The Corner

Politics & Policy

Three Cheers for Fussy Over-Precision On Climate Change ‘Causing’ Hurricane Harvey

David Leonhardt of the New York Times had a piece the other day in which he warned against “fussy over-precision” in the debate over climate change and extreme weather events, by which he really means, simply, precision. The actual research on climate and extreme weather is always much too speculative and cautious for the advocates and journalists, so they have to, at best, simplify and exaggerate.

Consider this recent study on global warming and hurricanes by NOAA. It is guilty of fussy over-precision up and down. Who can take this instance of excessive precision pointing out that some effects of global warming might dissipate hurricanes?

Turning to future climate projections, current climate models suggest that tropical Atlantic SSTs [sea surface temperatures] will warm dramatically during the 21st century, and that upper tropospheric temperatures will warm even more than SSTs. Furthermore, most of the models project increasing levels of vertical wind shear over parts of the western tropical Atlantic (see Vecchi and Soden 2007). Both the increased warming of the upper troposphere relative to the surface and the increased vertical wind shear are detrimental factors for hurricane development and intensification, while warmer SSTs favor development and intensitification.

Or this shamefully precise estimate of what might happen 80 years from now?

Our updated late 21st century projections of hurricane activity continue to support the notion of increased intensity (~ 4%) and near-storm rainfall rates (~ 10 to 15%) for the Atlantic basin Knutson et al. 2013  as well as for most other tropical cyclone basins Knutson et al. 2015

Or this categorical statement of over-precision about how hurricanes haven’t increased?

However, when adjusted with an estimate of storms that stayed at sea and were likely “missed” in the pre-satellite era, there is no significant increase in Atlantic hurricanes since the late 1800s (red curve). While there have been increases in U.S. landfalling hurricanes and basin-wide hurricane counts since the since the early 1970s, Figure 4 shows that these increases are not representative of the behavior seen in the century long records. In short, the historical Atlantic hurricane record does not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming-induced long-term increase.

It is reasonable to believe that warming may have made Harvey more intense or created more rainfall by some small, undetectable amount, but it’s an absurd and completely unsupportable leap to say that it was “caused” by global warming. Destructive and powerful hurricanes existed long before industrial-strength carbon emissions, and a large part of what happened with Harvey is that the storm stalled out, in a case of rotten luck. But there’s a reason the Left has to consider precision an enemy in the debate over the climate and extreme weather. The more precise the debate is, the more clear it is that the Left wants to curtail our economy today in the hopes of effecting an extremely marginal projected change in the global temperature 80 years from now and in the further hope of perhaps effecting an even more marginal change in what might be slightly more powerful cyclones in 2100. This obviously is not good or defensible public policy. So much the worse for precision.

(h/t Wall Street Journal and Roger Pielke)

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