On Revkin, Romm and the Zero Sum Climate Debate

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 4, 2011 4:35 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The response by some climate scientists and climate bloggers to a nuanced perspective on the tornado/climate change issue reveals just how zero sum the climate debate remains in some corners. In a follow-up to this superb post, Andy Revkin draws attention to a missing component in recent tornado-related commentary from some prominent voices in the climate community:

Given continued assertions that human-driven global warming could be playing a role in the havoc down south, it's also worth revisiting something that Walker S. Ashley, a meteorologist at Northern Illinois University, said last week on Dot Earth: The heart of the matter lies with a growing and increasingly vulnerable population. That is what is driving "disasters." There's no doubt that Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University is right when he says "climate change is present in every single meteorological event" "” in the sense that the buildup of greenhouses gases is a background nudge everywhere. But that's a meaningless assertion without asking whether there is evidence of a meaningful influence "” meaning enough of a nudge to the atmosphere that the contribution from greenhouse gases is relevant to policy and personal choices, in this case in tornado zones. For the moment, there's scant evidence to support this at any level "” in the basic data on storm patterns or in tallies of damage and deaths. I'm not denying it's possible, just that it's relevant. It's fine for Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research to say he feels "it is irresponsible not to mention climate change" when discussing tornado outbreaks. Everyone's entitled to his or her view. My response would be that it is irresponsible not to mention the need to reduce inherent and avoidable human vulnerability to tornadoes in the crowding South, particularly in low-income regions with flimsy housing. I saw barely a mention of these realities in recent posts by climate-oriented bloggers on the tornado outbreak.

Revkin goes on to lay out why the issue of "avoidable human vulnerability to tornados" is important to stress--even for those who decide to emphasize a climate change angle. He also recalls a five-year old statement from leading researchers on a similar debate over hurricanes and climate change, which he wrote about in this 2006 story:

Ten climate experts who are sharply divided over whether global warming is intensifying hurricanes say that this question, a focus of Congressional hearings, news reports and the recent Al Gore documentary, is a distraction from "the main hurricane problem facing the United States." That problem, the experts said yesterday in a statement, is an ongoing "lemming-like march to the sea" in the form of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places, and in the lack of changes in government policies and corporate and individual behavior that are driving the trend. Whatever the relationship between hurricanes and climate, experts say, hurricanes are hitting the coasts, and houses should not be built in their path.

In his current Dot Earth post, Revkin then says that he'd "love to see a similar statement now from meteorologists, climatologists and other specialists studying trends in tornado zones. Any takers?" In the comments, Peter Gleick, who was among those who sought last week to score political points over the tragic tornadoes in the South, will apparently not be one of the takers:

Andy, disturbing that you seem to think that it is one versus another (growing populations, or bad housing, or coastal development VERSUS the risks of climate change). It is simply both, and we have to deal with both. No climatologist argues that we should ignore population or bad building design. Yet you argue we should ignore climate influence.

No, Revkin argues that the issue of human vulnerability in areas notable for extreme weather should be a more prominent part of the climate discussion. There was also predictable pushback from Joe Romm, who wrote:

Revkin supports a too-little, too-late energy technology development strategy can't possibly avert catastrophic global warming "” nor can it generate funds needed for adaptation. So it is hypocritical of him to attack others for not constantly saying how much we need to improve housing for those in tornado alley.

That's precious coming from someone who "constantly" characterizes even the mildest criticism of any of his own un-nuanced perspectives on climate matters as an "attack." Regardless, it's too bad that when tragedy strikes Romm only sees fit to use his widely read blog to warn of a future hell and high water, when he could also be talking up the need for measures that would lessen the hell visited on people today.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.