Winds of Change

Reviewed by John McQuaid
Sunday, July 29, 2007


Hurricanes, Politics, and The Battle Over Global Warming

By Chris Mooney

Harcourt. 392 pp. $26

To most Americans, the annual hurricane season used to be a kind of background noise -- part of the usual summer cable news fare of celebrity scandals and disappearing young women. But in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina changed all that. Katrina's images -- New Orleans under water, its residents trapped and pleading for help from rooftops, freeway overpasses and the Superdome -- shook our faith in the government's ability to perform its most fundamental task, protecting people. And Katrina was merely the worst of a record-setting hurricane season, which generated so many storms the National Hurricane Center ran out of names. Coming as scientific evidence mounted for the human role in global warming, the storms seemed a harbinger of bigger disasters to come. Suddenly, hurricanes mattered.

Enter the talented science journalist Chris Mooney with Storm World, which skillfully anatomizes the scientific and political debate over hurricanes and global warming. Mooney's previous book, The Republican War on Science, explored the ways that ideologues and special interests allied with the GOP undermined the government's scientific enterprises. Storm World echoes War in some ways, recounting the Bush administration's ham-handed attempts to muzzle government hurricane scientists. But it's a different kind of book than its predecessor: not a big statement, but a blow-by-blow account of a scientific debate unfolding simultaneously in the academy and the real world.

Mooney convincingly portrays that debate as a classic paradigm shift in progress. On one side, climate scientists using sophisticated computer models find more and more evidence for a link that seems intuitive -- warmer air and warmer seas fuel bigger (but, interestingly, not more) hurricanes. On the other, a group of respected hurricane forecasters -- who know it's hard to predict what will happen next week, let alone a century from now -- say those climate models are inherently unreliable, and that the data to demonstrate such a connection just don't exist. Storm World tracks the arguments as they evolve -- quite rapidly -- against the dramatic background of the 2005 hurricane season and into 2006. Shocking findings are unveiled, and several prominent scientists abandon their skepticism to support the idea of a link between hurricanes and global warming.

Storm World does a good job explaining the fundamentals of hurricane science and the ways different scientists approach it. Twenty years ago, for example, MIT's Kerry Emanuel wrote the first paper suggesting that climate change might fuel bigger hurricanes. He looks at the global climate as a single, evolving system in which big hurricanes play some as yet unclear role. At one point, Emanuel's modeling led him to speculate that "hypercanes" -- giant hurricanes possibly triggered by the Yucatan asteroid strike 65 million years ago -- might have helped kill off the dinosaurs.

But in tackling at least four distinct themes -- hurricane science, media hype, global warming politics, disaster policy -- Mooney seems uncertain of exactly what his principal thrust should be. He works hard to weave the strands together, but often they don't quite mesh. For instance, he devotes a lot of space to Colorado meteorologist William Gray's quixotic crusade to disprove global warming. Gray rejects the broad scientific consensus that global warming is happening. But he's still a big name in the world of meteorology, and he has raised a ruckus by accusing fellow scientists, including some of his former students, of ignorance, opportunism or both for suggesting that a warming atmosphere may fuel stronger hurricanes. He's undeniably colorful. But Gray also comes off as something of a crank, and marginal to the substantive scientific debate on the connection between warming and storms.

Storm World is at its most cogent on the author's favorite issue: science in the noisy public square. Many hurricane scientists reacted with dismay when their subtle arguments were distorted by press accounts or used to score partisan points in the political storm that erupted after Katrina. One declared he'll become "a bloody hermit on a mountaintop" the next time he publishes a paper. But Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry decided that maybe it's the tradition-bound rules of academia that are out of sync with today's wired world, and that perhaps scientists should learn how to communicate in the age of blogs and the 24/7 news cycle. That would help the public and politicians gain a deeper understanding of the hurricane threat -- which, Mooney regrettably concludes, looks as if it will indeed be getting worse. ยท

John McQuaid is the co-author of "Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms."

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