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Climate Change: Compared to What?

Summary:
While in my car last week, I heard a story on NPR about how climate change makes storms like Ida even worse. I am no climate expert, and I am of the belief that the climate is changing due to both natural and manmade factors; but I know when a story sounds credible or not. This one didn’t, like many others I hear or read. During the whole thing, I kept thinking of Thomas Sowell who said: “There are three questions that would destroy most of the arguments on the left: Compared to what? At what cost? What hard evidence do you have?” Actually, I think no matter what side of the climate policy debate you favor, you should ask yourself those questions. The NPR reporters clearly didn’t do so. The piece completely ignores the “compared to what” question, nor did it

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While in my car last week, I heard a story on NPR about how climate change makes storms like Ida even worse. I am no climate expert, and I am of the belief that the climate is changing due to both natural and manmade factors; but I know when a story sounds credible or not. This one didn’t, like many others I hear or read.

During the whole thing, I kept thinking of Thomas Sowell who said: “There are three questions that would destroy most of the arguments on the left:

  1. Compared to what?
  2. At what cost?
  3. What hard evidence do you have?”

Actually, I think no matter what side of the climate policy debate you favor, you should ask yourself those questions. The NPR reporters clearly didn’t do so. The piece completely ignores the “compared to what” question, nor did it provide any hard evidence, which is shocking since the point of the story was about climate change making things worse now than before.

See for instance:

“HERSHER: What climate change does is it adds fuel to a hurricane, fuel in the form of heat. So hurricanes form over water. You can think of them like engines spinning up like a propeller on a plane. And the energy for that propeller comes from the heat in the water. As the earth gets hotter, because of climate change, the water on the surface of the ocean it also gets hotter. So there’s more energy for storms like Ida to get really big and really powerful.

CORNISH: What’s the evidence for that? How do we know this happened with Ida specifically?

HERSHER: So we can basically observe it in real time, which is pretty terrifying. So, for example, let’s talk about the wind. On Saturday, the day before Ida made landfall, it had top wind speeds of about 85 miles an hour, which is pretty serious. It can remove shingles from a roof or snap off the limb of a tree. But overnight, the storm got a lot more powerful. The top wind speeds jumped to about 150 miles an hour. That is fast enough to tear whole roofs off of houses, snap power poles, you know, uproot entire trees. And that extra power, it came from the water in the Gulf of Mexico.”

While I listened I was thinking, “well, yes I guess this is how hurricanes operate. How is this different than in the past, though? And: How does this ‘expert’ explain the fact that sea surface temperatures have been rising since 1910, well before the sharp increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases?”

The only vague reference to a measurement of sorts was this:

HERSHER: It was basically like a bathtub, about 85 degrees, which is a few degrees warmer than average if you look at measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So weather forecasters could watch the storm feed on that heat. And when a hurricane gains that much power that quickly, scientists call it rapid intensification. So studies have found that hurricanes are more likely to rapidly intensify because of global warming. And people who live on the Gulf Coast of the U.S., they are on the front lines of this. You know, Hurricane Harvey did this in 2017, Michael in 2018, Laura in 2020 and now Ida. They have all rapidly intensified.

With respect to the assertion that “85 degrees, which is a few degrees warmer than average…” Which average? Average in the Gulf? Over what time period? I am not trying to be difficult, but this is not giving me information I can use to convince anyone who’s not already convinced. By comparison, here is what AEI’s Benjamin Zycher has to say:

Extreme weather occurrences are likewise used as evidence of an ongoing climate crisis, but again, a study of the available data undercuts that assessment. U.S. tornado activity shows either no increase or a downward trend since 1954. Data on tropical storms, hurricanes, and accumulated cyclone energy (a wind-speed index measuring the overall strength of a given hurricane season) reveal little change since satellite measurements of the phenomena began in the early 1970s. The number of wildfires in the United States shows no upward trend since 1985, and global acreage burned has declined over past decades. The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows no trend since 1895. And the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014, displays substantial divergence between its discussion of the historical evidence on droughts and the projections on future droughts yielded by its climate models. Simply put, the available data do not support the ubiquitous assertions about the causal link between greenhouse-gas accumulation, temperature change, and extreme weather events and conditions.

That whole piece is a must-read as he calls for climate change realism, as opposed to catastrophism. He also sent me this link to peruse with this note: “No trend over 40-50 years in the satellite data for cyclones, major cyclones, or accumulated cyclone energy.”

In the same vein, the Wall Street Journal had a piece by Bjorn Lomborg also looking at this issue from a different angle but with the “compared to what?” question in mind. First, he had a chart looking the number of hurricanes making landfall over a 120 year period.

Then he put some of the data in perspective for those who say that there may not be more hurricanes now, but the ones we get are stronger than they were before. He writes:

And there aren’t more powerful hurricanes either. The frequency [of] Category 3 and above hurricanes making landfall since 1900 is also trending slightly down. A July Nature paper finds that the increases in strong hurricanes you’ve heard so much about are “not part of a century-scale increase, but a recovery from a deep minimum in the 1960s–1980s.

He explained that point on twitter by adding this: “Satellite data starts around 1970, when Atlantic hurricanes are in a lull. Only looking from 1970s will incorrectly give an impression of an increase.”

Looking at the cost of hurricane damages isn’t too useful either, except to ask if maybe some government programs have created bad incentives for the growing number of people living and building in disaster prone areas. For a good article on this issue see Ike Brannon in Regulation Magazine.

I am sure people can take issue with some of this data. But the point of this post isn’t really to convince you that the evidence does not support the assertion that climate change makes strong hurricanes like Ida worse (though if you got that out of it, I would consider it a bonus). The point I am trying to get across is that if you are trying to make that argument like NPR reporters and many others often do, at the very least give us some “hard evidence”, and please, answer the question, “Compared to what?

Veronique De Rugy
Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist. Her primary research interests include the U.S. economy, the federal budget, homeland security, taxation, tax competition, and financial privacy. Her popular weekly charts, published by the Mercatus Center, address economic issues ranging from lessons on creating sustainable economic growth to the implications of government tax and fiscal policies. She has testified numerous times in front of Congress on the effects of fiscal stimulus, debt and deficits, and regulation on the economy.

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