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« Monbiot on reality | Main | Huh Czar »

More on disasters

Anthony Watts has picked up the Houghton quotes story, and I thought it was worth expanding on what makes me uneasy about these links between disasters and global warming.

It seems clear to me that the original misquoted version hinted that Sir John was in favour of inventing catastrophes. His true words don't carry anything of that meaning.

The question then become one of whether his true words suggest creating links between disasters and global warming. Again, I'm not sure they do. A commenter here points out the rest of the quote in which Sir John says

It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident.

So he is discussing human nature and not making an explicit call for people to create links between disasters and climate change. If we look at, say, this interview Sir John, he correctly refuses to make an explicit link between Hurricane Katrina and global warming

GoCarbonFree: Do you think it will take some events on the scale of Hurricane Katrina for the world to really wake-up to global warming and for concerted action to take place?

Sir John Houghton: Well, certainly events like Katrina help to wake people up, but it’s uncertain how much of the blame for Katrina you can put on global warming per se. I was in New Orleans earlier this year...

What bothers me is the idea that Hurricane Katrina or any other hurricane could be used to wake people up to the idea of global warming or to make them demand climate change legislation. My (admittedly inexpert) understanding of the impact of global warming on hurricanes is that because the poles are expected to warm the most, the temperature difference between poles and equator will be reduced and there will be less energy to transport between them. In other words there will be fewer, weaker hurricanes.

If this is correct, why should a hurricane wake people up to the idea of global warming? Surely it should do the opposite? Isn't it the current lack of hurricanes that should be waking people up to global warming.

I can see the headlines now: "Long period of mild weather is proof of global warming"

Do you think it will sell?

(In related news, Steven Goddard notes that an 1970s surfeit of tornadoes was put down to global cooling)

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Reader Comments (23)

Yes attribution of extreme weather events is a tough one. But an unprecedented change in the climate will make extreme events more likely. So it's a question of odds. Asking ourselves whether a particular event is a result of AGW or not tends to miss the point if a climate skeptic angle is included . It's a bit like asking which cigarrette will kill a smoker, a question which can't be answered, and thus concluding that smoking doesn't cause cancer.

May 5, 2011 at 8:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterHengist McStone

Firstly, let me commend your focus on what Sir John actually said on catastrophes - all too rare nowadays. But I hope the spirit of that can continue.

Sir John did not say that a hurricane should "wake people up". He said, in response to a question, that it did. And I think that is simply a correct statement of history.

May 5, 2011 at 9:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick Stokes


Why were they woken up by it if the AGW hypothesis leads to a conclusion that there will be fewer hurricanes? The implication is that people have been falsely linking hurricanes and AGW in people's minds.

May 5, 2011 at 9:11 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

A lot of the public perception issue is covered in Shackley and Bray (2004) from the UEA Tyndall Centre which I am sure has been covered here before

The Social Simulation of the Public Perception of Weather Events and their Effect upon the Development of Belief in Anthropogenic Climate Change


May 5, 2011 at 9:15 AM | Unregistered Commenterandyscrase

Metaphors are interesting.

Yes, smoking more cigarettes increases the chance of getting cancer for a person, especially since there have been no artificial genetic abilities developed for adapting to smoking carcinogens (yet).

I could respond that in the UK the increase of cars on the road over the 20th C saw the number of traffic deaths decrease. There has been adaptive technology, and laws, that didn't insist on reducing cars.

Hypothetically even if a warming world definitley increases the sign of floods, hurricances, etc, there is still no theory that overnight these events will suddenly, shockingly, gain such a scale they would force us to "wake up".

If you accept that gradual adaption to weather has been shown profitable in the wealthiest nations over the last centuries then why not prioritise adaption before inisting that we should be shocked into large reductions of the primary driver of the economy?

When people ask people to do things based on the result of a disorientating effect, especially a non-existent one, they are dodgy people by definition. No matter how much self belief they have in the "shock and awe" they expect.

May 5, 2011 at 9:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

If the change is unprecedented, you can’t tell what it will be like. Why should the climate changing bring more extreme events, it could just as easily produce a long period of stability with very few extreme events? Why should any change always be considered bad?

May 5, 2011 at 9:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

For my money it matters not what Houghton meant or did not mean with these statements. What is most salient is the mindset it betrays.

The statements are completely objective focused. Whether he wishes for catastrophic events, or wishes to link humans to catastrophic events or not is secondary to what is unarguably his major concern - that people believe what he believes and policy is enacted - rather than answering the scientific questions that need to be answered.

May 5, 2011 at 9:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

Works of fiction have long used eclipses to frighten the masses into compliance. Is it not the same thing to use hurricanes(extreme weather) to scare people into adopting punitive CAGW policies?

May 5, 2011 at 9:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul in Sweden

Focussing again on what Sir John actually said, he immediately went on to say that Katrina was probably not the appropriate wake-up call. But as a matter of fact, he is right that it is what people responded to.

May 5, 2011 at 10:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick Stokes

Hey, mr Montford, welcome to sanity. It's very ironic that you end up making this gigantic "discovery" so many years after the fact, just at the same day you make a stab to Monbiot for finding out what you have known "for so long".

This correct point of view about Houghton has been available for almost a decade now. What I ask is, what makes the skeptic blogosphere so resistant to the truth, and so willing to go for the easier caricature?

The answer is also obvious, human nature. And if we think that Houghton was discussing human nature, it's a double pwnage by him... to you. ZING

[BH: Not really. Houghton had, to my knowledge, not contradicted the misquoted version until last year]

May 5, 2011 at 10:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterLuis Dias

I’d suggest that the political context of Houghton’s comments is key here. Once that is taken into account, some might see them as obfuscatory rather than, as the bishop suggests, simply open to misrepresentation.

In January 2005, Dr Christopher Landsea, chief scientist at the US National Hurricane Center, announced his resignation from all IPCC-related activity in a letter from which the following extracts are taken:

My work on hurricanes, and tropical cyclones more generally, has been widely cited by the IPCC. For the upcoming AR4, I was asked several weeks ago by the Observations chapter Lead Author – Dr Kevin Trenberth – to provide the writeup for Atlantic hurricanes . . .

Shortly after . . . Dr Trenberth participated in a press conference organized by scientists at Harvard on the topic ‘Experts to warn global warming likely to continue spurring more outbreaks of intense hurricane activity’ along with other media interviews on the topic. The result of this media interaction was widespread coverage that directly connected the very busy 2004 Atlantic hurricane season as being caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming occurring today . . .

To my knowledge, none of the participants in that press conference had performed any research on hurricane variability nor were they reporting on any new work in the field. All previous and current research in the area of hurricane variability has shown no reliable, long-term trend up in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, either in the Atlantic or any other basin. The IPCC assessments in 1995 and 2001 also concluded that there was no global warming signal found in the hurricane record . . .

I did caution Dr Trenberth before the media event and provided him a summary of the current understanding within the hurricane research community. I was disappointed when the IPCC leadership dismissed my concerns when I brought up the misrepresentation of climate science while invoking the authority of the IPCC . . .

I personally cannot in good faith continue to contribute to a process that I view as both being motivated by pre-conceived agendas and being scientifically unsound. As the IPCC leadership has seen no wrong in Dr Trenberth’s actions and have retained him as a Lead Author for the AR4, I have decided to no longer participate in the IPCC AR4.

The official IPCC line on hurricanes is uncontroversial and almost certainly correct – that there is little, if any, link between atmospheric warming and hurricane activity levels. Increases in the latter are usually put down to natural variability on the one hand and improved monitoring on the other, particularly in the satellite age.

Landsea’s beef was that Trenberth, the IPCC’s lead author for the topic, treated the media to what he described as ‘misrepresentation’ by leaving one and all under the impression that there was a link between warming and hurricane frequency without making it clear that that was not the IPCC’s position. To compound the error, IPCC leaders sanctioned his spreading of the confusion even after Landsea complained.

In short, knowing that, in their zeal for yet another lurid headline, few would check against IPCC reports, they were happy for Trenberth to re-cast the story. Unlike, say, the case of the Himalayan glaciers, where the IPCC relied on junk science, the science here was sound. So, (assuming that Landsea’s account is accurate though it doesn’t seem to have been challenged), a senior IPCC spokesperson junked sound science for the sake of a “we’re-all-going-to-fry-and-die” story.

As a former senior IPCC spokesperson, who better than Houghton to correct the record on this? The comments by him that the bishop cites were, obviosly, made after the Katrine tragedy which itself occurred several months after Lansea’s letter was published.

May 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveB

The Web is a cruel master/mistress. Far worse than the media of yesteryear.

May 5, 2011 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks


I'm not convinced. I think his meaning in the latter interview was probably that you can't pin individual hurricanes on AGW, (ie insinuating that AGW will lead to a general increase in hurricanes nevertheless). If you go back to the original interview from which the "we'll have to have a disaster" quote came, Houghton is clear that God is going to use disasters to get mankind to mend his ways. I think it is probably reasonable to infer that he is meaning burning fossil fuels.

May 5, 2011 at 11:29 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

IIRC AGW theory is that there wont be more hurricanes but there will be more extreme hurricanes. And it's the extreme ones that do the damage and get the headlines. Currently

May 5, 2011 at 11:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterHengist McStone


IIRC AGW theory is that there wont be more hurricanes but there will be more extreme hurricanes.

The observations contradict the misleading graphic and associated text at Skeptical Science.

Here, without distortion, is the frequency and energy of global tropical cyclone activity:

Both are at all-time lows during the reliable period of satellite observations.

May 5, 2011 at 12:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

FFS Hengist! Cook's fairy dust of misinformation doesn't work around here!

May 5, 2011 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Hopkinson

Thank you BBD.. saved me a hunt!

May 5, 2011 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Hopkinson

Sorry, should be accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) above, not frequency. The point here is that Hengist is demonstrably wrong. Observations show:

Overall, since 1979:

Global Tropical Cyclone ACE shows no upward trend.

Northern Hemisphere tropical cyclone (TC) ACE shows no upward trend.

Southern Hemisphere TC ACE shows no upward trend.

North Atlantic TC ACE has doubled since 1995, exactly compensated by a halving of Eastern Pacific ACE. It appears that in the context of global and NH ACE, the NATL increases are at the expense of the other basins, or simply within the common climate framework.

Global TCs of Tropical Storm force show no upward trend in frequency.

Global TCs of Hurricane Force + show no upward trend in frequency.

(After R. N. Maue - from link)

So Hengist and Cook et al. will have to find something else to scare us all with.

May 5, 2011 at 12:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

So doing a backward spin into the Theory of AGW, as observations show the opposite of what the models say the models are wrong and so the theory is wrong.

May 5, 2011 at 2:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air


"Why were they woken up by it if the AGW hypothesis leads to a conclusion that there will be fewer hurricanes? The implication is that people have been falsely linking hurricanes and AGW in people's minds."

I don't see that one follows, myself. You're assuming way too much knowledge and thought on the behalf of the general population. If people have come to the (uninformed) conclusion that natural forces aren't so powerful compared to mankind's ever-improving technology, something like a major hurricane might well 'wake them up' to a reality where we definitely can't predict and control everything.

May 5, 2011 at 3:30 PM | Unregistered Commenterdave

"So doing a backward spin into the Theory of AGW, as observations show the opposite of what the models say the models are wrong and so the theory is wrong."

Not new and not so backwards...

"By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.” (p63) – Das Werden der Welten (1907), English translation: Worlds in the Making (1908), Svante August Arrhenius

May 5, 2011 at 5:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul in Sweden

My statement 'IIRC AGW theory is that there wont be more hurricanes but there will be more extreme hurricanes.' is supported by NOAA

"The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." Perhaps NOAA will turn out to be wrong I don't know and neither does BBD , but it is a forecast of the future and it is not disproved by the FSU observations.imho.

Are you seriously telling me there is anything in Dr Maue's observations that disproves the above statement from NOAA?

May 12, 2011 at 9:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterHengist McStone

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