.

But if Bloomberg were truly worried about the safety of his city, he might want to reconsider his endorsement first and foremost with a more complete view of potential threats. New York is, after all, the No. 1 target in the West for Islamist terrorists, who killed 70 times as many New Yorkers on September 11, 2001, as were just lost to Sandy. And while neither candidate can shield the Big Apple against hurricanes, one of them might be able to prevent it from being hit by terrorists equipped with an Iranian atomic bomb. But that will require something quite different from carbon taxes.

Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. His latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism has just been published by Encounter Books.


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