Following severe hurricanes in the past several years, including Harvey, Florence, and now Michael, questions have been raised over the role of climate change in causing the intense wind and flooding that take lives and cause irreparable damage. In the case of Hurricane Michael, the death toll has reached 18, with hundreds unaccounted for, since it made landfall in Florida as a category 4 storm three days ago. It is the third largest storm to ever hit the US, and the strongest on record to hit the Florida panhandle. It is already predicted to be the 12th weather event this year to cause damages in excess of $1 billion, with estimates suggesting it may top $4.5 billion.
Yet, the science examining the climate change connection has been met with a backlash from climate change deniers using fallacious arguments and generalizations to downplay the link. Most of the time, these arguments wholly fail to address the science involved, instead arguing in the broadest possible terms while refusing to grapple with specific points made by scientists.
It is true that the science of the causality behind extreme weather is still being established. As recently as the early 2000s, it was considered altogether impossible to attribute a specific event to climate change. Now, attribution science, though new, is considered one of the most rapidly growing areas of climate science. Papers are regularly published linking extreme weather events to specific changes in the climate that result from emissions of greenhouse gases. Legal experts believe this field of science will soon help citizens sue companies and governments that fail to address emissions.
The severity of last year’s Hurricane Harvey, as well as Irma and Maria, and Florence last month, have all been linked to aspects of climate change. In particular, scientists say that warmer temperatures increase the energy and moisture of the storms. Warming waters drive hurricanes, and warmer air can hold more moisture leading to precipitation – about 7 percent more water per degree Celsius, a significant amount. Also, research has shown that tropical storms have slowed 10 percent since 1949, giving them more time to yield precipitation on a given location. Much of the damage from recent hurricanes has been due to flooding.
Now, Hurricane Michael, expected to lead to 14 feet of flooding, is gaining strength unusually fast due to warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, humidity, and favorable winds. The warm water is considered unusual for this late in October. Also, higher sea levels have fueled a storm surge.
“Storms like this are undoubtedly pushing more water into the coast because sea levels are higher. So when we have these types of storms and storm surge, the storm will be pushing a higher level of water than it would 50 or 70 years ago,” Marshall Shepard, former American Meteorological Society president and director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, told The Verge.
However, he also warned:
“We understand from a scientific standpoint that a warming climate is causing warmer oceans, and you would think from a physics understanding of how these storms work that would lead to more intense storms. Whether I can say conclusively that that’s why this particular storm is more intense, I just think it would be irresponsible for me to speculate on that.”
This sort of cautious language on the part of scientists has been taken advantage by those that want to argue against the entire claim that extreme weather is a result of climate change. Instead of taking the time to understand the complexities of attribution science, these arguments exaggerate the ambiguity surrounding these events, and then use it as reason to assume climate change plays no role at all, instead of calling for further investigation.
Shortly after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Paul Driessen wrote an opinion piece for Fox News, titled “Don’t blame climate change: Hurricanes have always been and will always be with us.”
In it, he writes:
“…despite what you hear from environmental extremists – who oppose the use of oil, coal and natural gas – even if we stopped using these fossil fuels tomorrow hurricanes would still be part of our natural world. They always have been and always will be.”
Several straw man arguments are built into this claim. For one thing, environmentalists don’t universally oppose the use of oil, coal, and natural gas. Instead, most believe we need to reduce the share of energy that comes from these sources – not because of ideology, but because of the scientific reality of climate change. But more pertinent, neither environmentalists nor scientists are claiming that hurricanes wouldn’t happen without climate change, or even that individual hurricanes have been caused by climate change. Instead, scientists point out that certain destructive aspects of hurricanes, like rain and storm surges, have been exacerbated by warming temperatures and rising sea levels.
Instead of bothering to deal with all of this complicated science, the piece simply ignores it and tears down a straw man in its place. Why bother grappling with the details when a cursory and misleading summary supports your preconceived bias so effectively? This approach is typical of climate denial.
If writers like Driessen wanted to claim that the evidence for the relationship between climate change and extreme weather requires further investigation, they might have at least some ground to stand on. Instead, like all climate denial, the piece relies on willful ignorance of the evidence at hand. The harm that comes from arguments like this, as the UN warns time is running out to address climate change, is potentially quite grave – not to mention irreversible.