Seven Questions: Warmer World, Stronger Storms?
Is global warming causing stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, and colder winters? FP recently spoke with author and climate change expert Ross Gelbspan about the science behind this summer’s storms, and whether greenhouse gasses are to blame.
Foreign Policy: Is there a link between global warming and hurricanes?
Foreign Policy: Is there a link between global warming and hurricanes?
Ross Gelbspan: Global warming doesnt cause more hurricanes, but it does make hurricanes more intense. Hurricanes take their energy from the temperature of the surface waters, and those surface temperatures have been going up markedly in the last few decades. MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel put out a study about a month before Katrina that found that all over the world, tropical storms have increased in intensity by about 50 percent over the last 30 years. The number of hurricanes in the last 30 years has not increased, but the proportion that is Category 4 or 5 has increased dramatically. A report out earlier this year from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that 80 percent of the heat being generated by our greenhouse gas emissions is being absorbed by the oceans. And one manifestation of that is the increasing strength of these hurricanes. As early as 1995, scientists projected that climate change would produce stronger hurricanes, more prolonged droughts, more intense downpours, and more frequent and intense heat waves.
FP: Many scientists claim that the weather record doesnt go back far enough to conclusively demonstrate a link between severe weather and global warming. How do we know this seasons hurricanes arent a statistical anomaly?
RG: What we know about climate change comes from more than two thousand scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. When the United Nations formed this group, it became clear that the planet was warming and the charge to the scientific community was, What is causing this? Is this part of a natural cycle of the climate throughout history or is this due to human activities? The scientists came out with seven or eight signature studies in which they distinguish between natural warming and human-induced greenhouse warming. One finding was that nighttime low temperatures have gone up twice as fast as daytime high temperatures. Thats due to heat being trapped in the atmosphere overnight by carbon dioxide, which doesnt allow traditional cooling to happen. Thats a clear signature of human-induced warming. If it were natural warming, the highs and lows would rise and fall in parallel.
FP: So the damage has already been done? Were in for a spate of bad weather, no matter what?
RG: We cant reverse these effects in the near future, but we can in the long term. The science is unambiguous on this point: stabilizing the climate requires that humanity cut its fossil fuel emissionsits use of coal and oilby 70 percent. That implies a rapid transition to clean energyto wind, solar, biofuels, tidal power, hydrogen-based fuelsa whole mix of non-carbon energy sources.
FP: What would happen if policymakers do nothing?
RG: Unchecked, global warming will cause environmental catastrophes, massive health problems, and huge economic losses. The American public is missing the incredible opportunity the world has to undertake an energy transition. Its already being done in Europe. Holland is reducing its emissions by 80 percent in four years. The United Kingdom has committed to cut emissions by 60 percent in 50 years, and Germany by 50 percent in 50 years. The benefits would be most clear in developing countries. A dollar invested in energy in a poor country creates far more jobs and more wealth than a dollar invested in any other sector of the economy.
FP: But the transition to renewable energies will surely be costly.
RG: For developing countries, we need a technology transfer fund. The Tellus Institute, an energy think tank, calculated that $300 billion a year for six or seven years would jumpstart renewable energy infrastructures in developing countries so they could become self-generating. In the United States and the rest of the industrial world, the transition could be done with two mechanisms. One is changing subsidy policies. Today, the United States spends about $25 billion a year subsidizing oil, coal, and natural gas. In the industrial world overall, that figure is about $200 billion. If we put those subsidies behind renewable energies, we would see an explosion of creativity from energy engineers. Im not sure there would be a real downside economically at all, except for the fossil fuel industry itself. Oil companies can make this change, but they need the governments of the world to regulate them so the whole industry can make the change in lockstep.
FP: So what energies should we be investing in?
RG: We should be using whatever energies are most appropriate geographically. That requires a decentralized energy supply system. The Department of Energy concluded in a study about ten years ago that the U.S. could get all of its electricity from wind farms in the upper Midwest and western Texas. You can get electricity in coastal areas from tidal power. In those areas where solar energy is abundant, it should be used. And hydrogen fuel should be the renewable fuel of choice for the transportation industry. You can make hydrogen by putting electricity in water.
We have to change the way we think about energy, both from the supply and the consumption side, to a much more diverse and decentralized system. Then we would be more secure from terrorist attacks on the grid, blackouts from energy failures, and disruptions from natural disasters.
FP: Is there a problem with the publics understanding of how feasible an energy transition could be?
RG: Yes. When the scientific community came out in the early 1990s with the assessment that we need to lower our fossil fuel emissions dramatically, it became very clear to the fossil fuel lobby that this threatened the survival of the coal and oil industries. They do more than a trillion dollars a year in commerce. Their response was to mount a very effective public relations campaign of disinformation. This campaign specifically targeted the press, as well as the public and policymakers. But its impact on the press has been very strong, and as a result I think press coverage of climate change has been very equivocal. Its really been presented as a debate and the public has sort of shrugged and said, Come back to us when you know what youre talking about. Making sure it was presented as a debate was a clever strategy. The coal and oil companies marginalized the findings of 2000 scientists from 100 countries.
Ross Gelbspan is the author of The Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisisand What We Can Do to Avert Disaster (Basic Books, 2005) and The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription (Perseus Books, 1998).
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