Interview with Chris Mooney, author of Storm World
Q: Storm World examines the political and scientific controversy surrounding claims that global warming will increase, or has already increased, hurricane frequency or intensity. Why do you think hurricanes in particular have become such a hot button for the global warming issue?
A: Without a doubt, the reason is the weather; or, to be more precise, the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons in the Atlantic basin. First came the four storms hitting Florida in 2004 including the terrifying monster that was Ivan then came Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005, a record year for hurricane destruction. Each of these three Category 5 storms ultimately caused over $10 billion in damage to the United States. Katrina caused an estimated $81 billion in damage and killed fifteen-hundred people.
And even as all this was happening, new scientific research began to suggest that hurricanes have dramatically intensified due to global warming. Suddenly everything came together and the media piled on as well, helping to transform the image of a cyclonic storm into a new icon of global warming.
Q: You report that in late 2006, some research was starting to suggest that even as the climate affects hurricanes, hurricanes might also be affecting the climate. Why is this a significant change in scientific thinking about hurricanes, and what does it mean to the hurricane-global warming debate?
A: As I describe toward the end of the book, previous hurricane specialists, including William Gray of Colorado State University, had essentially said, Look, if hurricanes didnt occur, regular tropical thunderstorms and disturbances could fulfill the same basic role in the climate system. But now some scientists, including Kerry Emanuel of MIT, are seeking to overturn that argument. These researchers think hurricanes play an essential and irreplaceable role in the climate system by, in essence, exporting heat out of the tropics a task they perform either by stirring up the oceans and helping to drive warm water toward the poles or by transporting heat out of those oceans and up into the atmosphere.
It stands to reason that if hurricanes are moving enough heat around in this way, any significant change to hurricanes could have a corresponding effect on the climate. For example, stronger hurricanes could help cool down the tropics and warm the higher latitudes. And heres the kicker: This could imply that if the planet continues to warm, hurricanes might go into overdrive to help cool things down. Thats more than a little scary.
I want to emphasize that these ideas are at the cutting edge right now, and they havent necessarily won widespread acceptance. I expect that ongoing scientific research over the next five to ten years will provide much more illumination about the possible role that hurricanes play in the larger climate system.
Q: Storm World includes fascinating profiles of the scientists at the heart of the debate who, in some cases, unleashed personal attacks as the media focused more and more attention on the issue. Was it challenging to separate the personalities from the science as you interviewed these experts for the book?
A: Definitely. For example, the scientist of whom Im probably most critical, William Gray, is also the one with whom I spent the most time researching the book. I followed Gray around the country and watched him give talks to huge crowds at hurricane conferences. I really enjoyed hanging out with him and hearing his stories about the heroic early days of storm-flying hurricane research. Its not by accident that Gray trained many of todays top hurricane researchers. He has a larger-than-life personality one scientist described him to me as the Howard Stern of meteorology." He really draws you in.
When it came to writing the book, I had to separate out my very positive impression of Gray as a person from my quite critical view of his stance on global warming: Gray rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are driving a trend of rising global temperatures. So on the one hand, I tried to convey what a compelling character Gray is and to give a sense of his considerable past achievements; on the other, I refuse to accept his position on climate change. I summarize the tension between those two elements with a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Q: At the heart of this controversy is the claim that a warmer planet will be one in which hurricanes are more intense. Some scientists say that the hurricane changes are already happening; others say they wont happen for a long time, if at all. If scientists cant come to a consensus on this, how can policy makers and citizens do so?
A: Well, that gets to a chief conclusion of the book. Just because scientists dont know everything doesnt mean they dont know anything. Just because theres scientific uncertainty, it doesnt mean we cant take reasonable actions now, based upon the best available knowledge, to protect ourselves, rather than simply waiting around for scientists to sort everything out.
From a policy perspective, I would argue that we know enough about how hurricanes work and, in particular, about their reliance on ocean warmth for a power source to be justifiably concerned that they will intensify significantly due to global warming (assuming they havent already). This, in turn, ought to lead us to take precautionary measures now to get ready for a world in which hurricanes might be more deadly.
In many cases, such precautionary measures make good sense anyway: Whether or not global warming creates stronger hurricanes, were always going to have hurricanes, and were extremely vulnerable to them in the United States due to the massive movement of persons and property to coastal regions; this is what some scientists have memorably called our lemming like march to the sea. So the smartest policy would be to deal with our coastal problem immediately focusing on things such as insurance policies, evacuation routes, and building codes as we continue to improve our ability to forecast hurricane paths and intensities. For cities like New Orleans, were also going to need to build up stronger defenseslevees, seawalls, and so on.
But the point is that we can get started on all of this now, with or without global warming. And then, if scientists conclude that storms are going to be 5 or 10 or 25 percent stronger, we can add to our protections accordingly.
Q: Your family hails from New Orleans. Was it difficult to balance your emotions about Katrinas devastation of that city with the need for journalistic objectivity as you wrote Storm World?
A: Yes, especially at first. Following the shock of Katrina, I along with many others who were concerned about global warming quickly seized upon hurricanes as a new symbol of climate change. At first I didnt pay much attention to the serious scientific debate that was brewing over whether hurricanes had, indeed, intensified in a measurable and provable way.
But as I began researching the book and learned a great deal more about hurricanes, I saw that the science was very complex, and that where leading scientists disagreed, I had no business taking sides. So the book evolved into a narrative account of what happens when scientists fall into conflict even as politics, the media, and the weather itself keep adding fuel to the fire.
My previous book, The Republican War on Science, delivered a strong and even polemical argument. Storm World does something differentit tells a story about high-stakes science in a political context, centering on the careers and personalities of the key scientists involved. Its a type of story were seeing more and more of nowadays, as science itself becomes increasingly relevant to decision making, and thus increasingly drawn into politics.
Q: Storm World focuses on the U.S. politics of hurricanes and global warming. Where does the rest of the world stand on this?
A: The community of scientists is global, and many other nations besides the United States Australia, Japan, and Madagascar, to name just a few examples regularly experience hurricanes. The debate in the United States thus reverberates widely, and, some of the top scientists involved in that debate originally hail from other nations, such as Australia and New Zealand.
A summary statement about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming released by the World Meteorological Organization in late 2006 (and reprinted at the end of my book) was composed after leading hurricane specialists from around the world met in Costa Rica to go over the latest research. You can read it here. The statement shows that, just as scientists in the United States do, global scientists acknowledge that a debate continues over precisely how much hurricanes have already changed as a result of ongoing global warming.
Despite the uncertainties, however, theres also much in the World Meteorological Organizations statement to be worried about. For instance, theres a general expectation that global warming will cause hurricanes to intensify (and to dump more rainfall) over the coming decades, even if it has not measurably affected them yet. And theres an acknowledgment of the obvious point that if global warming triggers a rise in sea levelone of the most certain outcomes of climate change then destructive hurricane storm surges will penetrate farther inland.
Q: When it comes to global warming, individual citizens often feel at the mercy of governments for solutions. Besides the commonly touted step of driving a hybrid car, is there really anything an individual can do to combat global warming?
A: Thats a tough one. Personally, I believe that we all need to make changes in our lives. But we should also realize that governments, rather than individuals, must take the biggest steps to stave off global warming.
So, for example, because I fly a lot I buy credits from TerraPass to offset the carbon dioxide emissions caused by my airline travel. I want my personal life to reflect my values. When I go on the road to talk about Storm World, Ill know that I'm doing my part.
However, from the standpoint of individual citizens, perhaps the most effective thing we can do is write to our legislators and lobby our government to take action on global warming before its too late.
Copyright © 2007 Harcourt
Questions written by Deborah Halverson