Reflections on Climate Change on the Anniversary of Super Storm Sandy

by Neil Frank and E. Calvin Beisner
November 20, 2013

Super Typhoon Haiyan and the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy should remind all of us of the tragic suffering that is part of living in the post-fall world, affected by both human sin and the divine curse (Genesis 3).

But is Rev. Darren A. Ferguson, of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, NY, whose home and church Sandy destroyed, right to insist that “climate change” made Sandy stronger than it otherwise would have been?

Assume for a moment (though there is good reason to doubt it) that the world’s been warming rapidly and beyond the bounds of natural variability and that, as he put it, “we are the primary cause.” Does that entail that Sandy was more powerful because of it?

Contrary to Rev. Ferguson’s claims, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) denies that there is good evidence that global warming—manmade or not—causes greater frequency or intensity of hurricanes. In its 2012 special report on extreme weather events it said, “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.” In its just-released Fifth Assessment Report, it said, “Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century …. No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin…. In summary, confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extratropical cyclones since 1900 is low.”

Nonetheless, it’s widely thought that even if global warming didn’t cause Sandy, it did make it worse—a stronger or bigger storm, or with storm surge exacerbated by global warming-driven sea level rise. What of those ideas?

Did higher sea level caused by global warming make Sandy’s storm surge more devastating? No. Land subsidence and natural sea level rise, both happening ever since the Ice Age, account for all of the apparent sea level rise at Battery Park in New York City.

In fact, as geoscientist David Middleton reports, Sandy’s “storm surge was likely surpassed in the New England hurricanes of 1635 and 1638” and “at least seven hurricanes of intensity sufficient to produce storm surge” greater than 3 meters “made landfall in southern New England in the past 700” years. All seven occurred prior to 1960—before manmade global warming. In 1821, at low tide and with sea level a foot lower than today, a Category 3 hurricane brought a 13.9-foot storm surge to New York City. The same storm today, hitting at high tide, as Sandy did, would have caused much greater flooding than Sandy did.

Was Sandy bigger or stronger because of global warming? In strength, Sandy never exceeded Category 3 (out of 5) and was actually no longer a hurricane but only a post-tropical storm when it made landfall at Atlantic City. The diameter of Sandy’s gale-force wind field was greater than any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history—but only by about 3%—and for this measure “recorded history” reaches back only to 1988.

Rev. Ferguson says those who disagree that manmade global warming was to blame for Sandy “would have trouble explaining the fact that in this New York City peninsula where I live and pastor a church, the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay had not met in over 50 years” before Sandy. But if they met 50 years ago, before any significant manmade global warming, why invoke it to explain their meeting last year?

While at the time those who blamed Sandy on global warming included a handful of climate scientists (Kevin Trenberth, whom Rev. Ferguson cites, plus Katharine Hayhoe and James Hansen, none of whom is a hurricane specialist), they also included nonscientists (Al Gore, Joe Romm, Bill McKibben, Chris Mooney, Roseann Barr, Michael Oppenheimer, Jennifer Granholm, Van Jones, Chris Matthews, Bill Clinton, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Michael Moore).

Although those who disagreed include a handful of what Rev. Ferguson calls (when they disagree with him) “know-it-all pundits, who lack any scientific credentials” (Limbaugh; UK Telegraph science writer Tom Chivers; New York Times environment blogger Andrew Revkin), most are scientists. Two, though not climate scientists, specialize in climate change (Norman Page, a consulting geologist; Eric Berger, science writer for the Houston Chronicle). Most are climate scientists (Martin Hoerling, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Roger Pielke Jr., University of Colorado; Karsten Brandt,; Patrick Michaels, formerly University of Virginia, now Cato Institute; Judith Curry, Georgia Tech; Gerald North, Texas A&M; Roy Spencer, formerly NASA, now University of Alabama), and four are hurricane specialists (Chris Landsea and Stanley Goldenberg, National Hurricane Center; Ryan Maue, Florida State University; and William Gray, Colorado State University).

As NHC’s Goldenberg put it in an email to Dr. Beisner, “If someone says Sandy was stronger due to AGW, that goes against even the current hurricane climate studies which suggest that in the future, there could be a very slight increase in intensity for the stronger storms. … although Sandy was strong for that region, it was by no means among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes. As for increased flooding due to sea-level rise—firstly the total sea-level rise since the great 1938 Hurricane is only about 7 inches, and about 1/2 of that is due to land subsidence. Of the other several inches, some would certainly be due to natural climate fluctuations (especially the natural warming since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-1800’s) and if there is any contribution from AGW, it would be at the most on the order of a few inches. Compared to the contribution from the lunar high tide and the actual storm surge (together totaling 10–17.5 feet in the hardest hit regions), these few inches … are hardly significant.”

Rev. Ferguson claims “97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and we are the primary cause.” He says “Rush Limbaugh and other climate change deniers” “recklessly deny climate change because [doing so] confirms their ideology and advances their agenda.”

Although Dr. Beisner has read about forty-five books on the science of climate change, large parts of all five IPCC assessment reports, and thousands of articles on it over the past twenty-five years, and consults regularly with climate scientists, he’s not a climate scientist, so Rev. Ferguson can, as he does with others who disagree, write him off as one of the “know-it-all pundits, who lack any scientific credentials”—on condition that he write himself off as well. But he can’t write off Dr. Frank, for he is a Ph.D.’d meteorologist and former director of the National Hurricane Center.

What about Ferguson’s claim that “97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and we are the primary cause”?
Science isn’t about consensus, it’s about evidence and reasonable explanations.
Consensus among scientists has changed radically, and repeatedly, in the past—as, for instance, from nearly universal rejection to nearly universal acceptance of continental drift.
As Georgia Tech climatologist Dr. Judith Curry has shown, such “consensus” as there is among IPCC and other global warming true-believer scientists is worthless because it was intentionally constructed, not spontaneous.
The publication survey on which the 97% claim rests had such broad criteria (e.g., not specifying that people are the primary cause or that the warming was dangerous, let alone catastrophic) that it would have counted most critics of CAGW (catastrophic, anthropogenic global warming) as in agreement. As Dr. Roy W. Spencer, an award-winning NASA climate scientist and Cornwall Alliance Senior Fellow, put it recently on CNN, “I’m one of the 97%!” Both of us would be, too. In reality, while repeated attempts have been made to prove a consensus on dangerous, manmade global warming, none has succeeded—as if it would matter if they did (see 1 above).
In short, Rev. Ferguson is wrong to blame “climate change deniers” (the pejorative term meant to equate them, viciously, with Holocaust deniers) for global warming and to blame global warming for Sandy’s size, strength, and devastation.

If Rev. Ferguson is going to call natural disasters divine judgments, he should, as the Bible often does (e.g., Genesis 19; Exodus 7–14; Psalm 107:33–34; Isaiah 35:6–7; Jeremiah 14; Zephaniah 1:2–3), attribute them to sins clearly revealed in God’s law—worshiping false gods, idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath breaking, dishonoring parents, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting (Exodus 20:1–17)—not burning fossil fuels to provide energy to lift billions out of poverty, disease, and premature death.

Rather than assigning blame, though, we would do better to reduce the risk of future catastrophes by eliminating policies, like government-funded flood insurance, that encourage construction in high-risk shoreline locations. What made Sandy and Haiyan so devastating was not their size and strength (many surpassed them) but where they struck: densely populated regions with vast amounts of property on vulnerable shorelines.

And when people are harmed, we should act compassionately: We should pray for and donate to their rapid recovery. We should pray that the Christians among them will come to understand, as they seek God in the midst of their suffering, how God works it for their good (Romans 8:28); that it is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to them (Romans 8:18); indeed, that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for [them] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as [they] look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). And we should pray that the unbelievers will become Christians, lest after this life they enter upon suffering that will make Sandy and Haiyan seem like paradise.

[A slightly modified version of this article was published in The Christian Post Tuesday, November 19, 2013.]

Neil Frank, Ph.D., a meteorologist, is former Director (1974–1987) of the National Hurricane Center, former Chief Meteorologist of Houston CBS affiliate KHOU-TV (1987–2008), and an evangelical Christian. E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate, is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a coalition of evangelical theologians, pastors, ministry leaders, scientists, economists, policy experts, and committed laymen promoting environmental stewardship and economic development built on Biblical principles.


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