Unprecedented hurricane devastates New England

On this day in 1938. As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities observes:

New Englanders woke on the 21st and went about their weekday routines. At least they did until the storm broke in mid-afternoon. Within minutes, the hurricane leveled virtually everything in its path. The whirling, shrieking winds and rushing waters took more than 600 lives and caused damage estimated between $6-12 billion in today’s dollars. Technology now provides enough warning to evacuate vulnerable areas, so a storm of similar magnitude might take fewer lives today. But the pace of development along the coast means that property and environmental damage would undoubtedly be many times greater.

I think some of the leaders of the movement to address global warming did our cause a disservice by describing the recent Hurricane Irene, and other recent global extreme weather, as a product of global warming. Bill McKibben of 350.org in The Daily Beast on 25 August, for example:

Remember—this year has already seen more billion-dollar weather-related disasters than any year in U.S. history. Last year was the warmest ever recorded on planet Earth. Arctic sea ice is near all-time record lows. Record floods from Pakistan to Queensland to the Mississippi basin; record drought from the steppes of Russia to the plains of Texas. Just about the only trauma we haven’t had are hurricanes plowing into the U.S., but that’s just luck—last year was a big storm year, but they all veered out to sea. This year we’re already on letter I—which in a normal year we don’t get to until well into October. Every kind of natural system is amped up, holding more power—about ¾ of a watt extra energy per square meter of the Earth’s surface, thanks to the carbon we’ve poured into the atmosphere. This is what climate change looks like in its early stages.

This is a weak argument. It is not clear that global warming causes specific weather events. As McKibben himself noted earlier in the piece, the 1938 storm was a monster. And of course, in point of fact, Irene did not cause the predicted devastation, although Vermont and other areas suffered major flooding.

A better argument is that nature dwarfs human capacity, and giant storms are reminders of this truth. The consequences of global warming are unpredictable, but include the potential collapse of our civilization and suffering on a biblical scale. Prudence dictates we should work to minimize this risk. It is reckless simply to hope for the best. But there have been big storms before.


8 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Quote does not support the Diary

    Bill McKibben in the quote did not in fact attribute Irene to global warming. Rather, he stated, quite correctly, that a warming atmosphere creates more energy for more extreme weather events. This diary should be withdrawn or edited.

    • Ha ha ha

      I trust you didn’t actually read McKibben’s article. In any event, to spare you the trouble, here is the first line: “Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming.”

      Thanks for playing.

  2. Thank you for being a voice of reason

    let the cyber-lynching begin

  3. As a Republican that cares deeply about the environment I applaud anything written by liberals that treat the alarmists with the skepticism they deserve. For example, “this year has already seen more billion-dollar weather-related disasters than any year in U.S. history” think Mckibben adjusted past storm damage for inflation so he could compare apples to apples?

  4. Really Fever

    Would be interesting to learn if ‘Fever’ believes that global warming is real.

  5. Let's just sit back and let the environment explode

    Because we’ll never have conclusive proof that any single event is caused by global warming.

    • We should repeal restaurant sanitation laws

      By the “logic” of these global warming deniers, we should force the repeal of our restaurant sanitation laws. After all, can someone prove that a diner’s illness was caused by a worker who neglected to wash their hands?

      The tobacco industry, funded by the same interests and using the same people, successfully resisted liability suits for years by forcing plaintiff’s to prove that a dead smoker’s lung cancer was caused by cigarettes — decades after the science demonstrating the causal link between cigarettes and lung cancer was similarly settled.

      The science of global warming has been settled for a very long time. The “debate” is driven by paid corporate shills and the corrupt Republican politicians they own (see Marc Morano as an example).

  6. Scientsist struggle to say "There's an elephant in the room"

    This is an interesting thread that really reflects the ongoing challenge in trying to inspire action on stabilizing the CO2 build-up in the atmosphere. Given the lack of success thus far on convincing voters and politicians to act, there’s some discussion about how framing climate change may help. One recent interesting study found that climate scientists tend to have different personality types, based on the Myers-Briggs test sampling of recent Ph.Ds in the field, relative to the general populace, and that this should be taken into account during framing arguments in the media. Quoting from that study (for background, the general public tends to be more “sensing” than “intuitive”):

    The preference for Intuition by early career climate scientists suggests that this group is likely to be more oriented towards future climate impacts than members of the general public, who generally prefer Sensing over Intuition (Fig. 1). For Sensors, the current situation is more relevant and more easily appreciated, and past experience and concrete facts are more trusted than future possibilities. Thus, climate impacts beyond the present or readily foreseeable future may lack relevance among the general public. This is reinforced by Kastens et al. (2009) who suggest that in contrast to the general population, geoscientists are characterized by an ability to think about past and future geological events in addition to the present situation. Scientists who prefer Intuition can help bridge this potential communication divide by starting with the concrete and short term and building towards the big picture without any leaps in cause and effect. By beginning with the current state and moving on to how the current state is changing, using a step-by-step approach to how these changes will impact the future, Intuitive researchers can facilitate an understanding of these connections with a Sensing audience. When communicating with Sensors, it is also important to focus on concrete near-home examples. While the plight of polar bears may be of great concern to Intuitives, Sensors are likely to be motivated more by documented temperature or seasonal changes in their local areas. In other words, with this audience, you may think globally, but you should speak locally.

    One could argue that scientists and pundits have actually been quite reluctant to invoke climate change as a potential mechanism of each storm/drought/extreme weather event, because the connection in each instance cannot be easily proved. Yet each extreme event may be still be consistent with the broader observations of increased frequency of these events in recent decades.

    It’s ironic that many red-leaning states like Texas may bear the brunt of climate change in the short term, with heat waves and droughts as we saw this year. You’d think that based if the public is “sensing” in personality, and our general tendency to talk about the weather with strangers, that more people would be bringing up climate change as well. The fact that climate change has been politicized may hurt in making this “sensing” connection. It’s also ironic that on bluer BMG, this posting calls out one scientist’s attempt to make the connection. Apparently the message (or the messenger) is failing to resonate on both sides of the political spectrum.

    Here’s a brief discussion of some of the science behind hurricanes frequency and climate change from the Union of Concerned Scientists that I came across:

    Higher ocean surface temperatures. Scientists have looked at potential correlations between ocean temperatures and tropical cyclone trends worldwide over the past several decades. A 2005 study published in the journal Nature examined the duration and maximum wind speeds of each tropical cyclone that formed over the last 30 years and found that their destructive power has increased around 70 percent in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. (13,14) Another 2005 study, published in the journal Science, revealed that the percentage of hurricanes classified as Category 4 or 5 (based on satellite data) has increased over the same period. (15) The findings from both studies correlate with the rise in sea surface temperatures in regions where tropical cyclones typically originate.

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