Typhoon Haiyan and Climate Change: Why ‘We Can’t Say for Sure’ Is Wrong

Super Typhoon Haiyan Bears Down On PhilippinesIn a rational world, Typhoon Haiyan would get media talking about climate change. But at the moment, it’s barely part of the conversation; and when it does come up, the message is that we can’t be certain that climate change “caused” this storm. 

In the New York Times (11/12/13): 

Yet scientists remain cautious about drawing links between extreme storms like this typhoon and climate change. There is not enough data, they say, to draw conclusions about any single storm.

“Whether we’re seeing some result of climate change, we find that impossible to find out,” said Kerry A. Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT.

Scientists largely agree that it appears that storms will become more powerful as the climate changes. Dr. Emanuel helped write a 2010 study, for example, that forecast that the average intensity of hurricanes and typhoons–different names for the same phenomenon–would increase by up to 11 percent by the end of the century.

On the broadcast networks, climate change has hardly been mentioned in connection with Haiyan. The few mentions that pop up are somewhat agnostic. On NBC Nightly News (11/11/13), correspondent Tom Costello remarked, “While scientists can’t say whether climate change contributed to this particular typhoon, they believe global warming is making storms stronger.”

A few nights earlier (NBC Nightly News, 11/8/13), Angus Walker posed the question: “Are giant storms like this one the shape of things to come spawned by global warming?” The response from Carl Parker of the Weather Channel:

Climate models have shown that warming could make these systems stronger. Now we don’t know that that was the case with Haiyan, but this was the most powerful system to have ever made landfall on record.

On some level, it’s understandable that scientists would be inherently conservative about attributing a particular event to climate change. But by the standard they seem to setting, it’s impossible to imagine how any extreme weather event could ever be definitely linked to climate change. There is no way that one massive hurricane will be stamped “Created by Climate Change,” while another would be considered a “normal” hurricane. 

These catastrophes are occurring, and will continue to occur, in a climate that has been undeniably altered. Waiting for the “real” climate change-caused storms to hit before talking about climate change is illogical and irresponsible. 

 As Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at National Center for Atmospheric Research, put it (Climate Change, 11/12):  

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.