Extreme Nonsense

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Jul 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Hurricane Claudette recently lashed the Texas coast, and some environmentalists claim to know why: The SUVs did it.

According to an increasingly popular theory among greens, global warming caused by carbon-dioxide emissions is sending the world's weather spiraling out of control, spawning tornadoes, hurricanes and other violent storms to punish us for our environmental sins.

A new book with the understated title Catastrophe claims that since 1997 up to 100,000 people around the world have been killed in warming-induced extreme weather. The U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization -- imagine Hans Blix in front of a weather map -- has warned that "as the global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, the number and intensity of extreme events might increase." Trial lawyers are even gearing up to begin suing corporations on behalf of those victimized by badly behaving weather.

This hysteria has a certain superficial appeal, since there does seem to be more violent weather. That is mostly a product of the miracle of cable news and other technology. Run-of-the-mill hurricanes once would get small notice in newspapers across the country. Now you can immediately watch a windblown TV reporter in the middle of the storm getting rained on. And every funnel cloud caught on someone's camcorder gets national play. Even the scaremongers at the World Meteorological Organization admit the alleged increase in extreme weather "could be because of improved monitoring and reporting."

The sky-is-falling (or at least warming) crowd points to a big increase in hurricanes in the Atlantic since 1994. But it is obvious that this has nothing to do with global warming, if such a thing even exists.

First, hurricanes and typhoons should, if global warming is responsible, be increasing all over. They're not. Total hurricane and typhoon activity has declined slightly since 1995, according to hurricane expert William Gray of Colorado State University.

It is only the Atlantic that has seen an increase. Now, global warming is supposed to be a gradual and long-running process. So Atlantic hurricanes should have been steadily building toward their current crescendo, slowly whipped into a frenzy by global warming. But from 1970 to 1994, intense Atlantic hurricanes decreased by 50 percent from their level in the period from 1950 to 1969.

As for smaller storms, they don't fit the story line either. According to Arizona State University climatologist Robert Balling, there is no evidence of an increase in thunderstorms, and the number of large tornadoes -- F3 to F5, in the jargon -- has generally been decreasing in the United States.

Even the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, often cited by enviros because it credits the idea of man-made global warming, said in its 2001 report that there is "insufficient information on how very small-scale extreme weather phenomena (e.g., thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, hailstorms and lightning) may change" as a result of warming.

The greens just need something to hype because a 1/10 degree increase in the global temperature doesn't grab people's imagination like, say, softball-size hale. Extreme weather is also a convenient talking point since, given its mercurial nature, some weather is always going to be extreme -- meaning there will be constant verification of the warnings of extreme weather.

This May a record 276 tornadoes roared through the Midwest and the South in one week. Aha! Something must have been responsible for such an "extreme" outbreak, right? Yes -- freak conditions. Which is exactly what caused in 1974, almost 30 years earlier, a spate of 148 tornadoes in a 16-hour period, killing 330 people and injuring more than 5,000.

Greens will reach for anything to prove the mayhem supposedly caused by our industrialized way of life. In its latest dire warning, the World Meteorological Organization even cited the unusual cold snaps in North America last winter as proof of the disasters wrought by global warming. Hey, it was "extreme weather." If you want "proof" of global warming, look no further than how extremely cold you might have been in February.