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An interview with Chris Mooney

Greg Ross

Could global warming be intensifying hurricanes? That question has been debated for decades among meteorologists, but in 2005 Hurricane Katrina brought it sharply to the public mind.

Journalist Chris Mooney, a native of New Orleans and author of 2005's The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005), investigated the issue for Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming (Harcourt, 2007). He found smoldering disagreements among meteorologists fanned by new attention from politicians and the media. Certainly global warming did not "cause" Hurricane Katrina, he says—but the effort to understand its influence provides important insights into the interplay of science, the media and public policy.Chris MooneyClick to Enlarge Image

American Scientist Online Managing Editor Greg Ross interviewed Mooney by telephone in May 2007.

What led you to this topic?

Not surprisingly, it originated with Katrina and the ensuing chaos and the destruction of my mother's home, and the fact that prior to that I'd been one of the many prognosticators saying that we need to protect New Orleans before it gets destroyed. I was watching Hurricane Ivan closely, because this is my hometown. So it touched me fairly personally, but the book that I ended up writing didn't end up really being about New Orleans. Originally I thought, "Oh, my God, New Orleans was just destroyed, hurricanes are getting worse because of global warming, it's all going to be a huge, terrible disaster." Then I dove into the book and I realized the science is much more complex and that the story I wanted to write was not one in which I was making a definitive statement about what hurricanes were going to do, but rather a narrative about the scientists involved and their battles, with the media and politics intensifying things.

How well are hurricanes understood?

Not perfectly. There's no doubt that our knowledge has increased dramatically, especially since World War II, when it was a military priority to understand tropical weather, as I detail in the book. And, following pretty quickly upon the investment in research at that time, the fundamental "engine" theory of hurricanes came out. It was a product of a number of scientists, one of the most prominent of them being [University of Chicago meteorologist] Herbert Riehl, who actually trained one of the main characters in the book, [Colorado State University meteorologist] William Gray. The idea is that hurricanes are heat engines, and so they get their energy from the warm tropical ocean, and they sort of cycle that energy from the warm heat reservoir of the ocean up into the cool region of the upper atmosphere and use it to do work along the way. And that's what's driving the winds. That sort of laid the groundwork for the idea that global warming could intensify hurricanes.

Is there consensus about that effect within the meteorological community?

If you look at the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] Working Group I Summary for Policymakers report, or if you look at the statement released by the World Meteorological Association on hurricanes and climate that came out in late 2006, they both say that there's an expectation based on theoretical and modeling studies that hurricanes should intensify by a certain percentage. Whether it's happened already is a different question, but basically the thermodynamic theories of hurricanes which stem from that early heat-engine account and more modern, complex hurricane-model/climate-model studies all show the storms getting stronger. How much intensification is still disputed, as is the question of whether it's already shown up in a measurable way at the present time.

What will decide that? Do we just need more data, more experience?

Now our observational abilities, especially in the Atlantic, are better than ever, and more and more data will help us determine that. And we'll be observing hurricanes globally, and people are paying more attention to this question than ever before. That includes scientific researchers. When I went to the American Geophysical Union meeting in the fall of 2006, there were many more hurricane climate papers than there had been previously. So, essentially, a lot of different great minds, coming at it from a lot of different angles, are going to be able to sort the problem out, and I think that there's already been a lot of promising work.

But it is not solved. It's where the whole basic global warming question was around, say, 1990. And over time, especially as the issue became more high-profile, more and more scientists came in; they tried out lots of different ideas, lots of different criticisms of the theory and so on, and eventually a consensus was reached.

That will happen here as well, and based on what I know, I'd be surprised if the consensus wasn't that hurricanes are going to change. I think even [National Hurricane Center meteorologist] Chris Landsea, who's probably the leading skeptic of strong hurricane intensification due to global warming, would say that global warming has to change hurricanes. [See "Storm Watch," Science Observer, May-June 2005 American Scientist.] I think his question is going to be whether it's in a very dramatic way. Because global warming changes everything, and it changes the key things that drive a hurricane. So something's going to happen, and the thermodynamic theories all pretty much say that the storms should intensify.

Are the media reporting this issue accurately, do you think?

There have certainly been some good reports, but there are many quirks of media coverage of science, many issues related to media coverage of science with this particular story. In the book I have a figure showing the rapid intensification of media coverage, kind of like the hurricanes. So a feeding frenzy happens, for perfectly understandable reasons. In 2005 we had four Category 5 storms, all of them quite destructive, but Katrina, Rita and Wilma each cost more than $10 billion in damage in the United States. They terrified us, also, and the studies saying that hurricanes had intensified due to global warming came out right in the middle of all this. So the press dove on the subject as never before. And there were some consequences to that. I'm not saying that journalists shouldn't have found this an interesting story, but the press coverage has tended to exacerbate some of the arguments between the scientists and helped to feed into some of the arguments getting personal.

How so?

Because people are reading what's being said about them in the press, and journalists are saying, "What do you think of this person's work? What do you think of that person's work?" So that actually was an unfortunate by-product.

Also, when the press covered the issue, journalists largely framed the issue as a controversy, and that unfortunately distracted attention away from more commonsense solutions that were not controversial. As the scientists themselves later pointed out, in a statement for which I think they should be applauded, we can let them sort things out to a large extent, and we just start protecting our coasts or looking at insurance policies.

What's at stake here? What do we stand to lose if we get this wrong?

There are two separate questions. Are we vulnerable to the hurricanes of today? And will the hurricanes of tomorrow make us more vulnerable? The answer is yes, we're vulnerable to the hurricanes of today, and in my view we at least have a reason to worry about being more vulnerable to the hurricanes of tomorrow. So the policy solution is we address hurricane vulnerability in the same basic way: you start protecting yourself. And we're so far behind, to reach some reasonable level of protection, looking into building codes, looking into evacuations, looking into insurance policies, continually improving our capacity to forecast hurricane tracks through the country—all these things. Get that better. Don't wait for the science of hurricanes and global warming, just get that better. And then, as the science of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming improves, we'll know what percentage of added defense we'll need to add. That actually could have been figured out before the science.

Does that become a political problem? Once there's a consensus within the meteorological community, do you think policymakers will hear them?

I think policymakers have heard this argument. There are certain disincentives for some policymakers in terms of how they deal with coastal-growth issues, because there's a lot of interest in real estate development and so forth in places like Florida, for example, but I think that scientists and disaster policy people have been heard. And it's remarkable that even though the science itself was and remains controversial, in 2006 scientists on both sides of this debate could come together and make essentially the policy statement that I just made for you. That shows that the policy is in some ways less contentious than the science.

Well, that's something.

Well, whether we do the policy right is another question. That is, do we have enough money to protect New Orleans the way it should be protected? Then it becomes a money issue, and it really gets out of the scientific realm entirely.

What would you like to see? What isn't happening that should be?

Clearly there were a lot of issues during the feeding frenzy that I talked about in terms of scientists clashing very publicly that wasn't necessarily productive for increasing knowledge. But I think now things have calmed down. A lot of new minds have gotten into the field, there's going to be new funding, it's a new area of great interest. I think that we can, given enough time, allow the science to sort itself out. We can't expect certain answers, but given five or 10 years, I expect considerable progress and much more consensus.

In terms of the policy, I wish that every coastal city that has any kind of vulnerability to hurricanes was using this information, thinking about worst-case scenarios and assessing its own vulnerability in light of, one, the storms of today, and, two, what the storms of tomorrow might be and then setting forward a plan for the 21st century in terms of how it's going to cope with hurricanes. Some places are much further along with this than others.

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