Hurricanes and global warming: A credibility challenge for the Climate Change Science Program


New research linking global warming and recent enhanced North Atlantic hurricane activity was funded by the National Science Foundation, a major participating agency in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Last year NOAA put out misleading, one-sided information about the state of knowledge on the connection between global warming and increased hurricane intensity. That cannot be allowed to happen again this year. Climate Science Watch challenges the CCSP leadership to insist on credible government communications on this subject.

On July 1 Climate Science Watch reported on new research by leading climate scientists that quantified a connection between human-induced global warming and recent enhanced North Atlantic hurricane activity. The studies concluded that multidecadal-scale natural variability is playing only a minor role. This new hurricane climatology research adds to work published during the past two years suggesting that there are observed and projected relationships between global warming and increased hurricane intensity.  The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, a participating agency in the federal Climate Change Science Program. We asked: How will administration officials and federal scientists and managers deal with these scientific developments this year in their public statements about hurricanes and climate change?

Last year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials, led by NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, and selected scientists from the National Weather Service, were criticized 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. We covered this issue in posts this year dated February 16 (“Jim Hansen: NOAA ‘by fiat’ put out “biased information” on hurricanes”), March 6 (“NOAA hiding truth about hurricanes, scientists say”), May 31 (“NOAA’s misleading internal Congressional briefing points on hurricanes and global warming”), and June 4 (“NOAA, global warming, and hurricanes: CSW director interview”).

NOAA/National Weather Service Congressional testimony, press communications, and website material denying a connection between global warming and increased hurricane intensity became, by default, essentially the “official” federal position on hurricanes and global warming. That should not happen again this year. There is more to hurricane climatology than what is going on among the meteorological forecasters at the National Weather Service, and more than is done within the rest of NOAA. 

The Climate Change Science Program is a government-wide entity with a responsibility to the American people to communicate the state of knowledge about issues related to climate change. The National Science Foundation is a key part of the CCSP. Hurricane climatology research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and in universities is funded by NSF, and is as essential a part of the CCSP-supported, taxpayer-funded research effort as is work done at NOAA.  In addition, the new research draws on work done by Jim Hansen and his colleagues at NASA—also a key CCSP participating agency.

On June 24, in discussing the role of Bill Brennan of NOAA, the new Acting Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, we asked:  How can a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce stand up to political pressure from the White House?

Promoting a straight-talk discussion of the development of hurricane climatology research and the societal implications of its findings is a test case for restoring the credibility of the CCSP, which has been undermined by White House politicization of science communication.  We challenge the Climate Change Science Program leadership—including the principal representatives from NSF and NASA, and especially Dr. Brennan—to ensure that the federal government engages in honest, balanced, communication on this issue.

The report “Hurricanes and the U.S. Gulf Coast: Science and Sustainable Rebuilding,” published by the American Geophysical Union, concludes: “Hurricane strength and numbers are projected to increase further with rising ocean temperatures….Planning should take into account the strong probability of more frequent and more intense hurricanes.” 

Scientifically well-informed national planning and preparedness calls for a government leadership that is willing and able to engage in an appropriate representation of the scientific intelligence.


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