Last Thursday I took off from Miami as Hurricane Irene hovered offshore, filling the entire eastern sky with an ominous wall of deep gray.
The massive storm that slammed into the Eastern seaboard had at least 65 million people in its projected path through America's most heavily developed area of population. Most hurricanes shouldn't be able to make it that far north -- except for one little detail: global warming -- the same global warming that America's elected representatives are either ignoring or denying it exists. The main argument is being driven by an oil industry funded lobbying effort that has dumped more than $1 billion into defeating cap and trade legislation and convincing the American public that climate change is a "hoax."
The reasons the populous East Coast may be at increasing risk have to do with water temperature. NOAA scientists have identified the surface sea temperature a hurricane needs to sustain its energy as about 80 degrees. Other scientists say 79 degrees. The problem is that surface sea temperatures are warmer, on average, this summer than any other year in recorded history except last summer, and surface sea temperatures in the hurricane-sustainable range have extended both seasons as far north as New Jersey.
When you look at US losses from catastrophic events related to the climate -- storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires -- in 2010 and compare them to 1980, their number has more than quadrupled, but remained unchanged in other categories of loss - charted dramatically on page 7 of the 2010 Natural Catastrophe Review (pdf). Carl Hedde, head of risk accumulation for Munich Re, a major reinsurer of US property insurance companies and publisher of the annual Natural Catastrophe Review, says "The majority of the events are storm related."
In fact, in the United States, there have been roughly double the events compared with the first half of the decade, a trend that appears to be in a geometric growth curve relative to the Keeling curve -- the measurement of monthly increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
At the 2010 natural catastrophe webinar, Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re's geo risks research and Corporate Climate Center, pointed out that "That is in line with the trend of the past 30 years, in which all ocean basins show an increase in water temperatures. This long-term trend can no longer be explained by natural climate oscillations alone. No, the probability is that climate change is contributing to some of the warming of the world's oceans", said Höppe.
"This influence will increase further and, together with the continuing natural warm phase in the North Atlantic, is likely to mean a further high level of hurricane activity in the coming years," Höppe says. In fact, the the North Atlantic is running about 3-4 degrees warmer F (2 degrees C) than the long-term average, placing it in the hurricane zone.
Despite all this, 94 of the newly elected GOP members of Congress either deny climate changes exists or have signed a pledge to oppose cap and trade efforts. "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it," said Marco Rubio while running for one of Florida's Senate seats against fellow Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, whom Rubio called "a believer in man-made global warming." Florida has some of the highest insurance rates in the nation because of its exposure to increasing climate-related risks.
These new denialists are joined by 46 incumbents of even more vehement anti-science rhetoric. "The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax," said Michele Bachmann.
The Obama administration, deeming that climate change and global warming are losers, has largely banned them from policy discussions, now speaking instead of the new energy economy. This week it released an environmental impact statement for the controversial Keystone tar sands oil pipeline project -- a project that taps North America's second biggest pool of carbon. The environmental impact statement doesn't mention the words "climate change."
Will a harder hurricane slam to the East Coast change any minds in Washington? The prospects appear doubtful. But what might do it is if the insurance industry gets sick and tired of footing the bill for the lack of D.C. leadership and mounts a multi-billion dollar lobbying and education effort of their own. The hurricane policymakers seem to recognize most readily is the one made of money.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is the author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. "A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review, 9/1. Like him on Facebook.