Reviewed 12/20/2010

Storm World, by Chris Mooney

Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming
Chris Mooney
New York: Harcourt, Inc., July 2007




ISBN-13 978-0-15-101287-9
ISBN-10 0-15-101287-3 392p. HC/GSI $26.00

This book begins with an important caution, citing the climate science blog RealClimate1 on the crucial distinction between weather and climate, which many overlook for one reason or another. In particular, it is appropriately cautious with respect to whether or not the features of a given storm (strength, duration, etc.) can be attributed to global warming, a question that still has not been definitively answered.

"To explain the difference between weather and climate, used the analogy of rolling a die: You never know what's going to come up on any given roll, but over time and across many rolls, you can get a very good sense of the odds (and thus, whether or not the die is loaded.)"

– Page 4

In other words, whether or not a particular storm would have been weaker without the presence of AGW cannot be determined, but observations are beginning to detect a trend.

In addition to having value as a history of hurricane behavior and of the development of study of hurricanes, this book sheds significant light on the continuing controversy over whether global warming is real. (Though "controversy" is the wrong word in this case, because it implies at least some validity on both sides of the question.) In particular, it demonstrates the sharp difference in behavior between those who accept the scientific evidence and their adversaries; the adversaries behave with much more hostility, often condemning not only the scientific conclusions of what they call the consensus, but the scientists who are its members.

For example, there was the contretemps between William Gray and Kerry Emanuel at the biennial conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, held by the American Meteorological Society in 2000. Gray collected empirical hurricane data; Emanuel was developing a theoretical framework for hurricanes. Here's a fragment of Gray's contribution to the "debate":

"In the recollection of many scientists present, however, it wound up being something of a circus. Gray called Emanuel's attention to thermodynamics a 'fixation.' He said Emanuel was 'playing games.' He even likened his fellow scientist to a salesman. 'He could sell ice cubes to the Eskimos and steam heat to the Amazonians,' Gray declared at one point. The audience chuckled, but this is not how scientific debates are supposed to go down.' It was sort of like a Kerry Emanuel roast, making fun of me personally,' Emanuel remembers. 'It was a humorous sort of thing that didn't bring in any science.' "

– Page 100

Gray continued to display this condemnatory attitude toward theoretical treatments of weather phenomena, and especially toward global warming. Even in hearings before Congress, he was unrestrained.2 Mooney uncovers additional details of how NOAA (primarily) and NASA impeded contact between their scientists and the press. This often amounted to suppression, because the reporters could not tolerate the delays inherent in the process of getting permission to speak; they simply stopped asking for interviews.3

"The year was 2006. The human fingerprint on the current global warming trend had been conclusively detected by the world's scientific community. Consensus had been achieved among the vast majority of experts studying the issue. Yet in Gray's audience sat some of the nation's leading hurricane forecasters and emergency planners, who were hearing a very different message—and at least some of whom seemed to be soaking it up like Florida sunshine."

– Page 104

Mooney's account is even-handed; he frequently points out the contributions of the data collectors, among which Gray is noteworthy. He was among the first to ride "hurricane-chaser" airplanes to collect data, and has developed important insights from these observations.4 At the same time, his criticisms of theoretical work are frequently unsound, and like many who doubt global warming, he often resorts to ad hominem attacks. Theorists like Emanuel and Kevin Trendberth and modelers like Thomas Knutson of GFDL have also made valuable contributions, adding up to a growing body of evidence that warmer oceans mean bigger, stronger, and more frequent cyclonic storms — if they don't uniformly display all these characteristics at the same time.

"For despite Gray's and Michael Crichton's sneering at scientific 'consensus,' it's really all we have—we laypersons, we journalists, we politicians— to go on. We watch scientists battle, and no matter how much of their debates we think we understand, if we're honest we know they're always a little bit ahead of us, knowing a little bit (or a lot) more. We can't presume to reliably guess which scientist is right and which is wrong as it all unfolds in real time. That would be the height of arrogance and foolishness. We can't pick winners—not unless the broader scientific process, in which they all participate, pulls them (or the bulk of them) together in a conclusion they strongly and collectively accept. On global warming itself, that has happened already. On global warming and hurricanes, it hasn't yet."

– Page 258

It is well researched through interviews and attendance at conferences. There are four appendices, extensive endnotes, a "Bibliography and Recommended Reading" with 83 entries (though I found no trace of recommendation), a List of Interviews, and an excellent index

There are a few lapses. For example, Mooney discusses the contribution of the Finnish scientist Erik Palmén (1898-1985) to the thermodynamics of hurricane formation, but immediately thereafter (page 40) says — without explaining how — that ""Thanks to Palmén's paper, scientists now knew of the importance of easterly waves..."

1 RealClimate"
2 "By contrast, Gray's testimony was improvised, boomingly loud, confrontational, and occasionally profane. He shouted 'damn' and 'damn it'; like Henry Paddington, he spoke in language any sailor could understand. He seemed staggeringly out of place in the somber and ornate Senate (sic) Dirksen Building hearing room." (See pages 172-4.)
3 Of course there is actual suppression, and there are charges of suppression. Gray asserts that 13 of his grant proposals were rejected in succession, requiring him to cut back staff and refuse graduate students. He claims to have spent $45,000 at one point to keep his hurricane research project running at Colorado State. (page 76)
4 For example, Gray elucidated the link between el Niño and Atlantic hurricanes. (page 69)
5 "The issue appears to have first reared its head right at the beginning of the Bush administration. On January 24, 2001, only days after Bush's inauguration, Jana Goldman, a NOAA public-affairs officer assigned to GFDL, had requested to be forwarded all media requests concerning the key climate-related story of the day (and a particularly sensitive one at that): the newly released IPCC report." (page 186)
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2010-2014 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 9 June 2014.