NOAA, global warming, and hurricanes: CSW director interview


Text from a May 30 live interview with Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz on the “Earthbeat” public affairs show on WPFW-FM radio in Washington, DC, as part of a program on hurricanes and global warming.  Also interviewed was Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech University, who met the following day with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to discuss the potential implications for Florida of research showing a global increase in hurricane intensity (AP: “Scientists say warming threatening Florida”).

The May 30 Earthbeat program on WPFW-FM in Washington, DC, hosted by Mike Tidwell, began with a telephone interview with Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech University, a co-author of recent scientific studies documenting a significant increase in the number of category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones globally since 1970.  The Associated Press reported on May 31 (“Scientists say warming threatening Florida”) that Dr. Curry and her colleague Peter Webster met with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:

Florida’s governor cautiously entered the debate Wednesday over whether rising global temperatures are to blame for an increase in the number of strong hurricanes, meeting with two researchers who say global warming is threatening Florida with a long-term future of more bad storms….

“It’s very complex, but there’s one thing that we do know: if you increase these surface temperatures you’re going to get more intense hurricanes,” said Curry. “I think we can say – it’s not totally conclusive, but with considerable confidence – that there is this connection between global warming and increased global hurricane intensity and the increased number of hurricanes in the north Atlantic.”…

“[The Governor] said they presented some pretty compelling information,” said Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss, declining to say whether Bush agrees that global warming is increasing the number of strong hurricanes….

From the Climate Science Watch interview segment of the program (adapted somewhat for print):

Earthbeat, WPFW-FM, May 30, 2006

Mike Tidwell (host):  The scientific evidence on hurricanes and global warming is out there, but for some reason doesn’t seem to be getting into government policy.  In fact, NOAA, according to stories in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New Republic, etc., has suppressed and put a chilling effect on climate scientists there, discouraging them and intimidating them from talking to reporters.

Rick Piltz:  In the middle of 2004, NOAA adopted a formal media policy, put forward by Admiral Lautenbacher, the NOAA Administrator, who is a political official of the Bush administration.  It goes on for pages but the bottom line is, climate scientists at NOAA need a pre-clearance before responding to any information requests from the media, even about their own area of expertise, their own publications.  It’s clear that this has been used to some extent to prevent climate scientists at NOAA from being able to communicate freely with the public, and also to deter reporters from going after interviews with NOAA scientists, by tying them up in a PR-approval loop. 

It’s not at all clear that this media policy would stand up under a legal challenge.  It definitely appears to be an infringement on the rights of federal employees to talk about their areas of expertise—as long as they don’t purport to be representing the policies of the administration—and it certainly does interfere with the public’s right to know what the scientists are finding.

MT:  NOAA is one of the largest scientific agencies in the federal government.  Under NOAA’s rubric we have the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Weather Service.  When you go to NOAA’s website you see almost no reference to any of the studies that Dr. Judith Curry and I were talking about [showing increases in hurricane intensity]—the Kerry Emanuel study at MIT, the Curry et al. study, etc.  No mention—but there is a story saying that there’s no connection between hurricane intensity and global warming.  A lot of people are saying that there’s a conspicuous “hurricanes plus global warming” cover-up at NOAA.  Does that sound like an accurate description of what youve seen, as someone who’s performing a watchdog function?

RP:  It seems to me that there’s a decision at the highest level of NOAA to impede an honest discussion of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming.  The director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield, in his Congressional testimony last year—it was a hearing about what a good job NOAA did with predicting the Katrina track a few days out, but he went out of his way to discount any connection between hurricanes and global warming.  At the end of the hurricane season in November, when NOAA did their press briefing wrap-up, Admiral Lautenbacher put forward National Weather Service scientists who explicitly deny any link.  They put up a major piece on the NOAA website titled “NOAA Attributes Recent Increase in Hurricane Activity to Naturally Occurring Multi-Decadal Climate Variability.” 

First of all, it’s not at all clear that a federal agency should be taking an official position on a science issue.  And certainly, if they’re going to present it, they shouldn’t present it in a one-sided, unbalanced way, in which political-level people are deciding which scientists are going to be put forward, and which—as with Dr. Knutson at the NOAA lab in Princeton—are going to be kept from giving interviews. 

MT:  I want to read you something here.  This is the mission statement of the National Hurricane Center.  Now there are people all along the Gulf Coast of this country and the Atlantic Coast, who listen to the National Hurricane Center, who listen to Max Mayfield, who is the director, who accept as gospel that the analyses that they put out, and their opinions on hurricanes, etc., and this is the mission statement of the National Hurricane Center:  “To save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts, and analyses of hazardous tropical weather, and by increasing understanding of these hazards.”  Okay.  That’s their mission statement. 

Now, if you go to the National Hurricane Center website and you do a search for Dr. William Gray, this guy who is not a climate scientist, who as Dr. Judith Curry has just said, does not participate in any of the scientific discussions of global warming in terms of published material, and denies that global warming is even happening, if you go to the National Hurricane Center, whose mission statement is to save lives, etc., through accurate forecasts, you search under his name, his name comes up 104 times.  What is going on here?  What are the politics of this?

RP:  They were linked to Dr. Gray for his hurricane forecasts, but he explicitly mocks the whole mainstream scientific analysis of the global warming problem.  He is intellectually marginal on the question of long-term climate change.  There are a lot of unresolved issues about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming.  The conversation you just had with Dr. Curry is an honest conversation about where the scientific community is at and where the issues are.  You won’t find that communication from the federal government.  I think that there was a high-level—I mean, Admiral Lautenbacher is a political appointee in a chain of command that goes the White House…

MT:  What’s driving all this?

RP:  I think that there is a political decision to steer the public attention away from a link between increased hurricane intensity and global warming by selectively bringing forward certain people and leaving others aside.

MT:  And the obvious answer is because the major constituency is ExxonMobil.

RP:  Well, because to acknowledge this problem would be one more piece that would tend to create more public pressure for a stronger policy to deal with the global warming problem.  I won’t try to resolve the science issues, but I think NOAA has been engaged in spinning the problem of global warming and hurricanes—this is a current and significant example of a wider pattern of playing down the global warming problem. 

And you can’t get an appropriate societal response to the global warming problem in terms of mitigating, reducing emissions, or adapting to changes, if you can’t have an honest acknowledgement of the science.  When they rebuild New Orleans, are they going to rebuild it on the status quo, or on the expectation that hurricanes will become more intense, sea level will be higher, storm surge will be greater?  Are we adapting?  Are we preparing for that? Well, how can we do that if we can’t even have the government acknowledge the problem?

MT:  Do you see the scientific community becoming more activist on this issue?

RP:  Well, I don’t expect very many scientists to become activists, but I do think they have a role to play, and stronger than what they are doing now, for the most part, in helping to keep the public discourse honest.  It is not merely a question of putting out good information.  The global warming denial lobby does not play by any kind of intellectually fair rules.  And they need to be—whether they are public officials or interest groups—need to be called down explicitly when they deny and misrepresent and spin the science.  And I would hope to see more of a citizen-scientist role being played, where people do step out in the media and say this is not right, and keeping the discourse honest is a very important role for the science community.  I realize there are issues of getting involved in public controversy, but you know, it’s a controversial issue.

MT:  Rick Piltz, we have thirty seconds left.  I’m wondering, do you think that public opinion is shifting toward the scientific case for these issues, and away from the sort of skeptical, politically-driven, point of view? 

RP:  I think that may be the case.  There is still an amazing gauntlet to be run, given the current political situation, public inattention, inadequate media coverage—but I think maybe the tide is turning.

MT:  You are listening to Earthbeat, and I’m your host, Mike Tidwell.  And I want to thank Dr. Judith Curry at Georgia Tech University who has joined us by phone to talk about her scientific work and to the connection between global warming and hurricanes, and Rick Piltz, who is the founder and director of Climate Science Watch.

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