Tough Questions on Hurricanes and Global Warming?

August 30th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at GristMill Dave Roberts discusses hurricanes and global warming and asks some “tough questions.” The first of these questions focus on whether or not greens should misuse science to achieve their political goals:

“In the end, greens concerned about global warming face a choice. Do they stick to scrupulous standards of scientific accuracy, with all the hedging and qualifying that entails, at the risk of being boring and losing an opportunity to galvanize action? Or do they fudge a bit, propagandize a bit, indulge in a little bit of theater and showmanship?”

Let’s take a look at the reasons that Roberts gives for why fudging science might be worth doing (and to be clear, I don’t think that Roberts is calling for a misuse of science, but instead suggesting that there is a complicated calculus underlying why one might choose to do so).

First, Roberts states, “arguably the urgency of generating a large-scale response is great enough to warrant some fudging on strict rules of accuracy and precision. Many, many lives are at stake.” Surely this is the exact same logic that motivates anti-abortion groups to advance that false claim that abortion causes breast cancer. If the righteousness of a cause dictates when it is appropriate to misuse science, then this is a pretty slippery-sloped end-justify-the-means approach to science.

Second, Roberts notes that the complexity of the climate systems makes it exceedingly difficult to make a scientifically sound linkage between global warming and a particular hurricane, perhaps suggesting that there is some wiggle room in there to assert a linkage, as no one can disprove such an assertion. Undoubtedly this is the exact same logic that underlies the repeated exagerrated claims by some that adult stem cells can be used instead of embryonic stem cells. After all, scientists are pretty smart people and who knows what they might discover in the future? Who is to say that one day they won’t be able to replace embryonic stem cells with adult stem cells? To quote Donald Rumsfeld, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Anything goes!

Third, Roberts correctly asserts that a big event opens the door for policy change, “It opens up a cultural space for dialogue and action at a time when getting the collective attention of the American public is extraordinarily difficult.” Without a doubt similar words were spoken by Bush Administration officials in the days after September 11 to justify invading Iraq based on false claims of a linkage between 9/11 and Iraq.

Roberts suggests that the question of fudging science is a tough one. Not for me. I’m pretty much all for scrupulous standards of scientific accuracy. Fudging science can certainly lead to some short term political gains, but in the end it is not good for science and certainly not good for democracy.

19 Responses to “Tough Questions on Hurricanes and Global Warming?”

  1. Ross McNaughton Says:

    If, according to Roberts, it is OK for the Greens to propogandize and fudge science does that mean it is also OK for right wing think tanks to do the same?
    Where do we draw the line? If this months “fudging” doesn’t seem to have the desired effect does it mean next months “fudging” needs to involve a little more “theatre” and “showmanship”?
    If the Greens and some scientists stuck to the “scrupulous standards of scientific accuracy” would it not make it more difficult for the “skeptics” to justify their own “fudging”?

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  3. Robert Ferguson Says:

    Dear Roger,

    I agree with the conclusions of both you and Ross.

    As the attached story indicates, small exaggerations may accelerate into apocalypticism and a Dark Ages belief system. The final purpose being to push policy based on fear, not fact. As Frank Herbert reminded us, “Fear is the mind killer.”



    This natural disaster is bringing together a perfect storm of environmentalist and religious doomsday sayers.

    By Deborah Caldwell

    What caused Hurricane Katrina to slam the U.S. Gulf Coast? Was it a typical late-summer tropical storm caused by wind, water, and heat? Mother Nature crying out on behalf of the earth’s pain? An angry God?

    Depends whom you ask. All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people’s fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago. At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane “as a direct ‘coming back on us’ [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home.” Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as “the fist of God” in a Monday column. “What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel,” Goodenough writes. “The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them.”

    Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth’s pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.

    Katrina forced oil workers to evacuate rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; meanwhile, seven oil refineries and a major oil import terminal have been closed. The Gulf Coast region is home to a quarter of U.S. oil refining. As a result, Common Dreams, a liberal website, wrote Monday: “Oil may be achieving a new impact on daily news, people’s pocketbooks and world history–perhaps even the end of history and the world.” James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century,” predicted in his Monday blog: “It seems possible to me that we will be seeing gas station lines all over America within the week.” In another area of his website, Kunstler writes: “We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes…The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We’re going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century.”

    Stephen O’Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, “God’s got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it’s sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it’s conspicuous consumption and Hummers.”

    In some ways, these are mainstream feelings: In a recent CNN poll, 55% of those responding believe that global warming is causing the severe weather we’ve experienced recently, which is a kind of admission that a huge hurricane is part of the wages of (environmental) sin. Meanwhile, most polls show that 40% of all U.S. adults believe the physical world will eventually end as a result of a supernatural intervention, perhaps with a literal Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, and Battle of Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation. Nearly half of all Americans believe the Middle East will be “heavily involved” in the events surrounding the end of the world. And 40% believe the end of the world will come in their lifetime.

    The rush to doomsday thinking, O’Leary says, is related to our need to process emotion in the face of suffering. “The mass media confront us with emotion that is almost impossible to process, and the only way we have to deal with that is to put it in terms of the drama of apocalypse and redemption–you transform suffering into a story of God’s plan. If you don’t have that, then what you do is turn off the TV and have despair.”

    It’s not just conservative Christians who tune in to this cycle of apocalypse and redemption, however. New Agers and left-wing environmentalists subscribe to a theory that the world is undergoing what they call Earth Changes–a time when, because of humanity’s degradation, the climate severely reacts. Many of these believers say the United States will be almost completely submerged in seawater when the Earth Changes are complete.

    “When people leave behind the Christian version of the apocalypse, they don’t quit being apocalyptic,” O’Leary says. “They switch brands.”

    Even the media, perhaps reacting to their own cycle of hype and emotion of this moment, have been priming the doomsday pump. The normally bloodless Associated Press wrote this description: “When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”

    Interestingly, last year’s string of Florida hurricanes didn’t seem to cause much doomsday rhetoric. But Katrina is different for a few important reasons: It’s much larger than usual storms; it hit a region that is home to one-fourth of U.S. oil production at a time when Americans are feeling tremendous anxiety over rising fuel costs; it happened a couple weeks after Israel pulled out of Gaza; and it conjures horrific images of fetid water contaminating a city with a Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.

    The thought of this region, or even the nation, being somehow punished for its sins, conjures twin feelings of excitement and dread among apocalyptic thinkers. On one hand, they seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With horrific events such as this, they believe, God (or Mother Nature) has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history–which means they will spend eternity in a happier place. Yet they also believe God (or Mother Nature) is punishing Americans. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, scolding, and trying to convert people to their way of thinking.

    It’s worth noting that end-times fever also broke out during the Persian Gulf War, around the turn of the millennium five years ago, and then around September 11, as it has many times in history. Each time it happens, Americans (and humanity for millennia before) become convinced the End is upon them because they’ve sinned and that God or Mother Nature is angry.

    Yet if people actually read the Bible, they can just as easily find an alternate view of the divine, a view that is diametrically opposite the wrathful avenger. The Book of I Kings reads: “Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

    Copyright 2005,

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  5. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Here is one clear answer to Dave Roberts question, fudge away!

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  7. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Dave Roberts continues the conversation here:

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  9. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    Interesting Grist article.

    I happen to agree that hurricanes don’t necessitate a certain energy policy. But if global warming leads to more hurricanes and more intense hurricanes, we ought not to be afraid to say so.

    The thing that bothers me is that the debate is never occurring where it should be. If global warming is happening (and I’m quite sure it is), we should be discussing what, if anything, should be done about it, rather than arguing a controversy that doesn’t exist.

    If global warming causes hurricanes (and I’m less clear that it does), then we should be discussing what, if anything, should be done about it, be it energy policy or disaster preparedness. If we don’t know GW’s effects on weather, then it’s fair to debate the controversy, and whether we know enough to necessitate any action.

    The “muddying of the waters” may not change any minds, but it does keep us from discussing what to do.

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  11. The Commons Blog Says:

    Hurricanes & Climate Change

    Can we blame the severity of Hurricane Katrina on human-induced climate change? Don’t bet on it. NR editor Rich Lowry summarizes the arguments here. He also responds to some reader e-mail here. This Pat Michaels piece is also worth a…

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  13. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    Whoah… I’m responding to the wrong post. I only read Grist’s response. I’d say Roberts has articulated very well the very thinking I criticize so harshly on the right. You’re right to call him out on it.

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  15. Tom Yulsman Says:

    I note that Robert Ferguson posted his comments at 8:47 a.m. today. This was probably before it became evident that the long feared scenario of total inundation of New Orleans was coming to pass.

    That scenario was first described in prescient detail several years ago by Pullitzer-prize winning reporter Mark Schleifstein at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Which managed, by the way, to get a paper out today — — before the entire staff was forced to evacuate as flood waters began lapping at the building. Journalism, despite its many problems, is still an honorable profession.)

    So I’m sorry, but the AP was not exaggerating when it wrote that Katrina “could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.” This was a scenario developed by scientists, including researchers at Louisiana State University. (For LSU storm surge predictions in and around New Orleans from Katrina, see

    AP didn’t make this stuff up.

    And now the video being broadcast from New Orleans shows clearly that the bowl has indeed filled. (Despite what I recently heard the governor of Louisiana say.) Eighty percent of the city is inundated, and the waters downtown are still rising.

    Prior to the storm, experts predicted that if this happened — and an LSU researcher put the odds at 50-50 — it could take months to pump out all the water. Maybe they’ll get it done much sooner. Let’s hope so. But how long can a house sit in water before it is rendered uninhabitable? How many houses are there in 80 percent of New Orleans? And even if the vast majority of houses are salvagable, what will the ultimate cost be? We are talking about a metropolitan area of more than 1.3 million people.

    We could be watching the demise of a major American city.

    Was it global warming? Maybe the abnormally warm waters of the Gulf did indeed cause the storm to grow larger and more ferocious than it might otherwise have grown. And maybe more such hurricanes are on the way. But did global warming cause us to build a major metropolitan area below sea level and surrounded on three sides by water? Did global warming cause us to build levies for flood protection and carve canals out of swamps for transportation, thereby starving the protective marshes of the nourishment they need to survive? (Sea level is rising in Louisiana, all right, but not because of global warming. The land is sinking because of what we’ve done to the marshes.) And did global warming cause us to build gaming establishments and housing in Gulfport and Biloxi and Pass Christian?

    We certainly need to do something about global warming. But Dave Roberts, Ross Gelbspan and others are wrong: Fudging the science will not result in the policy changes that are needed. If we fudge and twist and spin and lie, enterprising journalists and bloggers will uncover the deception, and support for doing something about global warming could erode.

    But I do think it’s okay to shout from the rooftops. That includes telling people that while the science is uncertain and controversial, some researchers believe that global warming could bring us more Katrinas. I believe that’s a fair and accurate statement. (Do we really need to say anything stronger than that?) But we also need to say that more catastrophes like what is unfolding in New Orleans this evening are going to happen with or without global warming for the simple reason that we’ve put ourselves in harm’s way.

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  17. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    How much have ocean levels risen due to GW? I have no idea if it’s signifigant.

    It does seem that the loss of wetlands had an effect. If that’s true, that should be shouted out from the rooftops as Tom says. Just because the term “wetlands” conjures up images of Greens doesn’t mean we should shy away from saying it, if that’s pretty well established.

    I don’t get the argument that it’s New Orleans fault for being where it is (as others have said elsewhere). It’s not like it moved there yesterday. What are they suggesting? That everyone should have just up and moved once this became such an issue? That seems a more unworkable solution than attempting to do something to save the city.

    It’s clear humans have an effect on their environment. I don’t see what’s so godawful wrong with not wanting to effect it blindly. What’s all this scientific study for, if not to act in some manner that benefits us, or at least minimizes the bad?

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  19. Ross McNaughton Says:

    I’m sorry but I find it extremely patronising that they think the only way to sway the opinions of the politicians and the public is by telling them “scary stories”.
    Do they think us that stupid that these tactics are the only way to get through?
    If they exagerate and misrepresent information and “blame” the energy industry why would they expect anything other than industry to invest in their own science which attempts to refute the misrepresentations. But when you look at it many of those doing the refuting are concerned scientists and individuals who have no backing from industry but are instead motivated by the misuse of science. We have ended up battling over whos science is worse.
    The reallity is that the vast majority of energy used in the world is generated by fossil fuels and burning biomass simply saying “don’t do it it’s bad and if you do the global warming bogey man will get you” doesn’t change that.
    The proponents of Wind and Solar solutions know that when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine there is no power but will not raise this as a legitimate problem because it damages their “cause”, more misrepresentation.
    My daughter was doing a school project on inventions she chose the steam engine, when I asked her why is was important she said it replaced windmills and water wheels which when the wind didn’t blow or there was not enough water it meant that industry stopped. She is 10 years old and she gets it it is not just replacement but reliability which is also important. The industrial revolution did not happen because of the steam engine but because of reliability of power.
    If we want to fix global warming we could start by not blaming the energy industry and instead work with them on realistic solutions. If this means taking money off scientists who are trying to work out if the temperature is going to increase by 5 100ths of a degree or 1 100th of a degree a year then so be it.
    I am sorry if this is a bit of a rant but I am very tired of the global warming alarmists who think we are to stupid to recognise the problem.

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  21. Tom Yulsman Says:

    Dylan, I certainly did not intend to suggest that the residents of New Orleans were in any way at fault for what happened for not leaving the city once the precarious nature of its existence became widely known. If I gave that impression, it was a big mistake.

    My colleague, Mark Schleifstein — a Pullitzer-prize winning journalist — works at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Which evacuated to Houma this afternoon.) I believbe he was the first to write about the doomsday scenario, several years ago, that now seems to be unfolding in the Big Easy. And he lost his house and everything he owned today. Of all the people in New Orleans, Mark saw this coming more than anyone else, I think. And I most definitely did not mean to suggest that he — or any other resident of New Orleans — bears some responsibility for what happened. They are victims of an unfathomable event.

    As for shrinking marshes, Schleifstein and his colleagues at the Times-Picayune were writing about it back in the 1990s — and they won a Pullitzer Prize, based in part on this work. See and and

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  23. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    I wasn’t referring to you. That is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed on other blogs and FOX News. Brit Hume’s panel unanimously agreed that yes, Federal aid for these people was inevitable, but that they really shouldn’t have lived there. Don’t get it.

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  25. Steve Bloom Says:

    Roger, I’d like to propose a thought experiment: Assume that in 30 years the state of the science is such that we can say there is a 10% global warming signal in North Atlantic hurricane energy, but that the signal cannot be resolved at the level of individual hurricanes.
    Given these assumptions, will the science have any useful contribution to make to public policy above and beyond what we know now (e.g., major Gulf Coast city below sea level = bad idea)? You of course already know this, but I will point out for the record that policy makers have already ignored the much less subtle North Atlantic hurricane cycle, and many of them are now openly advocating for rebuilding New Orleans as was. Is there any possible additional science that will have a chance of getting through to these people?

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  27. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for this comment. In fact, your thought experiment was the subject of this paper we did in 1999. Have a look:

    Pielke, Jr., R. A., R.A. Klein, and D. Sarewitz, 2000: Turning the Big Knob: Energy Policy as a Means to Reduce Weather Impacts. Energy and Environment, Vol. 11, No. 3, 255-276.

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  29. Quicksilver כספית Says:

    Katrina, hurricanes and global warming

    I caution against blaming Katrina on global warming, as does Ross Gelbspan (generally a good environmental journalist). Granted, oil and energy policies should change, but Arthur Waskow overplays the Katrina card. See the analysis, links and debate at …

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  31. Hugh Deeming Says:

    In response to Steve Bloom’s fears that New Orleans will be rebuilt with little apparent regard for future vulnerability I’d like to steer you toward this eloquently written history of the area and its strategic importance:

    It makes for uncomfortable reading.

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  33. Quicksilver כספית Says:

    Katrina, hurricanes and global warming

    I caution against blaming Katrina on global warming, as does Ross Gelbspan (generally a good environmental journalist). Granted, oil and energy policies should change, but Arthur Waskow overplays the Katrina card. See the analysis, links and debate at …

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  35. LOU MAGOWAN Says:


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  37. Dave Says:

    No abortion/breast cancer connection? Consider this: British researcher Patrick Carroll presented his data at the Joint Statistical Meetings at the Minneapolis Convention Center – the largest gathering of statisticians in North America.

    Carroll directs the Pensions and Population Research Institute in London. His research showed that abortion is the best predictor of three British breast cancer trends:

    Trend #1: Upper class women are the most likely to develop breast cancer and die of the disease. For other cancers, lower social classes experience higher incidence and mortality rates. Abortion before a first birth (the most carcinogenic abortion) and delayed first birth among upper class women provide the best explanations for this trend.

    Trend #2: Variations in breast cancer rates among regions of the British Isles can be explained by differences in abortion rates. Breast cancer rates are greatest in the South East (116 per 100,000) where abortion rates are higher than in other regions. Breast cancer incidence is lowest in Ireland (97 per 100,000) where abortion is prohibited.

    Trend #3: Breast cancer rates increased approximately 70% between 1971 and 2002. Breast cancer incidence for women aged 50-54 in successive birth cohorts is highly correlated with abortion incidence, and is less highly correlated with other factors associated with breast cancer, i.e., fertility, prevalence of childlessness and age at first birth.

    Carroll’s research is significant because he used national data reporting breast cancers and abortions. Therefore, it’s free of any possibility of a hypothetical problem called “recall bias.”