Roger Pielke Jr.: The Hurricane Lull Couldn’t Last

  • Date: 01/09/17
  • Roger Pielke Jr. The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. hadn’t been hit by a Category 3 or stronger storm since Katrina in 2005. We were overdue.

A neighborhood near Addicks Reservoir in Houston, Aug. 29. PHOTO: DAVID J. PHILLIP/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Activists, journalists and scientists have pounced on the still-unfolding disaster in Houston and along the Gulf Coast in an attempt to focus the policy discussion narrowly on climate change. Such single-issue myopia takes precious attention away from policies that could improve our ability to prepare for and respond to disasters. More thoughtful and effective disaster policies are needed because the future will bring many more weather disasters like Hurricane Harvey, with larger impacts than those of the recent past.

For many years, those seeking to justify carbon restrictions argued that hurricanes had become more common and intense. That hasn’t happened. Scientific assessments, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s latest National Climate Assessment, indicate no long-term increases in the frequency or strength of hurricanes in the U.S. Neither has there been an increase in floods, droughts and tornadoes, though heat waves and heavy precipitation have become more common.

Prior to Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm, the U.S. had gone a remarkable 12 years without being hit by a hurricane of Category 3 strength or stronger. Since 1970 the U.S. has only seen four hurricanes of Category 4 or 5 strength. In the previous 47 years, the country was struck by 14 such storms. President Obama presided over the lowest rate of hurricane landfalls—0.5 a year—of any president since at least 1900. Eight presidents dealt with more than two a year, but George W. Bush (18 storms) is the only one to have done so since Lyndon B. Johnson. The rest occurred before 1960.

Without data to support their wilder claims, climate partisans have now resorted to shouting that every extreme weather event was somehow “made worse” by the emission of greenhouse gases. Earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt directed researchers “to shed some of the fussy over-precision about the relationship between climate change and weather.”

Turning away from empirical science—or “fussy over-precision”—comes with risks. But whatever one’s views on climate, there should be broad agreement today that bigger disasters are coming. Some may blame greenhouse gases while others may believe it to be some sort of karmic retribution. But there is a simpler explanation: Because the world has experienced a remarkable period of good fortune when it comes to catastrophes, we are due.

Agreement that more big disasters are on their way should provide opportunity for those otherwise opposed on matters of climate policy to come together and make some smart decisions. Here is where they might start:

• Establish disaster review boards. In the aftermath of every plane crash, the federal government convenes experts under the auspices of the National Transportation Safety Board to find out what went wrong and what might be done to prevent it happening again. Meteorologist Michael Smith of AccuWeather (a scientist who decades ago helped identify the “microburst” weather phenomena and its role in plane crashes) has long argued that the nation needs a National Disaster Review Board. After every disaster, it would evaluate what went wrong—and right—and distill lessons. The Trump administration should create such a board in the wake of Harvey.

• Encourage resilient growth. Disaster researcher Dennis Mileti has explained that the choices made at the local level—such as where to build—determine how a community will experience disasters. As communities develop, it can be difficult to see how local decisions might affect disasters years or decades down the road. This is particularly the case in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when the push to “return to normal” might mean simply reinforcing the conditions that led to problems. Local communities need to take better advantage of experts who can explore development choices with an eye toward better preparing for an uncertain future.

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