Hurricanes Florence and Michael left more than just physical devastation in their wakes. They also touched off a lot of headlines claiming them as proof that human-induced climate change is happening now.
Then a conveniently timed United Nations report blew in, painting a grim future for our planet if we fail to act on climate change in the next 11 years. In fact, some proponents of climate action are calling for nothing less than the dismantling of the free enterprise system responsible for human flourishing across the globe.
So what's the full story? And what would be the costs of global energy overhaul?
It's true that many climatologists are projecting gloom and doom. But they're not all relying on the same forecast. Not even mainstream climatologists are in agreement on this one.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, "In the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude that human activities and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity."
If that sounds surprising, it's because few of us can see beyond the last storm. But in the United States and around the world, there has actually been a decreasing trend in hurricane activity. A 2018 paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society shows a slight downward trend of landfalling hurricanes and major land-falling hurricanes in the continental U.S. over the past 117 years.
It's easy to forget that before Hurricane Harvey reached landfall in August 2017, the U.S. was in a stretch of nearly 12 years without a major hurricane reaching land. Hurricane Wilma hit Florida a full 4,323 days prior to Harvey. But hurricane-drought streaks don't quite grab headlines like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Globally, the scientific evidence is encouraging, too. The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was largely a re-packaging of existing science, says, "Numerous studies towards and beyond AR5 (5th Assessment Report) have reported a decreasing trend in the global number of tropical cyclones and/or the globally accumulated cyclonic energy."
The University of Colorado's Roger Pielke Jr., who specializes in analyzing extreme weather trends, emphasizes that "the IPCC once again reports that there is little basis for claiming that drought, floods, hurricanes (and) tornadoes have increased, much less increased due to (greenhouse gases)."
However, trends are only part of the story. Many climatologists argue that warming is "supercharging" recent hurricanes. The simple narrative is that warm water is the fuel for hurricanes and, consequently, human-induced warming is making things worse.
But it's slightly more complicated than that. Meteorologist Ryan Maue, who runs weathermodels.com, points out that Hurricane Florence's track was through "abnormally cool" waters. In noting that the Gulf waters for Michael were warmer than the last three decades he suggests, "more detailed climate analysis is needed to better understand what has happened over the past 12 years across the Gulf of Mexico."
Climatologist Judith Curry, meanwhile, parsed through just about every climate expert's assessment, both pre- and post-Florence, and concluded that "convincingly attributing any of this to human caused global warming is very challenging."
Far less challenging is assessing the cost of the IPCC's suggested policies. The report proposes a massive carbon tax of between $135 and $5,500 by 2030. Since 80 percent of Americans' energy needs are met by coal, oil and natural gas, a carbon tax of this magnitude would cause electricity rates and gas prices to skyrocket to astronomical levels.
But the economic pain wouldn't stop there. Families would end up paying more for food, health care, education, clothes you name it. Such a massive energy tax would bankrupt families and businesses, and undoubtedly catapult the world into economic despair.
Importantly, these policies would only serve to make us poorer and less equipped to deal with climate and environmental challenges that exist today and in the future. Money diverted to higher energy bills could otherwise be spent on practical policies that help households and businesses adapt to a changing climate. Investing in more robust infrastructure can sensibly protect homes and storefronts against natural disasters, no matter the cause.
Before we run around screaming that the climate is crumbling, let's step back and get a full picture of the climate science. And let's not offer unserious and counterproductive policies that would treat the global energy economy the way a hurricane handles a beachfront hotel.
This piece originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune