Katrina Kicks Up Storm of Global Warming Debate

No sooner had Hurricane Katrina moved inland to spawn tornadoes, flooding, misery and tragedy than it – or rather global warming alarmists and some in the media – began spawning junk science.

“The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming,” opened long-time alarmist Ross Gelbspan’s op-ed in the Boston Globe (Aug. 30).

Gelbspan also blamed global warming for snow in Los Angeles, high winds in Scandinavia, drought in the Midwest, a heat wave in Arizona, heavy rainfall in India and an ice storm in New England.

Gelbspan offered no scientific argument to back up his assertions. He instead blamed the media for “according the same weight to a handful of global warming skeptics that is accorded to the findings of the [United Nations].”

Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. blamed Mississsippi’s Gov. Haley Barbour for “derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad promise to regulate carbon dioxide.”

“Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged…Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children,” wrote Kennedy on Huffington Post (Aug. 29).

Kennedy at least did try to offer some scientific argument – a recent paper by MIT research Kerry Emanuel, claiming that hurricanes have intensified by 50 percent since the 1970s. But leading hurricane forecaster Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University told the Boston Globe that Emanuel’s claims aren’t based on any direct measurements of hurricane winds and described the study as “a terrible paper, one of the worst I've ever looked at.”

Agence France Presse (AFP) was slightly fairer than Gelbspan and Kennedy in its article entitled, “Brace for more Katrina, say experts” (Aug. 30), which opened, “For all its numbing ferocity, Hurricane Katrina will not be a unique event, say scientists, who say that global warming appears to be pumping up the power of big Atlantic storms.”

AFP tried to balance its mostly alarmist article with a couple of quotes from Patrick Galois of the French weather service: “Atlantic cyclones have been increasing in numbers since 1995, but one can’t say with certainty that there is a link to global warming” and “There have been other high-frequency periods for storms, such as in the 1950s and 1960s, and it could be that what we are seeing now is simply part of a cycle, with highs and lows.”

A Baltimore Sun editorial (Aug. 30), however, was in no mood for questions about Katrina’s cause: “Such warmer waters fuel the formation and ferocity of hurricanes. Warmer oceans are an inseparable by-product of global warming, and it’s foolish to ignore the link to the burning of fossil fuels.”

The Sun’s editors didn’t explain how they know what’s “foolish” or not with respect to any potential link between fossil fuels and hurricanes – fortunately, other major dailies weren’t quite so smug.

“Katrina Hits the Gulf Coast: Storms Turns Focus to Global Warming; Though some scientists connect the growing severity of hurricanes to climate change, most insist that there’s not enough proof,” headlined the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 30) – and the rest of the article was similarly balanced.

Though the Times quoted Munich Re, the world’s largest insurer of insurance companies, as saying, “global warming was at least partly responsible for the rise in worldwide insurance losses over the last 50 years, including the $114.5 billion in losses last year, the second highest total ever,” it also offered rebuttal from University of Colorado science professor Roger Pielke, who “attributed the losses to a simpler cause: more people living in harm’s way in areas such as Florida and Louisiana.”

A most welcome surprise was New York Times’ coverage headlined, “Storms Vary With Cycles, Experts Say” (Aug. 30). The Times interviewed Colorado State’s Dr. Gray who pointed out that from 1995 to 2003, 32 major hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or greater formed in the Atlantic. Only 1 in 10 of those hurricanes struck the U.S. at full strength – historically the rate has been 1 in 3. Then last year three of six (1 in 2) major hurricanes hit the U.S.

Dr. Gray attributed last year’s activity to chance. “We were very lucky in that eight-year period, and the luck just ran out,” he told the Times.

The non-alarmist coverage by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times contrasted with that of the Washington Post, which only presented the views of researchers willing to link extreme weather and Katrina with global warming.

“There’s a clear signature of global warming in [Katrina]. While it’s not the dominant factor, in some things it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Kevin Trenberth of the non-profit National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to the Post.

The Post didn’t say what the alleged “clear signature” was – or that fact that NCAR is institutionally committed to global warming alarmism.

Among all the bloviating about global warming and Katrina came this gem of situational awareness from Miami Herald columnist Glen Garvin: “The hurricane nerds can argue about whether it’s due to global warming or God’s wrath at the retirement of Dan Marino. All I know is that we have more of these damn things every year, and they are beginning to seem less like apocalyptic events and more like a routine annoyance of South Florida life…”

While Hurricane Katrina was very bad weather, that is a very long way from causally linking her with human activity. Global warmers may dispute that, but they’ll need more than naked assertions and junk science to make a case.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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