On October 4, 2022 Michael Shellenberger wrote an outstanding essay on weather. With his permission I am writing a shorter simplified essay for the purpose of more people understanding his outstanding analysis.
Over the last several weeks, many mainstream news media outlets have claimed that hurricanes are becoming more expensive, more frequent, and more intense because of climate change.
· The Financial Times reported that “hurricane frequency is on the rise.”
· The New York Times claimed, “strong storms are becoming more common in the Atlantic Ocean.”
· The Washington Post said, “climate change is rapidly fueling super hurricanes.”
· ABC News declared, “Here’s how climate change intensifies hurricanes.”
· Both the FT and N.Y. Times showed graphs purporting to show rising hurricane frequency using data from the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
All of those claims are false.
The increasing cost of hurricane damage can be explained entirely by more people and more property in harm’s way. Consider how much more developed Miami Beach is today compared to a century ago. Once you adjust for rising wealth, there is no trend of increasing damage.
Claims that hurricanes are becoming more frequent are similarly wrong. “After adjusting for a likely under-count of hurricanes in the pre-satellite era,” writes NOAA, “there is essentially no long-term trend in hurricane counts. The evidence for an upward trend is even weaker if we look at U.S. landfalling hurricanes, which even show a slight negative trend beginning from 1900 or from the late 1800s.” What’s more, NOAA expects a 25% decline in hurricane frequency in the future.
What about intensity? Same story. Explains NOAA, “after adjusting for changes in observing capabilities (limited ship observations) in the pre-satellite era, there is no significant long-term trend (since the 1880s) in the proportion of hurricanes that become major hurricanes.“ Bottom line? “We conclude that the data do not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming-induced century-scale increase in: frequency of tropical storms, hurricanes, or major hurricanes, or in the proportion of hurricanes that become major.
NOAA predicts a 5% increase in hurricane intensity by 2100, but no increase in intensity is today detectable. And the best-available science forecasts that the slight increase in overall hurricane intensity in the future won’t be because there are more intense hurricanes but rather because hurricanes overall will decline more than intense hurricanes (category 4 and 5). As a result, there will be a greater proportion of category 4 and 5 hurricanes than categories 1, 2, and 3.
In other words, the relative intensity of hurricanes will rise, even if the total number of hurricanes — and the total number of intense hurricanes — decline.
Why are the media spreading obviously inaccurate information, and not reporting the basic facts? Are journalists simply ignorant? Or is something else going on? There is evidence of deliberate deception.
The New York Times inappropriately cherry-picks data from the post-1980 period while the Financial Times misrepresents improved hurricane detection as rising hurricane frequency.
Is it possible journalists are just ignorant of current climate science? Perhaps some are. But mainstream news media outlets have been covering climate change and hurricanes for the last 20 years. And the information on hurricane costs, frequency, or intensity is hardly hidden away. It’s been summarized in the IPCC reports, most recently in 2021. And NOAA even boldfaces its key conclusions.
Consider four of the main ways the media mislead the public about climate change and hurricanes. They:
1. Misrepresent data showing improved observations of hurricanes (thanks in large measure to satellites and other hurricane detection technologies) as evidence of more frequent hurricanes;
2. Misrepresent hypotheses (e.g., that some hurricanes may become more intense by 2100) as facts in the present without mentioning that median projections suggest a decrease in all categories of storms;
3. Cherry-pick data to present trends in a relatively recent period since the 1980s and ignore the fact that there is much longer-term data available;
4. Confuse increasing damage with increasing incidence or intensity, even as there is a strong understanding that what and where we build explains all escalating disaster damage.
Is it possible that Financial Times reporter Aime Williams and her editors pulled the data from the NOAA website to make their graph, and mistakenly claimed that it shows more frequent hurricanes, but didn’t happen to read the website and its explicit warning that “After adjusting for a likely under-count of hurricanes in the pre-satellite era, there is essentially no long-term trend in hurricane counts”?
If that is indeed what occurred, then Williams and FT are guilty of journalistic malpractice of the highest order. But there is little reason to think that’s what happened. NOAA makes its warning relatively early on its web page and repeats it several times. And FT, like everyone else, has been covering this issue for decades not years.
I asked Williams in an email why she reported that hurricanes were increasing in frequency and intensity, against the best available science, and she did not respond. Whatever the case, FT should issue a retraction or a correction.
Washington Post reporters Scott Dance and Kasha Patel claim that “storms rated Category 4 or stronger… have increased in number in recent decades” and their headline reads, “climate change is rapidly fueling super hurricanes.”
Those claims are, respectively, misleading and wrong. According to NOAA, 15 Category 4 or stronger hurricanes made landfall in Florida since 1919, with 10 of them occurring before 1960 (over 42 years) and 5 of them since (over 62 years).
The 1970s and 1980s are well-understood to be the low point in hurricane activity in the 20th Century. In a paper titled “Changes in Atlantic major hurricane frequency since the late-19th century,” which Nature Communications published last year, scientists wrote, “the inactive period in the late 20th century may have been the most inactive period in recent centuries.” So, of course, a time series starting in 1980 will show increased activity.
When questioned about these false claims the media pivots away from the cold hard facts and towards presenting speculation and hypothesis as certain. And indeed, when you read through media coverage of climate change, you often find reporters emphasizing that they can’t entirely attribute any given hurricane to climate change, only that “climate change makes such events more likely.”
Such statements are a dodge. The reason we can’t attribute trends in hurricanes to climate change is that since reliable records started being kept the data indicates that hurricanes aren’t increasing in either frequency or intensity — full stop. To suggest that “climate change makes stronger hurricanes more likely or frequent” inappropriately misleads listeners and readers to believe that hurricanes are growing more likely or frequent.
As such, it’s clear that reporters are deliberately seeking to convince their readers and listeners of the false impression that hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense.
Moreover, these “mistakes” are occurring within a larger context of excluding relevant information, including what I view as the three biggest findings about the relationship between climate change and disasters:
1. deaths from natural disasters have declined dramatically over many decades;
2. costs from natural disasters have also declined as a proportion of our exposure;
3. the frequency of natural disasters is declining this century.
University of Colorado scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. in the late 1990s invented the method of “normalizing” the cost of hurricanes to account for a rising population, buildings, and wealth as the factors capable of explaining all of the rising cost of hurricanes, which meant that he and his colleagues discovered that there was no evidence that climate change was so far detectable in the escalating costs of hurricane disasters.
Because his scientific work on hurricanes undermines climate alarmism, progressive activists and Democrats in Congress and the White House have vilified him. In 2008, the Center for American Progress, led by John Podesta, the former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, joined in on a shockingly vicious and personal series of attacks on Pielke, including falsely claiming he was funded by fossil fuel interests.
Roger has responded to these attacks with grace and dignity which have undermined his professional career, and intimidated his colleagues, many of whom behaved with the cowardice typical of academics today. He is a model of courage in public life.
Michael Shellenberger asked Roger whether he thought most reporters knew that hurricanes are not increasing in frequency and intensity, and were choosing to present information aimed at giving readers the opposite impression. He pointed to the graphs showing no change, and even a slight decline, in landfalling hurricanes and in major hurricanes.
“We should ask why the data in these graphs have never appeared in the mainstream media,” he said. “Journalists should understand that by playing things straight with their readers and the public, more trust is gained in their work and in climate science more generally. People are not fools and won’t be tricked for long. Good science always wins in the end, even if it takes a little while.”
It’s one thing for a journalist to accuse his fellow journalists of getting something wrong; it’s quite another to accuse them of deliberately misleading the public. The former is understandable and forgivable. We all make mistakes. But to deliberately mislead the public is a violation of the duty of the journalist to report basic facts accurately. To accuse a journalist of deliberately misleading the public is to accuse him or her of lying. I recognize that it’s a very serious charge. It’s time for that to end.
References to more inaccurate articles.
15. Here we go again: Media claims ‘climate change’ linked to hurricanes – Realty Check: ‘Peer-reviewed literature robustly affirms that land-falling hurricane frequencies & intensities have remained steady or declined in recent decades’