This is proving to be a pretty bad season for Atlantic hurricanes, after several years in which few intense ones made landfall. Hurricane Harvey, which started in late August, was the first major hurricane to hit the United States mainland since 2005 (Hurricane Wilma, in the same year as the flooding of New Orleans caused by Katrina). Irma, coming along a few days later and only dissipating this week, was a category 5 storm bringing destruction to the Caribbean and Florida.
Despite the intensity of the storms, the total death toll so far is around 150. Each fatality is a personal tragedy, of course, but without evacuation and shelter the number would have been far, far worse. Because of the widespread destruction of property, the communities hit will take quite some time to recover from this, but recover they will. And it’s certain that those same communities will be hit by more violent weather at some time in the future.
Tropical storms – hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific – are a fact of life for countries that lie in their path. While we cannot predict them until they begin to form, we can record their characteristics, path and effect in great detail. And, while we can make comparisons across recent decades, we have far less detail about highly destructive storms from the first half of the 20th Century and earlier. This year may have set records, but only over a comparatively short timescale. How it sits with past centuries is anyone’s guess.
Given the severity of the tropical Atlantic storms over the past months, it is human nature to look for a reason why this year has been so much worse than the previous decade. In part, this is because of the vagaries of the path taken by such storms. There have indeed been very intense hurricanes, but most of them over recent years have either not made landfall or have weakened before doing so.
But now, some people are increasingly talking about the impact of climate change (for which, we should understand man-made climate change). In particular, they are using the destruction and loss of life in the Caribbean and USA to bolster their call to take radical action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Grantham Institute’s Bob Ward, never one to miss an opportunity to bang the drum, contributed an article headlined Irma and Harvey lay the cost of climate change denial at Trump’s door to the Observer.
The moral outrage is palpable: “But the merciless assault on the US mainland by Harvey and Irma should be forcing the president to recognise the consequences of his arrogance and complacency in dismissing the research and analysis carried out by scientists.” If that isn’t enough, the head of the Catholic Church has also made his contribution (Hurricane Irma: Pope Francis condemns climate change sceptics): "Those who deny it (climate change) should go to the scientists and ask them. They are very clear, very precise."
Most politicians will find it hard to resist this pressure, especially couched in terms that mix moral responsibility with (supposedly) hard science. President Trump is probably the exception, as he is in so many ways. There are undoubtedly others who simply don’t want to put their head above the parapet; there is not political capital to be gained by voicing even mild criticism of radical action.
Note that the terms ‘scepticism’ (a quality that all scientists should have in abundance) and ‘denial’ are increasingly being used almost interchangeably. Normally, we might want to make a distinction between those who completely disagree with a hypothesis on what we believe to be spurious grounds and those who want to discuss more detailed interpretation. Properly grounded criticism from sceptics should strengthen a viable hypothesis but weaken an already dubious one.
In the case of climate change, the vast majority of people dismissed as ‘deniers’ or ‘sceptics’ have a lot of common ground with those who cleave to the received wisdom. Their disagreements are quantitative rather than qualitative. But a lower than predicted degree of warming (as has actually been the case for the last 20 years) leads to a different policy prescription: a focus of adaptation rather than mitigation.
This is why climate change activists and many mainstream scientists would apparently reserve a special place in Hell for those who take issue with them, however constructively. Because if the projections of the impact on humans of a 4°C+ rise in average temperatures over this century turn out to greatly exaggerated, then the entire edifice of climate change policy as enshrined in the Paris Accord could simply collapse. And that, for the IPCC and climate change establishment, would be intolerable.
In fact, nothing in emissions reduction policy would have made a scrap of difference to the two recent hurricanes (nor, for that matter, to heatwaves, droughts or any other extreme weather that some try to ‘link’ to climate change). Communities in vulnerable areas will always be at risk, including to the risk of flooding from naturally steadily rising sea levels. Focussing on adaptation and protection will pay dividends, installing more wind turbines will not.
While using resources to make communities more resilient, there is nothing to stop us continuing to develop alternative energy generation and storage systems and rolling these out as they become dependable and economic. These will make a real impact on future emissions as part of a least regrets policy. But no amount of moral blackmail will enable us to tune the climate to our liking when long term natural processes are underway, about which we understand very little and cannot control.