Hurricane season again

There are more Florences to come.

Hurricane Florence, from the International Space Station

Hurricane Florence, downgraded to a tropical storm, continues to dump massive quantities of rain on South Carolina, with more to come. She looks like a rerun of Harvey, which flooded Houston last year, cost $125bn. Are these “Acts of God or of the Queen’s enemies”, in the picturesque language of old British insurance contracts?


A bit of both. IPCC 4th Assessment Report, 2007, WG1:

A synthesis of the model results to date indicates that, for a future warmer climate, coarse-resolution models show few consistent changes in tropical cyclones, with results dependent on the model, although those models do show a consistent increase in precipitation intensity in future storms. Higher-resolution models that more credibly simulate tropical cyclones project some consistent increase in peak wind intensities, but a more consistent projected increase in mean and peak precipitation intensities in future tropical cyclones.

We’ve known for at least a decade, for the subset of “we” capable of wading through IPCC prose or reading more popular transcriptions of the science, which should include the press, TV weathermen and policymakers. In this case, the science is extremely simple in outline:

Warmer tropical seas → warmer and wetter air above them → conversion of extra heat energy into rotational energy by the cyclone mechanism → bigger and wetter hurricanes.

Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Florence have been hurricanes modulated by the modest global warming of 0.8 degrees C since 1880, the period with a full and accurate instrumental record. To be generous with the earlier uncertainties, let’s say at most 1 degree C above pre-industrial (say 1750). There is quite certainly more warming to come. Jerry Brown’s recent executive order, aiming at zero net emissions in California in 2045, was rightly hailed as brave political leadership (grandstanding to opponents). Sweden was there first, with the same date.  These are the cutting edge of real policy commitments; most countries have done nothing to translate into action their vague Paris Agreement commitment to zero carbon “in the second half of this century” (Article 4(1)).

Suppose by a miracle everybody else joined Jerry Brown tomorrow. We would, it seems, be on track to the more ambitious 1.5 degrees aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement. Meeting the main 2 degree cap only calls for moderate optimism, not a miracle. The range of good outcomes – never mind the bad ones - lies between doubling global warming from the pre-industrial level, and only increasing it by half.

More storms like Harvey, Irma and Florence are certainly on the way.

Some will be even bigger and more destructive. You have to wonder how many coastal cities in the hurricane and typhoon zones will survive in anything like their current form. I’m glad I’ve seen New Orleans, it may not be there for my grandchildren.

Miami is not on my must-see list, which is just as well as its fate is even more certain. The city sits on a thick bed of porous limestone, permeable to water. Osmotic pressure ensures that water levels will be the same on both sides of any sea wall. It’s Venetian stilts or evacuation.  That’s just from sea level rise, which will be supercharged by storm surges and deluges of rain from future mega-hurricanes. I fear that Miami will be given the same advice as the parents of Belloc’s Henry King :

Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
‘There is no Cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.’

It won’t sound better in Dutch – see endnote.

Will Florence shift the political obstacles to effective climate action in the USA? Not by deathbed conversion of denialists. There is a popular myth among greens that US policy is held back by a denialist hold on public opinion. In fact, a very substantial majority of Americans (67%) accept the reality of global warming, and over half (53%, trending up) correctly attribute it to human action. Even larger majorities (70%) support a decisive shift to 100% renewable electricity, the key policy measure: the climate hawks are joined by other hawks on urban air pollution, on energy independence at the national and local levels, and on economic arithmetic like Iowan farmers and Warren Buffett.  It’s true that electricity is now responsible for less than a third of US carbon emissions, but electrification powered by renewables is the key to the decarbonisation of transport and heating.

The political problem is not that Americans disbelieve the science, but that they don’t give the problem high priority. In the latest Pew survey, climate change clocked in at 18 out of 19 issues, well behind jobs, the economy, and healthcare (fair enough) but also the utterly insignificant dangers of terrorism (first position, God help us). This half-heartedness has allowed a handful of oil and gas billionaires like the Koch brothers, and their useful idiots like Scott Pruitt, to seize the initiative and bind one of the two historic political parties of the United States entirely to their nihilism.

Having a major hurricane pass over your house is a shock; more if you are ordered to evacuate by panicky authorities, or find your home feet-deep in a sea of dilute pig manure and toxic coal ash sludge. [Update: you may also enjoy a neighbourly visit from a floating colony of fire ants.] Convinced denialists have strong mechanisms to keep their beliefs in the face of the strongest evidence; but the lukewarm realists will surely become less receptive to a soothing delayist message that “it’s not so bad, we’ll keep coping with this, and doing what the alarmists propose will cost a fortune.” The apathetic may become activists, or a least turn out to vote for candidates who appear to take the problem seriously.


The trends to bigger hurricanes and rising sea levels are good news only to one small group: professional water engineers, many of them Dutch. In an earlier life working on higher education policy, I was told a story about a shiny new quality assurance programme set up by Ministry of Education technocrats. The inspectors visited the Technical University of Delft and pored over its performance indicators. They then demanded to know why the Department of Water Engineering had such a poor record of publications in peer-reviewed foreign journals. The embarrassed professors explained that in the sub-discipline, sadly the Delft department held a de facto world monopoly, and the major research periodical was their own. This story has a whiff of self-serving legend to it, but it’s very likely that there are few real experts to turn to in the field, and Delft is on the list. You do not want to save money by seeking second-best consultants, let alone cheaping on the dikes and sluices.

Storm surge barriers at the Haringvliet, just one part of the Dutch Delta Plan

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Hurricane season again”

  1. Most of the coastal cities will survive it, although they'll have to change. If you're getting flooded every year by bad storms, then you have to build on pylons, and build structures like fortresses (or in dome-fashion, with hurricane shutters to go with your windows). Hong Kong and Taiwan get lots of them.

  2. I think there is too much blame being placed on deniers for the problem of a lack of response. The lack of response and resistance to certain responses is made possible because no one really seems to know what the best responses are or who should pay for them. There are a lot of ideas put forward as being rational responses, but too often these are accompanied by denial of any negative consequences or suboptimality. In this, the climate change agenda is analogous to Trump's tariff war (also opposed by the Kochs, BTW; they are not all-powerful by any means); to wit, of course tariffs will help some American producers, but it's doubtful they promote the general welfare. Similarly, mandated spending now on some 20th century technological response to the climate problem may or may not yield the lowest sea level in 2050 or 2100. What we need is more R&D and more realistic discussion. Think beyond the climate change resisters and deniers. Yammering on about them only strengthens them.

    1. Jesus, give it up, aajax. If you had ONE IOTA of the principles you claim to have, you'd have said we need to start with a massive carbon tax, and elimination of all subsidies for all fossil fuel businesses and sectors. [with addition of those carbon taxes as tariffs on imports, so companies can't just export their carbon production to China] Instead, in this world, your best buddy Kaiser Yeti Pubes is scrapping subsidies for renewable energy and making it harder to import solar panels from China.

    2. I think there is too much blame being placed on deniers

      I think there is too little.

      Deciding on rational responses to a problem is made more difficult when there are a lot of ignoramuses in positions of power denying that there is a problem at all.

      These people are criminals, morally if not legally.

      1. There's been plenty of blaming of deniers over the years. How has that worked out? You know the "definition of insanity"?

        1. Are you arguing that there would have been more progress had the deniers been left alone? I doubt it.

        2. Let me see if I understand your theory. There have been lots of murders over the years. We try to solve them, arrest the criminals, and try them for their crimes.

          Yet there are still murders. So how has all that detective work and trial work and incarceration worked out? You know the definition of insanity?

  3. Maybe the householders flooded out by Florence will continue to be receptive to talk of "more R&D and more realistic discussion". But if I were were you I would stay out their way, especially as their chainsaws still probably work.

    Photo credit WP/Getty

    The call for delay through R&D, touted by Bill Gates as well as you, is especially tiresome. Mark Jacobson's 100% renewable scenarios rely largely on existing technology. He fudges a little in specific areas like steel, cement, shipping and aviation, but the technology roadmap is clear and plausible even there. In his bad-tempered spat with the pro-nuclear Clack, the ready feasibility of an 80% decarbonised electric grid was common ground. the disagreements were over the role of nuclear (Clack) and the conversion of dams to large-capacity burst mode (Jacobson). 80% is a decade away in any case, and the menu of options will be wider when it becomes a practical issue.

    No, what's needed is not debate but more action on multiple fronts, using the tools to hand: wind, solar, CSP, batteries, pumped hydro, demand response, HVDC interconnectors, electric cars, buses, and trucks, low-emission traffic zones, heat pumps, smart controls for homes and commercial buildings. And an end to legacy subsidies for fossil fuels, if we can't have a proper carbon tax.

    R&D can bring us further cost reductions in all these technologies, which will be a nice bonus and speed up the transition, even if the current state of the art will do. Where we still absolutely need R&D is on sequestration: beyond net zero, gigatonnes of carbon will have to be sucked back out of the atmosphere. There are plenty of good ideas, but only reafforestation is shovel-ready, and its scope is limited by conflicting land uses.

    1. This website needs something that seems to be common to the other blogs-a "Like" button. It could save me lots of keystrokes, compared to having to post a reply to say "YES."

      1. Do you not see the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons toward the right margin?

        BTW, I think that arguments about the number of people taking one attitude or another is largely meaningless. It's the capital arrayed on one side or the other, and the prospect of writing down trillions of dollars of assets current owned by people who would prefer not to have them written down. A little like slavery in that sense.

    2. I cannot bear to follow this issue very closely. *If* I understand you correctly James … I mostly agree, except, I am somewhat open to doing, *at the same time* we do all the things you talk about, what we can to explore the possibility of a Hail Mary pass. A temporary measure, to slow things down. Something easily reverseable in case we bleep up. Did I say in case? I meant “when.” Like maybe a big sunshade we float out in space to block some of the sun from hitting the Earth. It may be crazy but we shouldn’t give up on the Holocene until we absolutely have to. I still want a full reversal of the damage we’ve done, and I think we should talk about that too. Why think small?

      Not to mention, actual prayer too. However, have I bought an electric car yet? No, can’t afford one, certainly not a new one. So from that perspective, I think Aajax is not all wrong. This issue provokes a great deal of fear in people, not just the rational oh-sh*t fear about our planet, but the fear of neoliberalism run amok, the coming congestion pricing, all these things I can see coming here in LA which will ruin this place for ordinary people. It is becoming just another bedroom community for the rich. And I doubt if leaders are much better elsewhere. You won’t get around scared people just by lecturing them. Try something else.

      I do not see us coming together yet, and approaching it as a community. What I see are relatively well-off centrist Dems using it as a great excuse to also get a bunch of other things they want — rampant development for one, based on a delusional ideas about transit. The Left should not be half so pleased with itself as it is. There is a great deal of utter nonsense being served up.

      1. I know you know this, NCG, but it bears repeating: Half a loaf is better than no bread at all.

        E.g., boosting photovoltaic electricity while correspondingly reducing combustion for electricity doesn't solve the problem, but it helps reduce the problem.

        We can't eliminate the problem today, but we surely need to start chipping away at it at a faster pace than we have been. And the "coming together" doesn't have to be all of us pulling our oars in unison. We can each pull an oar, even if the oars are not all synchronized.

      2. SRM geoengineering should certainly be researched, to create an option if all else fails. There are two problems: it's very risky and you can't run useful small pilots (Royal Society report from 2009); it's world government, even if carried out unilaterally by a hegemon (who would then own all the fallout). The politics are harder than the technology.

        Prayer? This should be taken seriously, in a religious country like the USA. You can misuse prayer as an abdication of personal responsibility, or use it properly as a way of reinforcing it by sorting out what's up to you in the situation (vaccinate your children, build the bloody Ark, defy the Sanhedrin) and what is out of your control and up to God (stopping the deluge).

        May I suggest you think about what I discovered above (discovered, not speculated) about US attitudes to renewable energy. The large majority in favour does not only consist of the minority of climate hawks, but includes supporters for many other reasons. And early deployment subsidies, for EVs or solar panels, necessarily benefit the better-off first: but they are the best and proven way to drive prices down the learning curve, and become money-savers for the poorer. California's mandate for solar on new construction (at under $2/watt) will benefit all classes. Cleantech subsidies are not equivalent to those for grand opera.

        1. Well, if the politics are harder than the tech, then I feel a little better - as I usually do whenever I read your posts! We humans are good at tech. Not as good at getting along (yet). I was sort of envisioning some better, larger (!) reversed version of the film I put on my car windows. It blocks UV rays but not heat (too pricey). If we could just turn the dial down a teeny, tiny bit while we get ourselves together. I realize it would create a moral hazard. Hazards up the wazoo these days. I don’t have an answer for that.

          I am all in favor of subsidies for clean tech, and CA is actually very slowly (and rather cheaply imo) aiming them at lower income people now, which is good. I also think a revenue neutral carbon tax might be good. As for Pew, they’ve never once asked me what I thought. If what you say is true, that is wonderful. Ha- we’re not so dumb! (Hey, that rhymes with “we’re number one!” Now I can cheer myself up with that.)

  4. Hurricane is Tropical cyclone which did lot of damage of property & life loss in many areas. Recently read that hurricane Florence helped spin up new storms in the Atlantic. Thanks for sharing update.


Comments are closed.