Watch out for flawed arguments about climate change and hurricanes
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In the wake of Harvey, Irma and Maria, there is intense pressure to use hurricanes to galvanize support toward carbon emissions cuts.
This is unfortunate. The pundits have convinced more than half of Americans of something that is factually wrong.
Hurricane Harvey had no sooner struck in August of this year than the pundits jumped in:
A Politico commentator wrote, “We knew this would happen, decades ago.” Joe Romm at ThinkProgress warned ominously, “Harvey is exactly the kind of off-the-charts hurricane we can expect to see more often because of climate change.”
As Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked their havoc, the chorus got louder. Climate change equals hurricanes.
So it is no surprise that a recent poll reveals that more than half of Americans believe that climate change contributed to the severity of the hurricanes that have hit the United States and the Caribbean this season. In contrast, a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, a similar poll found that only 39 percent of Americans believed climate change had played a role.
Just because people believe something doesn’t make it true.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official statement takes the view that “it is premature to conclude that human activities – and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming – have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.”
Do you distrust the findings of this preeminent federal agency? Well, it’s also what the United Nations Climate Panel has been saying for years.
If you really see global warming behind these recent hurricanes, then you similarly have to see global warming behind the record 12 years prior to Harvey when not a single serious hurricane hit the United States.
Pundits point out that the costs of hurricane are ever-increasing. They are correct, but they misrepresent the data. Hurricanes have caused more damage because more people with more wealth live closer to coastlines.
Adjusted for population and wealth, hurricane damage from 1900-2016 actually decreased slightly. The United Nations pointed out in its latest extreme weather report that losses adjusted for population and wealth “have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change.”
Charitably, we could perhaps say that the pundits are just generations ahead of their time. It is in fact likely that hurricanes will become somewhat stronger by the end of the century. But this still isn’t the whole story.
Hurricanes also will likely become less frequent, and societies will become more resilient.
A respected Nature review shows that hurricane damage currently costs 0.04 percent of global gross domestic product. By 2100, the increase in wealth and resilience would mean that hurricane damage would drop four-fold to just 0.01 percent of global GDP. However, if we fail to do anything about global warming, then the effect of making hurricanes fewer but stronger will mean total damage ends up around 0.02 percent — still half the impact of hurricanes today.
None of this means that human-caused climate change is not real, nor that we should not implement a robust and sensible response. What it means is that there is a gap between the rhetoric from commentators and campaigners — and even journalists — and the scientific facts.
This is perhaps clearest in the United States, where the there is a deep split along party lines. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats now mainly blame climate change for hurricane severity, a whopping 47 percentage-point increase from 2005. By contrast, there has been essentially no change among Republicans, with about a quarter blaming climate change in late September 2005 and 2017 alike.
The arguments on both sides are flawed.
Some vocal Republicans deny the obvious reality of global warming, ignoring all the science to the contrary. And some vocal Democrats are linking climate change to hurricanes, using these disasters to promote global carbon emissions cuts, which are perhaps the least-effective response imaginable.
If the United States were to fulfill its Paris climate accord promises, it would spend hundreds of billions every year. By the end of the century, this would cost some $10 trillion to $15 trillion. Nonetheless, my peer-reviewed research shows this will reduce temperatures by less than one-tenth of one degree Fahrenheit.
It will achieve absolutely no meaningful impact on hurricane damage
If the goal is to help future victims of hurricanes, that is an absolutely heartless misdirection of trillions of dollars. Indeed, this loses sight of what really causes hurricane damage — and how to prevent it.
We need better zoning, more wetlands to prevent flood surges, dikes and levees, and simple policies such as subway covers for cities like New York. It is estimated that better building codes and attention to loss-prevention methods could have avoided seven-eighths of all damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
These are not left-wing or right-wing policies, but effective actions to help future potential victims of hurricanes.
We really have to ask ourselves: do we want to focus on very expensive climate policies that will take forever and do almost no help, or do we want to spend smartly on cheap infrastructure and regulation fixes that will reduce human suffering nearly immediately?
Global warming needs to be combated through approaches like increased investment in green energy research and development to drive down the price of alternative energy. But when it comes to hurricanes, claims about climate change culpability are wrong, misguided, and — by pointing toward policies that will do next-to-nothing — simply heartless.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. In 2004, he was named one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People” by Time Magazine.
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