When is the last time you heard about “climate change deniers”? They still exist, but in 2018 the headlines have tended to read: “Extreme weather is proof global warming is real, say climate scientists”. It’s an aspect of the debate over climate change that both sides on the issue love to exploit. One group of climate change sceptics, however, argue that climate change sceptics are using real bad news, like hurricanes and wildfires, to misrepresent the climate problem.
In the last decade, global temperatures have risen rapidly. But so have the numbers of active tropical cyclones, flooding and heatwaves. Hurricane Irma, which has now killed 20 people, devastated Florida, some scientists say. But it’s too soon to say how damaging the storm will prove to be to the US economy, said Chris Field, a climate scientist at Stanford University in California. “It’s very much too early to say,” he said. “The guess is that the hurricane killed a number of people and of course there’s destruction and the economic impact is certainly going to be large.” But if hurricane numbers rise, will the “climate change deniers” be able to ignore the nature of the threat?
“The hurricane is very much part of the news story,” said Field. “It’s much more the exception than the rule in recent decades.”
The one climate change denier to have made global headlines – Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – attempted to downplay this fact, writing in the Telegraph that: “Hurricanes are exceptional, not unique events.” A few days later, Johnson wrote in a column for the Daily Telegraph again that he was “mystified” by the latest predictions of the impact of global warming, this time in regard to the impact of hurricanes. He wrote: “Hence the great confusion that has clouded discussions of the impacts of climate change on hurricanes.” There has been confusion, of course. But does it matter?
“It’s nonsense,” said Professor Chris Field, when asked about the possibility that hurricanes are disproportionately due to climate change. “One of the things that is very, very clear is that major hurricanes tend to increase year on year,” he added. “When you think about major hurricanes, that’s the category 5 hurricanes.”
“One aspect of climate change skeptics that has persisted, we’ve now seen some very important studies that are beginning to show, we’re not getting the association that we expected,” he said. “One of the interesting questions is whether those new studies have gone further than we initially thought to find that hurricanes are more sensitive to climate change.” “Do hurricanes behave as expected when the temperature is going up? It turns out they are,” he added. “We don’t actually know how much. What is the tipping point? It’s early days.”
Nations have made similar discoveries, most recently this week. USA Today reported on the on the study carried out by the University of Bordeaux in the UK, which found that climate change had increased the strength of hurricanes since the 1980s. This work was presented at the 2018 Social Impact Science Symposium in Paris, co-organised by CARE and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.