Book Review: Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming

chris mooney storm world
Chris Mooney is not one to mince words. Within the first few pages of his latest book, he immediately sets out to clarify an important point, one that will likely take many readers aback: "Global warming did not cause Hurricane Katrina, or any other weather disaster."

In so doing, he helps set the tone for much of what the book will scrutinize: not whether global warming directly triggered the strong hurricanes we've already witnessed, but whether it is likely to further strengthen or otherwise alter the behavior of hurricanes. This point also relates to a greater overall theme that Mooney emphasizes throughout Storm World: the fact that most of science, meteorology and climate science included, is often fraught with more unknowns and uncertainty than clear answers.

After giving a brief synopsis detailing his personal experience dealing with Hurricane Katrina (a catastrophe he helped portend several months beforehand in the pages of The American Prospect), its aftermath and the genesis of his book, he plunges right into the early and extensive history of meteorology. What is interesting to note is that many of the characters and fundamental disagreements that he chronicles during this period, known as the American Storm Controversy, would find parallels years later in our modern hurricane-climate debate. The crux of the book centers on the current climate debate and revolves around the larger-than-life rivalry of two scientists and their colleagues: William Gray, the Colorado State University meteorologist and global warming skeptic, and Kerry Emanuel, the MIT climate scientist who believes there is a link between global warming and the recent intensification in hurricanes.

Whereas Gray's experience cutting his teeth on flying into the eye of storms to gather data and making forecasts based on historical patterns instilled in him a visceral disdain for computer modeling and statistics, Emmanuel, who has heavily relied on such models to write some of his most influential papers, has argued that they offer tremendous scientific value, particularly in making projections about the effect of global warming on future hurricane seasons. This fundamental disagreement between a strictly empirical approach to science and one more driven by theories and numbers colors much of the book's remaining narrative, which Mooney artfully frames in the context of the politics and media that converge to amplify the debate's often fractious tone.

While Mooney expends much less energy on the politicization of climate science here than he did so eloquently in The Republican War on Science, he reserves some choice barbs for the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina and its censorship of NOAA scientists. He also goes after the mainstream press for focusing more on the theatrics and high-profile fracas of the scientific conferences instead of devoting much space to the intricacies of the hurricane-climate debate.

Those lacking a more rigorous background in science may initially find some of the theories and figures Mooney elaborates on a little daunting; however, he helps make it much easier to understand by skillfully integrating it with earlier parts of the story and by providing a much more palatable, though by no means dumbed-down, summary of the key concepts and findings. Indeed, if there is any aspect of the narrative in which Mooney truly excels, it is in his depiction of science and all its nuances. If there are ever moments during which the reader feels slightly perplexed or at a loss, it is because he has in effect expertly captured the essence of the scientific method which, more often than not, rests in the unknown and the hypothetical instead of the concrete and certain (recall that evolution, though widely embraced by most scientists, is still just considered a theory and not a law).

The mixed feeling Mooney leaves us with when he ends the book is one of simultaneous hope and unease: hope that by taking matters into our own hands and exercising our ability to drastically change our environmental impact, we can help forestall the worst consequences of global warming, and unease at how this phenomenon will likely influence and alter the behavior of future hurricanes.

With regards to the state of climate science, though he acknowledges that there is still much disagreement amongst the experts over the data, he notes that "it need not be paralyzing." As he puts it, we "should stop thinking we'll ever achieve scientific certainty" and, instead "realize that when making decisions at a societal or personal level, our duty is to take current knowledge into account."

See also: ::The TH Interview: Chris Mooney, Author of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, ::Speaking Out on Global Warming