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Martin Henry | Hurricanes and climate change

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A message to Hurricane Irma is written on the facade of a boarded-up restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida, on Friday. The first hurricane warnings were issued for parts of southern Florida as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit on the weekend.
Tyrone Tomlinson, 27, of Orlando, uses a family wheelchair to ferry sandbags to be used on the front porch of their family home in Florida last Thursday, as residents prepared for Hurricane Irma. Long lines of vehicles waited for hours to get a 10-sandbag limit at the City of Orlando Public Works.

As we come up to the September 12 anniversary of Hurricane Gilbert, large sections of the fourth most populous city in the United States, Houston, Texas, remain under water dumped there by Hurricane Harvey, the wettest storm on record.

And, almost to remind us that September is historically the most active month of the Atlantic hurricane season, Irma, the most powerful hurricane on record, followed closely behind Harvey, smashing through the north-eastern Caribbean and into Florida and the US southeast coast. Irma is herself trailed by Jose. The American chief weatherman says the scale-busting Hurricane Irma, Category Five because there is nothing higher, is so record-breaking in strength, it's impossible to hype.

Three powerful Atlantic hurricanes tagging each other in the short space of two weeks brings into sharp focus the matter of climate change. Something is going on with the world's climate. What we are, in fact, seeing are wild swings between extreme heat and extreme cold, extreme rainfall and extreme dry spells, exceptionally active hurricane seasons followed by exceptionally quiet ones, rather than clear patterns in one direction.

Last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was telling the world that the number of natural disasters has nearly quadrupled since 1970. The world, in recent days, he said, has seen the dramatic aggravation of climate change with unprecedented events caused by storms and flooding from Texas in the United States to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sierra Leone. Last year, three times as many people were displaced by natural disasters as by conflict and violence, the secretary general pointed out.

Serious things a gwaan wid climate! But over the long haul, the planet has seen many big climate swings, several in recorded history. You can easily find on Wikipedia a long 'List of periods and events in climate history'.

There can hardly be any dispute that we are in the midst of some new period of climate change marked by extreme weather events. The open question is about the cause. The overwhelming view, which is bent on shutting down all dissent, even if foul play has to be employed, is that this (observed) climate change is caused by global warming in which average global temperatures have been steadily inching up and that this global warming is caused by (inferred) human activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.




It is very dangerous to oppose this view, but a number of courageous and accomplished scientists, who are by no means flat earthists, have endured the persecution to present alternative views.

Considering how much is at stake for the future of humans on the planet, one would think that the sensible thing to do is to allow a variety of views to flourish, which would allow us to pick sense out of nonsense and to challenge orthodoxies in search of the real truth. This used to be the spirit of science.

One such sceptic is Judith Curry, an eminent professor emeritus of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

On March 29, Professor Curry addressed the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the US House of Representatives during a hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications and the Scientific Method.

Among her major points addressed were: Scientific progress is driven by the creative tension spurred by disagreement, uncertainty, and ignorance. Progress in understanding the climate system is being hampered by an institutionalised effort to stifle this creative tension in the name of a 'consensus' that humans have caused recent climate change.

Motivated by the mandate from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the climate community has prematurely elevated a scientific hypothesis on human-caused climate change to a ruling theory through claims of a consensus.

Premature theories enforced by an explicit consensus-building process harm scientific progress because of the questions that don't get asked and the investigations that aren't undertaken. As a result, we lack the kinds of information to more broadly understand climate variability and societal vulnerabilities.

Challenges to climate research have been exacerbated by unreasonable expectations from policymakers, scientists who are playing power politics with their expertise and trying to silence scientific disagreement through denigrating scientist who do not agree with them, and professional societies that oversee peer review in professional journals are writing policy statements endorsing the consensus and advocating for specific policies.

A more disciplined logic is needed in the climate-change assessment process that identifies the most important uncertainties and introduces a more objective assessment of confidence levels.




This accomplished scientist with four decades of scholarly work and dozens of published papers behind her told the committee: "I am increasingly concerned that both the climate-change problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified. The result of this simplified framing of a complex ... problem is that we lack the kinds of information to more broadly understand climate variability and societal vulnerabilities."

Deeply influenced by her extensive readings on the philosophy and sociology of science with which I can identify, she posed the question, What is the status of climate science as it relates to the nature and causes of variations on timescales from decades to centuries?

Prior to 2010, she told the House Committee, which was willing to hear her contrary testimony, she accepted and supported the consensus conclusions from the Assessment Reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change because she felt that this was the responsible thing to do. "However, following the revelations of Climategate [when fraud in climate science was exposed], I realised that I had fallen victim to groupthink ... . I undertook an investigation into the ways that scientists can fool themselves by examining deceptions from other fields of science and reading analyses from the perspectives of psychology and the philosophy and sociology of science."

Professor Curry then offered reflections on how climate scientists can fool themselves and what they can do about it.

She asked, how and why did we land between a rock and a hard place on the issue of climate science? And answered, "There are probably many contributing reasons, but the most fundamental and profound reason is arguably that both the problem and solution were vastly oversimplified back in the early 1990s by the UNFCCC, who framed both the problem and the solution as irreducibly global in terms of human-caused global warming."

With the advent of the Trump administration, concerns about 'war on science' have become elevated, she noted. But "the 'war on science' that I am most concerned about is the war from within science - scientists and the organisations that support science who are playing power politics with their expertise and passing off their naive notions of risk and political opinions as science.

"These activist scientists seem less concerned with the integrity of the scientific process than they are about their privileged position and influence in the public debate about climate and energy policy. They do not argue or debate the science. Rather, they denigrate scientists who disagree with them. These activist scientists and organisations are perverting the political process and attempting to inoculate climate science from scrutiny. This is the real war on science," she argued, and I agree.

We need to rethink the social contract between scientists and government and develop a new model for policy-relevant science. As we brace for more hurricanes, this is needed to insure the integrity of science and to improve the basis for science to inform the policy process.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and