Climate Adaptation

Hurricane Irene and Global Climate Change

The hype and hoopla about Hurricane Irene this past weekend offers a potential window into understanding the global climate change debate … but not because of claims that this is evidence of climate change itself but rather because the reaction to the hurricane represents a natural human response in this day and age.

As the hurricane developed and approached there was an impressive display of scientific evidence including the satellite images, wind speeds taken by planes flying through the hurricane, the projected paths using numerous simulation models, and the potential strength and wind speeds at various points along the projected path.

Together with the indisputable immediate scientific evidence and the “disputable” projected evidence there came pronouncements of the historic nature of the storm like … “worst storm to hit the East coast in a hundred years.” There also came all sorts of projected effects: storm surges destroying the barrier islands, high winds, downed trees, lost electricity, etc. In New York City, there were scenarios of broken skyscraper windows and storm surges that flooded subways and covered significant parts of Manhattan and Long Island. As is natural, most of the devastation was projected to occur along the coast since as I heard over and over, the storm surge does the most damage and the winds are highest there.

Of course I am sure there are examples of almost all of these effects happening in one place or another because of the storm: windows were broken, storm surges did do damage, floods occurred and electricity was lost. However, the overall extent of the damage was much less than was projected and predicted. What is more notable though, is that the places with the greatest devastation, like parts of Connecticut and Vermont (and I’m sure others) were not the places that were being hyped as the storm was approaching.

Thus while scientific evidence was very useful in predicting the path of the storm and the potential effects it ‘could’ have, science is not precise enough to predict the overall extent of damage that will be caused nor the precise locations that have more reason to worry.

The same might well be true about global climate change; namely, even though scientific evidence is very good at predicting the types of possible impacts that higher carbon emissions might have on the planet, it might not be very good at predicting the overall extent of the damage caused or who is more likely to be affected. As with the hurricane we might expect global climate scientists, and the media that reports about it, to exaggerate or hype the scenarios that are most dramatic. But also, we may expect, as with the hurricane, that the unexpected effects of global climate change may turn out to be more significant than the anticipated and exaggerated ones.

One more thing … because of the hurricane warning and the hype about its potential effects, many people responded by leaving the beach areas, boarding up windows, stocking up on food, water and candles, and staying out of harms way. Surely this contributed to lower overall damage. In a similar vein we might well expect that people will adapt to the effects of global climate change as it slowly impacts the world’s ecosystems. As they adapt to the changes, the overall impacts will be reduced.

Lastly, it is worth highlighting the scale of the differences between these two processes. Predictions about the hurricane involved scientific measurements of a relatively simple weather system, examples of which scientists have had the chance to observe over and over again across decades of hurricane seasons. Global climate change involves measurement of a hugely complex array of variables spread across the globe, other examples of which are scarce, if they exist at all.

My question then is: If we can’t precisely predict the impacts of a hurricane system one week in advance, why should we expect the 50-100 year predictions of global climate change scientists to be accurate representations?


Steve Suranovic received his B.S. in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign and his M.S. and Ph.D. in economics from Cornell University. He has been a faculty member at the George Washington University since 1988. He has served several terms as the current Director of the International Trade and Investment Policy M.A. program at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

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