Should Climate Change Activists Sandy-gogue?

You don’t have to be a meteorologist or a scientist of any sort to understand that violent weather patterns are increasing in frequency, and that there are all sorts of less-than-circumstantial connections between storms and climate change. It’s the kind of wake-up call that Americans who often view energy and environmental policies via gasoline prices or what their employers tell them really need.

But how far should people with every reason to dumb down climate science just a bit to get public attention go when they are fighting climate change deniers with gigantic corporate backing and the explicit or implicit support of one-and-a-half of the two major political parties?

Here’s what NPR’s Adam Frank has to say:

There is a hierarchy of weather events which scientists feel they understand well enough for establishing climate change links. Global temperature rises and extreme heat rank high on that list, but Hurricanes rank low. As the IPCC special report on extreme events put it “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”

The reasons for “low confidence” are manifold. Some part of the caution comes from the complexity of the problem, and some part comes from the lack of good data before the satellite era (about 1970). Thus, many climate scientists will not want to go out on a limb for hurricanes. They just don’t have the tools to make strong inferences.

This is not to say progress isn’t being made. One thing that does seem clear is that warmer oceans (a la global warming) mean more evaporation, and that likely leads to storms with more and more dangerous rainfall of the kind we saw with Hurricane Irene last year. In addition, a paper published just last month, used records of storm surges going back to 1923 as a measure of hurricane activity. A strong correlation between warm years and strong hurricanes was seen. Thus if you warm the planet, you can expect more dangerous storms.

Which brings us to our bottom line. The science of climate attribution is very exciting and full of cool, new ideas. It has already provided us with first steps towards more precision in understanding how climate change is changing climate now, already. For hurricanes, however, sticking to the science means it is still hard to point to an individual storm and say, yes! Climate change! A more reasoned approach is to take the full weight of our understanding about the Earth and its systems and go beyond asking if any particular event is due to global warming or natural variability. As Kevin Ternbeth of NCAR says “Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

Sensible and responsible, of course. But you can certainly forgive progressives for saying in response to to climate-change denying conservatives whose compassion with respect to energy policy extends no further than coal, oil and natural gas industries: Surf’s Up! Way Up!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.