Last weekend, hurricane Irene left a stream in many backyards and centimeters of water in basements. As the storm gusted, commentators pontificated on possible connections between global warming and hurricanes. Their articles ranged from Elizabeth Kolbert's warnings in the New Yorker, to Bob King's moderate analysis in Politico, to Jay Akasie's accusations of fraud in the International Business Times. A review of data based research is the best way to determine who is correct.
First, it is important to realize the diversity of opinions within the scientific community. By the time a scientific theory reaches the general public, it is usually simplified to a few facts without any mention of dispute. Delving into the primary scientific literature reveals a more complex debate. Different theories compete to convince scholars based on how well they match the available evidence.
Even among scientists who believe in anthropogenic climate change, there is much disagreement over the details. For example, one speaker at my Rutgers program in Ecology and Evolution theorized that global warming would cause colder temperatures in North America and Europe by disrupting ocean currents, while others believed that warmer weather would prevail. The uncertainty inherent in any model makes it wise to maintain a degree of skepticism.
In his 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg examined the relationship between global warming and weather-related natural disasters. Lomborg believed that humanity was causing global warming, but questioned the dire predictions made by others. His evaluation cited research by other scholars who looked at cyclones, hurricanes, demographics, and economics.
According to Lomborg, data on cyclones over the Atlantic Ocean and hurricanes that reached the USA Gulf Coast and East Coast did not show any increase in storm strength during the second half of the 20th Century. If anything, the storms were getting a bit weaker over the years. There has been a sharp increase in the economic damage caused by weather-related natural disasters, but demographics and economics, not weather, causes this trend.
The hurricanes are following the same patterns that they have followed for decades. The communities within their traditional path have changed. More people holding more wealth now live in hurricane prone and flood prone areas. Land use changes, rather than carbon budgets, are responsible for the massive impact of weather-related natural disasters. The solution to this problem is simple. We should realize how foolish it is to build in flood prone and hurricane prone areas. On the local level, this means we should prioritize the preservation of riparian buffers when allocating limited open space funds.