The Truth About Climate Change and Hurricanes


Heritage Explains

The Truth About Climate Change and Hurricanes

How the left cherry-picks endpoints to produce “trends” that are either up or down.

This week on the “Heritage Explains” podcast, Nick Loris, Heritage’s Herbert and Joyce Morgan fellow breaks down the truth about the effect climate change actually has on natural disasters and why the left continues to misrepresent data. 

CORDERO: Last week as I drove to work, stuck in traffic and listening to the news, there was a lot coverage on Hurricane Florence. Podcasts that traveled back in time to Hurricane Harvey, bringing up lessons about what we could learn moving forward. Morning updates on the force of the storm at amounts of rain we should expect. Announcements on what citizens in affected areas should be doing to prepare and protect themselves, and their families, and local businesses. But also, there were some straightforward matter of fact reporting on how Hurricane Florence was happening because of climate change.

NPR ANCHOR: So this a pretty good moment to pose a question. What makes a hurricane especially strong? Rebecca Hersher is here to and answer that and more. Good morning Rebecca.

REBECCA HERSHER: Good morning.

NPR ANCHOR: What makes a strong hurricane?

HERSHER: Heat. Especially hot oceans. When the water in the oceans gets hotter, which is happening because of global warming, it's like fuel for a hurricane's engine that's spinning up gaining strength. We can think of it as a hot bath.

CNN ANCHOR: Florence is slowing down as a consequence, to some degree at least, from climate change. There is evidence to support that storm systems, hurricanes, are slowing down in the coastal plane due to climate change. So that's one thing. The storms slow down, they produce more rainfall. When water temperatures rise, and we see that with climate change, that also produces more rainfall. Air temperatures are higher. They can actually hold more water vapor. They drop more rain.

WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: What we're seeing now with Florence, we have seen in the wildfires in California, in the heatwaves Europe, and in the rise of the ocean in small islands around the world. This is all part of the same issue. These are all symptoms of climate change that are happening right now.

CORDERO: The blatant bias left me scratching my head. Had I missed something? How can one side, the media in this case, be so clear on what the data says? Yet another side, conservatives who read the same data see something completely different.

Today we're talking with Heritage's Nick Loris, to help explain what you won't hear in the mainstream media, the truth about the effect climate change actually has on natural disasters. Nick is Heritage's Herber and Joyce Morgan Fellow in energy and environmental policy. And you just might've even seen him debate Bill Nye the Science Guy on CNN. Hey Nick, thanks so much for joining us.

NICK LORIS: Thanks for having me.

CORDERO: Okay, so Nick. True or false? There's been an increase in hurricanes over the past 50 years.

LORIS: False. If you look at the science from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is certainly not any type of denier of science, it's what Al Gore and the like hail as the magnum opus of climate of literature. So if you look at this IPCC report that they put out examining these types of issues, there have been no trend in both frequency or intensity of hurricanes or a lot of other natural disasters.

CORDERO: Have they been decreasing?

LORIS: In some years they have, yeah. And in some regions they have as well. Again, that's another important point, is to actually look the trends over a longer period of time. So if you're looking back over a century ago, yes there's been a slight decline globally. What you've seen in recent media reports is that they will cherry pick end points, and say since 1980 or so, you've seen an increase. Yes, that's true, but if you're looking at longer term trends, even with increased CO2 emissions, that there's been slight declines in hurricane activity.

CORDERO: What about the explanation that these hurricanes are happening more often and are worse because the ocean is warming because of global warming? That the warmer temperatures of the water is what fuels hurricanes. Is that true?

LORIS: No, in a lot of senses the science is still out on some of this because it's so recent. There's conflicting literature in the scientific community as to what this increased temperature and increased ocean temperature has done towards just the size and magnitude of hurricane, but there're climatologists, Cliff Mass at Massachusetts Amherst, who's done a lot to look into this issue and really has show that even as temperatures have increased, and even though ocean temperature has increased and sea levels have risen, although not toward any point where it's looking like it's going to be catastrophic levels of sea level rises that we're not really seeing intensity of these storms as a result of manmade CO2 emissions increase.

CORDERO: Okay, but then why do we keep hearing this? We have data, right? We keep records on how strong and how often these storms happen.

LORIS: We do.

CORDERO: Is it good data?

LORIS: Some is good, some is not so good. If you look at some of the trends, again, not just from IPCC, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a mouthful to say-


LORIS: NOAA, yeah. That's easier. They've looked at trends over a longer period of time with pretty reputable data. Again, this is where you see, even in the Atlantic basin, you've seen, I think it's been a 25% decrease in hurricane activity. These trends, in some instances, have actually been positive, even though we've been increasing our CO2 emissions. The reason that we keep hearing this isn't all too unsurprising, it's to have this emotional that we need action on climate change, particularly that we need to restrict the use of coal, oil and natural gas which provide 80% of America's energy needs, and provide 80% of the world's energy needs.

In fact, Bill McKibben, who's a climate activist, said that the only way we're going to meet our goals for the Paris Climate Accord to moderate global temperatures is to keep all of that oil, coal and natural gas in the ground, which would come at a huge, huge cost. Even then, it would be questionable as to whether it'd make any meaningful impact on the global climate, give it a natural variability of it.

CORDERO: So you're saying that even if we found out a way, as a world, to cut carbon emissions, we don't know what that would do for hurricanes or floods?

LORIS: Yeah, they're called natural disasters for a reason, because they're natural and we're going to see natural disasters in the future and the question is how can we be better prepared to protect against them? The science has been great in terms of detecting when they're going to hit, where they're going to hit, and their magnitude, which has helped communities better prepare for natural disasters. But whether we cut our CO2 emissions in half, or reduce them down to zero, you're talking about averting a few hundreds of a degree Celsius in terms of global temperatures by the year 2100.

Maybe a few tenths of a degree Celsius of averted warming by the end of the century. Even if there is a strong connection, which the science says that there's not, between greenhouse gas emissions and increased natural disasters, a lot of these climate policies, if not all of these climate policies, would do virtually nothing to protect against future natural disasters.

CORDERO: Another Heritage expert, David Kreutzer, recently wrote a commentary also citing, conclusions drawn by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, an arm of the United Nations.

The IPCC recently wrote that no robust trends in the annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricane counts, have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.

They also report that there have been no observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century either. Yet just minutes later in my research for this podcast, I came across a VOX explainer video citing the same IPCC paper, but with a different take. The discrepancies still weren't adding up. I decided to push Nick a little further into understanding how two sides could be seeing things so differently. More on this after a short break.

CORDERO: How does this happen? How do we have one report where I have a quote where they're saying there's no proof that things are changing, and yet VOX reads this same report and comes out with this video that has millions of views.

LORIS: Yeah, again, I think that part of it is cherry picking end points. Even though there is so much natural variability in natural disasters, and hurricanes being one of those, where there is a tremendous amount of natural variability even as CO2 emissions have risen globally, if you cherry pick endpoints, you can really try to make any story come true, and then use that as the data point to justify costly and ineffective policies.

Again, because this is such an emotional issue for people, a big part of the problem for the left is that their project cost of climate change, a lot of times, aren't until decades or centuries into the future. This is a way to bring that to the forefront for them and talk about it today. This is effectively what Al Gore did with Hurricane Katrina.

AL GORE: And then of course came Katrina. It's worth remembering that when it hit Florida it was a Category One. But it killed a lot of people and cause billions of dollars worth of damage. And then what happened? Before it hit New Orleans, it went over warmer waters. As the water temperature increases, the wind velocity increases, and the moisture content increases. You will see Hurricane Katrina form over Florida, and then as it comes into the Gulf over that warm water, it picks up that energy and gets stronger and stronger and stronger. Look at that hurricane's eye. (From “An Inconvenient Truth”)

LORIS: So anytime there's a natural disaster, it's kind of that Rahm Emanuel quote of "Never let a crisis go to waste." That's, if you can justify it by cherry picking endpoints and say, "Look, this is what the science says and we know we're going to see more frequent and intense natural disasters because we've looked at the data from 1970-2018," or whatever the case may be, but that doesn't give the full picture of what the science is saying.

I think what's even more problematic is that, again, this is the scientific literature that they tend to use when justifying their policies. It's the IPCC, it's NOAA. This is our federal government's data, this is the International Climate Science community's data, and they ignore the whole picture and just cherry pick to justify really what would be costly, costly policies.

CORDERO: We even have a really great chart that we've taken from a paper that you wrote, that shows the fluctuations in climate change over the past, I think, thousands of years. But you could cut that chart off at any point and make it look more dramatic at one than another, than seeing the whole picture.


LORIS: Yeah, that's right. Looking back, we've been in a warming trend since the last little Ice Age. That's 160 years now that we've been in a warming period. You could even cut snapshots of that and say, "Look how much we've experienced warming in the past 160 years or over the 30-40 years," but if you look at actually how much of that warming is being driven by man made CO2 emissions, that's certainly a big question up for debate in the scientific community. It's something called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity, and that's a wonky phrase to basically say, "How much warming are we going to get when we double CO2 emissions in the atmosphere?"

There are some climatologists who think that will be three to four and a half degrees Celsius and they use all these models to project that ECS distribution, and it looks like we're going to head towards some catastrophic climate scenarios. There's other research in the climate community that says, "No, it could be closer to one and a half to two degrees Celsius," and then you don't have any scary climate scenarios.

The lower Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity papers, again, aren't papers that are being published on some random wacko's blog. These are peer reviewed literature in scientific journals done by credible climatologists. Having that discussion as to how the climate is changing and why is certainly important, and we want to better understand how the climate is changing. At the same time, it makes no sense to move forward with very, very costly policies that even if we knew where the climate science literature told us we were going today, would have no meaningful impact on averting global warming.

CORDERO: Last question, let's just pretend you're on the Metro. Let's say it's this past Friday, and you're headed home. The person next to you says, "Wow, this is terrible. Hurricane Florence, this is because of global warming." What's your elevator pitch? What would you respond to that, and how would you, in a civil way, explain that's not true?

LORIS: First, I would point to the science to say to that actually no, if you look at the trends, this isn't because we are driving cars or using air conditioning in the summer time. We've seen a lot of natural variation in hurricanes and other natural disasters. Two, what do you want to do about it? Do you want to restrict the use of fossil fuels that provide 80% of our affordable, reliable energy and divert resources to things that will only drive up the price for American families and businesses and do little to actually mitigate warming, or should we divert resources to better understanding how we can protect against climate change and natural disasters?

Because I think there are things that we can do at the state and local level to help communities better prepare for natural disasters and for changing climate, but this notion that the Trump Administration is complicit in Hurricane Florence, as The Washington Post said, is just nonsensical. Just because we have this intention of getting out of the Paris Climate Accord, or the Trump Administration is freezing the Obama Administration's costly Fuel Economy Mandates, these are costly policies that were only symbolic in nature in terms of combating climate change.

It's not compliancy, it's having rational resets to regulatory overreach from the Obama Administration that would do nothing to have any impact on climate change. Which is a very long elevator pitch, and probably he would have gotten off the Metro about four stops ago. But at the same time, that's what I would say.

CORDERO: Thank you so much, Nick.

LORIS: Thanks for having me.

CORDERO: Please share our show with your friends on social media and subscribe. It's the only way for people to find us and listen. Conservatives really need your support in a podcasting world. Thanks, and we'll see you next week.