Letter to Keith Kloor re: ‘Climate Ambulance Chasing’

By Tom Yulsman | November 12, 2013 4:11 pm
Aerial photo of the devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippine city of Tacloban. The photo was taken by a crew member on an Armed Forces of the Philippines aircraft flying over the city. For more, see the AFP Central Command Facebook page.

Aerial photo of the devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippine city of Tacloban. The photo was taken by a crew member on an Armed Forces of the Philippines aircraft flying over the city. For more, see the AFP Central Command Facebook page.

| Update 5:30 p.m. MST, 11/12: After I took my friend Keith Kloor to task in the post below, another friend and colleague has taken me to task for not including the most important factor in what drove the specific catastrophe wrought by Haiyan in the Philippines: the social and economic dimensions. See the bottom of this post, where I correct that omission. It’s an important point, so please make sure to check it out.|

Keith Kloor, a friend and fellow blogger here at Discover, has a provocative post up today titled “The New Normal: Climate Ambulance Chasing.” Speaking of catastrophes like Super Typhoon Haiyan, Keith writes:

…you can be sure that trailing behind these disasters, like ambulance chasers, is a brigade of climate-concerned activists, scientists and their enablers in the media. And trailing behind them is an Anthony Watts/Marc Morano led brigade of chortling denialists, whose main objective is to exploit, for ideological/political purposes, the exploitation of disasters by the climate ambulance chasers.

In the post, he takes journalists to task for bringing up the climatic context of storms like Haiyan. Since I’ve discussed the climatic context of recent extreme weather events here at ImaGeo, I thought it would be a good idea to respond to Keith. So here goes…

Dear Keith,

Whether you like it or not, the climatic context of Super Typhoon Haiyan IS front and center in the news coming out of the U.N. climate talks in Poland, and both activists and skeptics are making all manner of claims in the aftermath of the typhoon. So I believe science and environmental journalists have a responsibility at least to try to hold up these claims to scrutiny, and to let readers know what can be said with confidence, what’s at the cutting edge of science, and what is simply bogus.

That is not being an “enabler” of “climate ambulance chasers.” It is simply doing our job.

With this in mind, here are my abbreviated answers to those questions, starting first with a summary and then delving into the geeky details:

It is absolutely true that we should tread very carefully in linking individual storms to climate change. As you point out, this is the province of a field called attribution research. Although this is cutting edge stuff, and thus subject to doubt and uncertainties, scientists have been making progress in their ability to determine the degree to which, if any, climate change may have contributed to an extreme weather event. But that attribution research hasn’t been done for Super Typhoon Haiyan.

That said, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that while no trend in cyclone activity attributable to climate change has been definitively documented for the globe as a whole, there is evidence for one in the North Atlantic — associated with warming ocean temperatures. Moreover there’s reason to believe that sea level rise can exacerbate storm surges to some degree. But in the case of Haiyan, the surge was so high that any contribution from sea level rise was likely to have been small. Lastly, recent research suggests that as the world warms, both the number and intensity of tropical cyclones may increase, although this too is cutting edge research with uncertainties attached to it.

I think that is a pretty fair “nut section,” if you will, summarizing what can be said about the climatic context of tropical cyclones. And now, here are the geekier details:

  • Some activists are directly tying Haiyan to climate change. For example, Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, wrote in the Huffington Post, “Carbon dioxide is the steroids that leads to grand-slam storms like Haiyan.” This is bogus. As you noted in your post, there is a developing field of science focusing on “attribution” — namely, the specific causes of individual storms, including the degree to which climate change may have played a role. But it is a relatively new area of science, and that kind of attribution research has not yet been done with Haiyan. Moreover, climate change is expected to play itself out in changes to patterns of weather over long periods of time. So quick and dirty attribution of individual events to climate change is ill advised in our stories.
  • We often hear it said that climate change is already well underway, and thus it forms a backdrop to every weather event. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has put it this way: “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.” As science journalists, we cannot simply ignore this point. But it is certainly valid to ask what this really means. In the case of the intense rainfall event we suffered here in Colorado back in September, which led to catastrophic flooding, it meant that the atmosphere may have held as much as 5% more water vapor than it would have without global warming. But that was likely a minor contribution to an event that featured water vapor levels more than 200% above normal.
  • We know there is no evidence for a systematic increase globally in the Accumulated Cyclone Energy index, or ACE, a measure of tropical cyclone activity, between 1970 and 2012. But there has been a noticeable increase in that measure of cyclone activity in the North Atlantic Ocean since the mid-1990s. A similar measure, called the Power Dissipation Index, or PDI, has followed a similar trend in the North Atlantic. And both trends seem to be associated with changes in sea surface temperature, which has risen more than 1 degree F since about 1970.
  • What can we say about that association? I’ll quote noted hurricane expert, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel here. He argues that “there is a strong anthropogenic signal in Atlantic hurricane power.” Other scientists disagree. Here is a summary of his argument:

Hurricanes operate off a difference between the temperature of the ocean and the temperature of the atmosphere. And as we add greenhouse gases to atmosphere, that temperature difference increases. And that tends to make hurricanes more powerful. That hurricane power during the period of really good observations, from about 1980 until now, has roughly doubled in the Atlantic. That’s a big signal. Now the question is, why has that happened? And the fact that it is so beautifully correlated to sea surface temperature gives us a little bit of a leg up, because it’s easier to ask why the sea surface temperature has gone up.

  • Big caveat: Emanuel points out that only 12 percent of global hurricane activity occurs in the Atlantic. Most cyclones occur in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Global sea level has risen, and this contributes to storm surges during big storms. But here, too, it is legitimate for us to ask how much? Brian Walsh of Time Magazine asked that very question in the story you included in your criticisms. Here is what he came up with:

Seas have been rising significantly faster in the Philippine Sea, where Haiyan struck, than the world on average. The higher seas would have worsened flooding, just as sea-level rise amplified the damage from Superstorm Sandy, but given the fact that Haiyan’s storm surges were as much as 20 ft., climate-driven sea-level rise wouldn’t have been the deciding factor in the supertyphoon’s devastation.

  • That said, let’s go a little further. Purely for sake of argument, let’s assume that 1,000 people lost their lives from storm surge brought on by Haiyan. (This is a made up number. I’m just using it as an illustration.) Now let’s say that sea level rise made Haiyan’s storm surge 10 percent worse. That likely would mean that of those 1,000 people who died from storm surge, 100 lost their lives because of an extra push from sea level rise. One hundred lives is a big deal. We can also ask how much extra devastation was caused. Even a 10 percent increase could have equaled something quite significant. My point is not at all that this is what happened with Haiyan. My point is simply that it is the very kind of question we should be asking as journalists — and doing so does not make us enablers of ambulance chasers.
  •  What can we expect going forward? As we both know, we’re already committed to a certain degree of global warming because of the carbon dioxide already emitted to the atmosphere, along with a concomitant rise in sea level. So I believe it would be reasonable to say that storm surges are likely to get worse in coming decades because of global warming.
  • Lastly, what about the strength of storms themselves? Kerry Emanuel has done research showing that as the world continues to warm, we are likely to see an increase globally in both the number and intensity of tropical cyclones. (Go here for a good summary of the study.) But another important caveat: This research is at the cutting edge of computer modeling.

Keith, I agree with you that using a calamity like Super Typhoon Haiyan as just another excuse to trade salvos in the climate change wars is unseemly, at best. I made that very case two days ago in a post here. But when claims are flying around, it is the job of journalists to try to call balls and strikes, and present a clear and accurate picture of what science can say.

Even umpires make the wrong call sometimes. So I may have erred in some of what I’ve said. If I have, I’ll correct the record. In the meantime, I remain…

Your friend and colleague,

Tom

|Update: This post was intended simply as a refutation of the claim that journalists who bring up the climate context of extreme weather are somehow enablers of “ambulance chasers.” I strongly believe that one of our roles is to call balls and strikes when activists, skeptics and others get attention with their claims. But that’s certainly not our only role. We obviously need to put a storm like Haiyan in its full context, and climate is just part of that. With this post, I did not at all mean to imply that the climate science context is preeminent in the Haiyan story. Far from it. What happened is this: A huge and powerful storm bore down on a densely populated coastline, where poverty and shoddy construction abound. And even a weaker storm would have caused a great deal of misery. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press got the balance just right in his story today. You can find it here|

  • saymwah

    Bravo. But I’d still like to know why no one on either side notices that although it’s impossible to know what is causing global warming or what the consequences will be, the fact that there’s decent evidence that we are probably causing it and that there probably will be severe consequences should be more than enough incentive to start considering “destroying the economy” as a distant second priority.

    • carolannie

      Well, if you measure GDP, combating global warming would actually increase it, although certain economic sectors would suffer. As such, the response should be: let’s do it and make sure that the sectors that suffer are replaced intelligently by other sectors. In other words, let the buggy whip factories go out of business, but make sure workers are trained and hired in the new industries. Intellectually we keep insisting on keeping the buggy whip factories in business, and trying to impede the new businesses with underfunding, under-training and lack of commitment. Not good.

      Incidentally, I don’t think that the share holders need to be made whole. After all, it is their business to take risks and accept the costs of those risks.

      • Buddy199

        This is the same thinking that lead to the Obamacare fiasco.

        • Eli Rabett

          Yes, New Coke was such a success. And tell us about AIG.

          • workforlivn

            AIG was bailed out by the government. A free market would have let it crash.

          • Eli Rabett

            Worked so well with Lehman

        • carolannie

          No, the Obamacare “fiasco”was created by trying to make the insurance companies whole.

        • Skip Nordenholz

          Reducing CO2 emissions does not require central planners to out think free markets, it only requires incentives so that the free market will pursue low CO2 technologies, we have lots of rule that markets have to following to get better out comes from free markets, truth in advertising, laws about insider trading, laws about how companies can compete with each other, in a true free market economy with no government intervention a large company could just pay to have their competition killed, or threaten distributed to abort a competing product. Free market do not achieve goals we want on their own they achieve the goals we want by us defining the boundaries that they can compete in.

    • Dave Flegel

      umm, climate change is caused by over-consumption, done by humans
      that is not in question, period
      what’s in question, is the effects of possible changes
      but hey, keep deluding yourself that people arent the problem so you can further your materialistic, consumptive lifestyle. hell, all of keyensian economics is based on this. the economics of the west

      • saymwah

        We seem to have some reading comprehension issues here.

      • Buddy199

        When Al Gore gives up his 15,000 sq ft mansion and private jet I’ll start listening to the sermons.

        • Rob Honeycutt

          Why does anything Al Gore does have anything to do with the overwhelming scientific research on climate change?

          • Eli Rabett

            Rob, haven’t you noticed that both Al Gore and Chris Christie are fat. And they both believe in climate change. True there is noise in the data, and Rand Paul believes in donuts, but this is real science here.

          • Rob Honeycutt

            +1 (LOL)

          • Buddy199

            When the loudest, most moralistic voices on the AGW band wagon actually start practicing what they preach for the rest of us little folk I’ll be more inclined to think they sincerely believe in the prescriptions they are pushing. And that doesn’t mean buying a $100,000 electric sports car to stuff into the garage with your Rolls, Land Rover and other 1% “necessities”.

            As far as the research, it is not monolithic. There is solid evidence of a long term warming trend, but it gets much more unclear from there. Why the hiatus or variability in temp. that was never predicted? Who knows, we’re just guessing in retrospect about aerosols and ocean currents. What will be the exact rise in long term temp and associated effects? Once again, we’re guessing. The IPCC keeps revising it’s conclusions but insisting that the latest is rock solid. I am skeptical about certain areas of climate science in direct proportion to the softness of the current data.

          • Rob Honeycutt

            Admit it, Buddy. It doesn’t matter what Al Gore does. You’re more likely to do the exact opposite of anything he does.

            The fact is, Gore does far more to mitigate CO2 emissions through investments and advocacy than any of the rest of us will ever have the opportunity to do.

            As for the “haitus.” If you actually read the research you find that this is an expected result of natural variability. It’s long been said that there will be periods of more rapid warming and periods of less warming, or perhaps even cooling. But increasing CO2 emissions will produce warming over the course of the next century.

          • workforlivn

            Let’s allow that humans cause climate change. Those same humans in the US use less per capita than before. Over that same period the population has risen from 220 mil to 310 million offsetting any per capita reduction. So you’re not at all talking about conservation, you’re only talking about population control whether you like it or not.

            Now what?

          • Buddy199

            Al Gore is nothing but the Elmer Gantry of global warming; a self-enriching and aggrandizing hypocrite. It’s like Jimmy Swaggart preaching hellfire and damnation while banging the cute teenage choir girl, or Obama on his class warfare shpeal while force feeding Wall Street trillions. If you can accept utter hypocrites because the ends justify the means, swell. But personally I don’t like the smell.

            The “hiatus”, in quotes, is a real geophysical phenomenon that was not predicted by the models, scientists or climate celebrity gas bags. Now, in retrospect, they are trying to spin and rationalize that glaring gap in global warming theory. As far as an” expected result of natural variability”, of what predictive or practical value is that? So, the climate might get warmer…or it might get colder…or it might stay the same temperature…and we’re correct in any event. The truth is that there is much more uncertainty in climate science than solid fact, certainly not enough solid fact to justify upending the world economy, as the central planning geniuses who are in the process of “fixing” health care would love to do if given the opportunity.

          • Rob Honeycutt

            I’ll let you work out your Al Gore issues on your own. It has nothing to do with the science.

            You are completely wrong about the haitus. It clearly IS predicted by the models. It is stated over and over again in climate research that some decades will warm faster, and others slower.

            In terms of “predictive or practical value” you’re not understanding the issue. Over the long term, if we continue to alter the radiative properties of the atmosphere by adding greenhouse gases, the planet will continue to warm as predicted by models. That is extremely well established.

            Over shorter terms it is not possible to know when we can expect another series of El Nino’s or La Nina’s. That is just the nature of the global climate system. Heat energy moves around the climate system in ways that are not possible to predict over shorter time frames.

            There is a tremendous amount of certainty about the long term effect. The IPCC now states that human emissions of greenhouse gases is now EXTREMELY LIKELY to be the cause of recent warming. That is a greater than 95% certainty.

          • Dave Flegel

            because over-consumption is the major reason behind climate change, and he is a hypocrite to tell others to limit their carbon and he does neither

          • Rob Honeycutt

            Whether Al Gore flies in a jet has no bearing on whether the science about climate change is correct. You can hate Al Gore all day long, and it will have no bearing on the results of the scientific research.

          • Dave Flegel

            i never said the science had anything to do with whether al gore is a stooge for the energy monopoly

          • Dave Flegel

            it just shows that ‘believing’ or accepting anthropogenic climate change is meaningless, you have to practice what you preach. consume less, period. and al has NEVER mentioned hemp

          • Rob Honeycutt

            Yeah, I guess if Gore would just change his ways the climate change problem would be solved. /sarc

            The point here is that the actions of individuals, while they may be well meaning, can never solve the problem. What is required is pricing the cost of atmospheric carbon in the marketplace. If we can accomplish that then, 1) Al Gore is going to pay a hell of a lot more to travel by private jet (his homes are LEED Certified, so no problem there), and 2) Everyone else in the marketplace is going to naturally shift their behavior toward clean energy.

            Think about plastic shopping bags in California. If there was any place where people “should” have naturally adopted reusable bags, it would have been CA. But it took a 5 cent charge on plastic bags to get people to actually do it.

            Five cents is nothing. It has absolutely NO financial impact on consumers. But that nominal charge has caused almost 99% of consumers to start using reusable shopping bags.

            This is the only way to deal with the climate change problem. Period.

      • workforlivn

        http://www.aei-ideas.org/2013/04/energy-fact-of-the-day-us-co2-emissions-per-capita-in-2012-were-the-lowest-since-1964-main-reason-shale-gas/

        You’re not talking about over-consumption at all. Over-population is what you’re talking about. I think that narrows it down to war, pestilence, famine and death. You first.

        • Dave Flegel

          im not? oh im sorry. i didnt realize more and more people are trying to live unsustainable lifestyles. over consumption and over population are essentially the same thing. and as for carbon emissions, there are still tons of carbon in the atmosphere from the previous century.
          http://www.votehemp.com

  • Psyclic

    This straining to support Kloor’s “scientific” evaluation by bending over backwards brings to mind the the utterly impossible connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. Hey, if it’s not 100% cause then effect, it must not be true!
    I thought “sensitivity to initial conditions” as the keystone of chaos theory was well known, if not understood.
    Why are you guys fighting this? Just because there are kooks on either side, does not invalidate the correlation; and the correlation IS complex and NON-linear.

  • Eli Rabett

    There is strong evidence that the most powerful storms have been getting stronger since 1981. Since this is a base prediction of Emanuel and of the GCMs, well, like minnows in the milk, it is a strong indicator that something is fishy

    • jh

      “getting stronger since 1981 [this] is a strong indicator that something is fishy”

      Well, Eli Rabett, this is one of the biggest problems with almost all climate change stuff: it relies VERY heavily on data for less than 100 yrs. Since there is substantial evidence that there is a ~60yr periodicity to climate, using less than 100 yrs of data is fraught. Using only 35 yrs of data is, well, just not convincing.

      I’m sure I wish as much as you that we had a good solid 300 yrs of data for all climate parameters. But we don’t. We need to keep that in mind.

      • Eli Rabett

        Hmm, data for less than 100 years not to be trusted. Strong evidence of 60 year periodicity.

        Do you perhaps sense a little bit of a contradiction there?

        Sadly, probably not.

        • jh

          “fraught” does not imply the data are “not to be trusted”. The data, I’m sure Eli is aware, can’t be wrong or right. The interpretations and conclusions drawn from them, however, are a different story.

          I’m not sure what contradiction you’re referring to, so “probably not” is right on the money. But I do know this: when seeking to understand phenomena that are cyclic on multiple time scales ranging over orders of magnitude, using data from one or two cycles at the time scale of interest to generate interpretations certainly leaves room for new data to bust the interpretations quite badly.

          • Eli Rabett

            Two cycles of a sixty year event is 120 years. One sixty year even is not a cycle. Clear now

  • Rob Honeycutt

    I would note here that ACE, as a measure of cyclonic energy, relies merely on sustained wind speed at various points during the life of a storm. What ACE misses is the full dimensions of cyclones.

    In other words, a category 4 storm that is 1000 miles in diameter will have far more energy than a category 5 storm that is 500 miles in diameter.

    This is why researchers are starting to look at IKE or Integrated Kinetic Energy, related to cyclones.

  • https://twitter.com/MrRobertFord Robert Ford

    i don’t think it really matters either way – you guys both spend WAY too much time thinking about it. no one is EVER gonna do anything about climate change and, even if they did, it wouldn’t change anything.

  • workforlivn

    Controlling carbon emissions is about controlling population. http://www.aei-ideas.org/2013/04/energy-fact-of-the-day-us-co2-emissions-per-capita-in-2012-were-the-lowest-since-1964-main-reason-shale-gas/
    We already use less fuel. The only change will be brought about by reducing the number of people. Queue the four horsemen.

  • Brian Schmidt

    Saying that “X is like Y” is saying that “X is similar to Y”. So what Jamie Henn (who I know) said was that carbon dioxide is the steroids that lead to grand-slam storms similar to Haiyan. That is a completely unexceptional statement.

    Tom is attempting to defend his friend Keith Kloor even while correcting Kloor, but it’s just not possible. Leave the false equivalence to Kloor – you’ll be guaranteed to get too much of it from that source.

  • jh

    Tom -

    You might also check out the map of sea level rise linked below from NOAA. It’s data claims to be more recent (through 2013 as opposed to 2010) and it shows substantially less overall sea level rise. Perhaps there is a difference in methods?

    The patterns, however, are the same, with the largest rises in sea level around Indonesia and the Pacific Islands, and the smallest rises – in fact, falling sea levels – in the open Pacific. It’s also interesting that there are latitudinal ridges of higher sea level – many of which are very roughly associated with latitudinal tectonic features.

    Map:
    http://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/fourbox/07-15-13/

    What are the explanations of these patterns? Is there a non-tectonic explanation? I find it interesting that sea level is falling in the open Pacific where no tectonic features exist and where the oceanic crust is old and dense.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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