The TH Interview: Chris Mooney, Author of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and the blogger behind The Intersection. In addition to his new book, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, he is also the author of the bestselling The Republican War on Science, dubbed a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American.

Chris has contributed to a wide variety of publications in recent years, including Wired, Science, Harper's, New Scientist, Slate, Salon, Mother Jones, Legal Affairs, Reason, The American Scholar, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe. He has won several awards for his body of work, being named one of Wired magazine's 2005 ten "sexiest geeks," and a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times book prize in the category of "Science and Technology," for The Republican War on Science.Chris was born in Mesa, Arizona, and grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana; he graduated from Yale University in 1999, where he wrote a column for the Yale Daily News. Before becoming a freelance writer and taking up his current position at Seed magazine, Chris worked for two years at The American Prospect. He took some time out from his busy touring schedule to sit down with us and answer a few questions:

TreeHugger: What was the impetus for writing your new book? How did your perspective on the consequences of Hurricane Katrina affect it?

Chris Mooney: Well, I grew up in New Orleans, and had already written about the vulnerability of the city to hurricane destruction--inspired not by Katrina but rather by the dire threat that had been posed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Then my mother lost her home in Katrina and I, like many others, noticed around the same time that not one but two scientific papers came out in major journals (Science and Nature) suggesting that hurricanes had measurably intensified, and implying or stating that global warming had had a role in this.

Needless to say, I found these papers pretty alarming, and so I started looking into the topic. But when I did so, I quickly saw that there was very vigorous scientific disagreement over whether hurricanes had indeed intensified, and over how global warming could be expected to change them going forward. Indeed, because the subject was highly politicized--especially following Katrina--a scientific battle that might be dubbed "the hurricane wars" had erupted and soon developed into perhaps the biggest meteorological controversy in a decade. And even as the scientists argued, scientific information was being misrepresented and misused on all sides, as special interests and the media and the Bush administration piled on.

And that, I realized, was the real story.

TH: How does the subject of this book tie in with the Science article you co-wrote with Matthew Nisbet discussing the importance of "framing" in science?

CM: The central point that I have been trying to make in collaborating with Nisbet (a professor in the School of Communication at American University) is that scientists need to become more savvy about how the media works when trying to communicate their knowledge on complex, highly politicized issues. It was the researching and writing of Storm World that made Nisbet's argument really resonate for me. The book provides a case study of exactly what he's talking about: Once the debate over hurricanes and global warming became highly politicized, and began to draw mass media attention, it was predictably framed around "scientific uncertainty" and "conflict." Scientists, the media told us, were fighting, and there was no consensus over what was happening with the atmosphere and the oceans.

In this context, the scientists involved--who did not at all enjoy how the media was covering the issue, with such a heavy emphasis on conflict--needed to get out in front of the issue and reframe it in a more productive way. Ultimately the scientists themselves realized this and released a major statement which essentially said, "we'll figure out the details of the science…but in the meantime, we have a huge problem in the form of an over-exposed coastal population that is going to be devastated by hurricanes regardless of what global warming is doing." And with this reframing, the issue moved from a focus on "uncertainty" and "conflict" to a much more productive focus on solutions. For as the scientists emphasized, we don't have to wait for perfect knowledge in order to address our society's "lemming-like march to the sea." Some fifty percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coastline. We are literally sitting ducks, whether we're talking about the hurricanes of today or the hypothetical souped-up hurricanes of tomorrow.

TH: What has been the reaction to your "Speaking Science 2.0" tour?

CM: Much more positive in many ways than the reaction to the original article!

This doesn’t relate directly to hurricanes, but our article in Science, and then another commentary piece in The Washington Post, sparked off a seismic blog debate, and there were many criticisms--for example, people alleged that we were suggesting that scientists "spin" information (we weren't). We also ran afoul of many atheist bloggers who thought we were telling them to tone down the attacks on religion (and there's some truth to that, because while we favor more speech rather than less and would never tell anyone to shut up, we did indeed suggest that attacking religion isn't a productive way of defending the teaching of evolution in the United States).

In any event, the blog debate made us decide that there was a need to air these ideas more fully--the Science and Washington Post pieces were quite short--so as to further explain where we were coming from. So we've been speaking at universities, scientific meetings, and so forth. And generally what we find is that in these more deliberative forums, there's a lot of openness on the part of scientists to our arguments about the need for a better model for scientific communication.

TH: What do you hope to accomplish through it?

CM: Broadly speaking, I would say we are adding to a chorus of voices who are collectively saying that the scientific community needs to realign its priorities to a significant extent, because it has probably been placing too much emphasis on research and technical publication and too little on communication and public outreach. We want to change the culture in the world of science, so that the community in general realizes that scientific knowledge doesn't just speak for itself--it needs an effective messenger.

One symbolic measure that we've proposed that would underscore this point would be to have Carl Sagan posthumously inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, in recognition of a distinguished life's work in science communication. At the level of policy, meanwhile, supporting Rep. Doris O. Matsui's congressional amendment to fund, through the National Science Foundation, communications training programs for graduate level students in science is a great start. And we have a number of other suggestions that can be sampled at the end of our talk, viewable on YouTube.

TH: Did you come across anything really surprising or unexpected as you were doing research for the book?

CM: One unexpected thing that I found in researching the book was an extraordinary character: William Gray of Colorado State University. He is not only the nation's most famous hurricane scientist; he also vigorously rejects the scientific consensus on human induced global warming. And he does so in such a hilarious, outspoken, and admirably frank and uncompromising way--one scientist described him to me as the "Howard Stern of meteorology"--that you almost want to go over to his side. I certainly resisted that urge, but being able to write about someone as fascinating as Gray definitely gave the book an added dimension.

TH: You once said: "Scientists, like hurricanes, do extraordinary things at high wind speeds." What did you mean by that?

CM: This is actually something that I write early in the book, and I think initially the quotation, which was used in promotional materials, may have made some of the scientists involved a bit uncomfortable. But when taken in context, it's clear that I meant these words in a largely positive way. Sure, once the hurricane-climate debate got politicized, and once the media dove in, there was some nastiness that ensued on the part of some scientists. But more broadly speaking, the added attention and raising of the stakes sparked a lot of fascinating new ideas and research--it inspired some of these scientists to do their best work. Study after study is coming out now about the hurricane-climate relationship, and most of them raise more questions than answers, but that's how science works. The good news is that some of our best minds have applied themselves to this problem, and although it will take time, we will know a great deal more as a result of that.

TH: Do you think there is a way for scientists and politicians who are on opposite sides of the global warming/hurricane debate to work together to plan ahead for future storms?

CM: Yes absolutely, and I think the scientists' statement that I mentioned earlier points to a way forward.

Every hurricane specialist agrees that our coasts are massively exposed and dangerously overpopulated. So we should move forward immediately in trying to better protect them. This will inevitably involve better evacuation planning, better building codes, and more investment in improved storm forecasting--particularly hurricane intensity forecasting. But we probably need to think even bigger than that, and start to reassess insurance policies for building in vulnerable areas--even as, at the same time, we consider massive government funded engineering projects to build seawalls and other defenses to ensure that no other American city suffers the fate of New Orleans.

Needless to say we're racing against the clock on all of this, and the question of where the money comes from is an extraordinarily difficult one--especially in the current political context.

Meanwhile, even as we emphasize hurricane protection and preparedness, we need to be conducting sophisticated risk assessment studies that look at worst case scenarios, region by region, for how global warming could make us more vulnerable. We need to get up to speed in preparing for the storms of today, even as we start looking towards being further protected against the possible storms of tomorrow.

In all likelihood, the project of better protecting the coastal United States against hurricanes will take decades and may never really have an endpoint--we'll have to constantly strive to stay ahead of nature (with, unfortunately, some significant human enhancement it looks like, in the form of sea level rise if nothing else).

TH: Do you believe that the mainstream media has done a sufficient job of informing the public about the scientific implications of the increasing number of hurricanes we've witnessed over the last few years?

CM: Not really. The message about coastal vulnerability has not been as sexy as a story about scientists yelling at each other, or about the Bush administration suppressing government scientists on the subject of global warming. Hurricane policy gets less attention; this is part of a general mass media bias against complexity and in favor of the dramatic. There's nothing more dramatic than hurricane destruction, and so we get too much of the former, and not enough coverage of what we should be doing to reduce our vulnerability for the next time.

TH: What message do you hope the lay audience takes away from this book?

CM: Well, I hope audiences realize that the high stakes battle over global warming and hurricanes is the kind of story we're going to see more and more of in the future, as complex scientific topics are repeatedly sucked into the maw of our mass media and political culture. It is precisely because scientific information is so relevant to decision-making--and yet simultaneously so tentative in many cases, so rife with uncertainty--that it is so susceptible to being bent and twisted beyond recognition once there is a lot at stake.

But nevertheless, we have to figure out how to manage these complex science-politics-media situations, because they certainly aren't going to go away. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering--we can already predict that there will be many more scientific issues with major policy implications where political and media brawls will likely occur in the future. In this context, the scientific and political communities alike need to adapt to the realities imposed by the other. The upshot, I think, will be this: We never know everything, we never will, but we have to take what we DO know, translate it, and use it to improve our lives…and if we don't, we are not going to have any excuses when the next storm comes.

Chris Mooney is author of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, in bookstores on July 9 and available for order online now.

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