The Story of the Hurricane

Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming by Chris Mooney (Harcourt, 276 pages)

- - -

Chris Mooney selected a difficult premise for his new book, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. In it, he seeks to discuss climate change and hurricanes in depth while constantly trying to reinforce the fact that much remains to be understood about whether and how much we can connect the two. This would seem to put Mooney in a corner, but instead he presents a clear-eyed, uncompromising account of storms and climates (of the both the planetary and political sort) that he unfolds gradually over the course of the book's 276 pages.

Mooney goes to great lengths not to politicize the conversation. The book begins with his trip to his mother's house in New Orleans in December 2005, just months after Hurricane Katrina leveled the city. Rather than dwell on the political failings that made Katrina such a devastating event, Mooney instead focuses on the fact that this storm was by no means the worst-case scenario for severe weather.

Katrina was a Category 3 storm that missed New Orleans, and a larger storm or a direct hit would have made it all the more catastrophic. But Katrina, which claimed 1,500 lives and caused more than $80 billion in damage, wasn't the biggest concern to scientists following the 2005 season. They were much more worried about the length of the season, and the record number of storms that year (27 in all), 15 of which reached hurricane status. Two of those hurricanes, Rita and Wilma, were Category 5 storms.

Despite this, federal funding to rebuild New Orleans only provides enough money to prepare for another Category 3 storm, which sets the stage for Mooney's general thesis: even if more research must be done on the relationship between global warming and hurricanes, shouldn't we be preparing for the worst while hoping for the best?

Unlike in his previous book, the 2005 bestseller The Republican War on Science, Mooney doesn't make Storm World a polemic -- except in cases where politics have abused science, which as you can imagine, happens frequently enough. Much of the book is spent developing the context for hurricane science today, giving a nod to the scientists of yesteryear and to the technological advances that have shaped our understanding of storms. This includes folks like William Redfield, who in 1821 bothered to walk the path of a hurricane and became the first to observe that trees on opposite sides of the storm had fallen in opposite directions, leading to the understanding that they travel in cyclonic, circular patterns. People who love storms are predictably a little nutty and plenty ingenious, making for a rich back story.

Mooney spends plenty of pages explaining what is understood about where, how, and why these storms form -- and what questions scientists are still trying to answer. The majority of the book, though, looks at these scientists and the fundamental divide that has long existed between the empiricists and modelers, who often take very different tacks in trying to understand the same phenomena. Empiricists look at the patterns and behavior of storms, while modelers work in the more theoretical realm, replicating the behavior of gases, physical laws, and atmospheric trends using computer programs. The split is mostly in the methods, but rifts in personalities and ideologies have also opened over the years. Portions of the book read like a biblical genealogy, where we learn which scientists begat which understudies in their fields, and how that lineage has developed into separate tribes.

On one side of the modern incarnation of this divide is a stodgy empiricist named William Gray, who has long challenged the premise that climate change has anything to do with hurricanes. Changes in hurricane frequency and severity are part of a natural cycle, argue Gray and the rest of the scientists in his camp. But for Gray, that belief has transformed into an out-and-out rejection of the reality of global warming, despite all evidence to the contrary. Gray makes for a colorful character, as a life-long Democrat who has become a darling of right-wing denialists by lobbing personal and professional attacks at scientists that have come to other conclusions on climate change.

Positioned across from Gray is hurricane-climate theorist Kerry Emmanuel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who himself once challenged a link between climate change and increasingly severe storms. But Emmanuel's long-term studies found a correlation between increasing hurricane strength and duration and rising sea temperatures, pushing him to the other side of what has become an ideological debate in the hurricane-research community.

Mooney takes great pains to illustrate that there have long been personal and professional differences among the scientists who study hurricanes, dating back to the 19th century, but those differences didn't become a political issue until climate change came into the picture. The divide has been exacerbated under the Bush administration, as any research supporting a relationship between climate change and hurricanes has been downplayed or altogether ignored. Accepting a connection between the two necessarily requires an acceptance of climate change as real and threatening -- which the administration long resisted and only recently made tepid concessions on. But in the past few years, a lot of this muzzling of government scientists has garnered public attention thanks to whistle-blowers and leaked internal emails, making the political climate all the more heated.

Add to that the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and you've got ... well, the perfect storm. Scientific nuance doesn't translate well in sound-bites, and it doesn't do much to push up ratings. Most meteorologists and climatologists would toil in anonymity for decades if it weren't for momentary, catastrophic events or the smell of contention. So all these years of research and all the painstaking analysis are lost when the issue makes it into the news -- which it has, increasingly, in the wake of Katrina. This "mediarology," as one of the scientists Mooney interviews terms it, has only further confused the public about what scientists understand about climate change and storms.

Mooney does not spare environmental groups from scrutiny, either. In their premature delight at having concrete events to illustrate the calamity of climate change, they hail any and all reports that tie severe weather to global warming as conclusive proof of a connection. Even if activist groups do recognize that these studies are not conclusive, it's near impossible for them to convey that in their calls for action -- much like how it's difficult for scientists to distill their nuanced research into press-ready sound-bites.

Storm World has everything a non-expert would want from a book on hurricane science -- the context, the basic concepts, the key players, and the implications. The bulk of the book lacks the gripping ideological battle that made The Republican War on Science so popular. But in the middle chapters, Mooney gets into some of the political controversies, denial, and cover-ups, and the book actually becomes a page-turner for a little while.

It's not hard to read between the lines and see how hard Mooney was working to remain apolitical, but the book succeeds because he does. Climate change and hurricanes shouldn't be political topics, and it's both unfortunate and dangerous that they've become so polarizing, at least in the United States. If Mooney had succumbed to making this just another polemic on how conservatives have derailed science, it probably would have been a lot more exciting. Instead, he gives readers the tools necessary for understanding the controversy, which is a lot more useful, and probably helps Mooney hold on to his journalistic cred.

In its painstaking attempt to create historical context and maintain an objective distance from the political undertones, the book can feel a bit plodding as it builds toward answering the looming central question: Can we point to global warming as the cause of a specific storm, or as the force that makes any single storm more powerful or longer-lived? The answer, despite all the developments, is a still "No."

Regardless, climate change isn't going to make hurricanes any less problematic, Mooney concedes, and waiting for conclusive causation is a risk the United States can't afford to take. Rising tides, compromised levees, and dangerously positioned cities all present serious problems in an age of increased storm frequency and severity -- with or without any added threat from global warming. Generally speaking, obfuscation and avoidance make for bad policy, Mooney concludes, which is about as political as he allows himself get in this book.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)