Politics & Policy

Scientists Don’t Actually Know What’s Causing ‘Extreme Weather’

Flooded cars on Interstate 45 in Houston. (Aaron M. Sprecher/AFP/Getty)

Eleven inches of rain drenched Houston on Memorial Day. The Texas metropolis is among the areas hardest-hit by a storm system that has soaked much of Texas, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico since the weekend, resulting in more than 30 deaths and a dozen missing persons. Naturally, Bill Nye the Science Guy had an explanation:

The severe flooding, following as it does a years-long drought in the Lone Star State, has seemed to many an obvious demonstration of the dangerous consequences of climate change: “A steadily escalating whipsaw between drought and flood is one of the most confident predictions of an atmosphere with enhanced evaporation rates — meaning, global warming,” writes meteorologist Eric Holthaus at Slate. “Texas’s quick transition from drought hellscape to underwater theme park was egged on by both El Niño and climate change.”

“Going from one extreme to another is a hallmark of climate change,” writes Samantha Page at ThinkProgress, who loses no time fingering the culprits: “Texas and Oklahoma both face intensifying drought and flooding, although politicians in both states have denied climate change.”

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As with any major weather event, though, two questions arise: 1) Is the event caused by anthropogenic global warming? and 2) If it is, could we do anything about it?

“Science does not say that climate change is CAUSING the extreme rain and drought we’re seeing across the U.S. today, and in recent years,” Katharine Hayhoe, of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center, told Scientific American. “Just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change EXACERBATES many of our weather extremes, making many of them, on average, worse than they would have been naturally.”

Among such weather extremes is El Niño, which NOAA recently announced has made its return this year, and which may last through the end of 2015. Eric Holthaus is right to point out that El Niño is linked to the Texas storm system — but he is exactly wrong when he writes that El Niño’s “most important feature is its predictability.” Noteworthy about El Niño, which is caused by abnormally warm water in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, is its unpredictability. “For reasons still not well understood,” writes Jon Erdman at the Weather Channel’s website, “every 2-7 years, this patch of ocean warms for a period of 6-18 months.” In fact, predicting a new El Niño has become something of a meteorological pastime in recent years: In 2012, 2013, and 2014 confident predictions were dashed. “Waiting for El Niño is starting to feel like waiting for Godot,” wrote U.S. Climate Prediction Center scientist Michelle L’Heureux last year.

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Part of the reason for scientists’ errant predictions is the complicated interplay of conditions — wind and water — that allows El Niño to take shape. But it is also the case that, as Erdman writes, “no two El Niños are exactly alike.” It is one thing to correctly predict that El Niño will take form; it is another entirely to predict what effects it will have.

Consider the link between El Niño and hurricane activity. It is generally agreed that El Niño tends to decrease Atlantic hurricane activity; however, the least active recent hurricane season — 2013 — did not follow an El Niño, and in 2004, when 15 storms and nine hurricanes formed — and Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne all made landfall in the U.S. — a weak El Niño preceded them.

From this chronicle of scientific disagreement it should be clear just how insupportable are the easy links being drawn by climate-change alarmists in the media.

Additionally, despite claims to the contrary, it is not clear that El Niños are gaining significantly in frequency or strength. El Niño is part of a large-scale oscillation in the ocean-atmosphere nexus called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). A research team led by Georgia Tech climatologist Kim Cobb studied climate-change indicators in coral to study ENSO activity over the past 7,000 years (N.B.: Much longer than mankind has been using aerosol sprays). “The corals document highly variable ENSO activity, with no evidence for a systematic trend in ENSO variance,” Cobb’s team wrote in Science in January 2013. “Twentieth-century ENSO variance is significantly higher than average fossil coral ENSO variance but is not unprecedented.” Their conclusion: “Our results suggest that forced changes in ENSO, whether natural or anthropogenic, may be difficult to detect against a background of large internal variability.”

At NOAA’s Climate.gov, meteorologist Tom Di Liberto puts scientists’ confusion bluntly: “In short, if you are someone who wants more or stronger ENSO events in the future, I have great news for you — research supports that. If you are someone who wants fewer or weaker ENSO events in the future, don’t worry — research supports that too.”

#related#From this chronicle of scientific disagreement it should be clear just how insupportable are the easy links being drawn by climate-change alarmists in the media. And, more important, the ignorance of scientists is the reason that sweeping public-policy addressing climate change is wrongheaded.

By linking the storms in Houston and climate change, Slate and ThinkProgress and their ilk are implicitly claiming that changes in public policy could spare Americans similar devastation in the future. But that is nonsense. Science is not yet capable of predicting when El Niño will occur, let alone what consequences it is likely to have on human populations. There is not much reason to think that even the most dramatic public-policy changes would reduce the intensity or frequency of catastrophic weather events — and even if we suppose that public-policy changes could make a difference, it is quite possible that the cost would far outweigh the benefit. Those advocating policy changes should ask themselves: According to their own hypotheses, how many power plants would need to be shut down to turn Houston’s next perilous deluge into a tolerable drizzle?

Among the great triumphs of scientific inquiry over the past 300 years is the ability of man to insulate himself against nature’s vicissitudes, and even to channel, to an astonishing degree, the forces of nature to his benefit. Perhaps our understanding of climate will rise to the same heights someday. But that day is not now, and those who believe that they can legislate solutions to problems they do not fully understand are certain to create more troubles than they will prevent.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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