Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming

by Chris Mooney

(Harcourt, 400 pages, $26.00, July 9, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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On May 23, 2005, three months before Hurricane Katrina started churning the Atlantic Ocean, Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, published an article in the American Prospect Online warning about the vulnerability of his native New Orleans to a direct hit by a powerful hurricane.

Katrina was not quite the storm Mooney had envisioned in his article. It was powerful--category 5 at its peak--but it had weakened to category 3 by the time it made landfall. And it wasn't quite a direct hit.

The levees were supposed to withstand such a storm, but they failed. In the aftermath, Mooney's "piece ricocheted around the internet," bringing added attention to his just published first book, the meticulously researched and provocative coverThe Republican War on Science (RWOS).

Now a new hurricane season has begun with the publication of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, Mooney's latest foray into the contentious intersection of science and politics. This time, his research produced a much less partisan conclusion.

The political battles over what to do about hurricanes, as described in Storm World, are far less intense than the full-fledged partisan warfare over human-induced climate change described in RWOS.

In Storm World, Mooney finds politicians of both parties guilty of cherry-picking their facts or distorting science in the service of their ideology. In particular, he calls an environmentalist PR firm to task for describing a particular research paper as "the final link in the warming/hurricane causal chain."

He sees that as an example of "a losing political strategy employed by too many environmentalists and activists generally: tout each new study in a scientific journal that seems consistent with your goals" while disregarding research that suggests that the question is still open. "That may be a safe practice when a strong consensus exists on a subject, such as the basic question of whether global warming is happening and caused by humans. But when... one study pushes the debate one way, [and] another pushes it back, this tack just can't be defended."

Republicans still get more criticism from Mooney than Democrats. He notes that the most combative Republican rhetoric continues to declare the global warming issue to be a "hoax" promulgated by a vast conspiracy of money-grubbing, power-hungry alarmist scientists.

That accusatory drumbeat continues in spite of this year's reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC has stated that to a high level of confidence, human-created greenhouse gases are dramatically changing the climate. It has called for international agreements and protocols to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming realities.

But on the question of how global warming would change hurricanes, the IPCC conclusion is much less certain. Warmer seas might produce more frequent or more severe hurricanes, but many other atmospheric and climate factors also contribute to storm development.

To climate scientists, this is an important and exciting open research question. Policy-makers and businesses, on the other hand, prefer certainty. How strong should governments require levees and storm barriers to be, not only around New Orleans but also in low-lying coastal cities around the world? How much money should insurers set aside for future disasters?

The question is also central to Storm World. The book captures not only the scientific and political stories, but also the personal stories of those involved on all sides of this important scientific and political issue. It begins with a history of how scientists' understanding of hurricanes has developed over two centuries.

There has always been a creative tension, usually played out between dominant personalities with different scientific approaches. On one side are the empiricists who emphasize collecting data. On the other are those who seek the underlying physical principles.

Today, the latter group is armed with supercomputers and mathematical climate models, which they are constantly refining and in which many of the former group place little confidence.

Therein lies the disagreement. Predicting the climate of a future greenhouse Earth requires more than the weather data from the familiar planet Earth of the recent past. The empiricists focus on an apparent natural multi-decadal storm cycle. The modelers view the same data as the result of changing emissions from changes in fossil-fuel burning engines and power plants.

Mooney genuinely seems to admire them all, visionaries and curmudgeons alike. But he seems to question whether today's political argument has led to polarization rather than creative disagreement. He leaves readers wondering whether Colorado State University's William Gray's legacy will be that of a brilliant and widely admired skeptic or as a man whose once open-minded approach was replaced at the end of his career by intransigence on the most important climate science issue of his times.

The book closes with practical advice for scientists on how to communicate when their work is suddenly thrust into the political spotlight--and with reflections on the author's own function as a journalist.

In writing Storm World, Mooney needed to be both the empiricist who gathers the data and the analyst who puts that data in context so his readers can understand its implications.

He succeeded admirably in both roles.

Physicist and author Fred Bortz writes books for young readers about weather and other phenomena on Earth and other planets.