Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Crazy Speculations

An essay by posted on Arianna Huffington’s site got my attention this morning. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., makes comments that are truly outrageous. In particular, he links Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s efforts to dissuade the Bush administration from adopting the Kyoto protocols to the hurricane destruction in his state. For those who wish to see for themselves, here is the link to the whole story: For the rest of you, here is an excerpt:

“Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged. Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and--now--Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children. In 1998, Republican icon Pat Robertson warned that hurricanes were likely to hit communities that offended God. Perhaps it was Barbour’s memo that caused Katrina, at the last moment, to spare New Orleans and save its worst flailings for the Mississippi coast.”

I am mystified on several levels. First, I am not aware of any evidence that CO2 levels have changed all that much in the past two or three decades, let alone the past four years. Even if these levels did change, what possible impact could the Bush Administration’s failure to support the Kyoto treaty in 2001 have on the global environment in the short span of four years? It should be noted that in 1997, the Senate passed a resolution 95-0 against the type of agreement that was to be negotiated in Kyoto. Thus, quite a few democrats and republicans in the senate at that time apparently thought this was a bad idea. (Query: Are their natural disasters still coming?)

Second, the link between global warming and hurricanes has yet to be made. I have not fully researched hurricane formation, but I would expect that multiple factors contribute to their formation. For example, there is evidence that the development of El Nino has an impact on hurricane formation. However, El Nino is known as an “anomalous” warming of Pacific waters. See Bove et. al., Effect of El Nino on U.S. Landfalling of Hurricanes, Revisited (1998). That means we don’t know what causes El Nino, and we have lots left to learn. Leaping to a conclusion that using fossil fuels (at the urging of Haley Barbour and his energy-company clients, no doubt!) causes not only more hurricanes, but also wars, strains the imagination.

Third, in the larger scheme of things, it is not even clear that there is a long term increase in the number of hurricanes affecting the U.S. NOAA maintains a listing of hurricanes on its website. There does seem to be a modest increase in recent years, but who knows what the longer term trends really are.

Finally, the last point about Katrina’s omniscience in singling out Haley Barbour is really over the top. Maybe he was trying to be funny, but I don’t think the good folks in that part of the country who are suffering would find it so. I certainly don’t.


P.S. I sure hope that Governors Vilsack (IA) and Heineman (NE) haven’t written any memos that will anger Nature.
PPS. Where does one get the kind of analytical training that Rep. Kennedy had? Though he is a lawyer who graduated from a fine law school, one must wonder whether he ever read the Palzgraff case in first-year torts.


Brian Smoliak said...

With respect to your three main comments:

1. Indeed, worldwide CO2 levels have changed throughout the past two or three decades, and to a significant extent. A large scientific consensus has been established over the past ten years, and a basic search of print and electronic media will confirm such a statement. NOAA's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostic Laboratory has an excellent web link (here) that explains how greenhouse gases are measured and how they have changed over the past few, tens, hundreds, and even thousands of years. Despite the apparent increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the Bush Administration's lack of support for the Kyoto treaty showed a hegemonical attitude towards a document supported by a majority of greenhouse gas emittors. Truth be told, support and even ratification of the Kyoto by the United States would not have had much an effect on the global environment in four years. However, atmospheric gases have latencies of much longer time periods and as such, changes in CO2 would not be observed until a marked change in emissions was completed. Environmental changes occur on timescales larger than political office terms. However, the implications of policies set in place by politicians are enormous, and can affect change in significant ways. Truth be told again, the Senate did pass a resolution 95-0 with serious resignations pertaining to the Kyoto treaty. However, in the eight years since then more and more studies have been completed, and our knowledge of climate has grown two fold. I would not be surprised if a vote on the same resolution were vastly different today.

2. A link between global warming and hurricane formation has been made, and the theoretical idea behind it has been in place ever since we came to understand the atmosphere's complex circulation better shortly after World War II. The science blog "real climate" offers a satisfactory description of that connection in a recent post (here). The most true explanation is more complex than can be explained here, but the aforementioned article and related links should suffice. Your attempt to bring El Nino into the argument illustrates what I believe to be a misunderstanding of the scientific theory related to hurricanes, global warming, and the atmosphere in general. Granted, I know little of economics, nor the consequences of a massive shift away from a fossil fuel run economy. However, I still cannot accept your use of El Nino as a legitmate argument. El Nino does represent an anomalous warming of the waters off of equatorial South America. All that means is a deviation from the normal conditions there. In no way does it infer that we don't understand El Nino. Quite contrary, we have an excellent grasp of El Nino. NOAA maintains an ensemble of global forecast models which have shown good skill in prediciting El Nino, especially in recent years. Beyond the government, numerous research institutions have devoted time and energy to predicting El Nino, several of which have showed considerable skill in doing so. An good web link devoted to El Nino can be found here. You are correct in your assertion that we have more to learn about El Nino. However, our understanding of hurricanes is quite separate from that. Though the two are related, they are also distinct have had advances made within their respective research divisions.

3. Similar to your statement, it is clear that hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been more active during the past ten years. Since 1995, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic have been warmer than normal, and concurrently we've seen more numerous hurricanes, as well as more intense hurricanes. This makes sense, according to the recipe for hurricanes (an intitial disturbance+warm water+the earth's rotation). As far as long term trends go, there appears to be a rough pattern of between 20 to 30 years of more abundant and stronger hurricanes associated with warmer than normal ocean temperatures, followed by less abundant and weaker hurricanes associated with colder than normal ocean temperatures (see National Geographic, August 2005).

Overall, I agree with your position that RFK Jr.'s statement is fallacious and immature. However, the evidence you use to debunk his "crazy speculations" involve a decent amount of speculation themselves. I hope my sources help to demystify your understanding of climate. If there is ever anything you'd like more information on, I'd be happy to help research a climate related topic. These are incredibly important issues and dialogue between economists and atmospheric scientists and ecologists is the only way that we'll find common ground in a debate that seems to be very divided right now.

Ed Morse said...

Brian, thank you for the comments. I have been away from the blog for a few days. It sounds like you have an extensive background in environmental science. Even if I am wrong about CO2 levels in the past two or three decades (as your link suggests), the main thrust of my point is still true: you can't hang this on the Bush Administration (or on Governor Barbour's memo from 2000, which RFK wants to somehow link to the hurricane's terrible toll in his state.) (Also, if there was a "hegemonical attitude", it was shared by lots of people of both parties.)

If global warming is occurring due to human causes, the problem may well be intractable, for all practical purposes. This topic should merit further blog comments at a later date.
As for the El Nino comment, the article I cited suggested that El Nino has some impact on hurricane landfall in the United States. My point was that hurricanes have multiple causes besides global warming, and that these other causes can't be traced to governmental policies involving support or opposition to Kyoto.

I think we both agree that RFK's statements are not thoughtful. I think we also agree that dialogue is good, especially with people who know their stuff.
Best regards.