NOAA’s misleading internal Congressional briefing points on hurricanes and global warming


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials came in for legitimate criticism last year for putting out misleading, incomplete, and one-sided information about the state of scientific research on the connection between global warming and increased hurricane intensity.  An internal NOAA document obtained by Climate Science Watch lays out a set of official talking points on “Hurricanes and Climate Change” for use in Congressional testimony and legislative briefings, indicating that the agency’s spinning of this issue continues in 2006. 

Following NOAA’s much-criticized one-sided discussion of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming posted on the agency’s Web site on November 29, 2005 (“NOAA Attributes Recent Increase in Hurricane Activity to Naturally Occurring Multi-Decadal Climate Variability”), and its similarly one-sided and misleading discussion of the issue at the agency’s hurricane season wrap-up press briefing on the same date (mp3 audio file of the briefing Q&A) (20 MB), NOAA also put together a 2-page internal document designed to be used as a set of official talking points when communicating with Congress.  Climate Science Watch has obtained this briefing document, entitled “NOAA Questions and Answers:  Hurricanes and Climate Change,” and posts it here (NOAA_Hurricanes_QA.pdf) as a public service. 

Our understanding is that this unpublished internal document was approved at the highest political level in NOAA in the winter 2006 time frame to prepare NOAA Administrator Adm. Lautenbacher and other NOAA representatives with an official set of talking points for use in FY 2007 congressional budget hearings, climate hearings testimony, or climate briefings for congresssional offices.

The document begins:

Question:  The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active on record.  Is global climate change responsible for this increased activity?
Answer:  Available research indicates increased hurricane activity can be explained by natural cycles of hurricane activity driven by the Atlantic Ocean along with the atmosphere above it.

The eighth bullet item in the document notes the widely-cited study done at the NOAA lab in Princeton, NJ, which projected a significant increase in hurricane intensity during the 21st century linked to global warming.  This one sentence is one sentence more acknowledgement than NOAA’s briefings last year gave to the set of scientific studies that indicate observed and projected increases in hurricane intensity.

RealClimate, an important Web site for clear scientific explanations of current research issues, has posted several discussions, pretty much in plain English, of the scientific issues associated with the relationship between hurricanes and climate change.  The RealClimate postings have more balance than we have seen in official NOAA communications cleared by and presided over by political appointees.  As just one example, read the RealClimate posting of September 2, 2005, “Hurricanes and Global Warming—Is There a Connection?”  which concludes:

But ultimately the answer to what caused Katrina is of little practical value. Katrina is in the past. Far more important is learning something for the future, as this could help reduce the risk of further tragedies. Better protection against hurricanes will be an obvious discussion point over the coming months, to which as climatologists we are not particularly qualified to contribute. But climate science can help us understand how human actions influence climate. The current evidence strongly suggests that:
(a) hurricanes tend to become more destructive as ocean temperatures rise, and
(b) an unchecked rise in greenhouse gas concentrations will very likely increase ocean temperatures further, ultimately overwhelming any natural oscillations.
Scenarios for future global warming show tropical SST rising by a few degrees, not just tenths of a degree (see e.g. results from the Hadley Centre model and the implications for hurricanes shown in Fig. 1 above). That is the important message from science. What we need to discuss is not what caused Katrina, but the likelihood that global warming will make hurricanes even worse in future.

Reporters should ask NOAA officials whether they think it is time to update and upgrade their congressional briefing paper.  Congressional offices might want to ask the RealClimate scientists for a briefing, and suggest to NOAA that its current talking points do not provide an adequate framework for talking about what policymakers need to know.

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