Are Irma-like Super Storms the ‘New Normal’?
Distinguished climate scientist Michael Mann explains that a business-as-usual scenario will lead to increasingly devastating storms
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. Hurricane Harvey brought the biggest rainfall in United States history last month. Now Hurricane Irma, a category five storm that is the most powerful hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic, has battered Caribbean islands such as St. Martin and St. Barts, and has begun to pummel Puerto Rico. Michel Magras, a senator from St. Barts, has described the aftermath of Irma as apocalyptic. Although it remains unclear whether Irma will strike Florida, the chances of that happening are increasing. A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for the Florida Keys. Authorities estimate that Irma could begin to strike south Florida as early as Friday night.
Meanwhile, authorities are nervously watching two other tropical storms that have developed in the last few days. The first is Katia, which is in the Gulf of Mexico. The second is Jose, which is over the Atlantic to the east of Irma.
Are superstorms the new normal? Can we expect more of these monsters, and has climate change making them worse? To discuss this, we are pleased to be joined again by Professor Michael Mann. Professor Michael Mann is a frequent guest on The Real news, a distinguished research professor, and a director of the Earth Science System Science Center of Penn State University. He is the author of the book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. His latest book, coauthored with Tom Toles, is titled The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change is Now Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. Thank you again for joining us, Professor Mann.
MICHAEL MANN: Thank you. Good to be with you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I would first like to discuss with you hurricane formation in general. Broadly speaking, how do hurricanes form and does the evidence show that climate change is affecting the frequency of hurricane formation?
MICHAEL MANN: Yes, so hurricanes are basically driven by the energy that results from the evaporation of very warm water. That’s why we find hurricanes in the tropical regions of the world, where ocean surface temperatures are warm enough to generate this particular type of storm. They derive their energy from the energy that’s released when water evaporates from the surface of the ocean. It carries this heat with it. That heat helps drive the hurricane, strengthen the hurricane, intensify the hurricane, and it’s also the source of all of that moisture that gets turned into rainfall, sometimes massive amounts of rainfall as we saw in the case of Hurricane Harvey.
Now climate change is impacting all of those processes. Climate change is warming the world’s oceans. The last few years were the warmest years on record for the globe and importantly for the oceans. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during that period we’ve seen the strongest hurricanes globally. That was Patricia a year and a half ago, a Pacific storm, Patricia, the strongest Pacific storm on record, the strongest storm globally. The southern hemisphere has seen the strongest storm it’s ever produced, Winston, within that timeframe. Now in addition, we have the strongest hurricane ever in the open Atlantic in Irma.
One thing that the science is very clear on is that the strongest storms will get stronger because of global warming. Because the oceans are warmer, that means that there’s even more energy to intensify these storms. We’re seeing that play out.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: If I understand correctly, the climate change is affecting both the frequency of hurricane formation and the intensity of these hurricanes as well. Is that fair?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so we have to be careful. When we talk about the frequency, for example the total number of tropical storms around the world, there are many factors that impact on that quantity. The El Nino phenomenon can influence the levels of hurricane activity and topical cyclone activity around the world. In terms of the total number of these storms, there’s still a debate within the scientific community about how all of these factors will play out.
But if we’re talking about the frequency of these very destructive major hurricanes and super typhoons, then yes, we expect those to become far more frequent. The strongest storms are going to get stronger. We’re going to see more of these Cat Four, Cat Five monsters like Irma.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now Southeast Asia has seen one of the worst periods of flooding from monsoons in years. 1,200 people have died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, which dwarfs the 60 or so deaths caused in the Houston area by Hurricane Harvey. Is the relationship between climate change and the intensity of monsoons any different than the relationship between climate change and hurricanes in the Atlantic? Or is it essentially the same relationship we’re talking about?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, thanks for the question, great question. The answer, as you allude to, it’s pretty much the same factor. The same thing that led to record flooding with Harvey, very warm ocean surface temperatures … That means that there’s more moisture in the atmosphere. There’s more moisture to be turned into record rainfall and flooding as we saw in the case of Harvey. But at the same time, the world’s oceans have been at record levels of warmth in recent years. That means that the monsoon region of India and Bangladesh, warmer oceans, more moisture in the atmosphere, more moisture to turn into record monsoonal rainfall.
Tragically, as you say, even though we’re so focused here in the U.S. on the impacts of extreme weather events on us here in the U.S., in other regions like India and Bangladesh, and Bangladesh in particular, which is already suffering from the impacts of global sea level rise, a very low lying region with millions of people, that has already been impacted by global sea level rise. Now you add to that these flooding record monsoonal rains, and you’re talking about a far greater loss of life than we’ve seen here in the U.S.
It actually points to something very important, which is that in some respects the impacts of climate change are gonna be most felt by the most vulnerable, by those who don’t have the infrastructure and the resources to deal with extreme weather patterns. That means that there’s a real sort of ethical dimension to acting to avert a climate catastrophe.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right, you know, what Southeast Asia’s experiencing right now of course is not the worst flooding. It is one of the worst periods, but not the worst. It isn’t as precedential as Harvey. Yet, you’re looking at a death toll that is 20 times that there was experienced in Houston, a highly populated metropolitan area in the relatively rich part of the world. Clearly these numbers that were seen, the casualty figures that were seen, are reflecting the increased vulnerability of persons on the frontline of climate change in the developing world.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, and we only expect that to get worse. We expect to see far more monsoonal rainfall in the future if we continue on the course that we’re on.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, I want to talk to you about this phrase “new normal.” We’re hearing it more and more to describe these monster hurricanes and their devastating effects. According to local papers, Harvey is the third 500-year event to have hit the Houston area in the past three years. Clearly, the numbers don’t seem to be adding up. Three 500-year events in five years is just extraordinary. Is it fair to describe this, however, as the new normal?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, thanks. Well, you know, the reality is that it’s worse than that. A new normal sort of implies that we sort of arrive at some new state, in some new state of the atmosphere that we sort of arrive at a new set of conditions that we can accommodate, that we can adapt to. We just have to deal with this new normal. When, in fact, this is an every shifting baseline. There is no new normal. We continue to see more warming and worsening of these impacts if we continue again on this course that we’re on of continued burning of fossil fuels, increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases, that is warming the planet and changing the climate.
In fact, what was a 1,000 year event, an event that before we started warming the planet, shouldn’t have happened by chance alone anymore often than once in 1,000 years. Many of those 1,000 year flooding events now are more like 30-year events. We have turned them from an event that shouldn’t happen more often than once in 1,000 years to an event that we expect to happen now once every few decades. If we continue on the course that we’re on, then by the middle of this century, we may turn these events into inter-annual events. That is to say, an event, that before we warmed the planet and changed the climate, shouldn’t have happened by chance alone more often than once in 1,000 years, will now happen on average once every few years.
You can imagine. If we’re dealing with a hurr- [inaudible 00:09:13] or a superstorm Sandy or a Katrina every few years, well then we’re starting to get beyond something that we can adapt to. We’re starting to talk about conditions that will literally force us to relocate the major coastal cities of the world, to relocate the better part of the billion people. We’re talking about a planet with a larger global population and great competition for diminishing land, water and food. That is a recipe for a catastrophe.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Professor Mann, since Harvey struck, there has been a vigorous debate about whether now is the time to discuss the links between climate change and hurricane intensity. According to Reuters, EPA spokesperson, Liz Bowman, started that, “The EPA is focused on the safety of those affected by Hurricane Harvey and providing emergency response support, not engaging in attempts to politicize an ongoing tragedy.” Miss Bowman made the statement reportedly in response to questions about comments from climate scientists linking the intensity of Harvey to climate change. How do you respond to Miss Bowman’s statement?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, it’s just so villainous. It’s so cynical. Because, of course, Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator now under Trump, is a climate change denier. He’s a darling of the Koch brothers. He’s done everything he can to advance the narrow interests of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of our environment, at the expense of the citizens he’s supposed to represent.
Ralph Nader, the other day, actually said that he has now engaged in impeachable offenses because he has basically defied the public trust. It is so cynical and so sinister to then turn around, when you’re denying the science of climate change, when you are basically trying to sabotage our efforts to transition away from fossil fuels to prevent worsening climate change, when you then turn around and accuse the scientists who are simply trying to point out the risks that we’re facing. You accuse them of politicizing the issue. It’s just so cynical and sinister. It really is a villainy as far as I’m concerned.
You know, the realty is that we have seen this writ large unfortunately in the Conservative movement. I refer to this sometimes as the Sandy Doctrine, or rather the Doctrine of Sandy Silence. Because whether it was superstorm Sandy and the damage it did or Sandy Hook, that tragedy where children were killed by a gunman. Whenever tragedies like this happen, you’ll hear those advocates for the fossil fuel industry saying, “No, we shouldn’t talk about climate change now in the wake of this climate change worsened disaster.” Or, “We shouldn’t talk about gun control at the time of this awful shooting.”
It’s really an effort to shut down the conversation at the most critical time because, of course, it’s when we face these sorts of crises, when we face calamities, is when we tend to reconsider what we’re doing and think about, “Are we doing the right things?” They know if they can just shut down the conversation long enough to let the event pass and leave the public consciousness, then they can get on with business as usual. Then they can get on with an agenda of inaction on climate change or inaction on putting in place sensible gun laws.
It’s a really cynical … Again, I’ll use the word sinister effort by special interests to try to prevent us from making the changes we need to make in our best interests simply so that they can continue to profit in the short term.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Certainly, it’s an extraordinary alarming commentary on our time that this cynicism is coming from the spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency.
MICHAEL MANN: It’s horrible. You talk about the fox guarding the hen house. With Scott Pruitt running the EPA, we’re well past the fox guarding the hen house. The fox is now renting out rooms in the hen house to other foxes. That’s the way we should think of the Trump administration and Scott Pruitt’s approach to environmental protection or the lack thereof.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, thank you for joining us today, Professor Mann. I’d like to explore with you in part two of our interview a recent study that you coauthored, which has major implications for the carbon budget.
MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, looking forward to it.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.