Katrina Exposes Media’s Global Warming Bias

Published November 1, 2005

No sooner had Hurricane Katrina moved inland to spawn tornadoes, flooding, misery, and tragedy than global warming alarmists and some in the media began spawning junk science.

Blaming Warming for Everything

“The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming,” opined long-time alarmist Ross Gelbspan’s August 30 op-ed in the Boston Globe.

Gelbspan also blamed global warming for snow in Los Angeles, high winds in Scandinavia, drought in the Midwest, a heat wave in Arizona, heavy rainfall in India, and an ice storm in New England.

Gelbspan offered no scientific arguments to back up his assertions. He instead blamed the media for “according the same weight to a handful of global warming skeptics that is accorded to the findings of the [United Nations].”

Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blamed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for “derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad promise to regulate carbon dioxide.

“Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged. … Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children,” wrote Kennedy on August 29 on the Huffington Post blog.

Hurricane Scares Increasing

Kennedy at least tried to offer some scientific argument–a recent paper by MIT researcher Kerry Emanuel claiming hurricanes have intensified by 50 percent since the 1970s. But leading hurricane forecaster Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University told the Boston Globe Emanuel’s claims aren’t based on any direct measurements of hurricane winds. He described the study as “a terrible paper, one of the worst I’ve ever looked at.”

A Baltimore Sun editorial on August 30, however, was in no mood for questions about Katrina’s cause: “Such warmer waters fuel the formation and ferocity of hurricanes. Warmer oceans are an inseparable by-product of global warming, and it’s foolish to ignore the link to the burning of fossil fuels.”

The Washington Post presented only the views of researchers willing to link extreme weather and Katrina with global warming.

“There’s a clear signature of global warming in [Katrina]. While it’s not the dominant factor, in some things it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Kevin Trenberth of the nonprofit National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to the Post on August 30.

The Post didn’t say what the alleged “clear signature” was, nor did it mention that NCAR is institutionally committed to global warming alarmism.

Some Anti-Warming Experts Mentioned

Not all major dailies, however, were quite so smug.

“Katrina Hits the Gulf Coast: Storms Turn Focus to Global Warming; Though some scientists connect the growing severity of hurricanes to climate change, most insist that there’s not enough proof,” headlined the Los Angeles Times on August 30. The rest of the article was similarly balanced.

The Times also offered a direct rebuttal to the global warming scare stories, from University of Colorado science professor Roger Pielke, who “attributed the losses to a simpler cause: more people living in harm’s way in areas such as Florida and Louisiana.”

A most welcome surprise was the New York Times‘ August 30 coverage, headlined, “Storms Vary With Cycles, Experts Say.” The Times interviewed Gray, who pointed out that from 1995 to 2003, 32 major hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or greater formed in the Atlantic. Only one in 10 of those hurricanes struck the United States at full strength, whereas historically the rate has been one in three. Then last year three of six (one in two) major hurricanes hit the United States.

Gray attributed last year’s activity to chance. “We were very lucky in that eight-year period, and the luck just ran out,” he told the Times.

“It is a contravention of science to attempt to link Katrina’s intensity to global warming,” said Pat Michaels, past president of the American Association of State Climatologists and senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

“Since 1982 we have had weekly records of sea surface temperature,” Michaels noted. “During this time period we can examine on a fine scale the relationship between hurricanes and sea-surface temperature. The threshold water temperature for category 3 hurricanes is 28º C. Interestingly, for category 4 or 5 hurricanes, there is no statistical relationship with the amount of elevation beyond 28º C. The Gulf of Mexico reaches 28º C every year, whether or not the planet has warmed or is cold.

“The most intense tropical cyclone to ever strike the United States was Hurricane Camille in 1969,” observed Michaels. “Camille landed very, very close to where Katrina landed. Significantly, Camille occurred when the temperature of the northern hemisphere was at its low point for its last 80 years. Camille simply needed an ocean temperature of 28º C. Clearly, it is irresponsible to link severe Gulf of Mexico hurricanes to global warming.”

Katrina Not Unusually Powerful

“We now know that Hurricane Katrina was no more than a Category 3 hurricane, and possibly only a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New Orleans, so all the talk about global warming making hurricanes stronger and thereby contributing to the disaster is revealed as the opportunistic cant it is,” said Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Iain Murray.

“For hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, sea surface temperatures need only get above 28º C for them to help make the hurricane Category 4 or 5,” Murray said. “Sea surface temperatures there regularly go above that level, and have done so for as long as we can remember.”

Steven Milloy ([email protected]) is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.