Opinion Piece

Ivo Vegter: Neither God nor Gaia is punishing America

As America gets punished by one hurricane after another, that proud nation refuses to repent. That may be because natural disasters are not punishments from angry gods, and those who exploit them to further their agenda are callous opportunists.

Since time immemorial, prophets of doom and religious zealots have declared natural disasters to be punishment for humanity’s sins, or expressions of their anger. One would think modern humans would have grown out of such childish superstitions, but alas, it is not so. Worse, supposedly rational academics have taken over the fire-and-brimstone mantle from religious zealots.

When hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders all invented reasons why their god was punishing the city, ranging from orgies, pornography, homosexuality and indoctrinating children with perversion, to removing religious statuary from government property, to foreign policy issues involving Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. With delicious irony, one pastor, who said hurricanes were signs of God’s displeasure over gay marriage and abortions, himself fell victim to flooding last year.

This time around, one two-bit actor, Kirk Cameron, claimed that God uses hurricanes to kill innocent people to teach us humility, awe and repentance, but religious leaders have been far more restrained. One fire-breathing zealot who once blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on gay marriage and abortion, now says: “Finally, my prayer is that we as a nation would not politicise this crisis in any way.”

But while religious leaders have cooled down their heartless, opportunistic rhetoric, natural disasters remain useful as propaganda to indoctrinate people into accepting beliefs they otherwise would reject. Witness professor Kenneth Storey, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa, Florida, who thinks Hurricane Harvey should be blamed on Republicans who voted for Trump. He has been fired for his efforts to politicise the crisis.

Not all political opportunists have met the same fate, however. One of the most prominent is Michael E. Mann, a lead character in the ClimateGate scandal of 2009. (For a refresher on the case, which revealed that climate scientists operate with a political agenda, suppress the work of outsiders, hide and even destroy data, downplay their own uncertainties in public statements, and whitewash the resulting scandal, read this, this, this and this.)

Mann took to the Guardian to declare that “it’s a fact” that climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly. Besides the trivial observation that there has been a small amount of sea surface warming in the Mexican Gulf “over the past few decades”, and that sea levels have been rising slowly but steadily for as long as we’ve bothered to measure them, Mann bases his view on the weather patterns that caused Harvey to stall, making its rainfall as severe as it has been.

To underscore his objective – using natural disasters to scare people into accepting beliefs that they otherwise would reject – Mann and two colleagues penned an editorial entitled, “Irma and Harvey should kill any doubt that climate change is real.”

Mann is a climatologist, and gets mighty offended when mere meteorologists step onto his turf, so perhaps he should tread a little more lightly when he starts discussing short-term weather patterns. Meteorologist Joe Bastardi shredded Mann’s explanation of the weather systems at play, saying he not only gets it wrong, but that he describes exactly the opposite of what really happened.

Cliff Mass, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington – who unlike Bastardi is by no means a climate sceptic – gave a more measured take. He concludes that “human-induced global warming played an inconsequential role in this disaster”.

He notes that sea temperatures were, as Mann wrote, slightly above normal in the period leading up to Hurricane Harvey, but atmospheric temperatures were not above normal. This means that the air moisture content could not have been significantly higher than usual, contrary to Mann’s claim. Even if Mann were right, however, and there was 3.5% more moisture in the air than usual, Mass says this would have accounted for only 1” (25mm) in 30” (726mm) worth of the rain, which is “immaterial regarding impacts or anything else”.

Mass shows that while warmer weather is expected to produce more precipitation, the rainfall record for the coast around Houston shows no trend, or even a slightly downward trend, over 50 years. He concludes: “There is no evidence that global warming is influencing Texas coastal precipitation in the long term and little evidence that warmer than normal temperatures had any real impact on the precipitation intensity from this storm.”

He adds that there is also no evidence of any trend in zonal winds over the Gulf of Mexico for the past 50 years which could have accounted for Harvey stalling over Houston, nor is there any trend in the strength of hurricane winds in the region. Model predictions, which he analysed in a published paper, show no significant changes in winds over the Gulf coast even by the end of the 21st century, let alone now.

A similar argument holds for Hurricane Irma. It actually developed over relatively cool waters in the Atlantic, according to climatologist Judith Curry, but was favoured by other weather conditions, such as weak wind shear. She accuses Mann and his colleagues of “hysterical hand waving … using undergraduate basic thermodynamics reasoning”. She adds: “There is nothing basic or simple about hurricanes.”

True, some records were set. At 51.88” (1,318mm) Harvey caused the most rainfall of any storm in US history. But not by much. Tropical storm Claudette dumped 42” (1,029mm) in just 24 hours in 1979, while Harvey took several days to set its record. Tropical storm Amelia dumped 48” (1,220mm) in 1978. Hurricane Easy caused 45” (1,143mm) in 1950. Statistically speaking there’s no trend here.

On the contrary, Harvey and Irma broke a 12-year hurricane drought in the continental US. They were only 15 days apart, which is unusual, but the shortest time on record between two major hurricanes is 23 hours, set in 1933. Harvey and Irma were both powerful hurricanes, but they’re not record-breaking in terms of either wind speeds or barometric pressure.

Dr Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, ranked the 24 worst US hurricanes on record. By pressure at landfall, Irma ranks joint 7th, behind hurricanes in 1935, 1969, 2005, 1992, 1886, 1919, and level with one in 1928. Harvey ranks joint 18th. By wind speed at landfall, Irma and Harvey both rank joint 14th, level with hurricanes in 1898, 1915, 1916, 1948 and 1954 and behind hurricanes in 1935, 1969, 1992, 1856, 1886, 1919, 1932, 1926, 1928, 1960, 1961, 1900 and 1989.

If all those dates don’t look like they’re clustered in the age of alarming global warming – the last few decades – that’s because they aren’t:

See any trends? I don’t. While slightly warmer temperatures may have made a marginal difference to Harvey and Irma, there is nothing in the data to suggest that climate change made either hurricane particularly bad, or that climate change is causing more frequent, or stronger, hurricanes.

A chart by meteorologist Ryan Maue which documents accumulated tropical cyclone energy since 1972 both in the northern hemisphere and globally shows that cyclones (which are called hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and typhoons in the Pacific) are not increasing in intensity:

If anything, global cyclone intensity peaked in the 1990s, and has been on the wane ever since. That is not the trend one would expect if the climate change theory were true. (Useful interactive charts with various indicators for each oceanic basin, including accumulated cyclone energy, can be found on the website of the Tropical Meteorological Project of Colorado State University.)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has this to say about global warming and hurricanes: “It is premature to conclude that human activities – and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming – have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity. That said, human activities may have already caused changes that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of the changes or observational limitations, or are not yet confidently modelled.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also addresses claims that tropical storm or hurricane numbers have been rising in the Atlantic Basin. It is worth quoting that section in full, since the caveats to its opening sentence entirely negate it:

Existing records of past Atlantic tropical storm or hurricane numbers (1878 to present) in fact do show a pronounced upward trend, which is also correlated with rising SSTs (Vecchi and Knutson 2008). However, the density of reporting ship traffic over the Atlantic was relatively sparse during the early decades of this record, such that if storms from the modern era (post 1965) had hypothetically occurred during those earlier decades, a substantial number would likely not have been directly observed by the ship-based ‘observing network of opportunity’. We find that, after adjusting for such an estimated number of missing storms, there is a small nominally positive upward trend in tropical storm occurrence from 1878-2006. But statistical tests reveal that this trend is so small, relative to the variability in the series, that it is not significantly distinguishable from zero [their emphasis]. In addition, Landsea et al (2010) note that the rising trend in Atlantic tropical storm counts is almost entirely due to increases in short-duration (<2 day) storms alone. Such short-lived storms were particularly likely to have been overlooked in the earlier parts of the record, as they would have had less opportunity for chance encounters with ship traffic.

If we instead consider Atlantic basin hurricanes, rather than all Atlantic tropical storms, the result is similar: the reported numbers of hurricanes were sufficiently high during the 1860s-1880s that again there is no significant positive trend in numbers beginning from that era. This is without any adjustment for ‘missing hurricanes’.

The evidence for an upward trend is even weaker if we look at U.S. landfalling hurricanes, which even show a slight negative trend beginning from 1900 or from the late 1800s.”

In short, Michael Mann and other activists who attribute anything about the recent hurricanes to climate change are talking politics, not science. They’re trying to put the fear of Gaia in you, to get you to fall in line behind their doctrine of humanity’s sin and their prescription for your redemption.

They’re behaving just as zealots have done throughout the ages. To take major disasters which killed people and ruined lives to score dishonest propaganda points says all you need to know about Mann and company’s true feelings towards both humanity and science. They hold both in contempt. DM

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